Slow and easy: Talking with Brooklyn Brewery house chef Andrew Gerson

A couple of months back I had the privilege of enjoying a supper put on by Brooklyn Brewery, in concert with the great guys at Brasstacks Boston. Not only was the meal itself out of this world, it was a great glimpse at the world of “slow food”, something that Brooklyn Brewery House Chef Andrew Gerson really takes to heart.

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A couple of months back I had the privilege of enjoying a supper put on by Brooklyn Brewery, in concert with the great guys at Brasstacks Boston. Not only was the meal itself out of this world, it was a great glimpse at the world of “slow food”, something that Brooklyn Brewery House Chef Andrew Gerson really takes to heart. Chef Andrew was kind enough to offer up some of his time, despite being on the move, to talk a little about slow food, how he got in to cooking in the first place, and a couple of his personal food memories.

 Foodie Journal: How did you decide that working
with food was what you wanted to do as far as your career was concerned career?

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Andrew Gerson: I started cooking at a pretty young age,
just for my family. My mother was a single mom working evenings, so I would make
dinner for my sister and me. It started off reheating this, trying that, and
then slowly I really started cooking. I always was passionate about it. In high
school I used to work front of the house for a few places, and then was
intrigued by the kitchen. I sort of had this romantic notion of what I thought
cooking was. Cooking became a creative outlet for me. My junior year of college
I took some time off and went to the French Culinary Institute. I had assumed I
wanted to be in food to some degree, wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in a kitchen
or whatever else. I started working in restaurants in college, back of the
house. I really enjoyed it. As I was working over the years in restaurants I
started to get slightly disillusioned with my love for that, but my passion for
food was growing, and I realized that the restaurant scene wasn’t what I wanted
to be doing. I didn’t feel like it was valuing food in the same ways. At the
same time I started getting involved with local chapters of slow food in
Philly, in New York, really piquing my interest in the local sustainable food
movement.

FJ: What was it really that attracted you to that
local slow food movement?

AG: In one sense it’s just honoring your
ingredients. The idea, for me, about cooking and the value of it is utilizing
the best ingredients you can. The local ingredients that are available are
usually the highest quality ingredients, but also it’s a way to support our
food system. We live in a world that has a very unhealthy food system,
commercial farming, and all these processes really aren’t doing us justice,
aren’t doing the environment justice. We’ve shaped a very unhealthy food system
that looks a lot like any other commodity.

I don’t think food should be valued as simply a
commodity, especially since there are cultural components and other aspects of
it, which I think are really important. I feel like society over all, whether
nationally or internationally, we’ve lost touch with our food as well as each
other. This is a way to get back to that. There are a million chefs out there,
and a million people that are cooking food, and it’s almost unnecessary to be
working through these large purveyors and having such disconnected food
supplies. The passion that I felt, the amount of waste that goes into the
average restaurant kitchen just started to burden me, and I didn’t like it.

FJ: I think you part of a growing number of chefs
who feel that way. There seems to be so much more interest in utilizing the
best local ingredients available and finding ways to improve the whole food
system from seed to plate.

AG: For sure. And, it also boosts local economies.
I grew up in Philly where there’s a huge disparity socioeconomic-wise. There’s
tons of abandoned land and space, and it’s being under utilized. There’s a lot
of simple ways, through food and other initiatives, to do that. I work a lot
with local non-profits like the Food Trust, and Fair Food, and saw these
vibrant food communities that were dwarfed by US Foods and all of these other
corporate distribution channels that disconnect us from our food. It was a way
to embrace and connect communities through something that I had a passion for.

FJ: That’s awesome! Yeah, I think whenever you can
connect people more with where their food comes from, it’s always going to
improve the quality of life for everyone, really. Unfortunately sometimes the
dollar speaks a little bit louder than the will to make things right.

AG: True, but I think as these food systems grow
large companies are seeing the value of supporting this, whether it’s from a
purely economic standpoint, and that’s fine at this point, but there is value
in supporting your local food system. You can charge more, but I think also in
that same regard, the prices will start to come down as there’s more access, as
there’s better distribution for small scale producers. This whole system can
change and it can be utilized in ways … I’m backtracking a little, but I
wrote my thesis at university on how food trucks can be utilized to promote
sustainable agriculture in urban environments. If you cut out all the excess
costs of a restaurant, it’s not those ingredients that are making it inaccessible
to the majority of the public. It’s not the cost of the food itself. It’s all
the other amenities. It’s linens, it’s a huge staff, all these other things.

So
I started this pop up supper club and then founded the Philly Mobile Food Association, and was working to get my own truck off the ground to be able to
serve under developed neighborhoods, people in need of good food. I think a lot
of people are starting to embrace it. To tie this all into the brewery, these
are values that Brooklyn Brewery has had for twenty-five years, and the
founders had prior to that. Especially Garrett Oliver, being one of the
founding board members of Slow Food USA. I believe in the craft beer movement
and the real beer movement, and to find a brewery that embraces my food values,
community values … we support over two thousand non profits and different
initiatives each year, the brewery’s incredibly active in the community. I
never saw myself working for a big company, but this was the chance to have a
support structure and network that believed in what I want to do, and I believe
in what they want to do, and it makes sense.

FJ:  It
seems like a great fit between the two of you. Out of curiosity, how did you
come to work at Brooklyn Brewery?

AG: My girlfriend runs the Vendy Awards, which is
the biggest street vendor event in New York. She’s a native New Yorker, so I
moved up with her. Turns out that Brooklyn Brewery sponsors the Vendies. She
was in a meeting with them to go over the Vendies, and they mentioned they were
hiring for this position. She’s doing a food studies program at NYU, she’s very
involved in the food world in New York. They asked, “Do you know anyone
who might be good for this position?” She was like, “I think I know
someone.” That’s how I found out about the position. I went through a two
month hiring process, it was pretty nerve wracking, but it was fun. I
interviewed, I did food demos, and a bunch of different things for that. It was
a really interesting hiring process, I thought. It all came together in the
end.

FJ: Sounds like it worked out pretty well for
everyone. Okay, so now on to my favorite question. Pretty much everybody has
some sort of memory of some meal, or something that their mom used to make, or just
a favorite food related memory. Do you have a favorite food memory?

AG: I have two, and for different reasons. The
first would just be related to my family. We’re a pretty secular Jewish family,
but we had all of our holidays focused on food, and the table, and community.
Passover was huge, and it had nothing to do with the religious connotation, it
was just a sense of family, and coming together, and breaking bread together,
and that’s something that I used to love with the supper club in Philly I used
to do. Being able to bring people together and communicate through food, and have
food as the centerpiece. I would say it’s our family dinners over the Jewish
holidays that played a very big role in the way I view the ideal dinner setting,
so to speak.

I also remember one time at a little cottage
restaurant in Philly, the Valley Green Inn. I was pretty young, but I had a
chilled strawberry soup, and that was something that changed the way I felt
about food. I can remember it vividly, just the idea that you could do a
chilled soup. I must have been maybe ten years old, eleven years old, before I
had any indication that I would be moving to the food world or anything like
that. It was a transformative food moment for me.

Andrew Gerson is the house chef for Brooklyn Brewery, located at 79 North 11th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Brewery is open to the public Monday-Thursday from 5-7pm for reservation-only Small Batch tours, Friday evening for Happy Hour, and Saturdays and Sundays for Tours and Tastings.

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