Know where you come from: An interview with Samuel Monsour of jm Curley in Boston

Simple advice: Know where you come from.  It’s easy to forget that some of the greatest experiences we ever have end up happening in our own backyard. 

It’s a very simple piece of advice, but one that any of us should be willing to accept: Know where you come from.

Many an individual has stood on their doorstep, bags packed, hopping a plane to Europe, or somewhere else, in search of… well, something. It’s easy to forget, though, that some of the greatest experiences we ever have end up happening in our own backyard. 

That’s just a part of the story you’ll hear from Chef Samuel Monsour, Executive Chef of jm Curley in Boston. And, it’s an awesome one at that! I had the opportunity to touch base with Chef Monsour. We talked a bit about his start in the industry, some of his culinary experiences while trekking through the United States, and one experience in particular that really brought home what it means to be a chef.

Foodie Journal: Did you always have an interest in food?
Samuel Monsour: Yes. Food is, and always has been, the most exciting, engaging and inspiring aspect of my life.

FJ: Can you remember what the first dish you ever prepared for someone else was?
SM: Well, I grew up in a household strong on tradition, so there wasn’t much encouragement for experimentation. My childhood was filled with lessons on my Lebanese heritage through means of cookery. Being taught how to execute my grand mother and father’s recipes wasn’t an option. It was mandatory. So no, I have no exact memory of my first true creation. If I *had* to guess, I’d say it was probably a filthy, over-the-top sandwich.

FJ: What was your first experience in a professional kitchen?
SM: I was thirteen. My parents unexpectedly brought me in to wash dishes at their neighborhood joint in Chapel Hill, NC. It was a Friday night, and their dishwasher had pulled the classic “no call, no show”. That kitchen was [SALT] scary. Several of the cooks were ex-gang members, and they called me lil’ motha[SALT]. I’m talking bloods, the kind that claimed red. They listened to dirty south gangster rap loud. They were fast and precise with knives. They had old-English style script tattoos on their neck. And, their ability to cook was unlike anything I had ever seen. By the end of the night, they had slightly warmed up to me, because I had worked my ass off. Earning a tiny inkling of respect from these badass cats made me feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that I had never experienced. I had always sucked at sports, but working in a kitchen seemed like something I could get good at, so from that point on, I dedicated myself to the trade. 

FJ: Do you feel that having had experience prior to going to the CIA helped you in your culinary education? Did you feel like you were “ahead of the game”, so to speak, since you already had some experience under your belt?
SM: Yes and no. Having worked in a professional kitchen for five years prior to attending the CIA, I had confidence that I was choosing the right career path, and more importantly, I had a sense of urgency and a strong work ethic. On the flip side, coming up in my parents neighborhood joint offered me extremely limited product knowledge, very little understanding of proper technique, and barely any exposure to the French methodology. But, that’s why I went to school.

FJ: A lot of chefs seem to do culinary tour, just for the experience itself. A lot go to Europe, or to Asia, but you decided to stay in the U.S. Can you talk a little about some of the experiences, and how the time you spent traveling the U.S. impacted the direction you would end up taking with your cooking style?
I decided to travel America after island jumping in Hawaii with my best friend Devon and his wonderful family, the Espinosas. His parents hailed from the Philippines, and one day while at a pineapple plantation, his father Saldo shared a bit of advice. He informed me that before leaving his homeland, he traveled to as many islands as he could, for years, while still young. Saldo placed high value on actually knowing where he came from before venturing out to the rest of the world. This heart-to-heart literally hit home with me, and after our Hawaii trip, I started what would become an eighteen-month cross-country adventure.

My favorite experiences were blue collared. Dives, greasy spoons, diners, mom & pop spots, communal bbq houses; these places were meccas to me, their food and hospitality stuck to my ribs, and gave me confidence to proudly cook in the style with which I was raised.

My Pop taught me to cook American comfort food, with love, care and emotion. Down south we call that soul food. But, what I learned from my travels throughout the good ol’ US of A is that every region of America has their own version of “soul food”. 

Out of the hundreds of memories I have from my journey, I’d really like to share one that is still extremely vivid: I was smack dab in the middle of bourbon country, on a two week road/camping trip with my old man. It was the summer of 2007. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall on the wrong side of the tracks in Frankfort, KY: Rick’s White Light Diner. As I recall, it was about twenty seats, and Rick ran the show all by himself. He had “a girl come in to help out when it was busy”. White Light was the genesis of a well-traveled, professionally trained American chef. At that time in my life, I wouldn’t have expected to run into a fellow CIA alumnus operating a diner. But, Rick was a rolling stone, just like me. He didn’t make life decisions based upon pretentious expectations. He knew what was important to him, and focused on that, and, with that being said, this was the first time I had encountered a deep-rooted southern chef with a passion for sourcing responsibly. Sure, I was trained to cook “Nouvelle-Southern” at Second Empire, staged at Nana’s, and dined at Magnolia Grill, all in North Carolina. But these were all extremely refined southern restaurants. I had never dined under the umbrella of a southern chef that stayed true to form with soul cookery, added no unnecessary frills or ingredients, but still stressed a huge importance on sourcing local, natural livestock and agriculture. White Light is where I decided to throw away all of my preconceived notions on what paths were “acceptable” for a CIA trained chef. This man’s authentic, weathered charm truly humbled me. He also made a mean crawdaddy pie that I still crave! Rick’s White Light Diner was the whole package for me, then and now, and it brings me great joy to know that Rick is still cooking with all his heart.

FJ: Why settle down in Boston? Mind you, I was born in Massachusetts, and am a total homer, so I’m glad you did! But, always interested to hear why folks decided to make their name here.
SM: From a series of twenty something one-way tickets, Boston was the last stop for me. Simply put, I fell in love with this city the day I arrived. It was what I was adventuring for, so, I’m glad it was my last stop, because I may have severed my travels far too early had it been one of my first stops.

Boston’s a really big town, and coming from the south, I place a lot of value in knowing my neighbors. I love walking anywhere and everywhere, and consistently running into someone familiar, be it a friend, colleague, or shop owner.

The food scene is constantly moving forward, while still honoring its roots. I think that is important, and I support that. Speaking of which, the support in this city is breathtaking. I believe that if creative individuals, in this case chefs, are going to put themselves and their livelihoods on the line to try something new or different, support from their peers is a necessity; that is how we grow. That doesn’t mean that constructive criticism has no place; that is how we learn. Boston encompasses both.

Right now, Boston is offering myself, and other young chefs a platform to learn and grow, in a challenging yet encouraging setting. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of the cultural growth movement that is occurring right now, and it humbles me to be a contributing member of such an incredible community.

FJ: Most everyone that loves food has a food experience or memory from their past that really sticks out to them. What’s yours?
SM: Hanging out with my Pops, drinking beers and chowing down on burgers. It doesn’t matter when, or where, that experience, that moment, whether past, present or future, will always be the pinnacle of food sensory for me.

jm Curley is located at 21 Temple Place, in Boston. Make sure to check out how to keep law & order if you stop in for a visit. I wish more places did this… :) 

Offal good: Checking in with Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco

“Offal, huh? Must taste like it sounds.” Ba-dum-dum.

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard more than once, and quite possibly one I myself expressed multiple times many years back. Heart. Tongue. Brain. Kidney. The “nasty bits”, many wouldn’t consider sniffing at. How can it possibly be any good? I can tell you from personal experience, though, that when these cuts are handled by the hands of a capable chef, they can be good. “Offal” good.

One such chef is Chris Cosentino, of Incanto in San Francisco. Having built a brand around offal, Cosentino is part of a movement of chefs that see the importance (and common sense) of utilizing every part of an animal. Waste not, want not! I had the opportunity to check in with Chef Cosentino, touching on where his love of food came from, the importance of passing on cooking knowledge, and writing his first cookbook.

Chris Cosentino
Chris Cosentino

Foodie Journal: Did you always love to cook?
Chris Cosentino: Yes, I grew up around great cooks.  My great grandmother, Rosalie Cosentino, was from Naples, Italy and my grandmother, Helen Easton, was an amazing English cook.  Some of my most cherished childhood moments are with both of them in the kitchen, making great food memories and learning from them.

FJ: Where did you end up getting your start in the business?
CC: My true beginning in the food business was at a ripe age of 15 as a dishwasher at IHOP.  It amazed me to watch the 2 cooks make so much food with such perfect timing and execution.  Ever since that first job I have craved knowledge of food and been passionate about cooking.

FJ: It seems like offal has really become much more common place in restaurants these days. Why did you decide to gravitate towards offal, and nose to tail cooking in general?
CC: When I started cooking offal 10 years ago it wasn’t very common.  Now, it is great to see it featured on so many menus in the country.

FJ: Do you have a favorite piece of offal that you enjoy working with?
CC: Each cut of offal is so unique that I couldn’t pick just one.  It would be like picking your favorite child.

FJ: I saw a web short from Breville where you’re out on the town with Chef Jamie Bissonnette in Boston, and you both touch on the importance of teaching others to cook. Can you just speak a little about why teaching others to cook really is so important?
CC: Sharing with peers is extremely important because technique and product sharing can help change the way people work to improve the quality of food.  If we don’t share our knowledge of cooking, we don’t see progression for the next generation.  Like the many great chefs who came before us, it is our responsibility to make sure each generation is growing and making the food world better for everyone.

FJ: In line with teaching people, you just published your first cookbook last year. What was the experience of getting that out there like? Ready to get started on your next one?
CC: It was a huge challenge.  I was always a poor student so writing a book was a big personal achievement.  I was always told that you should never write like you speak when I was in school and now everyone tells me to write so they can hear my voice!  I learned so much from this first experience and I can’t wait to make my next cookbook even better.

FJ: The final question for you: Do you have a specific food memory from your life that you’d like to share?
CC: I feel so fortunate to have so many great taste memories in my life.  At the age of 12 years old I ate a raw clam on the half shell alongside my grandfather, Thurston Easton, for the first time.  I had never had an uncooked clam so when he busted open the clam, drizzled on some lemon, and told me to chew it, it was a total game changer.  It was crunchy with a huge explosion of brininess but it was also so delicate.  I was immediately hooked and ate a dozen.  To this day, I will always love them and think of my grandfather.

Chris Cosentino is chef/partner at Incanto, located at 1550 Church Street, in San Francisco. He released his first cookbook, “Beginnings: My Way To Start a Meal” in 2012.

The reality of it: A conversation with Chef Michael Symon

With the proliferation of food programming on television, it has become common place for many to view the culinary profession as one of glamour. I mean, really. You whip up some food, fly away to enchanted lands to try new cuisines and cooking techniques, then return to instruct the world on how to replicate your results. Easy peasy, right?

Well, the truth of the matter is that any chef, any line cook, any one that’s busted their butt in the back of a restaurant will tell you the same thing. Cooking. Is. Work. Hard work, at that. I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Symon, chef, restauranteur, and author of the cookbook Carnivore: 120 Recipes for Meat Lovers. During our conversation we talked about what the life of a chef is really like, how he got his start in the industry, and his personal food memory.

Michael Symon
Michael Symon

Foodie Journal: When was it that you realized that cooking was something that you wanted to do as a career?
Michael Symon: I grew up in a big food household.  My mom is Greek and Sicilian.  My father is Ruthenian, so food was a central part of our family.  I was kind of always in the kitchen as a kid.  Started working in restaurants when I was 13, almost 14 years old, and just fell in love with the business and worked in restaurants through high school.  Shortly after high school I decided I wanted to go to culinary school, and that was it.

FJ: In those early years, was it mostly like what a lot of other chefs started out doing, like washing dishes, or were you actually doing any cooking in those early days?
MS: I was lucky.  It was a restaurant that my buddy’s dad owned.  I got to cook pretty early.  I was doing a lot of prep early and I was working the line by the time I was 15.  In that sense I was very fortunate.  I just kind of fell in love with the camaraderie of it all.

FJ: Can you talk a little bit about your experience attending the Culinary Institute of America?
MS: Well, I went to culinary school in the 80s.  It was certainly a different time.  There was no Food Network.  There weren’t really celebrity chefs.  That didn’t exist.  I went to culinary school to be a chef. When I went, I was 18, 19 years old at the time.  Most of the people in my class were in their late 20s, early 30s. Some maybe had been cooking for a long time already, and others maybe changing their livelihood.  But, it wasn’t young kids that were aspiring to be chefs.  For me it was tremendous because I got to work with so many people that were my seniors.  One good thing was that I think it made me more mature, and two, I learned that good food all on its own is a good school.

Obviously there are great chefs that haven’t gone to culinary school, and there are great chefs that have.  The one thing that culinary school gives you is it shows you a lot of different things. Every three weeks you’re working with a different chef.  They all do things a little bit different.  In the two years that you’re there, you get to see the opinions and techniques of 30 or 40 different chefs. You would never be able to do that in that amount of time if you were working restaurants.  You can’t switch jobs every two weeks.

FJ: So, if somebody came up to you and said, “Hey, I want to be a cook,” what would your advice be?
MS: I would say get as much practical experience as you can before you go to school.  I had worked in restaurants for about five years, almost six years prior to going to culinary school, so I had a good foundation.  I think too many people that go to culinary school now don’t have a good foundation when they get there, so they don’t get to learn as much while they’re there.  I would say find the best chef you know or the chef that you respect most, and put in your year or two years with them to build a nice foundation so when you’re going to school you’ll really be able to get the best experience.

No one would ever skip grade school or high school, and then go to college. They’d never be able to keep up or they wouldn’t be able to learn as much.  I think too many young kids watch Food Network or all kind of things and they say, “I want to be a cook,” or “I want to be a chef,” and they go right to culinary school with very, very minimal experience.  They don’t get to learn nearly as much as they would with their schooling, because they’re always playing catch-up.

FJ: With the Food Network, and all the interest in the food industry these days, it has brought a lot more attention to cooking as a profession. It seems like many have started to see being a cook or a chef as being a glamorous profession rather than a craft. Do you think that’s a problem, or should people dream big?
MS: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dreaming big.  I think dreaming big is the greatest thing you could ever do.  I do think there’s probably more schools than there should be now.  When I went to school there was the Culinary Institute, and there was Johnson and Wales, which were both incredible programs.  Now there are culinary schools all over the place, and who really knows how reputable they all are.  I do think that too many people go to culinary school thinking that the life of a chef is a glamorous life.  The reality of it is different. Thinking about the people that have been around for a long time, and have been doing the Food Network on and off since ’98, you know, like Mario, Bobby, and Emeril.  All these people were chefs that were fortunate enough to eventually do television.

If you’re going to culinary school to become a chef and you’re expecting this glamorous lifestyle from it, the reality of it is that for over 20 years of my life I worked 15 to 17 hours a day on my feet in front of a 600-degree stove.  I missed holidays, weddings, family events, weekends, all those things because my dream was to be a great chef.  It never felt like I was missing anything, but it’s just the reality of it.  I think a lot of kids get out of culinary school now, and unfortunately because of what they see on television they think that it’s this very glamorous lifestyle and it’s not.  It’s one of the toughest businesses in the world.  It was like my dad’s joke when I was working 90 to 100 hours a week and was in wedding parties, but could only go to the church and not the reception.  He was like, “I told you you should have went to college.”  You have to know what you’re getting into while you’re going into it.  If you’re going to culinary school because you want to be on the Food Network, chances are you’re going to be disappointed.  If you’re going to culinary school because you want to be a great chef, you won’t be disappointed at all.  There’s just not that many chefs on television at the end of the day.  I think you have to know what you want to accomplish when you’re going to school.

FJ: My final question for you.  Everybody that I’ve spoken with that has a love for food always has a memory that they like to think back on.  What’s your favorite food memory?
MS: My favorite food memory is going to my Sicilian grandmother’s house, my mom’s mom on Sundays.  The smell of tomato sauce cooking down with ribs in it, and sausage, and meatballs. Just this delicious ragout that she would make.  I could talk about it and I smell it.  It’s that Sunday dinner with my grandparents.  That Sunday supper with my grandparents is to me really what food is all about.  It brings family together.  It’s delicious.  It’s cooked from scratch.  You sit around a table as a family and you break bread and you talk and you laugh and you cry and you enjoy a delicious meal.

Michael Symon is chef/owner of various restaurants, including Lola Bistro, located at 2058 East 4th Street in Cleveland, Ohio. He can be seen regularly on ABC’s The Chew, and on The Cooking Channel’s Symon’s Suppers.

Just simplicity: An interview with Chef Anthony Sasso of Casa Mono NYC

Despite being only about 4 hours from New York City, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ventured over to the Big Apple, a situation I plan to rectify over the coming years. During our last visit, we relied on a couple of friends to guide us along the way. It was a delicious day, which  concluded with a visit to Casa Mono, part of the fleet of restaurants from Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Just a smattering of the deliciousness can be viewed here, here, and also here.

What caught me by surprise was the simplicity of the dishes. Nothing was overdone, each element on the plate contributing to the balance of well composed plates of food. One of the behind the scenes minds responsible for these dishes, and I mean “behind the scenes” quite figuratively as Casa Mono has a very open kitchen, is chef de cuisine Anthony Sasso. I had the opportunity to speak with Anthony, and we touched on how he got his start, some of his culinary travels, and his favorite food memory.

Anthony Sasso
Anthony Sasso

Foodie Journal: Can you tell me a little bit about when you discovered you had a love for food, and then in turn decided that you wanted to make a career out of cooking?
Anthony Sasso: I think I’m in a different boat than a lot of people.  I guess when they answer that question it’s always like,  “Oh, growing up I had so much food around, so much great food.  My mom’s a great cook.”  I kind of had it the other way where my parents aren’t great cooks, so we fended for ourselves a lot. We’d always try out things after getting home from school. I was forced to learn a lot on my own, and I’ve kind of carried that through my whole career.  I did go to culinary school, and got all the basic and technical training, but I think I did take a lot on myself by just study something, reading about it, tasting around and then just try to do it on my own. Do it my own way or something. It’s translated into a lot of the dishes at Casa Mono, where they’re fun, and they have the sense of humor of someone that maybe doesn’t take things so seriously. It’s just a fun way of doing things, like you would if you were just hanging with your friends in the kitchen and getting things done that way.  I can’t give thanks to my mother, grandmother, or father. They just did not put amazing food on the table each night.
FJ: I’ve actually talked to a couple of chefs now who have the same reaction!
AS: Good to know! We grew up where it was convenience is how you ate.  Whether you went out to eat or did take-out or whatever, but yes, I don’t have this huge glossary of great dishes that I now serve because it’s something I grew up on. It’s kind of funny where we end up.

FJ: You ended up going to culinary school.  Where did you attend?
AS: I went to ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) here in New York City.  Mostly because it worked with the schedule that I had then.  I graduated from college in the Bronx, got a job that I wasn’t too happy with doing every single day. As soon as I could, and as soon as I found a school that catered to my schedule and needs, I just signed up for it right away. The great thing about culinary school is that you don’t really have to apply.  You just sign up, and if you can come up with the funds or the loans, you’re in. I went on the weekends for six months.  It was one of the best kitchen experiences ever because they’re just throwing ingredients at you, and you either love it or you’re not into it.  I knew right away that when we spent four hours sipping different olive oils, vinegars and spices, and it kind of just opened our eyes to a lot of stuff.  I knew that school, from that point on, was going to get better every single day.  It was a lot of fun.

FJ: From there, what was your first real exposure to working in restaurants?
AS: I kind of grew up working in restaurants, but I would say my first real exposure to good food was moving here. Towards the end of school they tell you to do as much as you can to get into any kitchen, no matter what the capacity. I just went to all the places, and chefs that were being recognized at that time.  My first job was with Rocco DiSpirito but I got a lot of time in the kitchens of Bobby Flay, Wylie Dufresne and Mario Batali. The first place that actually put me on schedule was Union Pacific for Rocco DiSpirito, and that was a great time to be in that kitchen. He had the same outlook as I do now where you’re using a lot of ingredients, and a lot of different cuisines, but building a personality for yourself with flavor. Trying to put an element of surprise in every single dish.  Working a dish to the point where you know everything looks appealing and appetizing on the menu. It was just a fun, time and I really enjoyed being part of that camaraderie during that time.

FJ: Having worked with Rocco, Bobby, Wylie, and now with Mario, do you think its helpful for young chefs who really want to be successful to try to learn from those that are at the top of their game?
AS: Doesn’t hurt! It’s kind of like you seek out the restaurants that are doing something special, or the chefs that are doing something new and inventive. If nothing else, they’re at least pushing themselves every single day. It’s not static, and they push their cooks. Everyone around you has the same philosophy. Thinking about what Casa Mono is now, it’s kind of fun. Ten years ago there weren’t a lot of open kitchens, there weren’t a lot of sushi counters, or small plate restaurants. There weren’t a lot of places that were playing with tripe, sweetbreads, calves brains, or veal tongue. So you pick up a lot from the chefs that are confident enough to at least try working with with the harder ingredients. I like to think I learned to be like that just from the time spent with the chefs that I worked for.

FJ: You recently did a trip to Portugal and Spain. Can you talk about some of the differences that you see at the moment between European style cooking and what people typically see as American style cooking?
SA: Europe’s built this huge basis on cooking where they not only don’t waste anything, but they’re truly enthusiastic to eat food.  I think here people are excited to go out to a restaurant for many other reasons besides what’s on the menu and what’s on the plate.  It’s different in Europe. Like, in Spain, and I noticed it in Portugal too, half their dishes have blood sausage, or these really foreign ingredients that are a challenge to any chef. Over there, every diner wants to eat something like that. I hadn’t been to Europe in a while, so this last trip just reaffirmed that whole fact that maybe Europeans might have chicken livers in their refrigerators because they actually eat that stuff, whereas here in America, you can only get that at a restaurant. In Europe, I think it’s built into their DNA a lot more.  There’s always fresh bread, there’s always at least a half full bottle of wine.  There’s always something good in the refrigerator to play with, and it just makes the job a lot easier for chefs. Here at Casa Mono, we try to get people to focus, even for just a couple of hours, just on the food they’re enjoying, and little else.  We try to captivate diners here, and try to get them to trust us, our food, and just go for it!

FJ: Pretty much everybody I talk to that loves food, has a favorite food memory; do you have one you wouldn’t mind sharing?
SA: I remember one day I walked in to Bar Jamon, which is our wine bar right next door, and the first thing I saw on the menu was pan con tomate, which is as simple as it sounds. Just toasted bread, garlic, tomato, olive oil.  I used to have that all the time! I remembered having it every single day, every single meal, at home, on the beach, or at a restaurant. That became the base for sandwiches.  There was never a normal piece of bread again after that. To see that on a New York City menu, something so simple, so basic. It surprised me! If you weren’t Catalan, it’s most likely you never had this, unless you had bruschetta at an Italian restaurant, which is not even comparable to it.  I think that’s what put me on to the idea that quality ingredients can make anything good.  It just says so much about Spain. It wasn’t about technique, or anything like that. It was just simplicity, something good, and something simple, and anyone who’s a dummy can make it at home or wherever.  I think that might be probably the closest thing to a food memory for me. It just clicked.

Casa Mono is located at 52 Irving Place in New York City. You can call 212.253.2773 for reservations, though I’d recommend getting there a little earlier so you can enjoy a glass of wine at Bar Jamon!

A Boston Foundation: Getting to know Chef Barbara Lynch and about the First Annual Blizzard Bash

Update to the updated update: The Blizzard Bash has unfortunately been cancelled due to the continued difficulties stemming from the Blizzard of 2013. Considering the lack of public transportation and, lest we forget, the 2 feet of snow covering walkways and side walks, it seems the best decision. Disappointing, no doubt, but worth noting is that the Barbara Lynch Foundation won’t just be sitting back. In an email to ticket holders, Jeff  Macklin, President of the Foundation stated, “It [is] our absolute intention to honor all Blizzard Bash tickets – both VIP and General Admission – at a culinary event this spring.” It will, no doubt, be more fierce than the Blizzard Bash will have been! :) Stay tuned for info about the spring event.

Chef Barbara Lynch is Boston through and through. A bit of an edge, but a big heart underneath, her contributions to the city of Boston have been extensive, far beyond the economical impact a restaurant would have on a city. Just this past year she founded the Barbara Lynch Foundation, all with the hopes of helping the youth, families, and communities of Boston have a brighter future through food education. So, what better way to raise money for a young foundation than to throw a kick ass party?

That’s exactly what’s going down on February 7th, and 8th; The First Annual Blizzard Bash! I had the chance to touch base with Chef Lynch. We talked a little about how she got her start in the industry, food memories, and what people can expect at the Blizzard Bash.

Barbara Lynch - Photo by Toth
Barbara Lynch – Photo by Toth

Foodie Journal: Is there a moment where you really figured that you wanted a career in cooking? Was it something you always enjoyed?
Barbara Lynch: I really didn’t enjoy it in the beginning, mostly because I didn’t really know how to cook. For whatever reason I talked myself in to saying that, for my career, I wanted to be a chef, if that makes sense. So at age 12 or 13, I’d started talking myself in to the idea of being a chef. I didn’t really know what that would entail until I started cooking. I always thought that if I had a job in the food industry, as a chef, that I’d always have a job. Basically, that was the bottom line for me at the moment. But, as I started cooking, and being in charge of the dishes I was putting out, I noticed people liked it. That’s when I thought, “Oh my god. This is meant to be.”

FJ: What was it like when you were first starting out? Did you just learn by doing, or did the mentoring from the chefs and cooks you worked with help you along the way?
BL: I was always playing catch up. Just being self-taught, I had no idea what a head of radicchio was. I had no idea pâté was. Being in the kitchen was an absolute eye-opener. So, I would just grab copies of whatever I could get my hands on and would just read, and read, and read! Of course, I didn’t understand it all, but my brain managed to somehow take it all in and store it somewhere. I was just going with the flow and whatever the chef told me to make, that’s what I would make. I really just got the basics down of chopping right, getting my mise en place in place by 5 o’clock and all that. Once I mastered that part, then I could understand things a lot more, and start to think about what kind of foods I loved in order to start creating my own dishes.

FJ: Having learned the way you did, do you have an opinion on what the best way for someone to learn would be? So, if someone just coming up through high school walked up to you and said, “I want to be a chef,” what would your advice be?
BL: Before I gave them a definitive answer, I would tell them to actually check out what its like to work in a kitchen first. Spend a week in the kitchen. Take the time to see what the hours are like, and to see the discipline it takes. See the camaraderie and teamwork. That’s what it is. It takes teamwork, camaraderie, and discipline. If that’s what you think you need through school, then definitely go to culinary school. If it’s a passion though, and you eat, sleep and drink food, I’d say maybe hold off on school and step in to a kitchen. But, don’t step in to a [SALT] kitchen. You want to aim higher than lower. Accept a position in a kitchen, even if its just dishwashing to start. Observe, learn, and see what they do. If you’re passionate, you’re always going to be studying and trying to get better. I think culinary school is great to help some people learn how to become more disciplined.

FJ: So, clearly there are a lot of teaching opportunities in the kitchen, especially when you’re in charge. Do you enjoy the teaching aspect that comes with being a chef?
BL: At first I didn’t like it at all. I had so much in my head that it would take too long to write things down, and show them. They’d always have to rein me in. I think any young chef is always trying to put more on the plate, do as much as they possibly can. Then as I honed in on my craft, I suddenly realized I wanted to take things out. It’s almost like therapy, right? You’re peeling layers off now, and then you’re perfecting, and perfecting. So when I became more established, opening my second, then my third restaurant, I learned that I couldn’t do it all. I needed to come up with tools that I could give to my chefs so that they could carry my vision out.

FJ: Do you have a favorite food memory?
BL: I’d have to say it was when I was in Paris at this very avant-garde bistro. It was my first trip to Paris. I had ordered the lobster salad, and I can remember seeing this wonderful woman, Lulu, preparing the dish. I could see her in the kitchen with the live lobster, then her putting it in the pot, and then she chilled it. It was just perfectly cooked to order, covered with lemon juice, olive oil and fennel. It was the most incredible dish I’ve ever had.
FJ: It seems like simplicity sometimes can really go a long way.
BL: Yeah.  And, she had like a 13 year-old commis working for her in the kitchen. It was just the two of them in the kitchen, and there were like 80 people there. It was pretty great!

FJ: So let’s change gears and talk a little bit about you, and the Barbara Lynch Foundation. You grew up in Boston. Your foundation was established to help the community. What does it mean to you to be established like that here in Boston?
BL: Well, I never really moved away from Boston. I’ve always been a local girl, and I kind of always felt that the city was lacking some things. Take for instance an oyster bar. Before I had an oyster bar, I would always have to go to the north shore, to Essex, to get oysters or fried clams. I remember having fried clams at Kelly’s Landing in South Boston, but then all of a sudden we don’t have it any more. I always found it kind of disappointing when, in April, after a heavy winter, I’d have to go up to Essex just to have oysters and some great Chablis. I think pretty much everything I’ve tried to put in the city was always something I thought the city could use. And, it’s more nostalgia for me, than anything. Like, The Butcher Shop came from a memory I have of staying in Italy for two weeks. No. 9 Park was basically my first trip to Paris, and eating the restaurants there.

FJ: With the Barbara Lynch Foundation, what’s been your hope as far as the impact that the Foundation would have on the city?
BL:  The Foundation has amazing potential to become partners with larger companies. Over the last couple of years we’ve been able to work with some of the Blackstone Elementary School 3rd graders.  I was inner city kid. I didn’t know what a cow looked like, had never milked a cow, and didn’t even really understand that food actually came from the earth. So, I felt it was important to teach those kids exactly where a tomato comes from, and that it doesn’t come from a ketchup bottle. We’ve been documenting the whole process in hopes that it can become a pilot program. We’re not only teaching them agriculture, but how to eat. We’re showing them what nutrients are good, basic nutrition classics, and urban gardening. They really seem to be enjoying it!

FJ: A couple of weeks from now you’ll be throwing the First Annual Blizzard Bash, all the proceeds of which are going to the Barbara Lynch Foundation. Can you talk a little about what people can expect?
BL: The event is huge! It starts on Thursday, February 7th with the Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Gala Dinner at Menton. That will feature chefs like Daniel Boulud,
Mark Ladner, Michael Tusk, and
Joseph Lenn. Then, the next night, Friday, February 8th, the Blizzard Bash is being held at the Boston Children’s Museum. We have something like 35 chefs from all over the country coming. They’re donating everything, like their time and all that. It’s going to be one big fun party, but inside the Children’s Museum we’re going to have a lot of things going on, like, “How to Sharpen Knives” with Adam Simha. There’ll be areas for learning how to make honey, how to start a rooftop beehive, and all sorts of other interesting stuff. There will be a band too! So it’ll be one huge party. After that will be an after party at Villa Victoria, and there are separate tickets available just for that. The entire thing should be a lot of fun!

You can get tickets to the First Annual Blizzard Bash over at the Barbara Lynch Gruppo websiteAll proceeds benefit The Barbara Lynch Foundation and its first initiative, Meet the Worms!

A love for teaching others to cook: My conversation with Chef Jody Adams of Rialto and Trade Boston

I suppose its funny that I saved this interview, the third in a three part series on lineage and teaching in the kitchen (Part 1 | Part 2), for last. But, I thought it to be the most fitting conclusion. After all, speaking with the student always gives you a glimpse of the teacher. In speaking with Chefs Andrew and Brian, it’s clear to see that Chef Jody Adams is, in fact, exactly that. A teacher.

The key component to any lineage, any strong legacy, is a passionate and knowledgeable teacher. Someone who can take that passion and knowledge, and transfer it to others. While its obvious that we could go much further back in time, for the sake of this discussion, it all starts with Chef Adams.

Jody Adams
Jody Adams

Foodie Journal: When was it that you discovered that you had a love for food?
Jody Adams: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. When I was in high school, I cooked a lot. I didn’t just bake. I know baking is something kids do a lot, but I actually cooked. I spent a month in Morocco when I was 14, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen there. Then, I spent a summer in Guatemala when I was 16, and spent a lot of time in the kitchen while I was there as well. My mother was a good cook, so by the time I got to high school I found that I was very comfortable in the kitchen. I didn’t have any expectations that it would become a profession for me, though.

FJ: Was there a favorite dish that you enjoyed cooking?
JA: I loved cooking an elaborate couscous. I also liked to make moussaka, or gnocchi. All kinds of things, really.

FJ: You mentioned that you didn’t have expectations that food would become a profession for you, something evidenced by the fact that you have a degree in anthropology. When was it that a career as a cook became an option for you?
JA: I was 25 years old. After graduating from Brown, I spent some time trying to decide what I wanted to do. I thought maybe I wanted to be a nurse practitioner, so I was back in school taking some science and nursing courses so that I could apply for a masters program. As I was doing it, though, I started to realize it wasn’t really compelling for me, you know? And, I just couldn’t start a life wondering, “Well, maybe.” So I ditched that. I’d been working at a gourmet food store, and for a catering company. I’d been working with food almost my entire life, and suddenly I realized, “Oh my god! There it is, right in front of me. This is what I’m supposed to do.” So I sent a bunch of applications out, and managed to get some interviews at some places around Boston. I was lucky enough to get hired by Lydia Shire at Seasons.

FJ: Was working in a professional kitchen different from what you had experience up to that point?
JA: It was a bit of a roller coaster for me in the beginning. Working for a gourmet food store, or a catering company, or at home is all very different from cooking in a fast paced restaurant. I didn’t cook fast, so I had to learn how to cook fast fast!

FJ: You obviously picked up a lot of what you know about cooking while working in kitchens. Do you feel like you missed out on something by not getting the chance to go through culinary school, or was jumping right in to the mix the best education for you?
JA: I think there are many ways to skin a cat. I don’t regret the liberal arts education that I went through. In fact, I think having the degree I have let me think about food a bit differently. Where it comes from? Why it evolved the way it has? I think it has served me very well in my style of cooking. I definitely have learned a lot on the job. [PAUSES] I don’t know how to do ice sculptures.
JA: I don’t know how to do fancy garde manger work with gelatins and all that stuff, but I don’t miss that. I think that when you go to cooking school you get a foundation, sort of a toolbox of skills. I think for me, I just had to find that along the way.

FJ: It sounds like learning, and teaching in a kitchen is a really important thing in the industry. Is that something you enjoy?
JA: I’ve been at this for 30 years now, and that’s not how long I’ve loved cooking. That’s just how long I’ve been working in the industry, but for me it really holds the same excitement.  I actually went to visit my son in New York recently, and he had some of his friends over. So my daughter and I took some food, and we cooked at his apartment. We made short ribs, and mashed potatoes, and bok choy and kimchii. We drank lots of beer. It was just fabulous for me, being able to cook with these young people and teach how to put things together. So, it still really excites me at that level. I’m very connected to it at its core, how exciting it is to teach people how to cook. I teach cooking classes once a month at the restaurant, and my husband and I have a blog we do to teach recipes for the home cook called The Garum Factory. So, I stay very connected to the whole idea of teaching.

FJ: My final question for you, Jody. Everyone that loves food typically has a particular food memory that they love as well. What’s yours?
JA: Many, but I can tell you one. I was in Palermo. I was alone, waiting for a friend of mine that was flying in that evening, so I had the day to myself. I looked down an alley and saw a guy leaning over a little grill. He had this little tiny grill set up with artichokes in the coals, and he was grilling sausages. So we started talking a little. My Italian is not great, and he didn’t speak English, but we still managed. I asked him what he was doing, and he tried to explain it to me, and suddenly it was like I was in a movie. The window shutters across the way opened. This woman leaned out, clearly his wife. Then three of his adult children popped their heads out the window, and there was all this conversation back and forth. Out of nowhere they brought out a chair and made me sit down. They brought out a plate. They got me some warm Coke, and they fed me right there in the alley. He was obviously cooking dinner for them! They were about to have their family dinner. I was a perfect stranger to him, but there it was. Those are the kind of memories that I have. My memories are always of very simple expressions of hospitality, with delicious, simple food. The artichokes were unbelievable. They were charred, and they were yummy, and all it involved was just artichokes cooked in coals. Simple.

Jody Adams is chef and co-owner of restaurants Rialto, and Trade. Rialto is located at 1 Bennett Street, Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Trade is located at 540 Atlantic Avenue in Boston.

Teaching is a necessity: An interview with Chef Brian Rae of Rialto

In the first part of this interview series, we got to know Andrew Hebert, the Executive Chef of Jody Adams’ newest restaurant in Boston. Trade opened to much fanfare, and went on to be voted Boston Magazine’s Best New Restaurant of 2012. The award serves as testament both to the team responsible for the work that goes on day-in and day-out at Trade, and also to just how strong a factor lineage can be. Chef Adams established the ethic; the way to get things done. Chef Hebert carries that torch, and with much success.

Long before Trade, there was Rialto. Helping to keep the home fires burning is Chef de Cuisine Brian Rae.

Rialto has become an institution in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not only can you sit down to enjoy a meal, a mix of local ingredients prepared with traditional Italian culinary techniques, but you can learn to make your own. Rialto offers up cooking classes, open to anyone wanting to learn. Teaching is in the fabric of this restaurant, and those that work there. It is one of just a few things that came up during my conversation with Brian Rae.

Brian Rae
Brian Rae

Foodie Journal: At what point did you discover that you had a love for food, and wanted to turn it in to a career?
Brian Rae: Well, I went in to culinary school straight out of high school. So, I guess it was in high school, really. I used to work in delis, restaurants, and catering companies when I was in high school. So I think it just developed there.

FJ: And, you went to the Culinary Institute of America, right?
BR: I did, yeah.
FJ: Can you speak a little about how you think culinary school can be beneficial for someone making the decision to get in to the food industry?
BR: Well, I feel like culinary school is great for someone just coming out of high school. They’re used to learning in that classroom environment, and culinary school really can expose you a large variety of things in a very short amount of time. I don’t think it’s the only way to become a cook, but it’s a good option.

FJ: What do you think are the differences between someone that just jumps in feet first, learning while they work in a restaurant, versus someone that went for a more formal culinary education?
BR: I think that eventually you have to jump in, regardless. It’s a process you have to go through. Even when you’re coming out of culinary school, you’re still very, very green. Going to culinary school does expose you to a lot of things, but its not like you’ve had the opportunity to do them so many times that you can say you’re an expert in something. You’re still very much a beginner. But, going to culinary school can at least help to expose you to what all the possible options are in the industry and really help you decide which direction you want to take your career.
FJ: So rather than mucking about, unsure of what career path they want to take in the industry, a culinary student might have a better sense of direction. Know where they want to head?
BR: Yeah, exactly. It gives you a little perspective.

FJ: Once you graduated from the CIA, where do you get your start restaurant wise?
BR: I went to Nantucket, and ended up working at a place called the Straight Wharf Restaurant for several summers. After culinary school I actually went on to a regular college, believe it or not. So while I was doing that, I would work at the Straight Wharf during the summers.

FJ: In reading a little about you, I saw that you went out to Las Vegas and actually were named Las Vegas Rising Star Chef.
BR: Yeah, that was a few years ago.
FJ: Does winning an award, any award, change how you approach being a chef?
BR: Well, any award, I think, increases the pressure. It increases the expectations people might have when they’re coming in and are going to try your food. So, you do have to kind of up your game. The more recognition, the better you have to be. That’s ultimately what people expect. But, I really love the scene. I loved Las Vegas.

FJ: What was the lure to bring you back to New England having been there?
BR: There were a couple of issues, really. My wife and I are both from New England originally, so being away from family was tough. The economic downturn, though, really played a big part. There was a lot of belt-tightening going on in the casinos, and by extension in the restaurants as well. So, things kind of started to get a little weird. It just made sense at that time to come back east.

FJ: When you made your way back to the New England, you ended up work at Rialto. Can you talk a little about the team there, and having the opportunity to work with Chef Jody Adams?
BR: When I got back east, I was real happy to be somewhere that had so many local farms and producers. Las Vegas has some, but not nearly as many as we have here. So, it was really nice coming in to Rialto where Jody already had connections with so many different local vendors and farmers. It was really easy to find my way in getting all these great local products. The team at Rialto is great. We have a 20-year history, so there are a lot of people that have come through the restaurant that respect and love it. The team we have right now is really great. We’re all friends that get along, and are there because we love food. It’s not a job so much as it is something that we just love to do. I think we do a good job of reflecting Jody’s love and passion.

FJ: I know that Chef Adams loves sharing her passion for food with others, teaching them how to do things in the kitchen. A great example of that are the cooking classes that are held at Rialto. As a person at the head of a kitchen, how important is it to be a teacher?
BR: It’s one of the keys to running successful restaurants. You have to train your cooks. Teaching is a necessity. You also have to hire people that are willing to be trained. I just don’t think there is any other way to do it. You have to do things that way, or else you’re not going to be successful.
FJ: Is it something you enjoy?
BR: Yeah! I love putting a cook on to a new station. They might be nervous, some might be confident, but its fun to work with them during those first few days. Then when they make it through a busy night on their own, it’s a great thing to see. Reminds me of when I was a bit younger. I love talking about being a line cook. So, yeah, it’s a lot of fun.

FJ: Final question for you… do you have a food memory that you really love?
BJ: I always look forward to Christmas Eve dinner. My family kind of always does its version of the Italian ‘Feast of the Seven Fishes’. It’s always my favorite meal of the year with my family. We have all sorts of things, like lobster, it’s just a great meal. It’s course, after course, after course. It goes for at least 3 hours. That’s probably one of my favorite food memories. It’s actually possibly the best kind of memory since it keeps repeating!

Brian Rae is the Chef de Cuisine at Rialto Restaurant. Rialto is located at 1 Bennett Street, Harvard Square, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Chef by Trade: My conversation with Chef Andrew Hebert of Trade Restaurant

It’s interesting how lineage goes so much further than skin and bone. If someone asked us about our lineage, any one of us would think of our parents, grandparents, mother-lands. But, that isn’t the only lineage that makes us who we are. Even in our professions, we are the product of a lineage. Those who came before us. A boss. A mentor. Someone who took the time to help ensure our feet were on the right path.

This lineage is particularly strong in the food industry. Chefs consistently bring fresh, young talent in to their kitchens, and begin the molding process. Those cooks go on to run kitchens of their own, and the process begins anew. It is an aspect of the culinary world that I was fascinated by, and wanted to learn more about. So, I reached out to Chef Jody Adams, chef and co-owner of Rialto in Cambridge, and Boston Magazine’s Best New Restaurant of 2012, Trade.

For the first part of this three-part interview series, I had the opportunity to speak with the Executive Chef of Trade Restaurant, Andrew Hebert. We touch on how he got his start in the industry, the impact that the chefs he has worked for have had on him, and how he approaches teaching his staff.

Andrew Hebert
Andrew Hebert

Foodie Journal: When was it that you realized you wanted to get involved with the food industry?
Andrew Hebert: Well, I guess it all stemmed from my family. A meal with the family at the dinning room table was a big deal to us. Everybody in the family would contribute to the meal. I always had fun with that. Then when I was in the 11th grade, in high school, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go to school, I started thinking of the restaurant industry. I hadn’t worked in a restaurant, and my dad said, “If you’re really going to do this, you need to try working in a restaurant.” So, I did that for a summer, and I immediately fell in love with it. It really came natural to me. Not just the food part, but also the whole environment. Being in the kitchen, not sitting around. The idea of sitting behind a desk never really appealed to me. The fact that I was on my feet all day, walking around, being active really did appeal to me as well.

FJ: If you could, tell me a little bit about your first experience in a restaurant kitchen.
AH: Sure. I ended up working at a place called The Trellis, in Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia. The clientele there is a little bit higher end than some of the other restaurants in the area. The chef who owned the restaurant [at the time], his name is Marcel Desaulniers. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, had a bunch of cookbooks out. He was really well known; the restaurant was really well known in the area. It was a great place for a first job! I started working there as a busboy, from there I went to working in the kitchen plating salads and desserts. So, that’s what I did that first summer.
FJ: What came after that summer?
AH: I went to culinary school. Actually, after I graduated, I ended up going back to The Trellis and worked there for about a year and half, two years. I worked every station in the place. When I left, I was basically like a kitchen supervisor where I was closing the restaurant, which gave me the opportunity to get some management experience as well. It’s really where I learned the most about cooking, and technique. It was a great foundation for me when I decided that I wanted to move up to New England.

FJ: Now obviously culinary school is really a great place to get those fundamentals, like knife skills, technique. Do you feel like you ended up getting more from that, or was it the restaurant experience that really kind of solidified for you what you needed to do to be successful?
AH: That’s a great question, and really its one that every chef and cook hears a lot. “Is it worth going to culinary school?” They are two different things, and it also really depends on your personality. When you’re working in a restaurant kitchen, you learn a lot. I feel like I absorbed a lot more. I’m a very visual learner, so doing it over and over, day in and day out really helped. With culinary school, each class is limited to a specific number of hours, so they try to pack as much information in as they can, and before you know it you’re on to the next class, you know? You go from a class about baking and pastries, then to a garde manger class, then to sauces. It’s overwhelming, and you end up thinking, “Whoa, that was way too much, way too fast.” But, my experience at Johnson & Wales was great. I learned a lot. I learned more about the why behind doing things, as opposed to how to do it.
FJ: Like theory, almost?
AH: Right. Then when you’re in a restaurant you end up learning how to do things, and don’t end up hearing why you’re doing it that way.

FJ: Now after you came to Boston, you ended up working for Chef Jody Adams. Can you speak a little about how working under such a reputable chef has impacted your career and how it impacted the type of chef you’ve become?
AH: I’ve worked with Jody in some way pretty much since I moved to the area, so it’s been about 8 years. Maybe 9 years. I went to Blu, and at the time Jody was a part of the restaurant group that owned the restaurant, and she was the chef. So, everything was pretty much overseen by her, though she did have an executive chef on site running the kitchen, so most of my interaction was with him. But, I really feel like I did experience her initially through him. Jody rubs off on her chefs. She really makes sure that the way she goes about dealing with her staff is replicated by her executive chefs in every restaurant she’s involved with, whether it’s Rialto or here at Trade. She’s very nurturing. She’s not one of those chefs that will yell at you about things. If there is an issue, she helps to figure out what the solution to the problem would be rather than just pointing it out and moving along. So I’ve learned that from her, and from the other chefs I’ve worked with. It’s something I’ve tried hard to replicate here at Trade. I try to be that kind of chef as well. I want to make sure it’s a positive work environment. People learn a lot more instead of being made to feel stupid, or small. It makes them realize how to do things better, and how to figure out what they might be doing wrong and be able to fix it.

FJ: For you as an executive chef, how important do you think it is to be a teacher in the kitchen when dealing with your staff?
AH: I think it’s very important. Some chefs may not have the patience for it. They just tell their staff to do something without really telling them why. For me, I think that when you are in a high-end kitchen, and you expect to get high-end results you need to explain why things need to be done a certain way. It just makes sense to me that if one of my cooks is going to be able to do something well, they’ll need to understand why they’re doing it. And, if they know why they’re doing it, they might be able to think of ways that they can do it better. So, that’s very important to me.

FJ: My final question is a pretty straightforward one, or at least I think it is. It may not be an easy one for someone in the industry. What’s your favorite food memory?
AH: I actually have two. I remember when I was 9 years old. We were in Germany at the time. My parents would take my sister and me on little weekend adventures to different countries, like to Italy or to England. Sometimes we’d just get in the car and drive. One time I remember us going to an Italian city on the Adriatic Sea, and my parents gave me fried calamari to try. I had no clue what it was, and they wouldn’t tell me, but I thought it was amazing. Once they told me what it was, I kind of freaked out a little bit at first, but it really sparked in me that interest to try different things. The other memory for me has to do with my mom. She comes from a big Italian family. So, I remember when I was very little visiting my grandmother and eating all the dishes she would make, like lasagnas and what not. My mom, though, had a dish she used to make all the time, which was cioppino. She makes it every Christmas, so to this day that’s something we always do at Christmas time. It’s one of my favorite dishes, one that I will always love. It reminds me of home.

Andrew Hebert is the Executive Chef of Trade Restaurant. Trade is located at 540 Atlantic Avenue in Boston.

Telling it like it is on Top Chef: An interview with Hugh Acheson

I’ve written plenty about my love of food, and of cooking. Tied in to that is my love of watching others cook (yeah, I’m a voyeur like that!). So, like many a foodie, I am a fan of televised food competitions. My hands-down favorite is Top Chef, on Bravo.

Now, I know that what goes down on Top Chef isn’t really in-line with what goes on in a real kitchen. It’s likely a rare situation in a professional kitchen where a chef is asked to prepare a dish using mystery ingredients. “Oh, and by the way, you can’t use any cooking vessels either. Just this aluminum foil!” (I still want to know who the evil mind is behind these challenges. Looking at you, Lakshmi!) But, that just makes the dishes they turn out all the more impressive. As is always the case, though, it isn’t just about food. Top Chef is about people, and that is just as much part of the reason we watch as anything else.

One of my favorites on Top Chef has become one of the judges. Chef Hugh Acheson brings with him an impressive resume. He’s authored a James Beard Award Winning cookbook A NEW TURN IN THE SOUTH: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen and was awarded the James Beard Foundation Award for  Best Chef Southeast in 2012. He was named Best Chef in 2002 by Food & Wine Magazine. Not only is he a judge on Top Chef for the second consecutive season, but he’s gone through the ringer himself, having competed on season 3 of Top Chef: Masters. It doesn’t hurt that he comes across as a pretty genuine person, who gives a damn about good food.

I had the opportunity to check in with Hugh and find out a little more about how he got his start in cooking, what goes in to being a judge on Top Chef, and the simple secret behind southern grits.

Hugh Acheson - Photo by Rinne Allen
Hugh Acheson – Photo by Rinne Allen

Foodie Journal: When was it that you realized that you had a love and passion for food that would lead to you becoming a chef?
Hugh Acheson: It was in high school. I wasn’t very good at school, but when I was working I was really relied upon and cherished. I realized that it was something that I was quite good at.

FJ: Where did you get your start in the business?
HA: I started like many of us do… washing dishes.  I began at the Bank Street Cafe in Ottawa at age 15.

FJ: I know you spent a couple of years when you were younger living in the southern United States, but you’re originally from Canada. What was it about the south that made you decide that was were you want to set up shop?
HA: My wife is from the South, and I have fallen for the cadence of life down here.

FJ: What’s your favorite southern ingredient?
HA: Grains. There is such an abundance of great grains. Farro, grits, amaranth, cornmeal…

FJ: You’ve been on Top Chef: Masters, and also serve as one of the judges for Top Chef on Bravo. How do you approach judging on the show? What does it take to make a successful dish in your opinion?
HA: Judging is fun and easy. Sit and eat and comment. That ain’t hard.  To succeed at the show you have to bring great technique and once in a while make us, as judges say, “WOW. How did you do all that in that amount of time?”

FJ: Is it ever tough to call someone out when they put out a crappy dish?
HA: Not really. It’s food. It’s either Great, good or no so good.

FJ: One of my favorite comments from this season so far, “As a guy who makes grits pretty much every day of my life, those grits suck.” I think what made it so great was just how non-chalantly it came out. What’s your secret for making good grits?
HA: Add the grits to cold water and slowly bring up to a boil. Then simmer and cook them a long time. Finish with butter and a hint of cream.

FJ: Now for my favorite question – pretty much every food loving person has food memories to go with it. What’s your favorite food memory so far?
HA: Making tomato sandwiches at my cottage in Canada! It’s a simple one, but it’s a great one.

Chef Hugh Acheson is the chef/partner of the Athens, Georgia, restaurants Five and Ten and The National, and the Atlanta restaurant Empire State South. He is also an active supporter of Wholesome Wave Georgia, an organization dedicated to increasing access to fresh, healthy, locally grown food at producer-only farmers markets in Georgia.

Architecting the American dining scene as we know it: A conversation with Jeremiah Tower

Jeremiah Tower was supposed to be an architect. A young man at the time, he was on his way to Hawaii to do just that. But, as has happened throughout history to many a young man trying to make their mark, Jeremiah hit a snag. He was down to his last $25, and stuck in San Francisco. So, what’s a man to do?

Why not become one of the individuals credited with completely redefining the American dining scene? Perhaps become the person that many consider to be “the father of California cuisine”?

If you ask him, Jeremiah will be the first to tell you that he never set out to change the culinary world. A lover of food since childhood, working as a chef seemed a natural way to earn some money so that he could continue on to Hawaii as he’d planned. Along the way, however, things changed. Not only did Jeremiah find success in the kitchens of California, he found a way to become one of the main architects of the American dining scene many of us know and love today.

I recently had the honor  to speak with Chef Tower. During our conversation we spoke a bit about where his love for food began, what it’s like to have had such an enormous impact on the culinary world, and what he has on the horizon for the culinary world.

Jeremiah Tower - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Jeremiah Tower – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

Foodie Journal: When was it that you first realized that you had a love for food?
Jeremiah Tower: I fell  in love with food and restaurants when I was five, and we lived in Sydney. There was severe  food rationing at the time, except for in restaurants, so we ate in them a lot and I was allowed to go along.  The most glamorous at that time was Prunier.

FJ: I take it that food continued to play an important role in your life through your teen years, and when you were in college. What were some of the dishes you enjoyed making in those formative years?
JT: Well, my aunt sent me off to college with a hot plate, a Le Creuset frying pan, two bottles of hundred-year-old Madeira, and her recipe for chicken livers, which I cooked in the closet for my roommates. [LAUGHS] But, a favorite of mine, because of my Russian experiences, I loved making coulibiac, though I don’t typically do it with sturgeon. I prefer salmon, or something similar. Do you know what coulibiac is?
FJ: No, that’s new to me. It’s a typical Russian dish?
JT: Yes, so it’s a brioche pastry in to which is stuffed a whole salmon filet with rice, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs. It’s beautiful in cross-section, and served on a big plate. Then you pour butter and sour cream all over it.
FJ: Wow, that sounds brilliant!
JT: It is! Then you have it with vodka. It’s really unbelievable! Aside from that, I would also make blinis. Obviously without caviar at the time, as it was very expensive.

FJ: So, despite that love for food and cooking, you didn’t originally start down a path that was likely to lead to becoming a chef or a restauranteur. What was it that finally drew you to the kitchen?
JT: Circumstance. I had cooked a lot for friends in college and graduate school, but thought I was going to be an underwater architect. I was on my way to Hawaii to help with a pavilion for a World’s Fair, but I ran out of money in San Francisco. So, a friend suggested I take the job of chef at a café in Berkeley. I was down to my last $25, so I went for an interview.  It was called Chez Panisse.

FJ: Now, from Chez Panisse you moved on to Stars, which was one of the biggest restaurants to open in the United States. Many credit you and what you did there as really changing the landscape of what it means to dine in America. What was it that led you to make Stars in to what it became? Were you interested in “changing the world” so to speak, or did you just want to cook your way?
JT: At the time I was equal partners with Alice Water at Chez Panisse, but I decided to leave after she would not agree to do what is now the café.  I was tired of Berkeley, and wanted to live and work in San Francisco.  I was also in love with the idea of a brasserie,  along the lines of La Coupole or Boeuf Sur le Toit in Paris or the old Delmonico’s in New York, with a huge bar.  But, as a footnote, I really want to say that we had no idea what we were doing in terms of changing things, or creating what became known as California cuisine. I was not aware of the idea that we were changing anything. I was just doing what I wanted to do.  Ultimately, what  I wanted was what Johnny Apple, a writer at the Washington Post, later called “the most democratic restaurant in the USA”.

FJ: You definitely made an impact on the culinary world, and on many chefs with what you did at Stars. I recently had the chance to read your Kindle Single, A Dash of Genius, about Auguste Escoffier, and its obvious that he had a big impact on you as an individual. Can you talk a little about some of the others that impacted who you became as a chef, and what you want to create in the kitchen?
JT: Another mentor was Fernand Point and his book Ma Gastronomie.  I learned to cook from my aunt, her Russian uncle, and also my mother.  Then the two people who influenced me when I was working in restaurants were my great friends Elizabeth David, and Richard Olney.  Another mentor for me, not so much as far as food was concerned but very much for advice in general, was another great friend, James Beard.

Potatoes in paprika - Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower
Potatoes in paprika – Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Tower

FJ: So, what do you have in the works now as far as the culinary world is concerned?
JT: Well, 10 minutes ago, I group of people just approached me about opening a dinner club in Merida (Mexico). [LAUGHS] Much to my surprise. But, what’s really going on is the project in New Rochelle, in New York. We’re going to be doing a big urban renewal of some old buildings there, the first of which will be a big food hall. It will involve lots of outreach and educational programs with students and farmers.
FJ: That sounds really exciting! Glad to live not too far from New York so I’ll be able to pay it a visit when it opens.
JT: It will be great for the community. A renewal for the culinary and agriculture in the region. It’s very exciting!

FJ: So on to one of my favorite questions. You’ve had a storied career, and undoubtedly have had countless experiences with food, so I need to ask the impossible question. Is there a particular food memory or experience that stands out in  your mind? Something that really left a mark on you, and solidified what you love about food?
JT: Fried eggs with a blizzard of white truffles in Barcelona last week at Ca l’Isidre. No, just kidding…

I think it was the meals with my aunt, and my Russian space scientist uncle in Washington D.C. when I  was a teenager. My aunt was an extraordinary cook, and my uncle loved to talk about food. It was just amazing to sit around with them, eating and hearing stories told by some of my uncle’s friends, including a man who was a childhood friend of the man who killed Rasputin! These meals would just go on for hours, and I remember that, for me being a teenager, I always saw it as a check of my manhood to start off by trying 5 different types of vodkas, caviars and then make it through dishes like my aunt’s chicken liver with hundred-year-old Madeira. So that was an amazing introduction to how to eat glamorously, because they were glamorous and the conversations were extraordinary.

A Dash of Genius is available as a Kindle Single on You can stay current with what’s going on in the world of Jeremiah Tower by visiting his website at