Updated: Jul 20, 2021
The first section of your kitchen exposition, the Cook’s Book, refers to “Chef and Brady this, Chef and Brady that”. It may be reasonable to assume the chef in question is you, but is “Brady” based on a real person?
Brady is indeed based on a real person. I was briefly executive chef at a steakhouse across the street from an Italian restaurant that I worked at once the steakhouse closed down. Brady is based on a real-life person whom I first met at the steakhouse and then he couldn’t find work after the closing. So there was a little history there, and the rest of the crew at the Italian place knew it. They thought I was playing favorites because in addition to being unable to find a job, “Brady” also didn’t have a car; and so, once or twice, I gave Brady a ride home. Brady was also a smoker, like myself, and we often might find ourselves outside at the same time as one another. Pretty much never on purpose, but before service and then after service the smokers go outside to get their fix. That first part of the book was actually kind of an open letter to the kitchen staff as a whole. I was basically trying to tell them that I knew what they were saying about me behind my back, and that was my response.
What makes the Cook’s Book relative to cooks and kitchen staff in post-COVID America?
There’s not a whole lot that’s “new” in the Cook’s Book (which, like my other books, is available through Amazon, this one as both paperback and ebook). To be honest there’s not a lot that’s “new” in any given kitchen, or relative to any dish that any chef or cook might come up with. There are billions of people in the world and as a species humans have got thousands of years of history. What we eat today is not necessarily much different than what we might have eaten a hundred, two hundred years ago. Not in principle, at least: Stock is still stock, croissants are still croissants. But food is always relevant, and even if it’s not new that doesn’t mean you, or your spouse, or your kid—that doesn’t mean they’ve eaten that before. Same thing as relates to the Cook’s Book. There’s not a lot of newness with regard to the knowledge in there, but for beginner cooks and maybe even for some who’ve been in the industry for a while, I can almost guarantee there’s going to be something in there that you didn’t know. Even if it’s just a better understanding of a different perspective, a different way of looking at your approach to the kitchen, whether that’s because of “the Rules” or the idea of “the kitchen as a braise”.
There are twenty-eight rules listed and defined in the Cook’s Book. Why is Rule Number One, “This is a Kitchen of WE”, and why is Rule Number Twenty-Eight basically “It all ends up in the toilet anyway”? That’s not exactly encouraging, front-to-back.
It may not be encouraging, but it’s certainly true. Over the years when I’ve started to get down on myself, my choices, my career path, I’ve often made the argument that food doesn’t need to be so fussy or specific—you don’t have to cut the onions this way or that way. I mean you do, if that’s what you’re told to do, because then that’s your job; but in general I’m a very strong believer in the idea that food is highly subjective. Your perfect bite may not be my perfect bite. And, in the end, the way you cut the onion or the tomato, or the way you sear the meat for your braise—maybe you do it in the oven, maybe you do it in the pan—the subjectivity, the frivolity of a hard-line approach to the preparation, can literally be found in the bottom of your toilet bowl within a few days of consumption. But even though you might be the only person taking a dump and leaving your boeuf bourguignon or your German’s chocolate cake at the bottom of the bowl, it takes a team effort to make it happen. And that includes the owners, the delivery drivers, the maintenance guys, the dishwashers, the servers. It requires the customers, the marketing team, the reviewers and the farmers, the cooks and chefs and managers. Essentially, in order for it to end up in the toilet, it takes a whole freaking army to get it there.
When did you write the Cook’s Book: bare bones kitchen basics?
The first half of 2019 is when I completed it. Prior to that, for a little more than a year and a half, from 2017 to the end of 2018, I was corporate executive chef for a family-owned and -operated restaurant group here in Tucson. As such, I was more directly in charge of the chefs and sous chefs running the kitchens in the various restaurants than I was in charge of the cooks on the line. So it started out as a kind of back-of-the-house training-slash-kitchen philosophy handbook for the chefs and sous chefs. It used to be much bigger, with a section outlining the history of restaurants as a business model, how to figure food costs, tips on planning the menu, and of course there was a whole chapter on safe food handling. To be honest most of the chefs and sous chefs never even bothered reading the first page of the thing, which came across as more of a training manual than anything else, but nevertheless when I quit the corporate executive job I still had the manuscript. I didn’t do anything with it at first, but then my wife and I were able to help open a vegan-friendly restaurant with a different restaurant group here in town, and there was such a pirate-ship feel to the crew that I felt like there needed to be some kind of standard for everyone. Some kind of baseline, like a mother sauce. The original manuscript had some information in there specific to the previous restaurants I’d been overseeing, and I knew I couldn’t include that. Also, it was not originally intended for public consumption so much as internal circulation; so a good amount of the material paraphrased some of what you can find on the Web. For the Cook’s Book I just wanted to have, essentially, a handbook that provided that baseline of knowledge—techniques and terminology, a bit of a different way of thinking about the cooks’ approach to their daily tasks and the team as a whole.
How did you come up with the idea that a kitchen can be likened to a braise?
There are so many different types of people who work in the foodservice industry. Some are going to school, some are going to jail; some are getting over a divorce, some might be on the path to full-blown addiction. Regardless of your background, though, like others have said before me: You’re only as good as your last dish. Kitchen work has been called the last meritocratic profession, where you’re essentially only as good as your work. I think I can stand as evidence of that myself: I wasn’t always in a good place when I was working the line or starting a new job, but I knew that I knew how to cook, and that’s all that really matters when it comes down to it: You show up, ready to go, and then you go. And when you’re done, you try and get the hell out of there as quick as possible without screwing over the next shift. In any case, it takes all kinds to staff a kitchen, whether front or back of the house. Everyone has a different take, everyone has a different experience, but they’re all connected by the food, the concept, the service. Braised dishes require a lot of different techniques, a lot of layers of understanding in order to pull them off well. The same can be said of just about any professional kitchen, from the seasoned lifer to the FNG bumbling through a head of romaine lettuce and pretty much guaranteed to slice a finger or two in the process. It takes all of that, working together, reducing and reconstituting, learning and growing, contracting and expanding, partying and recovering—it takes an understanding of all of that, whether you’re at the top or at the bottom—not only to run a professional kitchen, but to work in one and to work your way up in one.