Category Archives for "Behind the Apron"

Dishwashers Rule

If you’ve worked in a kitchen you know at least one simple truth: Dishwashers Rule. Washing the dishes is only a part of what they do to keep kitchens running smoothly. Need extra prep? Dishwasher. Need sauté pans? Dishwasher.

Face it, without a stellar dishwasher your kitchen is never going to reach its potential. And in recognizing this, Team Poached is looking for you to nominate the Best Dishwasher in America.

All you need is a picture of your dishwasher in their pit and a short write-up describing why they’re awesome. We’ll go through the entries, post them to a gallery on the Poached Blog and pick a winner. We’ll stop taking entries on Aug 13th and announce the Best Dishwasher in America the following week.

Oh! And the winner will be the recipient of our ever-growing list of Poached Schwag™ that includes – but is not limited to – T-Shirts, sharpies, notebooks and other goodies we’ve collected for just such an occasion.

So send your entries to blog@poachedjobs.com because those dishes aren’t going to wash themselves. And if you want to share your dishwashing experiences on twitter just use #DishwashersRule.

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© Robbie McClaran

 

A Talk with Erika Nakamura of Lindy & Grundy


One of the attractive things about working in the food and drink industry is the opportunity to become your own boss. If you put in the hours, have the talent and the drive, you can realize the dream of opening up a business of your own. Erika Nakamura of Lindy & Grundy in Los Angeles just proves the point. She worked her way up through kitchens and internships until she and her partner, Amelia Posada, opened the doors on LA’s first sustainable butcher shop.

Getting open was only the beginning. Going from a cook, to a butcher was a smooth transition, but becoming a business owner was a whole other challenge. Recently, Erika took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about butchery, business, social media and the value of having a skill…

How did you decide you wanted to be a butcher?

I had the pleasure of working at several restaurants in NY as a stage. Nothing was really sticking though. While working I kept coming back to sustainability and sourcing. I was getting really disillusioned on how food was being handled, particularly the meat side of things.

After working around I could see cooking wasn’t what I really wanted to do.  Becoming a butcher seemed a better fit for me so I went looking for apprenticeships. Luckily I found a program at Fleisher’s.

Halfway through my time at Fleisher’s I knew I wanted to open up my own place. In a blue-collar job you can either work for someone else or do your own thing. I was ready to step up.

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Once you realized what you wanted to do, what steps did you take to get there?

First step was to learn the culinary side of it. I decided to go to culinary school to make it happen as quickly as possible. I knew I wanted to do something with my life, though I didn’t know butchery was going to be it.  I did know I wanted to do something with food so I started there.

When you figure out what you want your endgame to be, you start to see the steps you need to take to get there. Once I was in culinary school I knew whole animal butchery was coming. I could just see it blowing up. People in this country want to eat cleaner. They are questioning where their food is coming from. As I started to hear these questions it made me feel that it was important to figure out what those steps were.

After I worked in various kitchens I moved on to Fleischer’s, and soon my internship became a job.

You’ve been very successful using social media to market yourself and your business…

Social media has defined who we are as professionals.

Social media is an interesting thing because it allows you to have an audience, should you seek one out. It allows you to make contact with people who can help you. If you start following the right people and engage them in conversations, they can open up a larger conversation that can benefit you. I followed business owners, farmers and cooks. In fact, we found our current farmers through social media.

Twitter was perhaps the most instrumental. Twitter allowed us to have a voice amongst food bloggers and journalists, farmers, and folks who are involved in the local food scene.  We started having conversations about food politics and our belief system around being local and sustainable.  Soon we were being invited to hang out with bloggers and were able to create friendships that led to exposure.

The minute we tweeted we were going to move out to LA and open the shop we got media attention. Within a week LA Weekly was interviewing us. Because of our work on Twitter we had major press before we even opened.

Who runs your social media?

We do everything; primarily it’s Amelia that does our social media. She has a knack. I do my own instagram with the understanding that most of my fans are fans of the shop. You can always tell if people are handing social media on their own or if a PR firm is doing it for them. People are attracted to the real personality and the real story. People love the story behind the business.

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You worked in NY, but moved to LA to open your business. What attracted you to California?

Amelia is from here (LA) and we were looking for a place to do our thing. New York was pretty saturated with whole animal butchery. Being intentional means you have to go to where the work is. There wasn’t much good sourcing for proteins in LA. I visited butchery shops and thought ‘this is kinda bleak.’

I worried sourcing was going to be a problem, being able to source sustainably. We’re going on and on and making these grandiose claims and you’ve got to follow through. It’s hard to source, but right as we opened there was an overwhelming support from the agricultural community that allowed us to do that.

Once you were open, what were your challenges and how did you meet them?

Lindy and Grundy is a passion driven business and that on its own can lead to challenges. This is not easy work – it takes a lot of time and requires strength and patience. If you lack the passion to want to do it, it’s too much. When you have the passion it overrides the difficulties that are just part of the job. If you lack passion you’ll never get good at what you do. You’re going to get caught up in the little struggles, politics and more.

Amelia and I had to learn a lot opening our own business – and we learned it all the hard way. We were just balls out. The passion between the two of us wasn’t enough to give us the knowledge to run a small business, though.  We had to figure everything out on our own. We just went for it, but that definitely made it a much more complicated and bumpy road.

I didn’t know the first thing about opening a business.  My architect was a huge resource for all things related to the build out process and the bureaucratic details concerning buildings department regulations.

Most of our learning, though, was through trial and error.  We frequently confide in friends who own restaurants and other businesses around issues such as payroll and tax administrative issues.

How did having a skill like butchery allow you to make the move across country?

It’s amazing when you have a skill. You earned it and it’s yours. It’s hardwired into your body and you can take that anywhere.

Without tremendous work ethic and the willingness to screw up in order to learn, you can’t learn a craft or skill better than others.  I don’t believe that one ever masters a craft in their lifetime – the learning process should continue to follow you throughout your entire life.

Once you learn a craft that is physically driven, the muscle memory will always be there- almost like riding a bike.  It doesn’t have material value- but it becomes a part of you.  Your most important tool is your body and mind- not knives and steel…

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If you’re interested in learning more about whole animal butchery, Erika is teaching an intensive 3-day course for culinary professionals at the International Culinary Center in NYC. For details click HERE.

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The Importance of Chaos

Recently, I sold my soul. Well, it was more of a rental agreement with an undisclosed expiration date. After months of living my lifestyle of constant evolution, I was feeling the financial grips squeezing – hence my need for a reliable paycheck.

There was no real plan. There never is. When opportunities are slam-dunks to land, I merely need to whore myself out like a mercenary ready to capitalize. Before the SXSW festival turned downtown Austin into the epicenter of the bubbling chaos, the jobs were there waiting.

“SXSW” is an inescapable four-letter combo during late Central Texan winters. Austin’s population influxes 100,000+ during this national pilgrimage amassing of molly-fazed trend junkies, hunting someday-maybe-big-act music fiends, Google-glass-wearing tech nerds and corporate marketing funds begging to get blown out worst than trust fund babies.

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Streets overflow with wasted concert jumpers getting their occasional fuck on in a bathroom bar between bumps and band sets. Aside from the occasional free liquor shot I would procure and immediately throw back, I kept to the shadows of the show I shuffled through. Ultimately, I was there in Austin to cash in on the overtime work.

Fact of the matter was employers needed employees to brace through the surge. Money may speak loudly, but it was the little things that I took away mostly from this period. It’s so fucking cliché to say, but it’s accurate. I’ve since moved on and resumed building the travels, but many of those small nuances linger with realizations of my personal growth.

My new friendships forged from long hours of enduring hard work now laugh over bourbon together. A dozen new chilies, spices, and produces expanded my palate thanks to the menu of an American-Mexican national icon restaurant. I’d pushed myself to some limits physically – but this time came out still smiling on the other end.

It all felt great now, and it felt far too damn simple getting here. It may have been because I finally cooked for me and no one else this time around.

Five weeks prior to the early SXSW kick-off festivities, I’d moved to North Austin with my girlfriend. I’d already arranged stages in seven of the city’s leading restaurants for the first ten days. A “bidding” eye for my employment seemed to emerge. Most of these restaurants needed to make immediate hires. More significantly, I’ve danced the dodgy steps of difficult-to-answer questions akin to “Can you give an example of your five-year goals and how they tie into why you want to work here?”

Boom! Like that all within two weeks of setting foot in Austin – I took the offer for an AM Lead Chef. It seemed to be the right fit. I had played the game quick and smart, but I had to laugh at the irony. Sure, once again I was the FNG, and I’m cool with that. This time however, I was supposed to be my fellow line cooks’ leader?! I still barely knew where the hell I was – let alone how to lead this group of strangers.

My position manned a wood fire grill and a six star-top stove simultaneously. That’s grill and sauté in one station – a welcomed strenuously unhealthy challenge. The next few weeks as SouthBy (as the goers call it) approached, I simply absorbed everything I could and pushed myself to gain plenty of control of my station, before I could learn much more of the line.

The Executive Chef clearly sought me out as an anchor of his morning crew. I realize this finally since these guys were greener than the pasture in spring. Here came my personal real test. If I’d run them as tough as I have been run before, they’d have fallen like a house of cards. To firmly guide the morning crew, I was being told to be a pit bull. Wary of their fragility, I couldn’t bring myself to belittle them into comprehension – especially when ranked as a near equal in the Escoffier Hierarchy system.

I refused. Positive reinforcement had proven victor over the desired “social norm” of being a raging lunatic of stressed urgency. This time – I thought I’d try the route of the high road.

None of them had played in Super Bowl level cooking before. This was about to be that high-pressure caliber very soon. As the beehive fell, the shit storm from its crash swirled the air around us and I calmly exhaled. For once, my experience and levelheaded positivity was going to offer more than bluntly direct orders. With SouthBy nearing every day, I would coax and prod them to push a little faster than yesterday. Each hour I would inquire how comfortable they were feeling. As the minutes ticked by, I tried to disregard my own FNG-based lingering disorientation to instill confidence to the line crew.

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Problems will naturally occur.

Challenges of miscues and dwindling stock of mis en place is a given.

High levels of stress must be assumed.

Lacking sleep mars you with fatigue.

Red Bulls and B12 injection fuels our sick sense that make these “Super Bowl pushes” to us, well, fun.

Rather than enter and leave being viewed as the crusty son of a bitch always raining down intensity to the line – I thought back to my other half dozen times pushing through the busy season. Who would I have wished to have working alongside me?

Most importantly – what did I want to take away from this?

We as a line crew live and die together. We’ve all been overlooked by the at these stressful points due to a co-worker being berated because they ran out of something or forgot to fucking season something. This double-edged sense of gratitude sweeps over us. In this indirect silence of momentary “Thank God that’s not me” solitude, we reflect – all the while knowing we could be next any minute.

Reluctantly I resisted being their crutch to limp on – but of course I caved. I pushed as hard as I could to show them the level of urgency still undiscovered by these young aspiring cooks. They had so much to yet still learn.

You must prep yourself out like the motherfuckin’ roof will otherwise cave in. As the Chef turned his fury to me, I took the abuse grinning that I was “apparently in the shits”. Unjustified and unaware that I was just fine – sure in some way maybe we as a line were indeed neck deep in the shits.

Those crazy waves of weird order patterns happen. As the line’s leader – no matter who was getting the hit, I was there. If a grenade was being thrown at us, I made sure these guys knew I’d be the first to jump on it. We all sink or swim together when the masses hungrily swarm us.

Stay ahead of your game, breathe calmly in the chaos, and enjoy the wild ride. It all ends eventually. The subsequent weeks feel like withering death as boredom sets back in with the steady calmness we once found as normalcy. Every busy season, no matter our caliber, teaches us something.

For me, this hiatus pausing in Austin for SXSW, I learned that it’s okay to be me. Don’t feel obligated to fit a role someone else sees you being able to fit just to appease him or her. Do what feels right, treat others with respect, and in the end you’ll be rewarded handsomely with a fat post-bedlam paycheck – but also some respected friends. Nothing looks sweeter than when OT hours outweigh your usual 40. However, nothing feels better than hard work done truthfully to your personal intention.

As for me, the season is over and it’s back to the road to find yet another wild kitchen on my horizon.

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Sailing the Seas of Cheese

Sasha Davies lives in a world of cheese. More importantly it’s a world she carved out for herself. Starting as a humble intern and following that with a cheese-focused road-trip, Sasha has never waivered in her pursuit of learning about cheeses and cheese makers. Her current stop in her life’s journey is a business of her own: Cyril’s, a wine bar and restaurant located in Portland, Oregon.

Curious how someone goes from loving cheese to being a business owner, I sat down with Sasha to find out more about her and her love of all things cheese.

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When did you first discover your passion for all things cheese?

It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific moment when I fell for cheese, but there are definitely some moments that immediately come to mind. It all really started in the early days of my internship at the Artisanal Cheese Center in NYC.

During my interview, my soon to be mentor Daphne Zepos walked into the room in a white coat lab coat and white rubber boots carrying a toasted piece of baguette with a thick slab of butter on it. Everything about that moment confirmed that although there was no evidence to support a career path ahead of me, I was in the right place.

There was also the day that I walked out of my East Village apartment with a wedge of a Swiss alpine cheese called Alpage Praettigauer.  I marveled at its ability to serve as a complete meal in terms of its range of flavor – spring onion, brown butter, sweet cream – on my walk to the subway. Eating that, and only that, for breakfast made me feel like part of something that had long preceded me and would continue on well after I’m gone.

And lastly I would have to cite my very first visit to a farmstead cheesemaker (Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, VT). That weekend was the first time I think I understood the amount of work it takes to grow food for people – especially with any kind of integrity – and that cheese was a nexus of land, animals, and culture.

How did you develop your knowledge of cheese?

I took an unpaid internship that was full-time for three months at the Artisanal Cheese Center in NYC. The Artisanal Cheese Center was basically a hyper specialized cheese distributor selling to restaurants in New York while also offering educational programming on cheese to the public. As interns we were welcome to attend any class so long as we did prep and clean up for it. I took every class offered during my internship and read every cheese book I could get my hands on.

My other major leap in learning happened when my husband and I did a project of our own creation called Cheese by Hand where we spent four months traveling around the U.S. visiting and interviewing small-scale cheesemakers to understand first-hand what they were up against.

What is it about cheese that keeps your attention? 

Cheese was my gateway to food. By that I mean both that working in cheese was my entry into the food industry but also it was the food through which I developed my palate. The sheer range of texture and flavor that is possible when milk is transformed into a solid is still totally captivating to me. And cheese goes one step beyond vegetables for me because it not only connects us to the land but it also reminds us of our relationship with and reliance on animals. I love that cheese provides a lens through which to understand how people used to live in different parts of the world – why mountain cheeses are made in the mountains and Camembert was developed in northern France.

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The restaurant world is divided between the FOH and BOH, but your career seems to bridge that gap. What thoughts do you have on the different skills people develop in the FOH or BOH?

We are in the middle of a time where the back of the house is a very glamorized place. Kitchens are portrayed as dens of heroes who live and die by their knives and locally farmed food and have the burns and tattoos to prove it. The front of the house just does not have the same appeal and I secretly think that this is because, unlike cooking in a commercial kitchen, many people think they could be a server no problem. It’s one of those jobs that I can imagine people saying, “how hard could that be, really?” HARD. Just as hard as sweating your head off in a kitchen, it’s just a very different kind of hard.

Here is the basic deal – there are job specific and life skills that are acquired and learned both in the back and front of the house, no question. The main reason I think I like to work in both of those worlds is that I don’t want to lose touch with either. And maybe more importantly, I really do believe that everyone in my business, whether they’re paying me or I’m paying them, is my customer. When this is the lens you look through, making sure that the bathrooms are clean becomes just as important as deciding what’s going on the menu next week because they are both in service of our business and our customers.

What 3 pieces of advice would you give to someone starting out in the food world?

1. Follow your curiosity, that is our most powerful magnet as human beings. If you are always doing something you genuinely care about and are interested in, once you can get people to find out that you exist they will be drawn to you.

2. Work for people and business you respect and give them 110%, you will make it back in spades.

3. Find yourself a piece of meaningful work and give yourself to it fully. (Note: it doesn’t have to be work that saves the world, it just has to be truly meaningful to you.)

 

Secrets of the Cicerones

As I was sneaking away from a former wine industry colleague in a grocery store because I was carrying a sixer of Old German tallboys, I started thinking: maybe beer is just as important to the modern bar and restaurant as wine. After a little research, I discovered there was a beer-focused equivalent to the Master Sommelier – The Master Cicerone (pronounced Sis-uh-Rown.)

Christopher-BarnesI had to find someone involved in the Cicerone program and learn more. Luckily I found Certified Cicerone® Christopher Barnes, of the I Think About Beer Blog, and learned more about what it takes to be an official beer expert.

If you’re ready to up your beer serving game, you should head over to the Cicerone website and get started. Being able to call yourself a ‘certified beer server’ – or even better ‘a Cicerone’ – may very well be the difference between you and another candidate for that cool job in an awesome bar or restaurant.

How did you get your start selling beer?

I wasn’t ready for grad school and was getting into wine. I thought I’d sell wine for awhile, someone told me if you’re going to be selling wine you should know about beer, too – that I’d be handling a lot of both. So I started learning about beer. I came to Portland and picked up a job in beer and wine distribution and the beer side of the business started to really appeal to me. I’ve been selling beer ever since. I work for Columbia Distributing, which has a great specialty beer list.

How did you become involved in the Cicerone Certification Program?

When I began studying wine I also studied beer. It’s been a constant process. I’ve never really stopped learning about beer. When I found the [Cicerone] program they had just started. They hadn’t even begun testing for the second level yet, much less the master level. I tried to talk my company into supporting the program, but they weren’t that interested – at first. After some changes to the company I had a specialty director who became interested and we did the first round of tests together in the spring of 2012.

When we did the 1st level, I just sat down and took the test. The second level required a little more study. For me the 1st level was easy, but the second level was hard. It’s a 4-hour test. There’s a significant jump in difficulty. Instead of a multiple choice online test, it’s 150 fill-in-the-blank questions, four essays, a tasting portion and a practical display of knowledge that covers draft maintenance and serving.

Blonde-Beer-GlassWhat did the tasting portion of the Cicerone exam entail?

The tasting portion has evolved a bit since I took it. At that time they had three portions.

They had an “off” portion. Where they served 4 beers and three were spiked with different flaws. We had to identify each flaw.

There was an identification portion. we were given two samples and had to identify the style. Is this sample style A or Style B? We were given beers in similar styles, like a Belgian Dubbel versus a Dopplebock. They were relatively close-ish in style and we had to say which was which. We did this for 5 rounds, identifying the beers.

We were also given samples that were bought off the shelf under the premise that you’re the beer expert at a bar and someone has sent the beer back. Is there something wrong with this beer? If so, what is it? Would you continue to sell it, or would you not, and why. We had to determine if a beer still fit its style parameters.

For the practical, we had to disassemble a bar faucet and describe how to clean the faucet and then reassemble it.

What’s next for you?

The next step is the Master Cicerone. I have to start doing a lot more studying for it. It’s a 2-day exam and it’s pretty gnarly.

It’s a great process and it’s very valuable to a wide number of people in the business. Brewer, distributor, if you work in a restaurant – it teaches all about beer storage and serving and all people in beer bars or restaurants should take the test. Randy Mosher’s book, Tasting Beer, has everything you need to take the first level.

What are your feelings on Beer and wine pairings?

Beer has a lot of ways you can pair it with food. The carbonation is such a huge tool for pairing. It has a wide range. The basic principle is to find things that are similar. You can take an amber ale and pair it with a hamburger – the char of the meat pairs nicely with amber ales. And when you mix in the condiments the amber will stand up to it. Or a classic pairing is a Flemish red with shrimp. I had Rodenbach with shrimp in a basil cream sauce and it was the best meal I had in Belgium. The acidity really sliced through the cream sauce. The slightly sweet nature of the Flemish red was perfect with the shrimp.

It’s a lot about experimenting. And if you’re stumped go with a Belgian saison, it’s your get out jail free card. It’ll go with anything. Garret Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewing, is a great writer and advocate for beer pairings. The Brewmaster’s Table is the definitive food and beer-pairing book. Anyone in the restaurant industry should read it.

Where wine gets treated with all sorts of gravitas, beer gets relegated to being a casual beverage. I feel like there are many corners cut in the serving of beer in most restaurants. What are some consistent mistakes you see in bars and restaurants?

No-Pint-GlassesAlways glassware. Glassware and line maintenance. They don’t need to have a special glass for every type of beer. Just not a shaker pint. It’s literally the worst shape for serving a beer. I always recommend a German style tumbler. It’s similar to a pint, but with a curved top. It’s tall and it comes up into a fluted rim to prevent the head from dissipating.

You should have two glasses: a fluted tulip/snifter style and a tumbler. The shaker pint was never intended to be a beer glass – that’s why we call it a “shaker pint” – it’s for mixing cocktails. It’s cheap and stackable so it became a default. Stacking is the worst, by the way, it makes the glasses unsightly and makes the glasses hard to properly clean. If you’re going to serve expensive beer it should look good. You don’t go to a high-end restaurant and see the food glopped onto a plate. Presentation matters.

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Christopher Barnes is part of a quickly growing movement to put beer in its proper place at the table. It isn’t just cans of Old German, but a respectable drink with a long history, a wide variety of styles and the ability to pair with food on the level of wine. For too long beer has been treated as something lacking in sophistication, while it’s clearly anything but. Beer can’t make it out of the cooler and onto the table without some help, though. The more people in the industry embrace this beverage with seriousness and focus, the more opportunities we’ll all have to drink better beer.

Though I have to admit, I do love a sixer of cold tallboys…

 

Mister NaCl

Ben-JacobsenWho would have thought you could create a brick and mortar business with just sodium chloride? Ben Jacobsen, founder of Jacobsen Salt Co., took this humble compound and within 2.5 years established himself as the go-to supplier for NW chefs in the know. What started as just a fascination for fine salt when he was studying abroad in Copenhagen has grown into a viable business.

I recently got a chance to sit down with Ben Jacobsen to find out more about what got him started and what keeps him going.

 
What spurred your interest?

I admired the Scandinavian approach to good food where just a simple addition like salt could elevate the cuisine. In Copenhagen I bought a package of salt – I think it was Maldon’s – which was sixty kroner or about ten bucks; I couldn’t afford it. Compared to the fifty dollar bottle of wine that was gone in two hours, that box of salt lasted two months. I was taken aback by how much better it made every bite of food taste.

At the time I was working for a software company when I saw an opportunity to do something I loved and that’s what motivated me and still does. I don’t have any formal training and mostly it was trial and error for 2.5 years, for better or worse.

So what started as a hobby became a business. We have 12 employees total now. It was just me. As the only and first employee, I only started paying myself three months ago. So it’s safe to say so far it’s not a highly lucrative career. Of course I don’t do it for the money; I love it and feel lucky to be part of this.

Netarts-BayHow did you start off?

Originally I was hauling the water back to Portland, which seems absurd now. I’ve always been gathering my water from Netarts Bay. So it made sense to set up a commissary at the source. I’m really proud of the fact that we hire locally and we employ 8 people out there. It’s not doctor or lawyer wages but they are solid jobs with health insurance.

While I spend most of my time out at the coast, I love living in Portland. There is a lack of fine dining out there. I eat at two places: The Schooner, which uses my salt, and the Upstairs Bar and Grill. Here in Portland, I frequent Ned Ludd, Departure, Smallwares, Irving Street Kitchen (for brunch) and Ava Gene’s.

Who were your first big clients?

New Seasons was our first client. The first order placed was for 10 cases, one for each of their stores. I really didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity. The first chef was Justin Wills of restaurant Beck in Depot Bay and the second was Jason French at Ned Ludd. Now about 200 chefs use our salt in the Northwest. We sell in grocery stores specialty shops, and Williams & Sonoma carries it nationwide.

It wasn’t like a really active thing; it all came about very organically. The designer of the packaging was a friend of a friend – no fancy firms – and we worked really closely on the packing. It was what I could afford at the time. My start-up was what little money I had saved up; I think it was around ten grand. I did a kick-starter campaign and raised some money around town, too.

What is it about your craft that you really enjoy?

I love that chefs have come to appreciate our style of salt. This has become tricky because we have to manipulate this ever-changing raw material, water, into a consistent product, which is what they expect. I feel really lucky to be part of the chef community and in that sense, it’s all around a group of good people.

Jacobsen-Salt_ProcessingDo you use a lot of chemistry and lab work?

No, admittedly at this point we should be more sophisticated, but really it’s about the feel and technique. We do use salinity and calcium measurements, but in the end, it’s mostly an art with a little bit of science.

What is the purification process of the water like?

We filter the sea water down to a really fine measurement. We’re not really purifying in that sense; it’s more filtration and evaporation. Through membrane, bag, and sand filters – all sorts of media filters. The filters last a while; the biggest cost is the custom equipment we use to evaporate in. The trays alone were four thousand a piece.

Do you have any environmental concerns, especially because of Fukishima?

Yeah, we have concerns for sure, but we are in contact with Oregon State University. They monitor water quality and radiations levels, or the lack thereof, on the Oregon coast and they have for dozens of years. They haven’t detected any changes whatsoever.

There are certain instances when we can’t harvest water and that is when there is an algae bloom or when the oysters are spawning. The oysters release a ton of calcium into the water, which makes it really tricky for us production-wise. At this point we don’t just have inventory sitting around.

Jacobsen-Salt-Pure-FlakeWhat is it about your product that sets you apart?

Our salt has less minerality and a more briny finish which in turn washes away cleaner. It’s clear like shaved ice and has a translucent iridescence, where others have a chalkier appearance. The salt initially is these big, beautiful crystals that get smashed up. We will actually be changing our packing in the near future to try and preserve some of these larger crystals.

Right now we have 8 types of salt; the most popular is pure flake. Our smoked salt is awesome – made using Oregon cherry wood and smoked for 24 hours.

So what’s going on with the company as far as future projects?

Next week I’m headed to NY and I have lots of meetings with chefs I think we will be visiting twenty or thirty restaurants. I’m also looking to hire a salesperson out there, New York is potentially our biggest market. I’m really excited to eat at Atera; chef Lightner uses our salt there. Besides that, I want to eat pizza and drink beer at Roberta’s the whole time. I have a feeling it’s going to be too hip for me.

We did two or three Chef Dinners and will be doing some more this summer. It’s right on the coast so the setting is gorgeous. Unfortunately it’s tough to host a dinner out there and we end up losing money. At this point we do it more for fun. We have to get special permits and in some senses it’s probably a really dumb idea with all the curvy, unlit roads along the coast.

We will probably start giving tours in May and they will be open to the public by appointment. Maybe even a three year birthday party, although I doubt we can afford it. It will probably be a bunch of reindeers and a crab corn boil.

As far as salts and books related to salt, do you have any favorites?

I really love French Fleur de sel. We tried a tiny batch of it here in Oregon and it got written up in the Smithsonian. A good read is SALT by Mark Kurlansky – it’s an amazing book that goes through the historical significance of salts and the roles it played in commerce and culture.

 
While I can’t comment on the frequent “off the records” that occurred during our interview, I will say there are lots of exciting things to come from Mr. Jacobsen. Definitely a small Oregon company to watch.
 
 

An Interview with Linda Milagros Violago

Wine lists might scare the shit out of your average person; probably because they weren’t actually designed for a regular person to decipher. Enter the Sommelier, that specialized link between the dining room and the kitchen, who can decipher your desires and expertly pair the flavors of the food with a wine, coordinating the two sides and elevating your dining experience. Especially if the sommelier has a vast knowledge of not just the best wines, but the entire wine process. Someone like Linda Milagros Violago.

Once upon a time a coworker took the time to introduce me to the most amazing pintxos in San Sebastion and where to buy fabulous Basque fashion. Now, several years later and after many hours of online stalking, I was finally able to have a conversation with this very busy lady. We talked about her nomadic nature, what it’s like to travel for your career, natural wines, working a harvest, and the opening of Contra in New York.

 
When did you first decide to travel for your career?

The minute I left Winnipeg, on summer holiday for Vancouver, I decided that was it and I couldn’t go back. I never set out to bounce around, but, I do tend to follow my whims. I’ve been fortunate that people let me do what I’m good at short-term.

 
When did you realize that you wanted to do just wine?

The truth is that for the first ten years of being in service, I hated wine; or at least, didn’t understand it (and I need to understand something in order to like it, or vice versa). At that time there weren’t as many options to learn about wine as there are these days. When I started working service in Vancouver, in the mid 90’s, it seemed like the servers all knew about wine – mainly because there were few “sommeliers” and the more the servers could talk about wine, the more they could sell. That’s when I met the first sommelier who got me to understand wine; with him I woke up and began to like it.

I remember when I first got my sommelier papers in Canada from the ISG (International Sommelier Guild), I was like, “shit, I’m not ready to run a wine program.” When I got back to Australia again, in the late 90’s, I started to get some serious wine positions and realized, “wow, I can just do wine now.” I hit Australia right as the Olympics were coming and I was fortunate to work service in all the best restaurants. After that, I decided that working in America was what I needed: to be exposed to a vast selection of wines. After a month in San Francisco, I was broke and having trouble finding work. That’s when I heard of the opening of Charlie Trotter’s and began working there for the first time in 2002.

 
What was it like working for Trotter? I hear he can be a bit intense.

Everything I have learned is really because of my time there. (Really, everything I know is because of my time there.) It was the most challenging, most professional place I have ever worked: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Every facet of the restaurant is professionalism, from the call for the reservation to the moment the valet retrieves your car. As far as Charlie goes – he’s a very intuitive, intelligent man, who probably understood me better than anyone. I have left and returned four times to work for them (which is unusual; few people are allowed to come back and never more than twice).

Trotter’s throws these epic events, like no other place, where I would meet amazing Chefs. For their 19th anniversary I was assigned to meet Pierre Hermé and Andoni Luis Aduriz (of Mugaritz) at the hotel. I remember being so busy, with a million things to do in the office. And, of course, me — the one employee who can’t speak Spanish — is assigned to pick up the Spanish chef. Sitting in that hotel lobby, hanging with Andoni, I realized there was something about this Chef and his team. I was about to travel for 3 months and was planning to visit Spain; meeting him altered my plans and steered me towards Mugaritz.

 
Linda_Kitchen-PeekYour time at Mugaritz seems longer than anywhere else.

After my meal there, that was it! I asked for a job, decided to learn Spanish and, 9 months after meeting Andoni, we had our first conversation in Spanish. Working in Spain I realized that modern Spanish wines were not my favorite. Andoni’s food is delicate, clean, natural and very austere. So, I felt that the wines should follow the same philosophy. Everyone was talking about natural wines, but when I’d try to tell people about biodynamics and organic, I might as well have been talking witchcraft. So, I decided to just serve it to them and they were enjoying it. I added other foreign wines, sake even, and played with non-alcoholic distillates.

There were sudden differences when going between Trotters and Mugaritz, like the purchasing. Typically, in Chicago, I have one day a week for wine reps, 15 minutes each and 6 wines. This keeps it quick, forcing them to be good at their jobs and no one’s time is wasted. If the wines are good, then chances are, I will buy. One day, the general manager, Martxel Arocena, came to me and gently explained that there is such a thing as la cortesia, “Courtesy, Linda, which you do not have.” In Spain they talk about the weather, ask about your life, but for me it was a waste of time. I just want to taste the wine.

 
Natural wine seems to be a term thrown around quite a bit. How do you describe it?

In Sweden and Scandinavia natural wines are everywhere. There is no consensus on how to define “Natural Wine”. This is a controversial subject. Some people call these wines (no chemicals used in the vineyard, low manipulation, nothing added) “real wines”, but this is implying that conventional wines aren’t real – which begs the question, “What is real?”

I would say Natural Wine is where organic practices are used in the vineyards and no additives like yeast or sulfur are used in the wine processing. What do wine makers add sulfur for? Sulfur is very powerful stuff; it can be used as an antibacterial to kill mold or anything unwanted growing on the vines. It can also be used to stop fermentation, and it’s also a preservative.

 
Natural wine being a very popular emerging trend, is it associated with the amount of younger wines on lists right now?

No, I think it comes back to the fact that the restaurants, wineries, importers and distributors all need to make money. You have to have very deep pockets to sit on older wines – not to mention extensive cellars. The longer you have a wine, the longer you are not making a profit off of it. New restaurants especially are buying what is available and young wines are it.

 
How did you end up all the way out in Dranouter, Belgium, at In De Wulf?

In 2010, Kobe Desramaults invited me out to In De Wulf. When I googled the place it seemed more in the middle of nowhere than even my village in Oiartzun, Spain. Every few months he would drop me a line until, finally, the man that told Kobe about me finally just drove me to the village of Dranouter from Paris to meet him. The ride was really nothing special, but when we got to the village, it was spectacular. The flowers were in bloom as we drove in – a perfect spring day in April – and after eating the fantastic food, I decided to work there.

 
Would you say this was your favorite restaurant owner/Chef to work with?
Kobe Desramaults brought me on because he wanted to change the wine list from conventional wines to natural wines, to go with his approach to food. Sometimes, after work, we would pull the cars out and turn the headlights on the forest and the whole staff would go foraging.

Working with Kobe was by far my best Chef/sommelier experience. Every restaurant should have this. He was so creative during service: if a repeat customer, or someone special, would come to dinner he would just create something so quickly and so amazingly. I would ask him to tell me the ingredients and prep with a five minute heads-up, so that I could find a wine. He was so creative and so fast; he is the kind of chef/patron that anyone hopes for.

 
Contra-NYCWhat are you working on right now?

I’m in NY for the opening of Contra. I met the owners, originally, through mutual friends on FB. We all happened to be in Paris one day, we shared some bad coffee and told stories, and that is how I got the gig at Contra. Fabian Von Hauske Valtierra and Jeremiah Stone are two young chefs who met at Culinary school. When we discussed the restaurant, our conversation was so easy and comfortable, and we just connected. For me, that is important, when you are working closely with someone. So we stayed in touch after Paris and here I am opening Contra with them.

The restaurant will only be offering a prix fixe menu; 5 courses for $55. The menu, as well as two of the by-the-glass wines, will change daily. The real focus of the food will be on what is available in the markets and locally, without too much fanfare – just simple, honest ingredients. The wines are mainly from small producers, using organic farming and minimal interventions. You won’t find a list like Contra’s in very many places in Manhattan.

 
Where are you headed next?

I don’t have anything lined up quite yet; I’m in NY until late November/early December. I suppose I should start freaking out but I’m not. I will be going to Japan to work a short stint during brewing season at a sake brewer but my ears are open. I would really love to work with David Toutain; he is brilliant. I met him when he came to stage at Mugaritz. He’s bouncing around right now and most likely will be opening his own place. Hopefully he reads this – hint, hint.

 
How do you hear about your jobs? Is it networking?

By nature, I am quite lazy. I admit it. I’m not good at marketing myself. Really, I have never had to search very hard, as they have always just seemed to happen. I have been very lucky that people have taken me on to do what I do, for as long as I want. Hence my card title at Contra, Itinerant Sommelier. After working at In De Wulf, I spent 18 months bouncing around in sheer joy. No permanent address and it was fantastic. Then I got a call from The Matchmaker who drove me to Dranouter to come work at Geranium. It just seems to happen like that.

 
Linda_Graffiti-WallAre there parts of the nomadic life that you don’t enjoy?

Unfortunately, I come from a family of hoarders, and, well…I have a lot of shit. All in storage, in three countries and most of it being books. It’s pretty embarrassing. I have one piece of furniture, but it’s been at my friend’s house for 10 years, so I don’t think I can actually call it mine anymore. I always travel with my teddy bear; everything else I could release if I wanted to.

 
Is there anywhere you would settle down?

I have no real plans to settle down, and I doubt it would be in Winnipeg. I know I will have to spend some time there as my parents get older, but I get bored quite easily. I would love for Paris to be my home base. Paris is where I go to hide. When I was in Spain it was so easy to take the TGV for a weekend and just relax, drink coffee, do yoga and spend time with friends.

 
Where is your destination for the perfect meal?

Noma. I’ve been there 7 or 8 times and it is my favorite place. Going there is an experience for me. It’s seeing my friends, and many of the staff who I’ve become familiar with. I always love it especially because, in general, Scandinavian service is very professional, but very relaxed. At any point I can ask anyone on the floor a question and they will know the answer or, in the off chance they don’t, they will find the answer.

 
Do you drink Cheap wine or box wine?

I refrain from talking about “cheap” wine. Not sure of the correct wording to use, but, for example, you wouldn’t ask Andoni if he would work with “cheap” scallops. You’d find another word to get around the economics. Because, if you’re asking if I would ever drink a wine that costs 1$ a bottle (and we can talk about that), then the answer would be a resounding “No”. There was a place where I worked and the wine cost me – per bottle – 1,15€ – or something like that. I cheekily asked if there were grapes in the wine, but the directors of the restaurant did not seem to understand why I was perplexed.

As far as boxed wine goes we will have one (a natural wine from a French co-op) on the list at Contra. The great thing about box wine is that there is never exposure to air, so the wine will remain sound for a long time (barring a huge temperature flux).

 
What exactly is this term I hear you mention, “working harvests”?

I go to the wine vineyards and actually harvest. It’s one thing to read about something in a book versus actually doing it. Originally I wanted to work harvests all around the world. But being a sommelier and working Harvest is very difficult; to take that chunk of time to leave the restaurant, especially since I like to see the entire process, which is 4-5 weeks. Everything from taking the grapes from the vine (which is the least interesting) to working in the winery (which is the most interesting). This is usually an unpaid position for someone like me; similar to staging for a chef. Each winery has very unique steps and different practices; definitely not comparable to reading about it in a book where many steps are missed. At the end of the day everyone is dirty and disgusting and it’s great: the dirtier you are, the harder you’ve worked.

 
Do you think that wine lists should be more approachable or is it solely the responsibility of the servers to direct?

I don’t think people should feel intimidated by a two page wine list or a sixty-five page wine list. There is no great mysticism behind wine; it’s the role of the Sommelier (or in the absence of one, the server) to make the guest feel at ease, and feel good about their choice. Sommeliers should be interactive. And it’s their job to educate the staff on how to have a dialogue with the guests. It doesn’t seem to me that many sommeliers want to take the time to do that for their staff anymore.

 
Any advice for those just getting into the industry?

Never chase the money. I did once and I ended up at a shitty restaurant in Grand Cayman working doubles and serving buttery Chardonnay all day to tourists coming in on the cruise ships. I think that people just starting out need to have more realism and humility, which I am not seeing.

I think it is very important to know the back story to your trade – for instance, these days all the chefs talk about Andoni, Wylie, Rene, etc. – but it seems they don’t know who the great chefs were before them.

Also, it is important to interact with the guest. And to observe: one can learn so much about what the guest is NOT saying, just by observation.

Oh, and work. Work hard. Study hard. Ask lots of questions, always. Keep learning, always. All that pays off in the end – mostly in pride of a job well done.

 
Pet peeves in the industry right now.

Yes – the rising age of technology. Where servers are texting and emailing rather than reviewing their notes for pre-service. Photography has a place as well. I always ask that guests not use their flash as it disturbs the other diners. One night when I was serving I had a raging migraine and a guest snapped a photo with flash right in my face – which was the last thing I needed. I have waited on a table once where the man pulled an iPad out and skype’d the entire meal. And these are Michelin restaurants.

Bloggers and journalists – I am really annoyed by them. There is so much incorrect information out there and everyone is somebody. I treat each guest as though they are important. Several years ago a man came into my job stating he was a journalist. Everyone was running around making special courses and giving him VIP treatment. When I asked where he was a journalist he replied he wrote the sports section for a local paper.

I do love the buzz of service more than anything that I do. I’ve been talking about retring for years now, but I haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up. Someone wisely told me, “You should stop before you say ‘fuck you’ to a guest”.

 
Do you have some worst guest experiences?

When I was working in Grand Caymans on two separate occasions a man actually snapped his fingers at me and another clapped his hands. This doesn’t make me come running – I am not a dog.

When I was waiting in Spain, I had a table of 3 businessmen who asked me where I was from. I replied Canada. They clearly weren’t satisfied and asked, “Where is your passport from?” Canada. “What about your birth certificate?” CANADA. I replied finally I think you are asking where my parents are from. I then left to continue serving when they began to guess each time I returned. Thailand? Vietnam? One asked finally; I replied Philippines and his business partner said, “Oh, well, they are close.” I turned to the man, who was clearly from Spain and said, “Oh, and you are from Portugal? No? Well, they’re close.”

 
I’m sure this is a reoccurring question but do you ever find it challenging being a female in a male dominated industry.

No, the fact that I’m brown has always been the bigger issue. I don’t think I have ever not had access to opportunities because of my gender. To some degree I have always been “other” in my life: the foreigner, the pierced one, the one with tattoos, or the one with short hair, and yes, of course, the brown one. So being “woman” really doesn’t register as much as all of those other descriptors.

 
If you did stop working as a sommelier what would you do?

As of right now be a server, make heaps of money and go back to school. Really, there has never been one thing I have wanted to do all my life. My priority is to feed my soul. I do love service and even more the pre-opening preparations of a restaurant but I also want to stimulate my brain in different ways – maybe save the world?

 
Photos of Linda courtesy of Stephanie Biteau

 

Chef Jason Vincent of Nightwood

Chef-Jason-VincentAn interview with Chef Jason Vincent of Nightwood Restaurant in Chicago, on being a Best New Chef as well as what he looks for in a kitchen team.

 
How long have you been at Nightwood?
I’ve been the Chef here since we opened 4 years ago, this week.
We’re located in Pilsen and are, really, the only nice place around, so it was kind of a gentrification. We knew we didn’t want to be downtown and it’s Chicago, so nothing is that out of the way. I think people hear Pilsen and are like, “where the fuck is that?” But, it is right off the highway. I imagine when they opened Lula Cafe (the original sister restaurant) 12 years ago, in Logan square, it was kind of a similar situation.

 
You recently won an impressive award. Is the award having an affect on your day to day?
Everyone has been really awesome and congratulatory. I’ve wanted this award forever. Winning, to me, means there is more opportunity and that I may not end up being a 50 year old line cook.

It’s been nuts, but I’m grateful to have this giant support system–at home, in my kitchen and my friends, like other Chefs. I am definitely not self-made and appreciate having everyone take time to help me and being able to call on people, like Paul Kahan, for advice.

Also, with it comes new challenges and headaches. Like people referring to me as a brand. That is truly bizarre and has never been a goal of mine.

 
Nightwood-StaffHow would you describe your team right now?
For the most part, my 3 Sous Chefs have been with me from the beginning. One was an unpaid intern who worked his way up from the very bottom. That’s what we’re about here. Everyone starts on garde manger and works all the stations. We don’t hire sous chefs.

 
What do you look for in a new cook and how does your stage system work?
When Nightwood first opened we had all these swinging-dick line cooks with those impressive, been somewhere, resumes. But, attitudes don’t last long in this kitchen. We don’t have that “oui chef” mentality. Most of our interns just show up at the back door and knock. If they don’t cut their hands off and are eager to work, they are hired. We will really let anyone stage. As far as our system goes, you can a work a day or for as long as you want, but, I don’t enjoy not paying people.

We hire cooks who are passionate about food and who have good manners, like using please and thank you, and who just aren’t assholes.

We get these guys who show up and they worked at some fancy place like Alinea for 2 months and they think that their shit doesn’t stink.

For instance, we had a stage who had baked bread at a super nice place, (not mentioning the name). He’s prepping one day and his phone rings and he takes a call during prep. This is not cool. He then explains to the pastry chef that he can get a job anywhere (because he baked bread at this other super nice place). We didn’t hire him.

People like this become nothing but a cancer in the restaurant. I prefer someone who is green. When a cook is staging and one by one my staff comes up to me throughout the night and asks, “are you going to hire this kid?” I say, “I don’t know”, but by the end of the night the answer is definitely no. If they aren’t wanted here I can’t have them. We spend so much time together in this kitchen that we have to enjoy each other’s company. That’s really important. Having these shitheads around does give us someone to talk smack about after they’re gone, though.

 
Do you have a worst stage/best stage memory?
Worst stage: I hired this guy, friend of a friend type deal who just moved here from Texas. We make all our own pastas here, so he’s basically a prep guy. He’s late several times and finally, sure enough, he doesn’t even show up one day. I go to check my email and have one saying, “Hi chef, I got drunk and just woke up in a park and I don’t know where I am.” I replied, “I’m glad you’re OK. You’re fired.”

As far as good stages, the guy making my pasta now is totally great. He has a chemistry background, geeks out on the dough and it’s what makes our pastas so amazing right now.

The last person I hired was from CIA. She graduated same year as me, in ’99 and straight from culinary school took time off from the industry. It was so great to get someone with no bad habits and none of those tainted pre-conceptions

 
Do you think Culinary school was imperative to your career and would you recommend new cooks do a culinary program?
That’s totally a personal thing. I can’t say what another person may need. I needed that type of structure and if you have the money I would do it. I was lucky to have help from my parents. Luckily, I paid off my loans pretty quickly. You do have to know that you’ll get out of culinary school making 9 bucks an hour. I think Culinary school is great because you learn so much in such a compressed amount of time and you get to meet all types of people in the same industry as you.

Really though, a diploma from Culinary school is just someone signing off that you’re not a total idiot.

 
Do you have any major pet peeves in the kitchen like labeling or towels?
No, we don’t micro manage here.

We have this big open kitchen, so washing your hands and sweeping the floor are just common sense. I guess one thing that really bothers me is when someone doesn’t take advice when it’s given.

I had this egg cook for brunch who kept his pans on the piano (this is the ledge of a french top where there is no direct heat). Over and over I kept telling him, “I got an egg cook not cooking eggs. You need to put the freaking pan on the heat!” That’s the type of guy we don’t need in the kitchen. Really pisses me off.

Not everyone is perfect, but this weekend one of my cooks moved up to the hot line on Saturday night. He had the shit kicked out of him. We came and helped him out, but he gave himself a really hard time, saying how he sucked. I told him that’s not how we operate. Anyone can go down and if I’m working next to him and I’m in the shit, he’s going to help me and that’s how our kitchen works. We don’t weed people out by letting them go down.

 
Are there any particular products you really enjoy working with right now?
It’s been a really long winter and a cold spring so we are just getting asparagus in right now. I usually get to Green City Market once a week because, well, everyone is there. I don’t go on Saturdays though. Between the strollers and dogs it’s a freaking shit show.

 
Do you have places you enjoy eating on your days off or do you enjoy cooking at home?
I do like to cook at home, but my wife and I have this place around the corner from us called Fat Rice, in Logan square. It’s a good example of something that has been Americanized, but is still so good. It’s Pacific Islander/Portuguese with lots of salt cod and rice. They are definitely killing it.

 
Grand aspirations or ends goals for your career?
I never know. I always wanted to do shit, you know, like cook dinner at the White House–stuff like that. Right now, I’m cleaning a hanger steak. I want to do that perfectly, listen to a baseball game and play with my kid. Those are all goals.

 
Making it big and being able to change things–what would they be?
There’s so much stuff I want to change, beyond the kitchen, dealing with agriculture. Like changing big chicken farm practices. Societal, like mental health in our country and gun laws. Big stuff that goes beyond the kitchen. The types of things that change the world.

 
Chef-With-PigTrends in the industry right now that piss you off?
Kimchi is the new charcuterie. Back in the day everybody and their mother wanted to do charcuterie and 90 percent of it was just god-awful. Now everyone is doing the same thing to kimchi.

 
What are you reading right now? Are there any particular cook books, websites or blogs that you find inspiration from?
I have tons of cook books, but right now I’m reading Astrance: A Cook’s Book, which is totally beautiful.

As far as inspiration goes, we operate on two trajectories. In one, you want to take it all in, understand and analyze, gather information from books, other restaurants and create something that isn’t necessarily copied, but taken from other places. In the other sense you cut yourself off from everything and let the dish come naturally from you and your skills. I like to think both of those can be a great influence in creating new dishes. Sometimes creating something from your basic knowledge of food is amazing and when you’re done you’re totally like–“I don’t know where the fuck that just came from.”

 
Pack it all up and move to a new City, where are you headed?
There are so many interesting cities.

I’m going to have to go with San Francisco. However, I have always wanted to go back home to Cleveland and there are actually restaurants doing good food there now. But, yes, I’m going with San Francisco.

 
Food moment when you knew this was it?
I didn’t go to culinary school right out of high school. I was an english major in college and got kicked out for drugs. I was really bummed and going to another college, when my mom mentioned culinary school. She said I had been in kitchens since I was 14 and I might as well try it. That’s about the time I saw my first cook book that really blew my mind. It was one of Charlie Trotter’s early books. It was amazing and that was the first time I had seen anything like that.

 

By the end of this interview I found myself wanting to work at Nightwood. It seems like the no bullshit, drop-the-attitude type of kitchen where everyone is there because they want to be. Jason Vincent is the type of Chef that can carry a conversation beyond the ever-present and dominating topic of kitchens to a broader, more worldly scale – proving that not all cooks/Chefs have a one track mind. He’s also humbled and realistic about life in kitchens. He’s well on his way to not branding himself but rather mentoring others and creating good food for many more years.

Jason Vincent is proof that the Best New Chefs awards aren’t just based on how much you pay your PR company. So don’t be scared to cross over to the South side. Go explore the up-and-coming Pilsen neighborhood and have dinner at Nightwood (2119 S Halsted St, Chicago).

Nightwood-Restaurant
 

It’s Not Molecular. It’s Good.

Justin_Woodward
Justin Woodward is the Chef at Castagna on SE Hawthorne, with a cooking background that includes WD-50 in NY and L’Auberge in San Diego, with various other stages in Michelin star kitchens such as NOMA in Denmark and Mugaritz in Spain. If you’re ever annoyed by phony, schmoozing chefs who would rather be seen than cook, then you will love this guy. He’s not really an initiator of small talk so if you ever have the chance, do strike up a conversation with this devoted and quirky workaholic.

 

You were nominated for James Beard Rising Star; were you disappointed that you didn’t make the short list?

No, (shaking his head and smiling) there’s some really stiff competition. I didn’t think I had a chance. A lot of the Chefs who did make the list have way more publicity than me. I’m more interested in the food that is leaving my kitchen. If they were giving the awards based on the food I think I would win without a doubt.

How do you feel about the food scene in Portland?

It’s a great place to eat out. However, I do not see a lot of new places opening doing the quality of food that I appreciate. It would be great to see more vegetable-based menus around town. I enjoy Apizza Scholls as a casual day-off meal, but really in the four years I’ve lived here there isn’t much getting out – I live in this kitchen. Hardly ever see the light of day.

If you could do a stage somewhere in town where would it be?

I would love to stage at a sushi restaurant. I would have liked to work with Hiroshi, but unfortunately that’s not really possible anymore.

Castagna-1As a fairly new Chef to the Portland scene what did you notice about Portland that sets it apart from other places you have been Chefing?

The city is super laid back and that’s part of the reason I moved here. I was really starting to feel agoraphobic in NY. The big city rush feeling is fun but I don’t see myself as a New Yorker for life.

What’s your end goal or your idea of success within your own career?

To be remembered as a great Chef. I want to mentor, as much as I can, to form a large pool of talent. For me, being great means being well-rounded at all facets of my career. Really, just a viable business would be sufficient. I don’t have grander plans of an empire. I’ll probably die on the line.

As a successful or great chef, is there something you would really like to change about the food industry?

I would love to change the way Americans eat. The way I see it, is that the menu at Castagna’s restaurant side is how we should ideally eat. We are a vegetable, herb-driven kitchen. Smaller portions in general, with less focus on meat, less butter, more herbs. I believe there is a better way to eat and all-around less would be better; healthier and more environmentally-friendly. My menu consists of a lot of vegetables and more of my personal preferences of lighter sauces and broths.

Castagna-KitchenDo you have any advice for stagieres who want to come work here?

Just keep showing up. That is really the most important thing.

Ideally, I want to build a kitchen of people who are invested in staying and really becoming a part of Castagna. Almost my entire kitchen is from other places just moving here, but I think that is partly because that’s really the nature of this city right now. It is full of people migrating here.

Do you have a worst stage experience or best stage experience?

The best experience would probably be any stage who shows up twice in one week. As far as the worst – we’ve been pretty lucky as far as drama-free stages go, with the exception of one of the line cooks jumping a sous chef in the locker room a while back. That was pretty ridiculous; needless to say they are both gone now.

As far as inspiration or just keeping up on menus, do you prefer books or the internet? And which are you reading right now?

I burn through books like a smoker burns cigarettes. I can’t even pinpoint what book I’ve just finished, they are all over my house. I use both (books and internet) as resources and right now I like to look at A Life Worth Eating and Ulterior Epicure.

When did you decide to turn more towards modern cooking or the molecular style?

I’m not molecular. The way I see it there are only two types of food — good and bad. The techniques I use stem from classical cuisines, they are not new or strange. I use French, Italian, Spanish, Modern and traditional. Technique isn’t really what matters. My main goal is just to make the food taste better. Just being asked about molecular gastronomy proves that the food we are putting out is misunderstood.

I guess my first real introduction to it was several years ago around 2005. I worked at a restaurant in San Diego called Black Horse. The Chef at the time, who is now heading up Whisk and Ladle, is Ryan Johnston. He was really good friends with Grant Achatz. This is right around the time when Alinea had just opened. He began showing me these techniques Grant had shared with him and it was really an eye opener. I had never seen anything like this.

Justin-PlatingWould you say this was your culinary moment when you knew you wanted to be a Chef and nothing else?

I knew what I wanted since I was ten. When I was working at Black Horse it was the point in my life where I began to fully immerse myself. At the time I was in school full-time, working full-time at a busy restaurant, and training for a ACF competition. I could never stand the thought of sitting at a desk all day. I’m an active person and an adrenaline junkie. I also like the idea of creating something in my head and being able to make it with my hands. All while being amped on the rush of the kitchen.

Isn’t the lure of modern cooking what draws most of the attention to Castagna? Its use of hydrocolloids, alginates and sous vide cooking?

No, we don’t even use that much (he is clearly annoyed with me). Technically, flour is a hydrcolloid. Places like Bent Brick are doing way more of that. I use modern techniques because I see them as a better way, in certain instances, to improve a classical cooking technique.

What we do at Castagna is ask ourselves how can we make this better? What temperature is ice cream at its peak? All the preparation is done with reason. When a product comes through the door it is immediately cared for with the utmost of respect. Starting with its storage to the butchering or break down onto the cooking and finally the plating of the product. Everything is done with intention for the greatest outcome. I do not Nitro or powder something just because it is cool. I do it to a product if it makes the dish better.

Do you have certain farmers that you really like working with? Or a particular product that you are super into?

(No hesitation) Gene’s Beets from Prairie Creek Farm.

I also like Your Kitchen Garden and Viridian.

What are you working on right now with spring quickly approaching?

Lamb bacon. Peas and anise hyssop. The bacon is in the smoker right now. As far as snacks go (these are taste teasers sent out to every guest prior to their meal) a saffron beignet filled with cheese and maybe some wild flowers and poppies.

 
 

If you have yet to check out Castagna you’re definitely missing out. There are two menus: a 4-course for $55 and a 9-course for $95, available Wednesday through Saturday. Don’t be intimidated by price, as this is the type of food worth paying for. Try bringing the kitchen some beer. These Chefs work their asses off and I’m sure it will be appreciated, plus it gives you a reason to pop your head in the kitchen and see what really goes on back there.

 

An Interview with America’s Hottest Chef

Danielle Signore from Castagna sits down with America’s Hottest Chef, Pascal Sauton, to talk about the contest, the picture that won it, and how things are going at Milwaukie Kitchen & Wine

The Hottest Chef
Yes, it’s a silly contest. Industry professionals/supposed adults, hanging their mammary glands out, hitting people up for votes while posing in daisy dukes.

Which brings me to my first question for this year’s winner, the hottest Chef in America, Pascal Sauton.

What did you win?
Absolutely nothing, not even a plaque. (He’s chuckling at the thought of it.)

Did you enter the contest because of John Gorham’s interview about the ridiculousness of it all?
While I completely agree, wholeheartedly on his views–they may have come across, well… in a not so nice way. I entered to have some fun with it. I enjoy cooking for people, but I’m also in the business of entertaining and making people happy. I really thought I would get the 30 votes of people I knew and who were just laughing at me.

Do you think this contest actually helped business?
My business quadrupled overnight. It has been crazy and everyone who comes in is smiling and saying what a great picture. It has actually been really fun. The community here in Milwaukie has been wonderful and accepting. I have regulars that I know; if I don’t see this guy everyday something is wrong.

Did you have to ask people to vote for you?
The NW competition was pretty easy, people voted because they knew me, and had to laugh. After I won I was like, shit, now I want to win the whole thing. So yeah, I went on FaceBook, but really I was enjoying hearing all the buzz from my friends. At one point I thought the Chef from Charleston was going to win and I almost wanted to friend request him. You know, so I could see how he was doing, but I thought that would be a little creepy. The whole time I was just being me having some fun. I tend to really speak my mind–transparent to a default. Sometimes I ruffle a few feathers but in this instance being me was very entertaining to everyone.

If you could have chosen your top pick who would it have been?
That stunning pastry Chef from Denver in the shorts. Definitely not me–the fat old guy with a good sense of humor.

Will you enter next year with a more risqué shot? Possibly more full frontal?
No. No, I’m not allowed, because I won. The way I see it, quit while you’re on top.

Have you considered submitting the picture to PBR for their Portland ad campaign?
They actually contacted me and sent us a huge gift basket with shirts, glasses and all types of stuff.

Who were your accomplices in setting up this picture?
As soon as it was decided that I wanted to have some fun with this I called Erica of Pitchfork and told her we had to do this quick, if we wanted to meet the deadline. Dina Avila took the picture. I’d met her a few weeks before and we really hit it off. I thought she was a great girl. Together we had a whole bunch of props, like silly hats and stuff. In the end we just decided to do something simple.

The objects in your picture: PBR can, trophy, corn dog, camels and a shun knife. Were they representing your favorite things?
Not really. It was all setting the stage for an amusing picture. I sent my friend Erica, of Pitchfork, to get me a PBR from the corner store, because I feel like it is the Portland cook’s beer of choice. She came back with the beer and all excited about what she had found, a corn dog and said it was perfect.

The shun knife was just the one we used to cut the corn dog. I’m not big on really expensive knives. The other day, I had an OCI student bring in this super nice hand forged 500 dollar knife. I stopped what I was doing and told him to put it away before I drop it and he sues my ass. I think it’s better to really master your trade before spending that type of money on a knife. We have a saying in France, “there are no bad tools, just bad workers”. Lastly, the trophy is from winning the ‘Lamb Jam’ last year, and it seemed just gaudy enough to fit in the picture.

I’ve got to ask: do you normally rock it bare back under your Chef coat?
No, I don’t like the Wolfgang look. I don’t really even wear chef whites often. I prefer regular clothes and an apron. I really like to have fun in the kitchen. We’re super organized and get stuff done well, but we enjoy ourselves, too. After 35 years of being a Chef, there comes a point where you need to enjoy yourself a little.

On a side note, how is it going over here at your new place?
It has been incredible. The community is really supportive and we have regulars whom I see everyday. The Mayor is kick-ass and I’m even on the Board of Commissioners. We have been so busy that on Thursday night we had a full dining room, all while we were prepping for a catering event for 200. We did this with one single convection oven and a couple induction cook tops. We still managed to laugh all day. I did all this with a couple of students. I have such a wonderful team, including my daughter–who hasn’t had a day off in a long time. For example; the other day, at brunch, they ran out of gravy. It was so busy that my waitress, who you see prepping right now, went in the kitchen and made the gravy. This makes me really happy.


What kind of things are you selling at this location?
All the specialty products you see on the shelves are mostly local and things I like to use. The wines along the back wall are mostly French. I like when people come in and ask which wine is good. I say, “All of them. I chose them for that reason.” We also offer cooking classes and now we’re open for dinner. We’re really trying to draw in the community and make it a place for all types of people to come.

 

Pascal Sauton, of Milwaukie Kitchen & Wine, representing Portland as the hottest chef in America, humbly accepts his prize of nothing except making people smile and putting some extra diners on a quest to Main Street, Milwaukie to try his food. An absolute pleasure to meet a Chef who is serious and devoted, but still has time for a little bare chested, corn dog fun.

 

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