Category Archives: Interviews

A Conversation with James Mark

IMG_7363I am a big fan of north. By far one of my favorite restaurants in Providence, the food is always deliciously unexpected. So when I got
the chance to talk with the restaurant’s owner and chef, I was more than a little excited. James Mark is impeccably talented at bringing together flavors from around the world and crafting ideas that are familiar yet new. But he wasn’t always the radical new chef he is today.

“I was very picky when I was younger, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t eat a lot of the things I liked,” he told me. “One of the rules in my house was that I could eat whatever I wanted, but I had to make it myself. If I wanted French Fries, but I had to make the French fries myself. We didn’t buy anything in a bag. I could have pizza as an after school snack, but I had to make the pizza. We never had delivery or prepared foods, no canned soup or canned vegetables.”

This was the beginning of James’ interest in food that would later grow into a life of hard-work in what he says “a very tough industry.” Growing up in New Jersey, James recalls being fascinated with food, although the food he ate as a kid was mostly hamburgers. Eating Chinese food in Chinatown every week was never a fun experience. His parents tried to get him to taste everything, but he just didn’t want to. Eventually, they sat him down, gave him a fork, ordered him the one or two dishes he liked, and talked around him.

IMG_7352As a young kid not even yet a teenager, he read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. “To my generation especially, it was a very important book. It very much opened, for a lot of us, what a life in a kitchen could be like. The idea of this pirate-crew kitchen mentality of tough-guy-whatever is incredibly appealing.” James remembers a particular story in the book involving Bourdain’s parents taking him and his brother to France. His parents would go to fancy restaurants, attempting to bring their kids, only to hear that the kids really wanted hamburgers. Eventually Bourdain’s parents got fed up and left the kids in the car with some comic books, while the parents ate inside. This upset Bourdain; he wondered what was going on in the restaurant that he couldn’t be part of. To protest against his parents, Bourdain started to eat everything.

The next time James went to Chinatown after reading the book, he realized his parents were essentially plopping him down and ignoring him. They even talked Chinese around him (a language he doesn’t speak) and told him what he would eat. Inspired by Bourdain, James outdid his parents by eating everything they wouldn’t eat. It was, as James put it, “A social power struggle.”

After reading Kitchen Confidential, being excited and scared by the flavors of Chinese food, and always having cooking as a prominent part of his life, James started cooking professionally. On the cusp of his fourteenth birthday, he began working at McCormick & Schmick’s, the first of many restaurant jobs. He worked at a New Jersey branch first, before coming to Providence to attend Johnson and Wales University. He then moved to Charlotte for a year, opening another branch of McCormick & Schmick’s. In total, he worked with the business for 3 1/2 years. “It was longer than I should have worked there, but it was a good job for me at first. It was a very busy restaurant, not a great level of cooking, but it was busy and that taught me certain skills.”

IMG_0343Next, he headed to North Wales in Great Britain for an internship abroad at Maes-y-Neuadd. It was a hotel/restaurant with 15 rooms and 30 seats in the restaurant. “It was very…different than anything I’d done before,” James said. “Only three guys worked there, plus a dishwasher, and I was one of them. It was very high-pressure and I was responsible for a lot. You had to write a brand new menu everyday and there was a lot of classic stuff, like terrines, which I had never done before. It was the first time I baked bread, the first time I’d worked with chocolate, the first time I planted and picked a vegetable. It was also the first time I’d understood all about the food before it comes through the backdoor of the restaurant. The kitchen also had a garden which was an acre and a half, two acres. I worked five days a week in the kitchen and one day at the garden. Everyone lived in a staff house at the bottom of the mountain and it was a very good, very intense experience.”

Once the internship was over, he came back to Providence to start school again. After getting the baking bug at Maes-y-Neuadd, he began work as a night baker at Maxie’s in North Smithfield, RI. According to James, wholesale bakeries are “all about the numbers” and Maxie’s didn’t make enough to support its staff. While he was working there, the bakery closed and James headed off to work at L’Epicurio, located where Aspire is currently. He worked there for the rest of college. In an exclusive Providence Monthly article in 2012, he wrote that the job could “Easily be considered my wilderness years.” Strangely enough, this would be where the north team started to come together. Jenn Wittlin, north’s current front of house manager, worked at L’Epicurio as a cook. During this time he met  Mike Lawyer and Tim Shulga who came to cook at L’Epicurio. James now describes them as his “college buddies”. They became very close friends and Mike and Tim are now north’s head chefs.

IMG_7377Once L’Epicurio closed and James had finished college, it was time to leave Providence. Seven years ago, the Providence restaurant scene was very different and he was tired of everyplace he worked at closing. In short, it wasn’t working out. After reading a New Yorker article about David Chang, he fell in love with everything Chang talked about. Mark describes him as “really prolific, a really smart guy.” He wanted to work for this man. Chang was preparing to open Ko, his third Momofuku restaurant, and the concept immensely appealed to James. The idea behind it? 12 seats and a focus on the cooks, an open kitchen with diners seated on stools close enough to the chefs that every element of preparation would be visible. James said, “There were only sushi counters before this. Now there’s restaurants like Atera, Blanca; it’s become a thing. It’s almost passed being a thing and less are now being opened.”

James applied for a job through Craigslist, but because Ko wasn’t open yet, he got a stage [unpaid internship] at Noodle Bar. He felt completely comfortable with the fast moving nature of the restaurant and was promoted to work at Ko. He worked there for two days before realizing he wasn’t very good. He was demoted to morning dishwasher which was, in some ways, discouraging. “I knew I was f—king up, I knew I was not ready for what they needed, so it was a relief in a lot of ways.” He then started from the ground up, “Learning to cook again in their style: it was harder than anything I had done prior with very long hours, but it was also a very beautiful moment in my life. Intense periods of your life are really when you learn things, it’s really when you come to terms with things. To see yourself improve skill-wise because you’re doing something 15-16 hours a day, six days a week, that’s awesome.”

IMG_0336Nine months later, talks of a Momofuku bakery surfaced. At the time, the party department was in the basement of Ko. James’ had baking experience from Maes-y-Naued and Maxie’s and had even baked bread for Ko staff meals, so he began as Momofuku’s bread baker. James said “I can’t say what I should or should not have done, but it was a very important lesson for me because I did not do well in that capacity.” With so many expectations and only just getting a handle on doing well at Ko, the job didn’t work out. James had only shaped and kneaded bread, never actually mixed it. After one year of going into work at 10:30 at night till 4 or 5 in the afternoon and working by himself in a dark restaurant, he was intimidated and depressed. It wasn’t working out financially for them and he wasn’t happy creatively. The time had come to leave New York. With not much money left, he headed back to Providence to meet up with Mike who similarly wanted a break from his job in Cleveland. They stayed at Tim’s house and planned to go hiking for a while. They only lasted a week.

Mike headed back to Cleveland and James started working with Tim at The Red Fez. With complete creative freedom, he became the restaurant’s late night cook, doing whatever he wanted from 9 pm to 2:30 am. Aside from potential talks of buying the restaurant with Tim, the biggest thing he got out of it was that it led to another job. He and Tim were big fans of Nicks on Broadway’s brunch. He noticed that they didn’t make their own sausages. James had recently gotten into making hot dogs and sausages as part of the late night menu at The Fez and so he brought Derek Wagner, executive chef of Nicks, some sausages to sample. James asked Derek if he wanted him to make some sausages and maybe some english muffins and biscuits too. He started working part-time at Nicks, just a couple days a week. Once Derek offered him full-time hours, James said yes and left The Fez. He worked at Nicks for 2 1/2 years.

“Working at Nicks was a really cool part of my life. That restaurant changed a lot while I was there. I’m very proud to say that I was a very important part of it. It went from a place that brought in filets of salmon and sirloins to a place that was suddenly butchering 200 pounds of whole fish a week and half a cow every couple weeks. We really pushed the butcher program and what ‘local’ meant. I’m immensely indebted to Derek for allowing me that time.” It marked a lot of accomplishment for James: not only did he grow as a better cook, it was also the first time he successfully built a bread program in a restaurant.

He had heard rumors that Ama’s (a West Side restaurant located in Luongo Square) was for sale. After tracking down the owner, he awkwardly asked if he could buy the restaurant. Six months later, a deal was struck. “We really got by on the skin of our teeth.” With under $50,000 spent mostly on equipment and ingredients, north was opened.

Opened in late summer 2012, north’s original menu was very small and quite different from today. “I personally cook here a lot less than I used to. Mike and Tim are the chefs of the restaurant now.” The format however, is the same. The food is all meant to be shared, just how James likes to eat. There are no large pieces of meat or minuscule garnishes meant for one.

IMG_7362Another important detail is that everything is under $15 (except the Almost Boneless Fried Chicken; a mammoth, deep-fried, sausage stuffed, $38 plate meant for 2-4). “I didn’t want to be an expensive restaurant, I wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant.” Unlike many other nearby restaurants, north is open seven days a week from 5:30 till midnight. And you won’t find any standard late-night sandwich-fare here. A must for the restaurant is the quality of product, explains James. He says the food is very, very seasonally driven; aside from pork legs from upstate New York and herbs in the winter, everything comes from Rhode Island. The menu is filled with local scallops, cabbage, squid, beats, chicken, and more.

In addition to focusing on prices, long hours, and quality, they also pay careful attention to music and service, which I can attest to. On a recent night, the server answered every question with precise detail, but not to the point of redundancy. The soundtrack was made up mostly of Beck, totally fine by me, and was just loud enough to be perfectly coherent, not so loud as to drown out conversation.

With these values in mind, James (with help from his friends) has grown north into a neighborhood standby just trying to dish out a “restaurant experience” as he puts it. “In the past, it’s always been a technical thing: ‘We have the most proficient cooks in the world and they can do things no one else has thought of, but we’re flying in ingredients from around the world.’ Now the level of cooking globally has improved and the advent of the Internet has made it so that ideas are being shared constantly. So the technical side of cooking, while still very important, isn’t enough of a differentiator between restaurants anymore.”

What differentiates north? Dishes unlike anything else you can find in Providence. From wintry cabbage to seared beef heart, fresh scallops to lightly charred beets, and roasted chicken ramen to fried chicken, the food here is truly unique.

IMG_7376 copySumming up his experience cooking, James said something that really stuck with me. “I’ve got a lot of good memories, a lot of terrible memories about cooking. I’ve spent a lifetime, over a decade, of really working hard in this industry. There are some really beautiful aspects to it and some really awful aspects. But at the end of the day, I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Good thing too, Providence is all the better for it.

My Conversation with Derek Wagner

IMG_0278Derek Wagner doesn’t speak about local food as if it’s something that only a few elite chefs can accomplish. He talks about it as if it’s something he truly cares about, something he truly believes is the key to creating a healthy, sustainable future for Providence.

As I chatted with Derek for nearly an hour, it became evident that the Nick’s on Broadway chef knows his stuff. He opened Nick’s when he was 24, an age that would have been scoffed at by veteran chefs  just a few years ago, but is now becoming more and more common. Fast forward 13 years and Nick’s has grown from 18 seats to 55, now located at 500 Broadway still on the now hip and happening West Side of town. But, to find out how his culinary journey began, you’ll have to rewind farther back than Broadway.

“What inspired me to get into cooking is my family,” said Derek. “I come from a big family, so from a very young age dinner and everything that went into it was always such an experience.” He recalls his mom making everything from scratch, including fresh baked bread. The youngest of five kids, he often found himself hiding from his siblings in the kitchen or simply being intrigued by its sounds and smells. Platters of holiday cookies and and banana bread fresh from the oven made up the aroma and excitement that filled his family’s kitchen.

A pivotal memory is his grandfather’s ritual cooking Sunday dinner for the entire family, including his seven kids. Derek lived a few blocks away from his grandparents, so his family was usually the first there. He remembers being with his grandfather as he cooked a spread for twenty people every Sunday. The buzz and energy his grandfather had while roasting a chicken or turkey radiated through the kitchen. Even with all this enthusiasm around food he says, “I never thought, all the way up through high school, of doing it professionally. But, it was always something that had a very positive influence on my life.”

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In high school, he kept himself more than a little busy.  “I was trying to do as much as I could.” Not only was he working to get good grades and scholarships, he was also in a band, playing sports, and an Eagle Scout.

When it came time for Derek to decide what he wanted to do with his life, he was not planning on being a chef.  His plans were either scientific (“Science, engineering, something in that vein,”) or military (“I was going to go into the military. My dad was in the military, my brother went into the military, my grandfathers were in the military.”) In the end, Derek was ready to join the military and had actually been appointed to go to a specific school. But, he decided to become a chef. “It was something I really loved and enjoyed, it was something I found very meaningful, and I just decided to change gears at the last minute.”

Eventually, Derek came to Providence and opened Nick’s on Broadway. In February, Nick’s will be 13 years old. What was once a tiny neighborhood restaurant has grown into one of the most acclaimed spots in Rhode Island. They serve three meals a day, Wednesday through Friday.  From home fries to tasting menus, they cover a wide range of food for a wide range of budgets. It is important to Derek that the restaurant accommodates those who want a quick drink and some snacks while also catering to those who want to indulge in pre-reserved $125, nine course tasting menus.

For their a-la-carte dinner menu, they serve a simple but eclectic menu. A soup, a salad, cheese and/or charcuterie, and shellfish on the half shell make up the list of starters. For entrees, there’s typically a red meat, a poultry, two fish/seafood, and a vegetarian option. The Chef’s Choice (tasting menu) dinners revolve around altogether new dishes which allow Derek to get even more creative. These tasting menus started as off-the-cuff meals designed for people looking for something more challenging but as regulars came back for more, Derek got serious about the new concept. While he likes the impromptu approach, he also enjoys seeing the dishes reincarnate into something more complete.

Derek was quick to go into great detail on what exactly these dinners involve. The current tastings being served feature a bit of both, starting with a one or two bite snacky plate. Rotating soups will show up; turnip-apple-onion-parsley one week, celery root-pumpkin the next. Shellfish may follow in roasted and chilled form with different condiments. Textures will be played with; no meat, starch, veg here. A small bite of something crunch-salty-sweet-tangy might lead into a rich broth followed by a “salady” course that could either be a tartine, or charcuterie with crusty bread and jam. Next up is seafood with risotto or lentils, then fish with crispy skin, onto red meat (or even fish with a meat sauce) and so on, until the meal climaxes and maximum bliss is achieved. The four courses usually end up being seven and the nine courses twelve or thirteen with the unexpected taking center stage.

Some nights these tasting menus are being consumed by 30% of the diners, other nights 70%, and sometimes every table has ordered it. Derek would love to nix a-la-carte and switch to only tasting menus because of the flexibility and the gratitude people allow him by letting him cook them anything he wants. A perceived level of pretension comes with it thanks to some people making it feel vey stuffy and preachy, which is not what he wants. To find a line between the two extremes, the regular menu has shrunk although there are still many choices. All three menus (a-la-carte, four course tasting, and nine course tasting) continue to evolve all the time. Gone are the days of first course, main course, and dessert that lined their original menu. The major factors in creating the menus is not bringing the price point to a level where it’s inaccessible and always keeping it fresh.

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Derek doesn’t want his food to be pigeonholed into a single cuisine, either. He wasn’t jumping to tell me about New American food or the way he serves salmon. He was more interested in describing how he focuses on simple, seasonal food or how sourcing local scup is more important than giving diners fish that isn’t native and that they already know.

When I asked Derek how he would describe the type of cuisine he cooks, he told me that it’s hard to pin down. “We’re not doing a specific ethnicity. It’s not just Italian or French or Vietnamese. But if I had to narrow it down to a particular style or genre I would say freshness, simplicity, and seasonally focused. We do very vibrant food that has a lot of influence from other cultures, mostly rustic French and Italian but with other South American and Asian influences as well. We use New England ingredients and filters because of the way the seasons change. The temperature as well as what’s available is also a really huge filter that I work through.”

A favorite ingredient? “A lot of people ask me what my signature dish or my favorite thing to cook is and that’s really tough, to have one thing that would define you. Cooking is such an inspirational and evolving thing for me. I’m still so enamored by all the different things that are constantly changing.” However, he did tell me that he’s been interested in butchering of late. “For the last few years I’ve been really immersing myself. Because of the adherence of sourcing as much stuff from local farms and fisherman, I’ve been forced to take in unprocessed products that I’ve had to learn how to process.”

He feels very serious about working with these once-living animals. “I have a very no waste policy especially when it comes to a living animal. I think beyond not wanting to be wasteful there’s a reverence that goes into consuming something that was once living.  I feel that I have a duty to do something as wonderful as possible with every little bit.” This fascination has led to lots of new dishes. He’s expanded the charcuterie from not just meat but to seafood as well and he’s created dishes with the animal’s heads, collars, bones, and organs rather than just using a popular cut.

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Inspiration can come in all shapes and sizes. “It could come from anywhere. Because the seasons are so harsh here in New England, the food landscape changes drastically which is really fun and challenging. From an artistic standpoint, the scripts are constantly changing so you’re forced to change your menus which keeps it evolving.” If it’s the beginning of October and a farm sends him a bushel of pumpkins, he’ll immediately start looking for a way to utilize them. He looks back at what they may have done last year, what worked and what didn’t, what they started working on, and what they plan to pick up on.

Ideas don’t always come from success, though, in fact they often come from failures. Maybe he’s not happy with the texture. Perhaps the flavor isn’t working. A dish may function once, but making it many times over many days in a restaurant kitchen might not work with 35 people ordering it all at the same time. “You can’t just write menus in a vacuum, you have to right them in context with other dishes on the menu, in context with an entire kitchen and the flow of service, in the flow of an entire week.”

Local restaurants never fail to keep Derek passionate, either. I asked him to name a few. New Rivers (“The past owner was an early inspiration and I’ve become great friends with Bo,”) and Chez Pascal (“I think they do a great job of making it a very warm experience and I love what Matt is doing with the sausages,”) are two that he loves. “I love James at north. He worked at Nick’s for three years and I was really excited when he opened his restaurant. What he and his team are doing is very different from what’s being offered anywhere else.”

At the end of our conversation I asked Derek if he could sum up Nick’s in one sentence, not a particularly easy task. “Wow, you hit me with the ringer at the end!” he said, jokingly. He paused for a moment. “What we try to do here…” He stopped for a second more before doing just what I hoped: outlining what he strives for in the restaurant. “We try to create beautiful, delicious, very authentic food, beverage, and service that’s balanced, that’s interesting, that’s thoughtful, but above all else authentic and wholesome. At the end of the day, I want to create the best product that I can create. We’re not trying to be better than anyone else, we just want to do the best we can do. My ultimate goal is to continue to get better every day.” When people leave here and I ask them what they like the most and they can’t answer me…Then I know we’ve hit home.”

Note: Since interviewing Derek, I recently had the chance to have my first dinner at Nick’s and it was incredible. From the attention-to-detail on the part of the waitstaff to the excellent food being put out by Derek and his team, the neighborhood vibe to the relaxed pace, a meal at Nick’s is an insight into local, fresh, and tasty. With the generous portions and amuse-bouches, you’ll definitely go away full and satisfied. You’ll be left with a memory of an exquisite meal and a chef with raw talent.

Ten Questions with a Chef: Matt Gennuso (Chez Pascal)

Whether you’ve sampled a cheese plate, feasted on a slow roasted half duck, or snacked on the classic onion soup gratinee or perhaps the escargot, Chez Pascal is sure to please any avid Providence foodie. With it’s spin on classic French bistro cuisine, Chez Pascal mixes a more than comfortable bar with an intimate dining room. A cozy corner of the restaurant, The Wurst Kitchen, serves small dishes and sausages which are also available for take-out at The Wurst Window. With a chance to interview Matt, I was excited. A chance to shadow the kitchen on a Friday night? I couldn’t say no and I’m glad I didn’t. Matt has become a well-known chef in Providence and promotes buying local through his restaurant.

Matt cooks the delicious food along with a small crew of skilled chefs while his wife and business partner, Kristin, manages the front of the house making sure everyone is welcome.  Below you can read an edited version of the 30 minute conversation Matt and I had (I also snapped the photos) covering Matt’s burger days, his inspiration, sausage making, the concept behind working with local farmers, and much, much more.

What inspired you to get into cooking?

Perhaps like you, I started watching the first cooking shows. It was a program on PBS and it was a show that would highlight different regions and it would go into restaurants and the chefs would do demonstrations. I remember trying to make a few of the recipes from what I saw on TV.  It was called the Great Chef series. So I’d started watching that and, maybe like you, liked to cook but didn’t think it was a career choice.IMG_7106-web copy

And then when I was in high school, I worked at a place that a lot of high school kids worked at and it was called The Red Rooster, sort of a ’50s style drive-in where it was all short order and I worked the grill station; just burgers. It was a place that other high school kids worked at, and my friends worked at, too. It was just a place I’d go to, I got paid and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t like “Ugh, I gotta go to work today”. That’s what anytime I had worked in restaurants was like; I enjoyed it, so I continued with it. I went to URI for a little while and that just wasn’t the sorta place that suited me as far as what I wanted to learn and how I wanted to learn. So then I went to cooking school and once I decided to do that, I realized “Okay, this is what I’m gonna do and I’m gonna work really hard, and set goals for my self at that point”.

I then went to Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park New York and did a two year program there. I look at what we do [when cooking] as more of a trade, it’s to learn a skill much like people who are mechanics, electricians.  It’s hands on and as far as how I learn it is by seeing it and doing it. You can read cookbooks, but if you don’t understand the basic techniques it doesn’t mean anything. It’s like if you read a book about plumbing, I don’t know what they’re talking about. You have to know the basics and have a good foundation. Luckily I had always cooked, so when I went to school I had a good basic foundation of cooking and decent knife skills, so then I could focus on other things I didn’t know about and not get bogged down by the basics in the school, because it was a quick program and it was pretty intense and at that point, I wasn’t there to goof around, I was there to get as much as I could out of it.

So each place I worked at, the skill level increased. Then,  there was an opportunity to work at a place, pre-school, called The Stonehenge, in Ridgefield, CT, in ’92, their cuisine was very classic French and always had a great reputation.  It’s different than what we do, because that style back then was more painted plates with different colored sauces. It’s not what we do, but it was there that I learned the basics of that style of cooking, that sauce making, stock making, really working from raw ingredients. All the other places I worked at were just line cooking, you just produced food. You never really saw where it came from, whereas this was the first place that I saw, this is how you make a sauce, this is how you make a soup, as opposed to other jobs, the soup was just already made and you went from there. It was a great opportunity because I was still young and I worked with older cooks and they saw this kid wants to work hard and they taught me as much as could, as much as I wanted. From there I went into school.

How many restaurants have you worked at?

Probably about 10.  And they were in New York City, Oakland, CA, Holland for a little while, Westport, and Boston, so I got to move around, but tried to commit time in each place, so just going into a place for 6 months, you’re not going to learn anything, not enough.

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How would you describe the style/cuisine that you cook at Chez Pascal?

So, as you may or may not know, we bought this place 12 years ago and it was Chez Pascal, so it had French influences. Pascal’s [the chef/owner] food was very classic and we knew coming in that this might not be the type of food and restaurant I wanted to open, but I was more interested in serving local food, utilizing what’s available at the time. So, whatever cuisine it is, that’s what I wanted to do. If you want fish form Japan, you can get that in 2 days now, but I think people are getting back to that there’s no point in doing that, even though we’re a French restaurant and there are sort of traditional.

We use the idea of French food as an influence. It’s like reading a book; you get ideas and then you go from those ideas and you alter them to suit what you have available and also time of year, seasonality, all that stuff; Knowing the people who grow the food and making relationships with them and then ordering food, based on what they have and making something out of it. As opposed to me saying, “This is what I want at this time of year, so I can do this dish”. Some people do that, but I like to just order food and then figure out what the heck I’m gonna do with it. You should go, see what’s available, what looks best, and try to come up with food based on that. The idea [behind Chez Pascal] is to give the customer something they could do, but might not have thought of doing that way, it gives them something to think about.IMG_7054-web copy

What are some of the local vendors you buy from?

Dianna from Arcadian Fields is primarily where we get our tomatoes. I like what she calls her “teenage” lettuce. We also get her cucumbers, sometimes. There are guys from White Barn Farm, out of Wrentham. Lang Water Farm, another farm a little bit north of here, in Easton. These are people I met through other farmers that have then broken off to open there own places. They’re young and they’re passionate about what they do, and they understand what we’re looking for and those are people that we like to do business with. There’s also Pat’s Pastured, we get his chickens. Schartner’s Farm, Shy Brothers…I mean there’s a huge, huge group of people that we buy from.

Is the majority of your ingredients bought locally?

Now, yes. In the winter, it’s not as easy because there’s not as much availability, but right now, I mean a majority of the products are. The hardest items are still meats. Meats are the biggest challenge to continuously keep and the prices are astronomical for the local producers and what causes that is the high demand at the markets, so their retail value is high. So we have to source elsewhere in order to produce a product that’s still good, still a natural product, but within reason for what our price point should be.

What is your favorite ingredient to cook?

It’s gonna depend on the time of year. So as far as using seasonal food, through the winter we’re seeing nothing [locally] but root vegetables; turnips, parsnips, potatoes…the stuff that farmers can hold. Cabbages, rutabagas.  So for us, as soon as we see asparagus, we’re so excited, so that’s our focus. As soon as we start to see other Spring vegetables we forget about asparagus, and we can’t wait to see strawberries and blueberries.  All the brazing greens, like turnips, but then we can’t wait to see corn and tomatoes, which we’ve seen now, and then in the Fall, we’re gonna be so sick of tomatoes and corn, we want to see some of those hearty vegetables again. It cycles through, so there is no one thing in particular. We can’t wait to see Striped Bass and Bluefish, as far as seafood.  Softshell crabs people get excited about, but they’re not local, they’re from Maryland, but that’s a good sign that we are into Spring and people do love them. Into the Fall, we’ll start to see some pheasants, but that’s all stuff coming out of Vermont, it’s something that’s available year round, since they raise birds year round. The food cycles through the seasons, so it definitely depends on what time of year it is and what we are looking to see.IMG_7083-web copy

Would you ever cook a menu that doesn’t change seasonally and is the same all year?

I would be completely bored. I think it’s boring for the customers and I understand that people think, “This dish is great!”, but there is other stuff people can try and like. We always have onion soup, and we always have escargot, because you have to think about it from a business point, too. If you are a customer and it’s something you like and enjoy, then what’s the big deal to leave it? And there are certain things like tomatoes, when tomatoes are done, they’re done and that’s too bad. Asparagus; we have it for one month and it’s gone. Yeah, you can get it from California, Peru, and Jersey, but that’s not the point. There are certain things that that’s it and people understand it. Our customers start to realize that understanding. We have regulars who come in all the time, they want different things, otherwise they get bored and then your cooks get bored. I’ll get bored. I’ve been back there for 11 years cooking, if I see the same thing, it’s not interesting.

What is one memory of cooking that you’ll never forget?

There’s a couple. I remember my grandmother eating asparagus on toast sandwiches with butter and we used to make fun of her because we thought it was gross. She had her own asparagus patch and made her own bread, so she would pick the asparagus. I look back, thinking, “She knew what she was doing,”. It doesn’t get any better than that.

One cooking memory which I don’t think I’ll forget was in California. It was a busy night and we were steaming fish, so when you work on the line, pretty much everyone is working together to put the food up together. And so I’m steaming this fish and I forgot to even check if there was water in the steamer, the water evaporated and the burners are full blast and wound up just totally toasting all the fish. There was smoke and the fish was horrible. I didn’t realize it until I went to go pick up this dish. It wasn’t one, it was like four going to different tables and it was ruined. It was a terrible mistake and the chef was freaking out. I created a huge problem, because not only did I make a mistake because I was careless and not paying attention, but I affected other cooks who had to redo all their dishes. Needless to say it was a rough night, but again the way we look at it here is, “It’s not the end of the world, we didn’t kill anyone, it’s just food, you made a mistake, and you’ll never do it again.” But I remember going home and the sous chef came by my apartment and told me “Don’t worry about it, it happens”. It was the coolest thing because he went out of his way knowing that I had a bad night. For the next year, the joke was “Who is going to run the steamer out?” because it had happened again, not to me, but other cooks would do it so then it became this continuous thing about who was going to mess up the steamer this time. So something like that you don’t forget.IMG_7092-web copy

What is a dish on the menu now that you can explain how you were inspired to make?

The easiest to explain is tomatoes. We’re pretty particular about them. I think we really want to let them speak for themselves, so we try to keep it as simple as possible, but not so simple that you’re like, “Oh, I could do this at home”. We think about different textures, different flavors. One dish that we do in the Wurst that we love is the Hot Link BLT. It’s our smoked pork sausage and the BLT part is a chopped BLT: chopped iceberg, our own bacon, tomatoes and we use aioli, which is garlic mayonnaise that gets mixed in a bowl, and put on top of the sausage.  I had had that at a place my grandmother took me too, where the chef took a toasted pita and put bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo in the pita. I never would have thought to do a BLT that way, but if you think about it, in every bite you get a little bit of everything as opposed to a traditional BLT where you have sliced tomato, bacon, leaves of lettuce. But the pita caught all that mayonnaise, that tomato juice, and it was really good. So again, you want to think about different textures, flavors, what you can put on a spicy dish to help cool your mouth down, without having to drink water. The idea is how, if you eat everything together, it’s going to taste, as opposed to putting a silly carrot here and a thing there. So, if we’re doing a steak and we put the bacon jam on there, the idea is not that you eat the bacon jam all at once, it’s that the bacon jam will melt over it all and you get a little bit of bacon jam in each bite.

Let’s talk about the Wurst.

So we started with the cart, and that was where we were making condiments, chili, sauerkraut. But we bought the hot dogs because we really didn’t have the capability to make them. Then we had the truck, so we could do our sausages, meatloaf, pastrami, but at that point, we were still buying hot dogs.  Once we started The Wurst Kitchen, we had a whole room where we make the sausages.  We put a homemade smoker in the kitchen. We can do much larger volume and that’s the key, it has to be enough to support it, you can’t say you are making your own hotdogs, but constantly run out. We had to invest in stuff so we can make larger volume. So now for the past 2 years, we haven’t bought any hot dogs, everything is made here.

More about Chez Pascal in their website http://chez-pascal.com/

5 Questions, 1 Chef: Anh Toan Ho

Welcome to 5 Questions, 1 Chef, a new interview series where I sit down with one chef to ask five questions. This is the first interview, but I hope to do many more. 

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Cooking with Toan

I recently had the chance to talk and cook with a Vietnamese chef, Anh Toan Ho. He’s the chef and owner of the restaurant Mi Xao in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, where he serves up Vietnamese food his way. I learned how to cook lobster rolls, pan-seared scallops, steamed mussels,  seafood stir-fry, grilled ribs, grilled corn on the cob and more and it was all delicious. I learned a lot about food while cooking with him, for example his way of using a few ingredients to create something amazing. This interview gives a peek into what I learned. We talked about his favorite ingredient, his style of cooking, and his inspiration. Read on for an inside look at a talented chef.

What inspired you to get into cooking?

Probably because I love to eat food. My grandmother was a really good cook. My grandfather belonged to the royal family, so he was a picky eater, but my grandmother made all kinds of food and it was so good. I loved to help her and I started cooking with her.

How would you describe the style/type of food you cook and why do you cook that style?

It’s hard to say the style, but the food I cook is based on Vietnamese food infused with the French style, Italian, Japanese, and Low Country. When you go to a restaurant and you eat something, say pizza, you relate it with what you have in your mind and you can put whatever you like to eat on that pizza. I like lobster rolls, so when I came to Maine, where there’s lots of lobster, I created my own lobster dish.  The New England lobster roll is more like a sandwich. What I created with the lobster is more like a spring roll  or summer roll, than a sandwich.

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The lobster “spring” rolls!

I cook what I like to eat.  Food is not something you have to follow. If you like to eat a kind of food, you cook it, you like it, other people eat it. I don’t decide to cook any special type of food. You have what you like to eat and you cook with that. Like tonight, we had mussels, white wine, butter, and green curry paste. Everything was leftovers! We steamed them, because we didn’t have anything but a pot and a burner. We can cook them better than that with other ingredients, but we didn’t have anything else. So you use what you have in hand and you cook with it. Make the best out of what you have.

What is your favorite ingredient to cook?

I love pork and I also love seafood. Pork has so much character, you can do a lot. It’s not healthy, but it’s good because it has fat, so you can do a lot with it. I grew up eating a lot of pork because although seafood is good, it’s expensive and so I didn’t have it a lot. I like to cook different parts of the pig, many ways.

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A pan-seared scallop dish I cooked with Toan

What is your process for creating a new dish?

Basically, people think they created something, but it is based on food that people have made before. They just  change it here and there and transform it just a little. In my opinion, that’s not creating. You get the idea from some food from a long time ago and you add a new thing in there. It’s not about cooking, it’s about what makes it good and you enjoy it and other people enjoy it. That’s good food. After, you eat it you feel happy and you want to order it again…That’s good food to me.

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Toan’s restaurant, Mi Xao

What is one memory of cooking that you’ll never forget?

There’s so many memories. Every day, even if you cook the same food, when you sit down at the end of the day, you still learn something and that makes you cook better and better every day.

Back in my childhood, when I helped my grandmother cook a lot of food for the family, they don’t celebrate birthdays much in Vietnam, but they do celebrate death anniversaries and they make a lot of food. When the people were alive they loved to eat, so we make a ton of food. At that time, we didn’t have a refrigerator to keep all the leftover food, so the best way not to waste it was to put it together in one pot and cook it like a stew to keep it from rotting, because in Vietnam it is very hot and food spoils quickly. That stew is the best food the next day. I think that’s a smart way to create something new with the  food you have.

 

Bagels From An Eleven Year-Old, Anyone?

Driving to the bagel store while still in my pajamas has been a tradition I’ve enjoyed many a Sunday morning. Smeared with cream cheese and finished with lox, red onion and tomato, bagels are simply delicious. You probably enjoy them, like me, from your local bagel shop or grocery store. But how about bagels made by an 11-year-old? That’s right, an 11-year-old. After making bagels at home, Eli started a small business selling them to friends, Baagels by Eli, the double “a” mimics a sheep’s baa. I was fortunate enough to be one of his first customers and can honestly call them the best bagels I’ve ever tasted. You might be used to harder bagels or perhaps very chewy ones with little flavor, but Eli’s bagels were pleasantly fresh and soft bursting with flavor. They were more similar to a croissant than any other bagels I’ve had and that was a plus. The mix of salt and seed on top was the perfect way to top off an already delicious bagel. And, after munching through the bagel delicacy, I had the chance to interview Eli about his bagels.

Elis Bagels

The question you’re probably asking is how did an 11-year-old start making bagels this good? I’ll let Eli answer: “I made bagels with my family and that was fun and they were really good and I thought it would be a good thing to start a business from…and I thought it would be fun.” Throughout my conversation with Eli, it was obvious that he simply enjoys making bagels and that the basis for the business really was his passion for making the bagels.

baagels by eliEli says his bagels are fresh and “maybe taste better” than the bagels you’re accustomed to getting at the grocery store or local bagel shop and I can attest they are. But, how he achieves that final taste is a bit of a process. “First, you make a sponge,” Eli says. “You let that rise till it’s bubbly and then you mix that with more flour, yeast, flavorings, and salt. You knead that and cut it into balls. You let them rest and then form them into bagels. Then, you put them in the fridge overnight which allows them to develop flavor more slowly. When you take them out in the morning, they’ve risen a tiny bit and you plop them in a pot of boiling water, flip them over a minute in.” The final step, he told me, was loading on the toppings and putting them in the oven for 10-15 minutes.

Bagels

I also had the chance to ask Eli some non-bagel related questions, including if he had any memorable meals. He told me when he went to Greece his mom’s cousin caught an octopus and cooked it for him. Since that experience, he’s enjoyed eating octopus. More recently, Eli has also been making ramen. Thanks to his dad becoming interested in the art of the noodle, Eli and his dad spent a full day prepping for a bowl of ramen a few weekends ago. In the end, he assured me it was worth it.

When asked what his future plans for the bagel business are, Eli says he wants to keep it small. He doesn’t plan to start mass production any time soon, no, he’s happier doing a couple orders a weekend. And I’m fine with that, as long as I get my bagels.

Photo credit: Bro D for photo of Eli and bagel with lox. Tina Tryforos for bagel stack.