5 Life Lessons from My Ending We Chat With Column

 

 

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Photos by Brent Herrig. Using them without his permission is illegal… and mean.

In January of 2012, I wrote then-New York editor Carey Jones of Serious Eats a pitch email for a sample interview I’d done on Colicchio and Sons pastry chef Stephen Collucci. I’d noticed they didn’t have a lot of chef-interview content and I’d “discovered that I’m particularly interested in chefs; what excites them about what they do, their opinions on the current state of food in NYC, their thoughts on the potential for where we’re going as a culinary mecca, and the chefs / dishes that make their tails wag.”

I only sent the pitch to Serious Eats. Two weeks later, Carey responded that I had “great timing” in regards to filling a gap in their editorial calendar, and I had a column.

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Over two years and 120-odd interviews later, it’s time to say goodbye to my We Chat With… column for now, as Serious Eats will soon be refocusing their content a bit. I’ll be writing a lot of chef-focused stories and corralled opinions, but the one-on-one interviews with some of New York’s finest are taking a nap for a while. It’s a bittersweet goodbye, as there were chefs on my list who won’t get features, and I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with thanks when emails come in remaking on how beloved the column has been inside the industry in New York; it may not have hit crazy numbers with general readership, but I feel fully gratified by the conversations I’ve gotten to have because of it.

So the past few weeks, while finishing up recent interviews with Bethany Costello and Amanda Cook, I’ve pondered on the interviews that stuck with me long after pieces were submitted. Some are personal; Stephen proposed to his now-wife with a transcript of our interview, where he stated his upcoming intentions, and I’ve formed a few outside-the-restaurant friendships I’m thankful for. Some continue to be enthusiastically professional, like Ron Ben-Israel, Thiago Silva and Stephen guiding me into making a friend’s wedding cake on an island far, far away (a four-part feature coming up here soon).

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Some are fleeting moments of real connection, like Ignacio Mattos ruminating on the energy he puts out into his kitchen, Joseph Marazzo unearthing hidden secrets when building his wine bar, and Dale Talde remembering his grandmother making papaya salad. And some are life lessons, things that push me to be better at my work and at life in general.

So, in a little tribute, here are five hefty interview snippets that are still with me, many, many chats later.

Thanks for reading.

Alex Stupak of Empellon Thrives On the Unknown

My takeaway: Be afraid, Jacqueline. And then barrel through.

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Creativity has to be about doing something you don’t know how to do. That’s creation. So doing what I know how to do blindfolded and drunk to get praise for it; where’s the personal excitement about it? Or the stress or the fear? Where are all those emotions? Cause there’s none of that, and all those things need to go into the creation of something.

You adapt to yourself and your kitchen – that’s why you change. We’re in a constant state of dissatisfaction with our menu and things can always be better. We do not have a perfect menu or perfect dishes on the menu. But that’s okay because I’m not racing. People don’t believe me when I say this but I’m truly free in that I don’t care about failure and I’m not afraid to fail. I wake up every morning and I can’t believe what we’ve pulled off thus far. It will sound weird because I love what I’m doing, but I’m also a nihilist in that I don’t believe in uber-deep importance of it. It’s food, and it’s not even food in terms of nourishing the masses. We’re restaurants; we’re in the entertainment industry.

Because it’s not about getting good reviews – it’s about doing something you haven’t done before. So if it takes me ten years to get to that, or fifteen or twenty or I never get to it, at least I’m trying to do it. Cause again, I was so inspired by these guys I worked for that I’m trying to hold myself to that standard. I’m trying to reach for something that’s very far away.

Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy on Being Open

My takeaway: Be brutally honest with myself and my writing voice.

© 2013 Brent Herrig Photography

I want to be really honest about what goes on. We have this open kitchen restaurant and I always say we’re a little but more open than other open kitchen restaurants because you can literally see everything that happens. You can see the floor; you actually see food fall on the floor all the time. Now, we don’t pick it back up which is a good thing, but that’s just a reality that people don’t talk about – yeah, the floor of the kitchen is messy. You can see us running to wash our hands all the time or tasting the food constantly. Whatever it is, it’s pretty honest what happens here. And we’re really honest in the dining room when people come five minutes earlier than their reservation and we’re like, “ Yeah, I know you think that’s a good thing but we can’t deal with you, so you can sit down but we’re going to fall behind if we deal with you.” So we’re pretty open about how we run the restaurant.

And then I started thinking about writing the blog; it was just around Top Chef and the Food Network exploding and really glamorizing this life. And this life isn’t glamorous at all; it’s wonderful and awful at the same time. I just felt that there needed to be some perspective that was, “You know what, this is really, really hard and it’s emotionally draining.” And other people need to know that before they decided to be a chef. I used to think the real competition on Top Chef would be two people cleaning the grease trap – that’s the real competition, that’s what you do in the kitchen, you know? Once you own your own restaurant you’re the expendable person, so when the dishwasher doesn’t show up, you’re the one who’s gonna wash dishes. And you’re like, “Uh, really? Here I am, 45 or 50 and I’m washing the dishes at my own restaurant.” That’s hard. So I have this voice and I love using it and I love when people are like, “Yeah, that’s right, that is what happens.” We’re so small and I don’t have to answer to a lot of people so I don’t have a lot to lose: don’t invite me back to something or criticize me for my writing, it’s ok. I have a small enough restaurant, I can say what I want to say and it’s ok.

 Carmen Quagliata of Union Square Cafe on Slow Sunday Sauce After Sandy

My takeaway: Slow down and take the time to build things that truly matter.

© 2013 Brent Herrig Photography

Sunday Sauce at Union Square Café always brings me back to Hurricane Sandy. It was a really hard week. I felt lucky because we were pretty much unscathed except for the power, but I was like everyone else – shocked at what was going on. At first me and the sous chefs were excited to see each other all safe, and then we strapped flashlights to our heads and started clearing out the walk-in. And we were joking around but after about a half an hour it had gotten so depressing to throw things away; things we had pickled from the local farms that were a part of our pantry. Italian food is a certain amount about preservation, things that make their way into the food long after the season is done that gives that dish the mole on its face. So when we started throwing things away – wow – we were throwing away part of the soul of our menu.

Anyway, the final day I was like, “The power has to come back on today”. The city needed to get back on its feet. I stayed in New York – it was so cold in New Jersey the day before –and saw on Twitter that there was power going on in Chelsea so I came down here and sat in the dark here until eight o’clock – boom. The power went on. The next day we got a menu on the line by noon. And we went through that day and I said, “You know, what everybody in the city needs now is a bowl of pasta with Sunday sauce”. I’d never made it here. Never.

So the next day we made a Sunday sauce, and it just warmed my heart to make it. There’s two sides to me as a chef; the person that loves the athleticism and the rush and the crisis management, and the grandma in me. And that’s what hit me that Saturday night. It was as long week and it had been a long day, but I started at 8 that night and had it on the menu Sunday morning, and since then we’ve had it on the menu on Sundays for lunch. So Sunday sauce means a lot to me.  It just does.

 

Dave Arnold of Booker and Dax: Flashy is OK… Sometimes

My takeaway: Don’t be such a nerd, Jacqueline. Try a place first before you deem it trendy.

Brent Herrig © 2012

What’s most gratifying for me is when someone comes in and they think that we’re just some sorta flashy tech bar, and they realize this is a friendly place where they can enjoy what they’re drinking in an un-pretentious environment; that makes me happy for that customer.

I think at the very beginning we as a group were too excited about the things that we were doing, and that translated. I was reading Yelp – horrible, horrible thing to do – and this person was like, “These guys really love their technique stuff”. That’s the last kind of thing I wanna hear. So we had a meeting and I was like, “Listen, this is a bar, not a tech-bar. I want all of our stuff to happen back here. I don’t want the tech thing shoved down the customer’s throat. If someone says, “Oh, peaches, how did you get it to be clear?” Then we say, “We blended it with an enzyme that breaks down pectin and hemicellulose, spin it in a centrifuge at 4000 times the force of gravity for 15 minutes, strain it off and BOOM, there you go”. But if they just want a peach drink, “Here’s your peach drink.”

This is not about flashy stuff. Okay, we chill glasses with liquid nitrogen; it happens to be the best way to chill a glass. It also happens to be really cool, but it’s also the best; there’s no ring around your fucking glass. Yes, the red-hot poker creates giant flames in the bar, and people like seeing giant flames in the bar. And, yes, it’s showy. But the red-hot poker makes a drink unlike any other drink you can have, and it harkens back to an old-technique that was around centuries ago. So, to me, it’s 100% valid.

Shaking a drink is showy. A lot of things are showy. I don’t want to say that I’m anti-show. If something makes a drink better, awesome. If it happens to be showy, double awesome. But you gotta get your priorities straight. If it’s showy and neutral, cut it. If it’s showy and slightly detrimental, cut it very quickly. You know what I mean?

Michael Psilakis of MP Taverna on What Food Really Is

My takeaway: Food + Work < Food + Family 

(And time flies, so appreciate every day)

© 2013 Brent Herrig Photography

The year my dad died I was celebrating Easter at my dad’s house, the same place I’d celebrated every Easter. And my brother and I finished putting the lamb on the spit, and it was odd that my dad wasn’t there; forty years of him being there, helping, me seeing him put his hands in the animal, and now he wasn’t there doing it. We just wet the lamb with our hands, with water. I called my son over and it was exactly like my dad had done; he’s standing in front of me, I pour water in his hands, it’s hitting him, it’s hitting me, and it’s splashing all over the place and he’s giggling.

And I was thinking to myself, “I should be happy, and I’m really sad.” It was an awkward moment, because I didn’t know how to feel. And I was looking at the water in his hands I had this fucking moment of clarity because I really saw my hands thirty years earlier. I remembered that moment, standing in front of my father, him towering over me and pouring water into my hands. And I knew in that moment that that was food, right there. It wasn’t about the lamb, or about how to cook it. It was just the water and being together.

 

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