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The secret's in the dirt

October 27, 2013

When you cook professionally it is inevitable that you'll get asked a couple of questions: 'what kind of food do you cook?', 'what is your specialty?', 'what is your 'signature dish'?' The longer you cook, the more vexing these questions can become. Here's how I would like to answer these questions:


I'm an American chef who specializes in American food and every dish that leaves my kitchen is my signature dish.




Although this is a quick and easy answer to the above questions, it isn't nearly specific enough AND you end up kind of sounding like an asshole. The problem is that most people want quick and easy answers to these questions. They want a neatly packaged 'cliff notes' version of your life's work. It's just not that simple.


I think a lot about food; it is my life's work. I would like to take a few minutes to talk about what I look for in the type of food I cook and also how I like to cook that food.



I want food to have a personality. From the minute a product comes in the back door of Josephine, I want to know its story. I want to have a connection to the people who work to produce these products and I want to pass that along to everybody on the Josephine team. Once we start cooking the products, I want the dishes on the menu to have a personality and a story. When McDonald's was first introduced to the American palate, people said that it simply wouldn't work because the idea that people would want a hamburger that tasted the same in Des Moines as it did in Santa Barbara was a crazy idea. Obviously McDonald's is going strong creating food that has an absence of place. It's the same taste everywhere(except in France. McDonald's tastes different in Paris than in the U.S. In Italy, it tastes virtually the same as the U.S.....now please forget that I have that first hand knowledge) The essence of 'Eat Like You Live Here' cuisine is that it is unique to its area. It has personality; it has a sense of place.


What does 'soul' mean to you? Have you ever heard Janis Joplin dig into the song Mercedes Benz? You can literally hear her pulling those notes out of her gut. When I listen to Jason Isbell, I can hear his life in his lyrics and the rasp of his voice. Have you heard Jeff Buckley sing Hallelujah live? He's digging; he's leaving himself out there and it's so perfect. Cooking that is deeply personal should have this type of soul. You can taste the raspy voice in an unctuous beef cheek. You can taste the cook 'digging' in a lusty preparation of rabbit and gnocchi. I want to cook food that has that soul. Food that is a little dirty, a little lusty, a little slippery and full of flavor and personality. What kind of food do I cook? I cook 'take a bite, close your eyes, sit back in your chair and smile food'.....all of it dripping with soul.


Have you ever watched Yo Yo Ma play cello? Have you every seen Wynton Marsalis play live? Has my early music training become obvious yet?!? I used to and honestly still look to Yo Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis is evidence of flawless grace and ease under pressure. In almost every setting, both men become one with their instruments and the music seems to originate deep inside and gets transferred to their instruments, through the air and into our ears and hearts. Professional cooking is stressful stuff. Kitchens can be hot, damp and cramped. They are certainly not Avery Fisher Hall.(actually the kitchen at Josephine is gonna be stellar....quite the stage) The time constraints of feeding a certain number of people in a certain amount of time can be daunting. However, through proper training and preparation, I would like to endeavor to cook in the manner that Mr. Ma and Mr. Marsalis play their instruments...to become one with pan and flame while the soul of the food flows from deep inside me.


Have you ever had a glass of rye whiskey and cued up Led Zepplin's 'Since I've Been Lovin' You'? That's what I'm talking about when I talk about 'feel'. The beginning couple of bars of that track are so special to me as a cook. Much of what we do as cooks is tactile. Touch is paramount in professional cooking. A cook can simply touch a piece of meat, fish or a vegetable and be able to tell you how far along in the cooking process they are. So, obviously 'touching' the food, being able to roll around a piece of pork in a hot pan with your fingers so you can get a perfect, even sear, is important. 'Feel' is a little different. 'Feel' is being able to control 6 active pans on the heat, reach blindly into your spoon bin, turn, finish saucing a plate at the pass and come back to those 6 pans and know how each one of them is performing. Feeling the food in the pan; if you listen close enough the pan will talk to you. I've always thought that the best dishes are created by the relentless pursuit of the back end of the beat. Having the confidence to lay back just enough and get out of the way of the product. Let the food vibrate a little bit.....FEEL it.....that's great cooking.


When questioned about the 'secret' to his golf swing, Ben Hogan would reply simply that 'the secret's in the dirt'....meaning that you had to dig that type of swing out of the dirt of the practice range. I fully believe that the 'secret' to great cooking is 'in the dirt'. If you want to have food with personality and soul while cooking with grace, ease and feel, you need to get at it every day. Do it. Work toward it. I hope you'll come to Josephine and watch me and the Josephine team 'dig it out of the dirt'.

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