Trouble With Toast

Personality profile: Brian Kaywork | December 1, 2009

When I visited Salt Lake City back in October, I had dinner with a dear friend from high school and his lovely wife.  During the course of the conversation, I learned that this friend’s older brother is a chef in New York.  Always interested in speaking to food professionals, I asked if I could do an interview, and that is how I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Brian Kaywork.  Brian is the Executive Chef at Madalin’s Table in Tivoli, New York, and I was truly breathless after our conversation.  His passion for food oozes out of every word he utters, but not in the affected and pretentious way of someone who simply likes to hear his own voice on the subject.  Rather, I get the sense that the hard work that Brian has put into his cooking over the years makes him not only incredibly talented, but also infinitely approachable and grounded.

Back in 1996, after receiving a bachelor’s degree from Western Maryland College, Brian headed west and landed in Southern California.  Food wasn’t really on his radar at that point, other than recreational cooking.  “I just wanted to surf,” he admitted.  However, he had been a server at numerous restaurants, and he felt that he was cut out for the sort of work that was “athletic in nature.”  In 2002, he decided to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.  “Until the CIA, I fought school tooth and nail,” Brian confessed.  “But I loved culinary school.  I had a positive outlook, and I just went with it.”  Part of this culinary abandon that allowed Brian to enjoy his education was the fact that it was okay to make mistakes.  “You’re not going to lose someone money,” he explained.  When asked if any particular style or cuisine resonated more with him, Brian said that he really loved (and still loves) French-based fine dining.  He’s not terribly interested in molecular gastronomy, so to speak, but he does take pride in refining techniques in order to manipulate flavors and textures.

Certain restaurant experiences really shaped Brian’s career and his perspective on food.  His externship was at the Little Palm Island resort and spa in the Florida Keys.  “It was a Caribbean style restaurant, but the chef was well-trained in classic French flavors and techniques,” Brian said.  He also did some post-graduation work as a sous chef at the Italian restaurant on the CIA campus.  He then worked at the now-defunct Mina in Red Hook for three years before landing at Madalin’s Table, where he has been for about three and a half years.  In his current role, Brian tries to use local ingredients to prepare creative-yet-traditional fare.  “There’s a certain enlightenment in the area,” Brian said, when asked about his regular clientele.  “You get everything from locals who love our burger to New York City food writers and Manhattanites.”  One might think it difficult to cook for such a broad-ranging group, but Brian insisted that patience is the key.  “Consistency and stability are important, especially in this economic climate,” he said.  “People are trying to be sensible.”

Brian goes to the farmstand every day on the way to work, so I asked him about the ingredients that get him especially excited.  “Wild foraged mushrooms!” he exclaimed without hesitation.  “Morels, fiddleheads, they range the full season, and there’s something great about going out and harvesting them yourself.”  The Hudson Valley area provides a bounty of lovely seasonal produce, but Brian probably enjoys spring the most.  “You just crave something fresh and bright,” he said.  “Ramps come up first, and it’s just such an exciting time.”

So besides seasonal produce, what can you always find in Chef Kaywork’s home kitchen?  “Really good olive oil,” he blurted.  He also has a plethora of pork products, indian spices and curries, and at least five different kinds of salt.  However, as committed as he is to using local, seasonal ingredients, Brian is not too good for the ol’ blue box: Kraft mac and cheese.  “It’s not as if I’m living in the French countryside,” he quipped, the smile apparent in his voice.  He does enjoy cooking on his days and nights off, and he said that the previous night, he made homemade chicken tortilla soup and orecchiette with mustard greens.  I told him that my husband and I might snag a flight to New York to taste his home AND restaurant cooking.

As the conversation ended (a fact about which I was quite dissappointed, I have to say), the topic turned to the “new age” of food media.  What does Brian think about Food Network and blogs and Americans’ newfound obsession with everything food-related?  He feels that the bottom line is a good one, in that these new outlets create an excitement about food and dining that hasn’t always been present in our culture.  “Knowledge is good,” Brian said matter-of-factly.  “The only thing I worry about is if peoples’ expectations are correct.”  He noted that America is a newer nation with a much shorter food history, and that we have a lot of catching up to do.

Despite talking to Brian for an hour, I feel like we only scratched the surface.  There was so much personality on the other end of the phone, so I can only imagine how much of that thoughtful-yet-playful style finds its way into his food.  Any readers in the New York area should definitely make a trip to see him at Madalin’s Table.  I wish I could!  In the meantime, stay tuned for more from the delightful Chef Kaywork…I don’t think TWT has seen the last of him.

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5 Comments »

  1. I have never really thought of cooking as athletic, but it makes sense.

    Also, he is so right. Everyone thinks they are an expert and our expectations are probably wacked.

    Comment by lemmonex — December 1, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    • I remember when I worked behind a smoothie bar in DC that I thought, “Holy @#$%^&, how can STANDING be so exhausting?” But being on your feet for 12+ hours is flat out taxing on your body, and restaurant professionals have to do that day in and day out. It’s a non-traditional kind of athleticism. 🙂

      Comment by bettyjoan — December 1, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  2. Hi there,

    I’m a PMF in your old office and I must admit I came upon your blog after seeing you on an old training video and googling you 🙂 I’m a huge foodie who has done some freelance food writing in my spare time, I always like food blogs, so I decided to take a peek at yours.

    I enjoyed this article in particular because I’ve wanted to go stay and eat at the Madalin ever since reading this article: http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/travel/tmagazine/21T-TALK-TIVOLI.html

    What a small world…

    Have a nice day!
    Rachel

    Comment by Rachel — December 2, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    • Small world, indeed! Hope you’re having fun as a PMF and working with all of my chums. You should definitely let me know if/when you make it to the Madalin! Welcome, and thanks for reading.

      Comment by bettyjoan — December 4, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

  3. […] pancake.  I made bread for the first time in November, and in December, after a really cool interview, comfort food was the name of the […]

    Pingback by 2009 – Full Throttle, Full Circle « Trouble With Toast — December 29, 2009 @ 1:29 pm


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