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.


Personality profile: Warner Lawrence

May 18, 2009

While one of my best gal pals was in town recently, we headed over to the Brick Store Pub in downtown Decatur to meet a friend of hers who worked nearby.  As luck would have it, the friend turned out to be Warner Lawrence, the “Beer Buyer” (an official title that, in my estimation, doesn’t come CLOSE to describing his duties or expertise) for the Decatur Sherlock’s.  Our initial conversation was so interesting that I asked him to sit down with me for an official interview; so, last Sunday, we chatted again at the Brick Store, the logical place to meet a beer aficionado.

Warner had come directly from work, so we started out by talking about his duties at Sherlock’s.  While he does buy beer for the shop and help with the wine buying, serving the customer always takes first priority.  “I strive to treat my customers the same way that the Ritz-Carlton treats theirs,” Warner explained.  We discussed customer service for a long while, agreeing that finding the balance between catering to higher-end repeat customers and still treating occasional buyers like they are special (without patronizing them) is one of the toughest challenges in the retail and restaurant businesses.

Warner’s path to Sherlock’s began in North Carolina, where he is from and where he did a year of college before realizing, in no uncertain terms, “this sucks.”  After some time to think, he decided to pursue a culinary education, so he attended both the Cooking School of the Rockies (a six month program) and the Culinary Institute of America.  He has worked at some notable restaurants, including the Magnolia Grill in Durham and Bacchanalia right here in Atlanta.  But he admitted to me that despite his impressive cooking chops, “I always hated the line.  I’m too slow and too anal-retentive.”  He liked the catering game a lot more than traditional kitchen work, and he enjoyed his time at Bold American Catering (a Fifth Group venture) largely because of all of the interaction with clients.  But it was after his externship, when he went back to CIA and took his wine courses, that he really figured out what he wanted to do.

So how did he move from a food focus to a wine focus?  Persistence!  “It’s a sales job on every level,” Warner confessed.  He got some phone numbers (including that of one Mr. Mondavi) from his wine professor at CIA and just started calling.  Eventually, he ended up at Green’s, where he spent four years.  Now he’s settled at Sherlock’s, and he’s comfortable being an unabashed Francophile, having staged in Avignon and identified strongly with what the French call “terroir,” or sense of place.  “I’m strong in France and the U.S., but weak in Italy and Spain,” he mused.  Warner is currently deciding whether or not to go for his “Certified Wine Educator” distinction.  Certainly, he has the knowledge and the passion to succeed in such a venture—but Warner is also a devoted husband and a father, and there are only so many hours in the day.

Speaking of his home life, I asked if he does a lot of cooking when he’s off-duty, and the answer is yes!  He claims to make a mean paella (the jury’s still out, my friend, until I get to come over and try it), and he enjoys baking breads.  “I also really like smoking meats, fish, and veggies,” Warner said.  He is a lover of history, so it’s no surprise that he finds comfort and pleasure in what’s traditional and cultural, “what’s been there for eons.”  He despises food television, and the only two food-related publications he reads regularly are Cook’s Illustrated and Fine Cooking.

So what’s always in Warner’s kitchen?  Besides Bordeaux (“my first love”), you’ll probably find dried mushrooms, lots of different kinds of flour, cinnamon and allspice (“I like using them in savory dishes”), clarified butter, and grapeseed oil (“for more intense sautéing”).  While farm-to-table philosophy definitely resonates with Warner—in fact, when asked about food personalities, living or dead, that he’d invite to dinner, Alice Waters’ name came up—he agrees that it is a difficult and expensive standard to live by, and that he and his wife are simply trying to educate their son on where food comes from.  To that end, the Lawrences own a number of chickens!  Yes, real live chickens, in the middle of Atlanta.  In addition, they buy organic milk, they limit their son’s sugar intake, and they avoid processed foods.

Warner is still pretty young, so where he will go and what he will do in the future is anyone’s guess.  For the time being, I know that I am happy to have his passionate and approachable expertise available at my local Sherlock’s.  Stop by and see him sometime!

(404) 377-4005
The Cook’s Warehouse and Sherlock’s Wine Merchant
180 W Ponce de Leon
Decatur, GA 30030

Wow…just, wow

April 15, 2009
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I don’t know how I missed this yesterday, but Bill Addison (Covered Dish) and Cliff Bostock (Omnivore Atlanta) are reporting that John Kessler has been reassigned.  He’s still with the AJC, but the paper has taken him off the food beat–now, instead, he will be writing personality profiles for the Sunday edition.  It is unclear whether John will keep blogging, either via his current “Food and More” site or a yet-to-be-determined non-AJC-affiliated venture.

I understand that times are tough for newspapers across the country, but this decision really bums me out.  Not to disparage anyone else who writes about food for the AJC, but John was my primary reason for reading.  As you can tell from my recent interview with Mr. Kessler himself, his intelligence and sense of humor brought a really unique voice to the Atlanta food and dining scene.  His perspective will definitely be missed.

Yes, I know he didn’t DIE, and I know I can keep reading his non-food-related pieces, but I’m sad to see John’s focus shifted from the culinary to…well, I guess we’ll just have to see.  In any case, I wish him the best of luck.  John, if you need a place to blog, you can always guest post here!

UPDATE (4/17/09): Looks like John will still be writing his “Restaurant Stories” column for the AJC, in addition to his new feature.  Yay!

Personality profile: John Kessler

April 6, 2009

Note: This is the first in what I hope will be a continuing series of interviews with various food professionals.  I really want to cover the entire spectrum of the industry, so if you have any suggestions for folks to talk to, I’m all ears!

I met John Kessler when he interviewed me for his recent piece on local food bloggers in the AJC.  He was so much fun to talk to that I asked him if I could turn the tables.  To give you some basic background, John has been writing for the AJC since 1997, spending the first seven years as the paper’s dining critic.  Now he writes features for the Food & Drink section and maintains a blog called “Food and More.”  He is a culinary school graduate (L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland), but he also holds a degree from Williams College in the History of Ideas.  He’s lived and worked in DC, Denver, and Japan, but now he calls Decatur home, where he lives with his wife and three daughters.

When I called to chat with John, the first thing I had to ask was…seriously, what the hell is a “History of Ideas” major???  I mean, it sounded to me like something an SEC football star would “study.”  Well, turns out it’s a mix of religion and philosophy, focusing on the way ideas are transmitted from one age to the next.  So how did John make the jump from the philosophical to the culinary?  “As much as people were clamoring for historians of ideas,” he laughed.  “I decided to be a little more esoteric.”  After stints teaching English and working in marketing, John realized that it was his elaborate home cooking projects that were the most challenging and fun.  He remembers reading an article by Phyllis Richman (the former Washington Post dining critic) about jobs in the food industry, and the trouble he had convincing his father (who was likely still paying for that History of Ideas degree) that he wasn’t going to be a line cook for the rest of his life.

John was 25 years old when he entered culinary school, and he says that a lot of growing up took place there.  He wrote on his application that he was interested in a career in food writing, but his first job (his externship, really) was at a restaurant called Cities in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC.  The chef was Yannick Cam, most recently of Le Paradou, and the menu was “very international” in nature.  After graduating and meeting his wife, John headed to Denver to work at the more “modern-American” Rattlesnake Club.  When asked which of his gigs prepared him the most for his current work with the AJC, he said, “Everything I’ve done!”

We chatted a bit about why it seems that people like reading about dining out more than they do about cooking in.  “People like living vicariously,” John reasoned.  He has noticed that his previous audience was larger and more diverse, but that now it is smaller “but more committed.”  As a way to reach out to that audience and continue the dialogue, one of John’s recent projects was starting a blog.  “I love it, I think it’s fun,” he said.  “I like that it’s not edited and that I can get away with a bit more.”  He also enjoys breaking news, and he is grateful for the audience that seems to have followed him from his earlier days in Atlanta.  So far, he said, the discussion has been civil.

Of course, any conversation about blogging leads to the inevitable question of whether the phenomenon has been good or bad for the food industry.  “Part of me feels like I’m turning into a grumpy old man,” John said.  He hates the way everyone wants to get to a place first, and the hypocrisy that seems to be ever-present in online restaurant reviews.  Still, he said, “I like the idea of the discussion being out there–everyone has their own insight and skill set they can bring to it.”  So what does John notice when he dines out now?  “I like to watch things,” he said.  “How well things get communicated.  How the staff works together.  How they deal with problems.”  Perhaps this observant nature is what made him such a memorable and beloved restaurant critic.

His critics at home are a totally different story.  “They like it when I grill stuff,” John chuckled, when I asked him about his kitchen specialties.  He also claims to make great salads, Japanese rice balls, and “mushy vegetables” (I think he meant Middle Eastern-style stewed veggies and the like).  He says his oldest daughter has picked up the ability to just “throw things together,” and that his youngest has had a few scary projects (including cooking cat food–don’t ask).  What about the middle one?  “She likes to be fed,” said John.  Amen, sister.

When asked about what items he always has in his pantry, John replied quickly: olive oil, lots of different vinegars, sriracha sauce, Worcestershire sauce, MSG, short-grain brown rice, and Greek yogurt.  Some of these basic ingredients are building blocks for the dishes he thinks every home cook should master, such as eggs (“the way YOU like them”) and soup.  He also thinks folks should know how to dress a salad by touch and how to pan-fry something.

As we wrapped up our call, I tried to get John to fess up to some horrible food-related sin, like mainlining Big Macs or eating Oreos ten at a time.  What are his true guilty pleasures?  “Cheap hard fruit candy,” he admitted.  “I can’t walk past a can of Dum-Dums without snagging a few.”  He says he’s not a big snacker but that he loves Fritos and Bugles.  When no one’s looking, he can’t help dipping his finger into the peanut butter jar.  And he eats Dibs, the bite-sized ice cream treats from the freezer case at the local megamart.  “I wish my wife didn’t buy them!” he said.

We could have talked for another hour about how to perfectly roast a chicken or which Atlanta restaurant is the most overrated, but someone like John is pulled in many different directions each day.  It was a pleasure to chat with him, just as it is to read his columns and keep up with his blog.  Atlanta is lucky to have someone like John Kessler covering its ever-changing food scene–keep up the great work!