Chef and Tell, part two: Rachel Kesley on umeboshi vinegar, the traveling food cart and eating a buzz button
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Rachel Kesley, executive chef of WaterCourse Foods. In part one of that interview, which ran in this space yesterday, Kesley dishes on produce-driven menus, vegetarianism and her fascination with figs.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect is number one. Respect your team, respect your food and respect yourself. Cleanliness is also key. I have thirty staff members in the kitchen alone, and at any given time there are ten of us in there, cooking away. That's a lot of hands making a lot of food, and it can get messy. You must have a willingness to learn and be pushed. For a lot of the people coming into the kitchen, this may be their first time dealing with a vegetarian -- even vegan -- menu, as well as all the different ingredients that we use on a more regular basis than most restaurants. And last, but certainly not least, you have to be able to work hard but at the same time keep it lighthearted. We have a demanding job, but we want to have fun without compromising the integrity of the food. If you don't enjoy what you do, the job becomes even harder. Through my experience, I've realized that in order to make great food, everyone needs a good laugh.
What's never in your kitchen? Processed foods, high-fructose corn syrup and, most obviously, meat.
What's always in your kitchen? Umeboshi vinegar. It's Asian plum vinegar, and it's far and away my favorite thing to cook with. It doesn't change the color of anything, but it really enhances the flavor of everything. I love the stuff, and I put it in everything. It's a salt and a vinegar in one -- magic.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The Wine Bible and The Flavor Bible. My old sous chef gave me The Wine Bible for my birthday, and it's amazing. Both are probably my most-referenced books.
One book that every chef should read: In the Devil's Garden, by Stewart Lee Allen. I graduated with a degree in history, and this book dives into certain foods' reputations and how they got them based on historical context. I think it's so important for people to know where their food came from and why we eat what we eat.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? The traveling food cart. It would be me and a silver-bullet trailer that's been converted into a kitchen on wheels, cruising down the Pacific Coast in search of the best local ingredients and flavors. We'd buy what we needed from the local markets and set up shop. There would be some vegetarian ingredients, some not, but it would definitely be a produce-driven venture.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Chocolate-covered almonds. I've eaten an embarrassing number of them in one sitting. The crunchy texture, combined with the sweet and salty flavors, is my absolute favorite.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? My all-time favorite: Roasted beets, rosemary and roasted garlic purée, arugula, lightly sautéed figs, and cracked-pepper goat cheese drizzled with an aged balsamic. I can't get enough of it.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Limes. One to cook with and one for my drink.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Wow -- this is a hard one. Up until moving to Denver in 2008, my culinary path was a little scattered. I was a personal chef in Boulder for two years, the executive head chef of Leaf Vegetarian restaurant in Boulder for almost two years, and a sous chef at a brand new farm-to-table restaurant in New York City. I learned a tremendous amount everywhere I worked, but I think the proudest moment for me was shortly after becoming the chef de cuisine at WaterCourse in January 2009. I had decided, two weeks before, to do a four-course wine dinner for Valentine's Day -- reservations only -- which, as far as I know, had never been done before, at least in the new space. But we pulled it off, and pretty much sold it out. That was the first time I'd ever really spearheaded, planned and poured my whole heart into a menu and had it be super-successful. It was pretty cool, and now we do four of them a year.
Current Denver culinary genius: I've got to throw Brendon Doyle out there, the new chef of City, O' City. He's really upping the game for me as a vegetarian chef. He comes from a traditional culinary background, and I'm from a strict vegan/vegetarian background. The food he's putting out is truly inspired, and I can't wait to see what else he does when the City, O' City expansion is complete.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Root Down -- the diver scallops are perfect; Venue, because the Thai shrimp and grits are pretty much heaven; and Devil's Food, which is my favorite breakfast spot by far. They pretty much know my order before I even say it: No. 4, no brie, no bread, extra red-pepper pesto, homefries, coffee and soy milk, please. It's the best.
Favorite music to cook by: Hip-hop, funk and anything with a good beat. Music and food go hand in hand for me. I know so many chefs who are also musicians, and that combination of arts is one of the most harmonious relationships I can think of. If you see my head bobbing up and down with the beat of the music while I'm cooking, that's when you know I'm really in it.
Weirdest customer request: I once had a guest come up to me with a list of things that she couldn't eat that was about two columns long. So I took the list, went down to the walk-in, grabbed an apple, some fresh rosemary, and a few other ingredients and grilled them up for her with a very light sauce. She loved it.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A buzz button. It looks like a little innocent flower, but it basically makes your entire mouth go numb. I got tricked into eating one at a food show and pretty much felt like I had just had thirty minutes of major dental surgery. I was drooling and couldn't feel my teeth; it was hilarious.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid to substitute other liquids for water: stocks, juices, teas, milks -- almond and cashew, for example. This infuses flavor into whatever you're cooking, be it rice, hard-boiled eggs, beans or soups, and adds depth to the final dish.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Julia Child. I'd cook all of her classic French recipes but make them vegetarian-friendly and see how she responds. This could either be the best or worst day of my life.
Favorite celebrity chef: I have two: Anthony Bourdain, because he has the job I want; and Alton Brown, because he knows all the amazing history and science behind, well, everything.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Rachael Ray. If she says "EVOO" one more time....
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both. Definitely both. Artists may be the more obvious choice, because sure, chefs can make food look and taste amazing. But if you look at the innovations that happen all of the time in this industry, it's mind-blowing. Take molecular gastronomy: Those guys do some amazing things with amazing precision and creativity.
What's your favorite knife? Shun, no doubt. The weight is perfect, the handle is perfect, and the blade...well, it's a samurai sword, and that's pretty amazing.
What's next for you? I eventually want my own place, but I think before I can do that, I really need to master coffee-roasting and wine-making. Okay, maybe not master, as those two things are definitely arts in their own right, but it's always been a dream of mine to understand the ins and outs of all ingredients, whether it's produce or a beverage that's used in a place that I'm involved in.
Hardest lesson you've learned: The hardest thing for me has been communicating my vision to others. It was really hard for me to realize that not everyone thought and worked the way I do. It was a whole lot easier when I ran a five-person kitchen, but I had a rude awakening when, in my thirty-person kitchen, it felt like I was playing telephone, and the message was never the same once it passed through all the channels. That was extremely frustrating for me. By nature, I'm fairly introverted -- not necessarily quiet, but introspective, and learning how to communicate my vision and ideas directly to my staff was probably one of the hardest things I've had to learn how to do.
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