Monday, February 04, 2008

6 Questions for a Chef

Welcome to what I hope will be a bit of a new feature here at Feed Me/Drink Me, 6 Questions for a Chef! I've been meaning to do this for a while since I know a lot of chefs read (from time to time) as do a lot of people who love chefs. I've also been fascinated with what feels like a cool vibe in Indy these days -- one where more chefs, restauranteurs, food lovers, and general hangers on are getting to know each other and learn more about the work. If you get an email from me in the coming weeks, don't worry, I'm not going to expect you to be ready for Oprah. You're not going to have to cry or jump on the couch or anything. Just tell me what you like, who's work you're digging right now, and what you do on your day off.

First up, Chef Brandon Hamilton, late of 14 West, currently in culinary school at The Chef's Academy and consulting/cheffing for the Friday and Saturday night dinner service at the Trader's Point Creamery cafe. Brandon, who's getting the bug for food competitions, just won the Indiana Taste of Elegance pork competition. He'll travel to Southern California for the national competition in May. Here are 6 Questions for Brandon:

1) What's your favorite restaurant/dish in town? The dry aged rib-eye at Peterson's

2) What is your biggest problem with Indiana diners? Vegetarians. I try to keep it interesting for them, but they're never satisfied. Also, diners picking apart dishes -- this sauce with this starch with this meat. I used to get that at 14 West. [editor's note: I'm never doing that again, I promise.]

3) What's your favorite dish or ingredient you can't put on your menu: Foie gras.

4) What the dish you'd like to take off your menu but can't? Macaroni and cheese

5) What's your post-work routine? It was different when I worked downtown. We'd all go to a bar, a bunch of chefs, and talk. At Trader's Point, it's different. These days, I'll stop in at Meridian and talk to Dan [Dunville]. Also, I like the Ale Emporium.

6) What's the place you're most likely to be seen outside the kitchen? Culinary school. Or farmer's markets.


Kirsten said...

Nice new feature. A great peak into the mind of a chef, but I do have a little something to get off my chest...

Are the vegetarians in Indiana really so very demanding? I appreciate the honesty, but I don't know that vegetarians in these parts are all that hard to please. For me, it really is the test of a chef to see if they can make a delicious, surprising and satisfying vegetarian dish. Maybe it's just that I've eaten this way for so long, but I don't think it's all that hard to create something amazing with all the grains, leafy and rooty vegetables, cheeses, eggs, fruits, and spices that are available. Now, I could sort of understand a complaint about vegan cooking, just because it is so much of a shift for traditional cooks.

But it just points out one more reason to adore R Bistro - she tries and excels at creating lovely, yummy, excellent vegetarian dishes!

braingirl said...

I *knew* that would elicit some response. :-) I asked Brandon the same question, thinking the same thing, how hard can it be?

He said at 14 West he did as many plates as 10% vegetarian (which is the banquet/hotel standard, at least was a few years ago. They plan that they could have as many as 10% vegetarian requests.)

His issue -- and it wasn't really a complaint, he's such a nice guy -- was just that with some customers, there's just no making them happy. He said he always went out of the way to ensure there were a couple of entree choices on the menu for vegetarian eaters ('cause, hey, sometimes, even I don't want meat), but that it die hard vegetarians seemed to have a lot of special requests, issues, etc which went beyond normal expectations for the chef to accommodate.

I suspect, Kristen, that you're the exception to the rule and that when a chef like Regina, goes out of his or her way to give options for vegetarians, you trust them and are happy to eat what they prepare. Brandon's experience was that a lot of them at 14 West still wanted a lot of special options, changes, and substitutions.

Don't take it that he's anti-vegetarian, but I'm glad the question provoked response. I put it in there for that very reason. (And I hope we get some good answers from chefs in the future.)

It can only be Jared said...

Why can't you have Foie Gras have your menu??

K said...

I agree with Kirsten - as long as my only option isn't an uninspired vegetable plate (and if a restaurant really wants to get my goat, it will charge an outrageous price for that sad excuse for a meal), I'm a happy camper.

That said, my vegetarian friends and I simply tend not to patronize restaurants unless they have a diverse, vegetarian-friendly menu. In my circle, we put a lot of thought and research into our choices instead of setting ourselves up for disappointment. It sounds like "voting with our feet" is the best solution for both Brandon and Indianapolis vegetarians.

kc said...

Great new feature -- I've harbored secret dreams of training to be a chef but for various reasons haven't, and this Q&A gives me unique insight into a world that I don't know as well as I wish. Thanks, braingirl!

Suggestions for future questions:

* What's the hardest part of being a chef? Most gratifying?
* What surprised you the most once you got into the job market, whether related to food, people, politics, business, etc.
* What's your make-for-myself meal of choice when you don't have or don't want to spend a lot of time cooking?

twoheads said...

Thank you Kirsten and K for expressing it so well. I have had so many bland, uninspired and/or disgusting vegetarian meals when dining out. Greasy little veggies, stale awful vegetable/egg tarts... things that taste like nothing, look like nothing and sometimes even smell weird. Why is it that so many chefs can't seem to put together a decent vegetarian dish? When a chef doesn't understand the interplay of texture and taste for the vegetarian dishes (which would be for me), I would not recommend their restaurant to anyone. If they can't get it together for the vegetarian dishes, they are usually not much more than a grill cook anyway.

Anonymous said...

I think I've eaten enough $24 plates of grilled eggplant in my 14 years as a vegetarian (or better yet, having to order shrimp alfredo hold the shrimp because apparently there isn't enough mark-up on plain ol' fettuccine alfredo for it to get a spot on the menu) to come to think that most chefs besides dedicated "vegetarian chefs" secretly hate making vegetarian dishes. Kind of refreshing to actually hear it out in the open.

And maybe there are some hard to please vegetarians out there, but I've sat and silently picked phantom meat out of a myriad of supposedly "vegetarian" dishes way more than I've ever sent something back. (Only once, veggie burgers should not bleed and be pink in the middle, no matter what the server tries to argue)

I've always been a huge supporter of Trader's Point Creamery and their farmers market (well, at least before they moved the day of the farmer's market, thank goodness for!)but hearing this makes me concerned for the future of the vegetarian options at the creamery diner. They already don't serve veggie options during their special event dinners! Besides, even if they keep them, do I really want to be eating something the chef wishes he didn't have to make? Can't imagine a whole lot of effort or care would go into a dish like that...

braingirl said...

You are correct in that many chefs dislike vegetarians as well as special orders, food "allergies", mix-and-match orders and more. I believe Anthony Bourdain -- and other chef/writers have made no secret of this in many of their books.

However, I wouldn't write off Trader's Point without giving them a try. They are pretty sensitive to progressive clientele there -- which is why they don't/can't serve foie gras.

SCUBAchef said...

Chef said:
2) What is your biggest problem with Indiana diners? Vegetarians. I try to keep it interesting for them, but they're never satisfied.

I think vegetarians are contrarian by definition. As opposed to dietary restrictions due to allergy or religious requirements, most vegetarians just choose to be so. It’s like a child insisting that he’ll only eat yellow food, or off of his favorite plate; or like the “ugly American” refusing to eat a dish that’s offered to him because it’s “weird”. When in Rome. Sure, anyone can request special treatment, just don’t expect everyone to “love” catering to those whims. If you can get the monkey to dance, more power to you. Heh.

twoheads said...

scubachef... Please!
Don't infantilize us. Vegetarianism is a choice, not unlike the choices people make for religious, allergy or health reasons. No one should have to eat something they don't want.
It is just plain bad business for a restaurant to throw a few bad vegetarian options on the menu and then serve something disgusting or not really vegetarian. Most of us who eat out are not contrarian or picky eaters. We like to eat. We like food. Chefs should like us. If they do not want to cook for us, don't. Restaurants that do make an effort are usually rewarded with our patronage and yes, love.

Jacob said...

After hearing Brandon getting reamed for refreshing honesty, I would certainly hestitate to be interviewed for this column if asked.

I love how those who actually serve eaters seem to be pretty universal in their assessment that vegetarians are never sastified, but the practicing vegetarians all seem to be pretty vocal in their denials of said behavior.

Reminds me of the old chestnut about how the Sunday church crowd are the rudest customer (as well as the stingiest tippers). While this is not universal, I think enough of the crowd insists on making a fool of themselves to the point where it clouds servers perception of the whole crowd. I think the same can be said here (though I don't mean to imply that pickiness should be compared with making a fool of oneselves).

Anonymous said...

As a chef and owner of a restaurant (which will go unnamed to avoid sounding like an opportunist), approx. 25% of my menu is vegetarian. I have two vegetarian cooks in my kitchen who catch some pretty serious s**t from me sometimes about their inability to taste certain foods that come out of my kitchen. My wife was raised vegetarian, and her mother is as die hard a vegetarian as there has ever been. With all that being said, I find cooking vegetarian food to be a serious challenge, and have found that I am not very good at it quite frankly. I think chefs are always trying to *replace* the "protein" of a certain meal when all a vegetarian wants are some really well prepared and thoughtfully conceived vegetables that don't look like it was an afterthought for the kitchen. I use a ton a of stocks made with bones, I adore animal fats to use as cooking mediums, and I just find it very hard to get vegetarian food to "fit" into my vision of what tastes good. Aside from 4 dishes on our menu that are vegetarian (which most non-vegetarians don't know are vegetarian dishes) we offer several options for people who are "pescatarian" which is a rapidly growing segment of the market. On top of all that we have a notation at the bottom of our menu that basically says, if you don't like the vegetarian options that are on the menu, we will customize a dish to your preference. I guess I am trying to make a few points here.
1) Chefs are becoming more sensitive to the needs of all kinds of diners in Indy whether they be a vegetarian, Low Carb dieters, or a person who is "allergic" to anything that could conceivably be put on a plate. It is our JOB to know how to accommodate you, as best we can, no matter how you like to eat.
2) Chefs who are non vegetarians have such a problem with vegetarians for a couple of reasons. We don't understand ANYONE who is unwilling to open their minds about food, this is just part of our genetic makeup, we love food in all its forms, and think EVERYONE else should too, amen. And, we don't understand what it is exactly that vegetarians want. It is just a big understanding, vegetarians could never understand us and vice versa. But, at the end of the is OUR job to try to understand as much as we can about our clientele.

Keith and Esther said...

You would make a poor super hero, I made you in a second! :) You continue to impress both me and my wife as a very astute businessman and restaurateur. We are full on meat loving, bone chewing, crispy skin loving eaters. But good food is good food, veg or non-veg. I never thought I would eat at, let alone, enjoy a vegetarian restaurant. However, one of our all time favourite places to dine the world over is a vegetarian joint. I have left a link below for chefs and vegetarians in town to check out.

braingirl said...

You commenters make me proud that we can have an actual *discussion* here instead of it dissolving into the name calling and nastiness on too many blogs. Thanks for that.

And thanks to Brandon for sparking the discussion. (Any intelligent discourse where one side can learn about the other is good.)

Lastly, if you're interested in more on the challenges of vegetarian cooking in restaurants, David Kamp (in his book, The United States of Arugula) has a great section on the origin of Greens in San Francsico, the classic all veg place, and what the chefs/restauranters learned.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous chef, I second Keith and Esther's comments. Keep up the great work. While I love meats of all kinds, my sister and mother are both vegetarians and I know how hard it is for them to find a decent dish at many restaurants, so I appreciate places that try to accommodate them.

Kirsten said...

One final comment from me: This whole discussion makes me miss Essential Edibles even more. Becky Hostetter's food offered everyone the chance to see what really good meat-free food can be. (To be transparent, Becky's also a friend who prepared the food that I ate both on my prom night and at my wedding.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great discussion. I think it's hard to be both a vegetarian and a foodie, and sometimes we feel left out when the discussion turns to duck fat or pork belly. The thing that really drives me crazy is restaurants that only provide a salad option; I don't patronize them again. But I'm fiercly loyal to the restaurants that offer consistently great options, such as R Bistro. A little bit of effort goes a long way toward making me a happy diner, so I really don't know who these picky, crabby vegetarians are.

Anonymous said...

Love the dialog and the suggestions for veg friendly dining. Braingirl, please check your spelling: restaurateur properly spelled has no "n"