The following is the first of what I hope to be a series of interviews with Boston area chefs.
Meet Chef Josh. Chef Josh runs the kitchen at the Washington Square Tavern in Brookline, one of my favorite restaurants. The focus at the Tavern is on seasonal American bistro food and great wine. Josh has worked and trained at The Elephant Walk, Mistral, and the Federalist - a rather impressive roster. He was kind enough to take 40 minutes of his time to humor me and speak into my little voice recorder.
Thank you, Jonathan, for facilitating and chaperoning the interview. I am much obliged.
Thank you, Josh, for your time and patience. It was a fun afternoon. And long(ish) evening.
Here we go.
A: Do you yell?
Chef Josh: No.
A: Not a yeller?
CJ: No, not a yeller. Once, maybe twice a year.
A: Were you yelled at when you were training?
CJ: Yes, that’s why I don’t yell.
A: If you were to have your very own restaurant, what would it be like?
CJ: It would probably be similar to this place. Small, American bistro food, wine, beer. There would not be burgers on the menu.
A: You hate burgers?
CJ: I don’t actually hate burgers, I hate cooking them. I’ll eat them.
A: How do you come up with something new for the menu? What is the process? Do you make it at home a few times?
CJ: I usually spend the owner’s money and make it here [at the restaurant]. Usually specials - try it as a special, see how it works, what the feedback is, and go from there. Every dish is pretty much the same, meat/protein, vegetables, starch, sauce, done. Just different combinations of that.
Jonathan: Do you wish the menu changed more often?
CJ: No! I could not come up with ideas. Every two months is a lot. I’ve never worked any place else where the menu changes as much. There are like 8 seasons according to this place.
CJ: Probably four times a year. Most places I worked, that’s what it was. Some things never change, like the burger. I don’t even have to cook those. It still bothers me. Last night a table of four, four adults, grown ups, came in for dinner. I am looking out, think “Oh they’re drinking wine, maybe they’ll get some fish.” Four burgers. And these people are like forty. Look, I’ll eat a burger too but if you go out on a Saturday night, splurge a little bit, you know, get a steak. You don’t need a sandwich. You can have that at home.
A: Grown-ups don’t eat sandwiches?
CJ: No, they do, but have you ever gone out with your parents and they say I’ll have aaaaa sandwich for dinner. [Me: Uuhh, no]. We get people that come in here [and say] “I love the food here. You do a great job… I get the burger every time.“ Huh? Wha? I’ll go get the guy who makes the burgers and you can tell him.
A: You didn’t go to culinary school, right?
CJ: No, I didn’t. I have just been doing this a long time, working in restaurants, delis. Started out washing dishes… sob story… without a dishwashing machine. I have done everything, which is nice because I wouldn’t ask any of these people that I work with to do anything that I haven’t done. Maybe that’s why I don’t yell. It’s pretty easy when you’re not washing dishes.
A: So you learned all the techniques just through working?
CJ: I learned a lot at the Elephant Walk, a little at Mistral, a little at the Federalist. Learned a lot here just messing around with stuff. When you’re a line cook and you just show up and everything is done for you every day, your station is all set up, everything is cut up, all your sauces are done, and you just go, cook, and leave. It’s hard to pick things up that way. Yeah, I learned a lot… Learn something from everybody if you want to.
A: There is always a trendy food. Do you follow the food trends?
CJ: No, I don’t know. What’s trendy right now? Am I out of it? Am I in it? No, I don’t really care. I don’t follow it. I don’t ever plan on foaming anything unless it’s a latte. No foam, no tapas, whatever the next hot thing is.
A: What’s you wish list for next round of menus?
CJ: Foam, of course foam. I don’t want to say starch free, but I am sick of potatoes. Really light summer stuff. No more mashed potatoes, I don’t want roasted potatoes. I am kind of sick of starch so I hope they let me get away with some starch-less dishes, salad, green vegetables, light and clean.
CJ: Searing seems to be the way. We have two stations. It’s either sauté or grill, so I would say searing is pretty constant, and then pan sauce is a pretty constant thing.
A: What won’t you ever eat, ever?
CJ: It’s the worms, it’s the way they fish it now. It’s no longer harpooned, it’s all long lined and the fish drowns. I don’t like it. I don’t like the meat, I don’t like to cut it, clean it, nothing about it appeals to me. [Face contorted with active disgust]. I think that’s the only thing I will never eat.
P.S. Lesson learned? Think twice about ordering a burger at a nice restaurant. The chef may take offense. Rightfully.
P.P.S. Interviewing people is hard! I have a new-found respect for Jay Leno. In the interest of, well, interest, I moved some stuff around in the interview, cut things out, nothing ethically or morally challenging, but just enough to make it readable. Bear with me, I hope to get better as I go along.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Veal marsala with truffled mushroom risotto and lemony arugula (my favorite thing on this menu, closely followed by the lamb lollipops).*
Jonathan: How often do they change the menu at Mistral?
A: What’s the one technique you go back to every time?
CJ: Swordfish. Ever.A: Is it the bugs?
* Please forgive the crap photos. It's dark in the Tavern, as the name might suggest.