Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Chef Josh

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.

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?
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.

Seared tuna with pickled haricots verts (amazing) and wasabi mayo.*

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.

A: What’s the one technique you go back to every time?
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: Swordfish. Ever.
A: Is it the bugs?
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.

* Please forgive the crap photos. It's dark in the Tavern, as the name might suggest.

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.


Jonathan said...

The pics came out great. Very nice flow and a very nice interview. Who's on tap next?

JC said...

Cool interview. Intersting about the swordfish. When he mentioned foams it made me think of that jerk on Top Chef last season who did foams all the time. And the tapas made me think of the other jerk who made Spanish dishes all the time.

Anna said...

Jonathan - thank you! I am all sorts od insecure about this whole interview business. Jim (Publick House) is up next. He just doesn't know it yet :)

JC - Good to have you back in rotation! I actually have never seen Top Chef. I am the worst kind of non-TV-watching dork. So they follow the trends, eh? Doesn't seem like a good way of coming off as a trendsetter, does it...

aimee said...

Great picture of Chef Josh! Is it just me that has a hard time saying that? It wants to come out Chesh Jof for some reason. Anyhoo, the interview is nice and relaxed, I like the informality of it. I especially like that you had to double check on the yelling thing! Hah.

Just out of curiosity, how are you approaching the chefs for interview?

Anna said...

Good point. I didn't practice saying Chef Josh before writing up the interview. It's not pleasant.

Thus far, the chefs are from places that I go to regularly. I have come to know them over time. I am going to run out of those pretty soon though. May need an alternate strategy for future interviews. I am not above bribes and pleading.

Anonymous said...

Very nice... been a bit behind on my blog following, but I'm rightfully sick of science slides and sickly :) Well, though we tend to frequent a few specific places, you (and, maybe a guest?) are charming enough to approach anyone... especially for a mojito and cubano :) Also, thought about Charlie? If you can connect there, I have a feeling that a large trap-door would be flung open. Perhaps an excuse to get drinks and appetizers at Harvest sometime soon? And, I loooove the picture, very nice!

Anna said...

Hey Lissa, I have thought about Charlie - was going to email Andy about it but... Charlie is going to have a baby any minute. I really don't want to ask for any of his time right now. Then again, once he has that baby, he will have even less time. I dunno.