Part Four: Working with CVap, and Painting for Pleasure

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

When you think about CVap itself, and you did tell me that…you absolutely credit it to being able to do this.

I think I brought you and Mr. Winston back, and I said “look, it’s me, Matt, and see that CVap? It’s named Bob.

So, what about CVap do you think allowed you to do that?

Well, we were serving, I think, food that visually was very appealing. Also, incredibly delicious. The way we were doing it is, we were able to approach it from the perspective of, if I can have one cook, or myself, prepare the garnish for the dish, the protein can go into the CVap for a set period of minutes or time, or even longer. Just hold it there. Then I don’t need to worry about the second or third pan on the pickup. And if you’re able to do that, you’ve now freed yourself to take care of one, two, maybe three other dishes that need to go out in the course of the service, to set up again that particular course.

And that’s the way we ran that restaurant for several years. It’s somewhat difficult, because you’ve got to make sure if you’re using it for several applications, whatever setting you’re using that CVap for, that it’s going to apply to both. Otherwise, you’re going to have a wall of CVaps. That may work for the Culinary Institute of America, but we’re a restaurant. We were able to do it successfully.

Octopus

Cool, cool. This has been very interesting. Through your career, and I mean both as a lawyer and a chef and restauranteur, consultant. Who were your mentors? How did you find them?

Well, in terms of CVap, it was always a fascinating machine. When we got to The Crimson Sparrow…I can’t remember how I came to run into Tony Martino. I don’t know how that came about. But between you and Tony, that’s where we got most of learning and information about the CVap. Because like I said, we were very fascinated by it. We didn’t want to spend the $25,000 for the combi ovens. We thought this was a better application for what we wanted to do anyway. And, you know, CVap…you and Tony were incredibly generous with your time. And you also had a great deal of information about recipes and cooking. But I remember at the time a lot of the recipes we were given were really large industrial kind of school menus. We had to kind of extrapolate a little bit, do a little experimentation. We also had the HACCP license so, things that we could do…sous vide we could also do in the CVap oven. 

So, in terms of CVap, it was you and Tony and the folks right there. Because I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t know a lot of people who used them. It was only after, I guess we’d been open five or six years when I went to one of the Star Chefs, and I think there was a whole presentation about CVap. People were like “wow, this sounds great! Where do you get it?” At that time, I’m not making it out as ancient history, we were finishing up the last corner on the wheel. It was a situation where there wasn’t a whole lot information…and I want to make this sound right…not a whole lot of information out there for standalone restaurants that were interested in the technology. It was a different application that was driving Winston at that point. 

I think since then, now you have all these chefs and people talking about how they use it, the best application for it. There’s much more information. So, I think in terms of trying to proffer to a younger chef or a restaurant owner ‘hey you ought to look into this machine.’ There’s a lot more available information to actually see it being done. I think we did a video in the early, early days of Crimson Sparrow about how about we used the CVap cooking octopus. We did an octopus dish; I think it was a kimchi romesco.

We did that video, I think…I haven’t looked at that video in a long time. If you look at that video, I don’t think we have the shelves up in the kitchen. But yeah, those are the types of things that I think…we were learning along with running the restaurant.

I would go one step further; I’d say we were learning with you as well, because I’d been using it for years, and doing all types of cooking with it myself and the fashion that you’re talking about. But the focus of Winston’s business really was chain oriented, like you said. And also, school and institutional type cooking. So, when we started working with you, we saw things that we’d not seen before because the things you were doing with it hadn’t been done before. And then, all of the sudden it’s like there was an explosion. Now there’s not a serious chef, I don’t think, that doesn’t know what CVap is and what they can do with them.

Exactly. It’s incredible how it’s become part of the equipment lexicon in restaurants. I’ve got a lot of ideas I’d like to share with you. One of ’em, I just wanna make sure you understand…we did really screw some things up, foodwise. We got one of those industrial machines with the juiced fan. I remember, there as a time, we tried to put pheasant in it. We made the best pheasant jerky you can imagine. I mean, there was no rulebook. I don’t know that Mary Monroe High School in Bel Air, Maryland is cooking pheasant for the kids. 

So, we were trying to learn with you guys. And that was the whole point of the exchanges. We found that one of the coolest applications…we found that for our pastry program…muffins, cakes…man, it was magic and incredibly easy and almost, I wanna say, almost failsafe. Unless, like, in the last ten minutes of cooking you got drunk and slipped into a three-hour nap and woke up, I mean, you couldn’t screw it up. It was really, really a great application for it.

I know you did a lot with custards and eggs well.

We were doing a lot of things in the CVap. Particularly fish. I mean salmon, and it made a fine dining restaurant’s preparation of salmon completely easy. There were no overcooked. It came out perfectly warmed in the center, pink and unctuous and delicious. Those were things that, again, not only did I save on labor costs, I didn’t even have to teach someone out of culinary school or a restaurant “hey look, don’t hammer the salmon!” It made life much easier.

What is your favorite fish, and why? And then, what’s the secret to good sake?

Ah, sake. So, in terms of a fish, I eat an extraordinary amount of fish. I’ll tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like salmon.

I’m in the same camp.

It’s too oily, I just don’t like it. Orange and red meat fish, I’m not a fan of. I prefer things that have crispy skins, like sebring, things like that. Then my other favorites are things like clams, squid, octopus, I’m a big fan of that texture. It’s got a good chew to it. I prefer that if we’re going to say “hey, let’s eat some seafood.” I prefer that, or like a shellfish. In terms of sake, if you can’t have a sake advisor, a san, whatever term you want to use. 

We had an extensive sake menu at The Crimson Sparrow, and later at Oka, and a couple other restaurants. But sake is another one of those things, it’s incredibly delicious, incredibly fascinating cultural aspect of Japanese cuisine and dining and izakaya culture as well. But it’s really up to the taste of the drinker. There are sakes that are inherently light. Maybe a bit sweet. There are ones that are really ricey, and then some that are very bold, very forward in their flavors. You have floral types, and you have aged sake. There’s a myriad of different types of sake. If you were to pin me down and say, “what is your favorite sake?” My flavor usually tends toward Junmai Ginjo. Junmai is a rice brew, it has no added alcohol to it, and then the ginjo indicating the polish rate, which is less than 60% remaining after they’ve polished the rice. I find those to be a nice balance of rice, florality, also mouthfeel. It’s really delicious. 

We were doing beverage programs at The Crimson Sparrow that incorporate it. It was another one of those situations where in the beginning we were offering a full wine pairing, and we found that incorporating sake added a different adventuresome element that diners seem to really appreciate. I will tell you that one of the benefits of serving sake as part of your beverage program is that the waste rate on wine is horrendous. You open a bottle of wine, you go through it, then you have to open one more bottle to get through the service. And a day or so later you got to dump it, or use it for some application in the kitchen, hopefully. Whereas sake, the shelf life is long. In a successful ongoing restaurant operation, you should have zero sake waste. So, if you look at it the perspective of 50% of your beverage drains are sake, you hopefully cut down on your wastage, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent. We loved that aspect of it. More, we appreciated the fact that sake has what wine will never have, which is elements of umami that helps the whole experience, and helps the dining experience.

You were asking me about restaurants in New York. And the startup of a restaurant in New York is incredibly expensive. One thing that I was thinking about in anticipation of our talk today was even before the pandemic, it was becoming increasingly difficult for restaurants to recruit cooks. For whatever reason. People don’t want to be in the kitchen. Don’t want to cook. Don’t wanna put in the hours, find that there’s more money out front of house. Whatever the case is.

So, before the pandemic, and this has been going on for a while, I have been bouncing the idea of a restaurant that would incorporate one, two, three different CVaps, which would allow a kitchen to be run on a skeleton, like we talked about before. But because there are aspects of CVap that provide other cost savings…namely, it doesn’t need to be hooded. So, if you’re looking at the construction of a restaurant, and you’re looking at a ten-foot hood, you’re looking at a hood that’s incredibly expensive. However, if you’ve got elements of your equipment, namely a CVap, that can then be slid under a counter and have more workable space, you can now have a six-foot hood, or a five-foot hood. You have just cut the major cost in your kitchen design in half. It also takes care of the labor issue, to an extent, in that you’ve got a unit that can not only on a large format basis prepare the food, during serve it can serve to hold things or reheat things that you can make for an easy pick up.

Those are the things that, I think, as we were looking at spaces in New York, we were looking to design smaller spaces with heavy influence or heavy intention on the sake and shōchū beverage end of it. And then saving money on the kitchen operation by eliminating the need for six chefs or five cooks and a dishwasher. We were looking at an operation that could be run by one or two people.

The thing that I would recommend to anyone is look into the CVap because of the variety of applications, both from browning, searing, capacity, poaching capacity, steaming…it goes on and on and on. As opposed to “I gotta have this conventional convection oven, I’ve gotta have this whole line.” You can replace a whole line in one piece of equipment.

As we come out of the pandemic, I think we’re going to see a reversion back to smaller restaurants. I think the days of the 400-seat meat packing bazaar (and I mean both b-a-z-a-a-r and b-i-z-a-r-r-e), I think those days are gone. Because if this revists us, you’re back to 50-person capacity in a 400-seat food hall. I think we’re going to see a return to airier, lighter, smaller spaces that can absorb an impact. If that’s the case, then chefs and operators really need to readjust their thinking to how they can save on equipment, but also labor. The way that they need to smartly do that is to consider multi-application machines like CVap. That is the way that you get around a lot of these issues. It’s going to take a corresponding adjustment, sort of a re-calculation of how they prepare food, what food they prepare. Find innovative ways to simulate and/or achieve the same textures and flavors they did before with other applications. But that’s where we’re gonna be post-pandemic. I think that’s one of the important things, in a city like New York, particularly, the multiple application uses of a machine that basically slides under your counter and quietly does the work that two cooks could do.

Man, I couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement there!

I looked at three different spaces and basically, we were lining them out to be CVap kitchens. It would have been fun, but we’ll see what post-pandemic holds.

This is something that everybody else doesn’t know. A lot of people don’t know this, but you’re a pretty well-known artist. Tell us about that.

A lot of people know me…I don’t think they know me as an artist. I started painting a couple of years ago. I still had The Crimson Sparrow. You know, you find things in life that you really, really enjoy doing, and that’s one of ’em. I paint every single day. I have had a great sort of mentor guiding me through and kind of giving me the encouragement that I think I needed. His name is Paul Hunter, he’s an incredible artist. He is very, very well known.

I’ve sold some paintings. Just recently I’ve been picked up by a very large Japanese gallery in Tokyo. Also, a couple other opportunities have that popped up. So, things you force in life usually end up not working out, things that you pursue because you enjoy them, you find it to be a healthy outlet usually lead to things that are beneficial or opportunities that you really never knew existed or you never imagined taking advantage of.

So right now, I’m just really enjoying it. Let’s face it, outside of trying to help people through very difficult times it’s a way to, one decompresses, kind of forget about all the nonsense that is going on, but also the hope that it will lead to something financially beneficial and also make my life a little bit better. I’ve really enjoyed. If you want to check it all out it’s on Instagram at @Sparrow_Suzume_art.

The Last of Summer

There you go! So, it’s all about flow, right?

You just gotta go with the flow. Particularly nowadays. People say, ‘oh, you’re doing this consulting, you’re taking money from people that really don’t have it.’ I’m not crazy about it myself, but a lot of my consulting is well below market average, and in many cases, it’s free. It’s the idea that we’ve got to get together and help each other and get people through this. Yeah, it’s not to take advantage of them and not to parasitically benefit from their trying times.

And what we’re trying to do, not to make it sound too heroic, we’re trying to save an industry and people within it who have set up their life around this. In some cases, generationally. These people need our help. It’s incredibly difficult to hear these stories. You think I’m frustrated. Thankfully, when this broke, I had just got out of my last restaurant deal, and so I don’t have a restaurant right now.

I’ve got that figured out, and it’s in the future, and it’s in Louisville. It’s a sake bar – art gallery.

Let’s buy some horses too.

Maybe a sake and bourbon bar or something.

Throw some shōchū in there too, some of the barrel-aged shōchū. It tastes like bourbon. My encouragement would be…there is something to be said for helping other people. And if you own a restaurant and you’re floundering, and you don’t know what to do, ask another restaurant owner. Ask someone for help. I mean, call me if you want. But also, if you’re holding water if you’re doing well, help your neighbor. If you know someone who’s in trouble, someone in dire straits or on the skids, call them, reach out to them. Nobody in this industry should be left alone at this point. Not only from the perspective of financial health and business health. We also need to take care of people’s mental health. There was mental health and addiction in the industry long before the pandemic. I can almost virtually assure you 101 percent that it hasn’t gotten better during the pandemic.

So, people really need to take care of each other, to help each other, and need to offer. You know, sometimes we want to tear down the competition, beat the competition. There’s no competition anymore. This is six people in a floundering boat. We need all pails on deck, and people really need to help. If you’re not helping, you’re part of problem.

What a beautiful message to end this on. John, I appreciate your friendship and your time.

Autumn Heather
Lernaean Hydra in Situ
Yesteryear