Operator Corner: Chef John McCarthy

Chef John McCarthy

The Renaissance Man

Chef John McCarthy is the living embodiment of a renaissance man. His professional career includes the roles of lawyer, chef, consultant, and artist.

John McCarthy began his professional life as a lawyer, only to realize his true passion. He decided to attend the French Culinary Institute. Upon graduating from FCI (top of his class), he went to work for Chef Wylie Dufresne at wd~50 in New York City.

John is a certified sommelier and an authority on sake. He has lived and traveled extensively in Asia and is highly accomplished in Asian cuisine.

His first restaurant, The Crimson Sparrow, was a critically acclaimed spot in Hudson, New York. The next restaurant, Oka, was a Manhattan restaurant serving John’s interpretation of Japanese izakaya fare.

The pandemic forced John to delay plans on new concepts. He transitioned to serving as a foodservice consultant and further developing his growing popularity as an abstract artist.

In this interview, John sat down (virtually) with an old friend, the late Chef Barry Yates. It took place in December 2020, during the brutal first year of the pandemic. John shared his thoughts on the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry, and the challenges facing operators in large population centers. He offered us a frank and honest look at the reality of the industry in the midst of a crisis

Interview at a Glance

[Barry Yates] It’s good to see your face!

[John McCarthy] “Yeah, it’s been a while.”

[Barry Yates] You don’t look any different.

[John McCarthy] “Yep, still fat. [laughs] Never trust a skinny chef, right Barry?”

[Barry Yates] Yes, that’s right. [laughs]. Did you have a chance to look at our other Operator Corner posts?

[John McCarthy] “Yes. It’s fascinating to me because I was using your products back in 2008. I guess that would have been the first time. And we had CVaps in The Crimson Sparrow from day one, from 2012 until we closed it in 2019. We had three different ones at one point. We had what I think you called the Silver Edition, which was the box. That was our workhorse. And then we’d gotten another one that was really industrial, that I think was primarily a school version. And then we also got one of your prototype counter models.”

[Barry Yates] Yeah, the Pod.

[John McCarthy] “Yeah, we tried to use that from time to time. It was more of an experiment. We liked the size of that one [laughs]. My point is, looking at the models now, it looks like they are Ferraris compared to what they used to be. I feel like I used dad’s ’56 Thunderbird. Which isn’t bad. They were phenomenal. I could expand upon it all. It’s amazing to see where you are now, you know. In terms of functionality, I’m sure, is much much better. They also look sleek and really well designed. I just wanted to say that out front.”

Chef John McCarthy

The Crimson Sparrow

[Barry Yates] I loved The Crimson Sparrow in Hudson. What kind of building was that before you got it?

[John McCarthy] “It was about 150, 160 years old. Initially it was a house. Then off the back side of it, up where my office was, there was another entryway into the building. It was primarily a horse carriage repair shop. There was a pulley system. They would pull the carriages up and work on them up in the top. And then, at the turn of the last century, it became a bakery. We actually had the sign, and some of the script, the coins. It was called Rose’s Bakery. And in fact, one of our rooms was basically built out of the oven. Then it became a Maytag repair shop for a while. And then it was an antique dealer’s house and showroom. Finally we took it. But it was actually two buildings. One side was all The Crimson Sparrow, with living quarters above it. And the other side we leased out. I sold them all in 2019.”

John McCarthy's The Crimson Sparrow[Barry Yates] One part of the building was a full, open kitchen. Had huge glass, that sat behind the actual restaurant. There was a courtyard in between the restaurant and the kitchen. I can’t tell you how cool it was to sit in that courtyard and watch everything that was going on in that kitchen.

[John McCarthy] “The windows were 18 feet wide by six feet tall. That actually was the garage. The cool thing about that garage, and why we decided to put the kitchen there, was that we found that the garage had drainage in the floor directly out into the street and city sewer. And we were like “wow, we could put a kitchen in here and just hose down the floor every night.” It turned out that portion of the property, that garage, was ceded to 746, which was the address for our building, from the building next door. On the corner. The reason there were drains in the floor was that the building next door used to be an Edsel and Packard dealership. That’s where they would pull the cars around and wash them. We got really lucky with that. We built the kitchen in there, a full galley kitchen, with Jade ranges and the CVaps, all stainless. Big stainless hood. And on the roof, we actually put an herb garden and produce garden.”

[Barry Yates] It was one of my favorite restaurants, outside of the fact that it was your food, it was just totally cool. It was right in downtown Hudson, historic Hudson. It was just cool.

[John McCarthy] “It was fun while it lasted.”

[Barry Yates] I had some of my most memorable meals there. I hate that it’s not there so I could go to it again.

[John McCarthy] “That’s where I met Mr. Winston [Shelton].”

[Barry Yates] Yeah, it is! I got Winston there once, didn’t I?

[John McCarthy] “Right on.”

Getting Started

[Barry Yates] Let’s go from the start. Give us a little bit about you. How you became a chef. You were originally a lawyer, right? In Manhattan. How did you go from lawyer to chef?

[John McCarthy] “I always worked in restaurants when I was younger. And I wanted to pursue that. When you’re young, you listen to what your parents suggest. So, I didn’t go to culinary school. Instead, I went to college. Even going to college, I cooked and worked and dabbled in it. Came home for breaks and was back in restaurants again. When I graduated from college in 1989, the economy wasn’t great. It was a nightmare.”

“For a year or two after that, the economy was horrible. People didn’t get the greatest jobs coming out of college. I actually worked for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for a while. And then I said, “if you can’t get a great job, you might as well get more schooling.” That was the attitude then. And the government’s always willing to loan you more money to go to college. So, I went to law school. And following that, I got a clerkship to be a clerk for the United States Court of Appeals Judge for the Third Circuit. I did that for a year. Got recruited out of that to go to Tennessee.” 

“You know how it goes, things that sort of roll along. And you get into this golden handcuff kind of situation where you move, you make more. As I was doing it, with every step I took, I became more and more miserable. I did not enjoy being a lawyer. But I did it for a long time.”

Transitioning From Law to Food

[John McCarthy] “At one point, my wife and I were walking in downtown Soho and passed the French Culinary Institute, and she suggested that I take some amateur courses. I took a 12-week course. About four weeks in, one of the instructors came to me and said “you know, if you ever want to do this professionally, you should do it.” I thought “yeah, where were you about 15 years ago?” And then, slowly I started talking to my wife, and I decided okay, I will enroll as a full-time student. So, I enrolled in the professional course and graduated top of the class. Got some great mentoring out of people there. Met Dave Arnold while I was there. I was interning while I was working as a lawyer, going to school, and interning for Dave. And Dave said “hey man, this is just school. I’m going to introduce you to my brother-in-law. You should work there.” And that was Wylie Dufresne.”

“So I started working at wd~50. I was working while going to school. After graduating, I went to work at wd~50. Was there for five or six years. And then I purchased the buildings upstate in Hudson, because I had a house up here. I thought “man, wouldn’t it be cool to actually own a restaurant where you had an asset.” As opposed to in New York, where you pour a million and a half dollars into the property that basically just makes it a more valuable property for the landlord. And after seven years, you’re starting to get humped for an 80% rent raise. I was thinking about that the whole time.”

John McCarthy's Oka

Asset vs. Lease

[Barry Yates] That’s something that we haven’t touched on. Give a little more insight into what you just said. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I learned early in my career. Talk about asset versus lease, and what it means in New York City.

[John McCarthy] “Sure. Even before the pandemic and the lockdowns, we were seeing a tremendous flight of younger, talented cooks and chefs leaving New York City. It wasn’t for want of venture capital to invest in restaurant creation. They were looking for the stability of a restaurant. You can go back to your home in Washington, Minnesota, or Indiana. And just because you leave New York City doesn’t mean that you suddenly forget how to cook fine dining or innovative food. You need to be sensitive, obviously, to the market that’s there. I think that New York, Chicago, and Los Angles are a bit more receptive to it because you’ve got a larger group of people who are into cultural activities, and there’s a vibe movement afoot.”

“But say a young 30-something chef decides he or she wants to open a restaurant. Say a 1000-square-foot restaurant. You’re looking at rent somewhere around 17 to 19 thousand dollars a month. You add on the insurances, you add on the city…we’ll call it a regressive tax, the DOH inspections; the fines; the compliance. You’re looking at a nut that is incredibly huge. Throw in the fact that a liquor license in the city will cost you…lawyers and everything else…around fifty to sixty thousand dollars. Not to mention appearances before the community boards, and fighting with the SLA [State Liquor Authority]. So, your initial investment – build-out, furniture, we’ll call them the tangentials – you’re looking at a million dollars, minimum. And even more, if it’s a new build-out, not an existing restaurant space.”

“Now there are spaces where you can get away with things that are cheaper. But when you’re paying almost $20,000 in your required three months’ rent, first, and security, and then the first and last. There’s a hundred grand out of your pocket.”

Chefs Are Leaving Big Cities

[John McCarthy] “Maybe it was the lawyer esthetic in my head. I thought, if we’re going to do this, taking into account the failure rate of restaurants, we want to have some kind of parachute should it not work. Even if it does work – say for seven or eight years like The Crimson Sparrow – at the end of the experience, you have an asset that’s increased in value. So, we looked in a 25-mile radius of my house upstate, probably at 40 or 50 properties. We settled on one in Hudson. And by the grace of God and good old capitalist greed, the building increased in value almost 75 percent when we sold. We also had all the things that were in the facility that we sold to the next buyer as well. But that allowed us, if you take into account the yearly depreciation, the write-offs for taxes, salaries pulled from the property, and then you’re able to lump a big sum on your four or five investors and get them, if not whole, even a little bit more. It’s a zero-sum game with other people’s money. So, we did very well. And it’s a model that is becoming much more popular as these urban centers become much, much more difficult.”

“Until the larger metropolitan areas start viewing restaurants as an asset to draw tourists and income, instead of a revenue source for fines and levees, and things like that, I think there’s going to be a continued preference for places that aren’t eight, ten million people. Maybe I discussed it with you or Mr. Winston, the great chefs in Kentucky. Ed Lee is down there. You don’t need to be in a large urban center to be a success.”

“I don’t know if we were rationalizing it, but we were doing a lot of research. If you look at the number of franchises that are in the U.S. that are not located in any of the big northeastern cities and that are multi-million-dollar operations, it brings you to the conclusion that it’s not a path of least resistance. It’s not a fear of doing business in New York. It is simply financial. Couple that with a lot of these younger chefs that were leaving even before the pandemic. It’s also a lifestyle change. They can go back to where they grew up. Go back to a community that they know. And they can give back to that community the things they’ve learned in NYC, LA, and Chicago. And be very happy with cooking, making money, serving their community, and being part of that again.”

New York City

New York City and the Rent Crisis

[John McCarthy] “I think New York is a wonderful place. But I think it’s gonna go through a decade of very, very difficult times. I think there is something to be said for finding first peace in place, and then pursuing what you want to do. Just because you live in Peoria, Illinois doesn’t mean you can’t fly to Japan, and go to Spain and bring back what you’ve learned. There used to be an obsession to be in New York or Chicago or LA, or even Atlanta. I think that has passed, at least from what I’m seeing. There’s still a desire to be in New York. But again, if you’re not in that pipeline of available capital it will be incredibly difficult.”

“I’m an adviser to the New York Japanese Restaurant Association, run by some very experienced and well-known Japanese restaurateurs. We set it up as a 501C6, which allows us to do lobbying and other activities. One of the main things that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic and lockout was the difficulty the restaurants were having in paying their rent. And in fact, it’s only gotten worse. “

“The last survey from the New York City Hospitality Alliance showed that almost 70% of restaurateurs are not meeting their rent. Now the difficulty comes in looking at it from a business perspective. The landlords are, almost to a person, unwilling to negotiate, renegotiate, or give breaks on rent. Now there are anecdotal examples of landlords slashing rent, or putting it on the back end of the term of lease, or taking up to ten percent of your gross sales, which is the limit under the state liquor authority. But almost across the board, the landlords have not budged. Which means that someone that’s paying $15,000 a month for rent is trying to make that nut solely on delivery, takeout, and only for the last month – 25% capacity. Evidence would suggest that’s nearly impossibility, if not a complete impossibility.”

“The reason for that, if you want to have a discussion about the economic pipeline, is that the state and city have done zero to alleviate the property tax burden on landlords. Couple that with the fact that Morgan Chase and other banks that hold mortgages on these properties want their cut as well. And there’s been no relief on the mortgages. So, everything rolls downhill, from a lack of action by Congress on the Restaurants Act, any direct help to landlords and restaurants. So, as it continues to flow down, everyone’s looking to the last man standing, who is unfortunately the restaurant operator.”

[Barry Yates] And the one with the least capital.

[John McCarthy] There’s no capital. And as they’re all standing on the shoulders of each other, the one getting crushed is the restaurant operator. And until there is a come to Jesus moment and landlords say “we understand you have no income. You can’t service your rent, which then means we can’t service our property tax burden or pay the bank. Therefore we’re gonna go into default.”

“I’m not saying all landlords are that way. There are some multi-billion-dollar real estate conglomerates. We’re talking about a lot of the smaller buildings in what most people would consider the quaint areas of, say, Manhattan – brownstones. Those are typically somebody that’s had a building in their family. They may rely on one or two buildings to actually be their income. But there’s been nothing to adjust it.”

“So, as we come through the pandemic, we’re hoping that restaurants will soon be able to open up. I don’t think the rent is going to adjust. So even though this may have been an optimum time for rent to readjust itself in a downward fashion that would hopefully, after a travesty like this, result in the promotion of more entrepreneurial activity due to the availability of property and the access allowed by lower pricing. It seems to have passed us by. That’s my, well…near illiterate economic view of what’s happening. But the realities are there.”

[Barry Yates] I think that’s a pretty good observation. I’m glad you shared that with us, so we can share it.

[John McCarthy] This is based solely on my interaction with existing restaurant operators who are hoping to pull out of this and stay in there. One of the bigger things to come out of this that’s going to affect the entire restaurant industry is the actions of the insurance companies. Most insurance policies did not include business interruption coverage, or if they did it had to be physical damage to a building. There is a legion of lawsuits out there trying to get business interruption coverage. But I will tell you, we’ve been in this cycle for almost ten months now. This means that on a year-to-year basis, the new insurance policies are going to contain the most onerous and heinous exceptions to viral, bacterial, and other food and airborne diseases. And a big concern is that these policies are so restrictive that they’re actually removing the policies’ foodborne illnesses from coverage. So, restaurant operators are very aware of what the impact of COVID is.” 

“There is going to be a ripple through this industry on so many levels. Not to mention the fact that insurance rates are going to skyrocket. Just a typical response of the insurance industry. But these are things that we’re dealing with on a micro and macro level at the New York Japanese Restaurant Association, in conjunction with another great group called the New York City Hospitality Alliance, who really take the point on a lot of these issues. But that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to help these restaurant operators deal with the day-to-day issues that come up, in terms of restrictions, regulations, and lockdowns. But also trying to anticipate what business considerations they need to take into the equation to ensure that they’re gonna make money.”

[Barry Yates] So, based on your experience with the associations in New York, and knowing that these ripples are not just in New York, it’s across our whole industry, right? Are you aware of any super PAC or hospitality associations that are going to say, ‘we’re one of the largest employers, as an industry.’ Do you see anything coming in the works that are going to get better representation for independent operators?

[John McCarthy] The National Restaurant Association is one of the largest groups out there. The New York City Hospitality Alliance is another great. We have another New York State Restaurant Association. There are a lot of associations. I think the difficulty they are all having, and that we have all had, is that there is a logjam in Congress. And when one side is fighting for a billion dollars and another one is fighting for 1.6 billion dollars, for some reason they can’t come up with a solution. Only those who are truly in need and vulnerable are held hostage. And if we look at what’s going on today, there is slim to no chance that that’s ever going to be addressed unless there is a concerted effort to take care of the restaurants. “

“Now the actions of the mayors and governors in New York, Massachusetts, and California should highlight the situation that these restaurant operators and workers really need now. Hopefully, someone is going to take notice. There is some hope for the restaurant operators. I think if you look at how…I’m not going to say it was shortsighted…how optimistic the PPP program was. That provided loans to restaurant operators. It allowed up to 20 percent of it to be used for something other than salaries. But if you applied back in March or April, that money has already been expended. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a second round of the PPP. That program is basically extinguished. So, we were optimistic in March. We’d get through the summer on PPP money, and be back up and kicking forlate  summer or early fall. It just didn’t work out that way. So, we’re in a situation where there’s no money in the pipeline to help these businesses and operators. It’s really an abject failure of everyone involved – President, Congress, whoever you want to blame, that there’s not been a view to helping one of the largest small business sectors in the country.”

[Barry Yates] That brings me to two more questions. What can we do to help out? And let’s just assume that something is done that gets our industry back on track. What does it look like when we’re back really operating and open?

[John McCarthy] So, a couple of things. One, I would urge everyone to contact their reps or senators and push the National Restaurants Act. This needs to be done ASAP. Number two, I’m a bit cynical about it, because I think my lawyer mind kicks in. Even if the restaurant operators and workers were to get money through the restaurants act, you have a group of mayors that is arbitrarily and without constitutional authority locking down businesses, telling them they cannot operate. So, if you give these businesses money but you tell them they can’t open, you’re essentially perpetuating pain. “

Restaurants Are Singled Out in the Pandemic

[John McCarthy] I’ll point out that in New York City, restaurants seem to be the low-hanging fruit of resolution. When there’s an uptick, all of a sudden it must be restaurants. Let’s shut them down or restrict their capacity. In New York, there is a very public demand for data. Because as of yet, we’ve been shown no data that transmission is caused or is rampant coming out of restaurants. In fact, to the contrary, restaurants are conducting business in a way that’s probably the safest out there. Meaning Plexiglas, ventilation systems, air circulation, measures that were taken, people wearing PPE all the time during the interaction. So, there is absolutely no evidence that the restaurants are the cause (meaning that you have to shut them down). “

“Now I’ll point out that in Boston they’ve actually got the data. Boston has shown that point four, point four – less than half a percent of the transmissions identified came out of restaurants. Yet they’re not allowed to operate. In California you have a governor shutting down outdoor dining. If I can’t even bring the outdoors…I’m not sure what’s left for me. A judge in California has just shot down that edict. “

“The problem we’re seeing and, the problem you’re having…this comes from my lawyer brain…is that if this were a law passed by the New York Assembly, or by the House or Senate, groups out of the states, you could challenge it as an unlawful law. I don’t wanna get too political. But these edicts and fiats by mayors that seem to change every two or three weeks leave you with no judicial recourse in an appropriately time-sensitive and exigent fashion to get yourself open. “

“I’ll point out anecdotally Governor Cuomo shut down churches in New York. The Catholic Diocese appealed to the Supreme Court and won. Cuomo dismissed it as irrelevan, because he said that at the time the church was in an orange zone, and now they’re in a yellow zone. So, the facts don’t apply. So, we’re left with these governors and mayors doing what they wish without constitutional recourse. It’s been a very frustrating experience for those people that want to challenge authority, but there’s nothing to challenge because it’s being done in a very cavalier fashion.” 

“Sorry for the diatribe. I think what we’re left with is hoping that there is going to be money put on the table for restaurant operators and workers Not to be too cynical but we’re entering winter in the Northeast. We’re looking at flu. And we’re looking at any other any other number of contagions. It’s not likely that we’ll see the light of day until spring again. They’ve extended outdoor dining in New York. But I’ll tell you that their restrictions on seating capacity, heating, which heat lamps and propane you can or can’t use. It’s onerous. If it snows more than 12 inches all of these restaurants are required to break down all of their outdoor setups and semi-permanent structures, move them inside, let them plow, and then move them back out. I’m not sure that there’s going to be a stampede rush to a three-quarter paneled in the street in February when it’s 4°F outside. What we’re facing is a very very difficult situation, speaking as a New Yorker. We don’t have the conditions for outdoor dining that say LA or Dallas, or San Antonio have. We are in a completely different situation. Frankly, I’ll just say, we need help. We need help in a big way.”

“Here’s where the restaurant operators get frustrated. For example, Governor Cuomo several weeks ago, said “we’ve seen an uptick. So, what we’re gonna do is put a curfew on indoor dining at ten o’clock,” meaning a couple of things. One – is this a suggestion that the virus only attacks people at 10:01? The other thing that he did was require people to be moved out of the restaurant. Well, guess where they’re going? They’re going to probably what is considered illegal gatherings, either in apartments or other spaces. Couple that with the fact that he also stopped to-go and delivery of alcohol after ten o’clock. I do not understand that one. If you’re looking for people to go home, if I can take a bottle with me and finish my conversation with my dinner guests in my apartment with a bottle of booze, so much the better. “

“They’re making these rules up without any justification or rationale. In New York, if you’re going to put a curfew on a restaurant at ten o’clock, and they don’t usually open until six, well guess what? More people are going to show up at the restaurant between six and nine. To get their eat on. This is where we get into this circular kind of frustration. We, as a restaurant group and as a restaurant community are trying to abide as best we can. I guess it’s the one opportunity we have to be part of the collective to get through it. But whatever they’re doing doesn’t seem to be working in terms of the overall infection rate. So we’re left with trying to hold as best we can.”

[Barry Yates] I hear the frustration. I feel it.

John McCarthy's Ramen

Japanese Culture and Cuisine

[Barry Yates] Let’s switch gears. I know about your passion for Japanese culture. Tell us a little bit about it. Not only related to food, but in general.

[John McCarthy] “I lived in Asia when I was a younger guy. I was in South Korea for three and a half years. We traveled pretty extensively through Asia. Japan is one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. As I look back, those experiences had a huge impact on me, because it was when I was 13…14 until I was almost 16…17 years old. It’s during that time when you really start appreciating food. Your impressions of what food you like really kind of take hold. I’ll point out that at that time, in the early 1980s, they didn’t have McDonald’s in South Korea. So, I didn’t eat at McDonald’s for years. The first time I got to eat it was on the Ginza in Tokyo. I remember, I think it might be one of the first stops, like look man, it’s been a year or two, like we need to get down with a Big Mac.”

“You start to appreciate in a very different way living within that culture. What you like and don’t like. It was a very interesting experience. I took away from that a deep appreciation for the food cultures of Asia. So, when I started cooking professionally, I sort of fell in with a lot of the elements that I really appreciated about Asia. They started making their way into my cooking.”

“The first year we had The Crimson Sparrow, we decided to take a couple of weeks off. So, I decided to go to a Japanese friend, a Michelin-starred sushi chef, and ask him if he would let me work in his New York kitchen for a couple of weeks. Funny story…I asked him during dinner. He just looked at me and said ‘no.’ I was like, ‘well, that’s kind of a bummer.’ He went downstairs, and came back about 20 minutes later. He said ‘look, I don’t want you working here. I’m gonna send you to Japan to work with my master. Let’s get drunk.’” 

“So yeah, went to Tokyo to work in his master’s restaurant, for about four weeks. Lived with one of the sushi chefs. I’ll tell you, one month of doing that routine really gives you an appreciation for how hard it is on sushi chefs in Japan. The experience of getting up at four in the morning, going with the chef to Tsukiji market, buying fresh fish, coming back, and butchering on a line with all the other chefs. Eating breakfast with them. Then getting ready for lunch service. Taking a one-hour nap, then coming back for dinner service. Wiping the whole place down, having some drinks, getting up four hours later. I mean, you do that six days a week, it is a brutal existence. But it’s incredibly eye-opening. You build on things. We were able to do pretty much anything we wanted to do at The Crimson Sparrow. The menu became more Japanese ingredient-driven. It wasn’t traditional Japanese.”

[Barry Yates] One of my favorite dishes that you served me was a charred carrot dish. What was that? Where did it come from?

[John McCarthy] “At the time we were cooking a lot of pork belly. We would have a lot of pork fat left. So, we were trying to make the carrot taste like a barbecued hot dog. We would cook them, and then we would hard char them. Then we dehydrated them for about four hours. We would put them in a bag with pork fat, vacuum seal it, and cook it a little bit more. It would rehydrate. And then we would obviously serve. I think we served that with a yeasty sauce because it was supposed to be like the roll. That was an involved process. It was quite a few steps. A couple of people were like ‘hey, why’d you ruin this carrot by vacuum sealing it with pork fat?’ I thought ‘this person will never be my friend.'” 

“We tried to do different things. The Crimson Sparrow was interesting on several levels in Columbia County, New York. We were the first to have a HACCP license. And we were also one of the first restaurants that Open Table took a keen interest in. I think there are 75 or 125 restaurants now on Open Table in Columbia County. There are a lot of forward-leaning, pioneering things. It’s never easy being the first. The second usually has an easier go of it. Just ask the Donner Party, right? If you’re the first you’re going to put up with a lot of, not frustration, but heavy lifting. But we were able to do things like that.”

CVap Helps Replace Cooks

[John McCarthy] “Getting back to how CVap worked in those early days. When we opened, we had six cooks in the kitchen. Slowly, with attrition, we were down to four, maybe three cooks. Basically, we were readjusting the manner in which we were preparing and serving food, and altering the menu design. We were doing ala carte dining. And then about nine months in, we said “let’s put up a tasting menu.” Because frankly, people didn’t know how to order off ala carte. Maybe that was my fault. But we put up a tasting menu. The first weekend we did 150 covers. About 148 ordered the tasting menu. We kind of looked at each other and said ‘well, we’re a tasting menu restaurant.’” 

“We were offering two different levels of tasting menus, one was shorter. The other was longer and had more ingredients. Obviously, the longer was more expensive. Incorporated some things like truffles and foi gras. As we lost a cook, we would just change the manner of preparation. CVap was a big part of that. Because at some point, if you’re pulling two or three dishes off the fish station or meat station, you no longer need a second cook. You just adjust your preparation to use the CVap to fill the cook’s position. So, it actually got down to three cooks. Meat, fish, and a pastry chef. And each of us would rotate, take care of various amuse-bouche. We’d alternate by week, or two weeks, and would take on the pastry when we lost the pastry chef. At one point it was me and one other cook. We did that for almost a year, serving a sometimes 13-course tasting menu. We were able to do it. And it’s primarily due to the way that we were preparing, serving, cooking, holding, and being able to get food out in a very timely fashion. I think I told you that before, CVap was critical.”

Octopus - The Crimson Sparrow

[Barry Yates] You told me you absolutely credit CVap for being able to do this.

[John McCarthy] “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.’

[Barry Yates] So, what about CVap do you think allowed you to do that?

[John McCarthy] “Well, we were serving food that was very appealing visually. Also, incredibly delicious. We approached it from the perspective of – if I can have one cook prepare the garnish for the dish, the protein can go into the CVap for a set period of time. 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.”

[Barry Yates] Throughout your career as a chef, who were your mentors?

[John McCarthy] “Well, in terms of CVap, it was always a fascinating machine. When we got to The Crimson Sparrow I ran into Tony Martino. Between you and Tony, that’s where we got most of our knowledge and information about the CVap. We were very fascinated by it. We didn’t want to spend $25,000 for a combi oven. And we thought this was a better application for what we wanted to do anyway. 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 a lot of the recipes we were given were really large industrial kind of school menus. We had to extrapolate a little bit. Do a little experimentation. We also had the HACCP license. So things that we could do, like sous vide, we could also do in the CVap oven.”

“So, it was you and Tony and the folks right there. Because I didn’t know a lot of people who used them. We’d been open five or six years when I went to one of the Star Chefs. There was a whole presentation about CVap. People were like ‘wow, this sounds great! Where do you get it?’ It was a situation where there wasn’t 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.”

“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 we used the CVap cooking octopus. We did an octopus dish. I think it was a kimchi romesco. But those are the types of things that we were learning, along with running the restaurant.”

[Barry Yates] We were learning from you as well. Because I’d been using it for years, and doing all types of cooking with it myself. But the focus of Winston’s business really was chains. And school and institutional cooking. So, when we started working with you, we saw things we’d not seen before. Because the things you were doing with it hadn’t been done before. And all of a sudden it’s like there was an explosion. Now there’s no serious chef that doesn’t know what CVap is and what they can do with it.

[John McCarthy] “Exactly. It’s incredible how it’s become part of the equipment lexicon in restaurants. I just wanna make sure you understand…we did really screw some things up. We got one of the early model retherm ovens. I remember we tried to put pheasant in it. We made the best pheasant jerky you can imagine. I mean, there was no rule book. 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 was for our pastry program; muffins, and cakes. Man, it was magic and incredibly easy and almost fail-safe. Unless in the last ten minutes of cooking you got drunk and slipped into a three-hour nap and woke up. You couldn’t screw it up. It was really, really a great application for it.”

[Barry Yates] I know you did a lot with custards and eggs well.

[John McCarthy] “We were doing a lot of things in the CVap. Particularly fish, salmon. 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. 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.”

Sake and sushi

Talking Sake and Fish

[Barry Yates] What is your favorite fish, and why? And what’s the secret to good sake?

[John McCarthy] “Ah, sake. So, in terms of fish, I eat an extraordinary amount of fish. I’ll tell you what I don’t like. I don’t like salmon. It’s too oily, I just don’t like it. Orange and red meat fish, I’m not a fan. I prefer things that have crispy skins, like sebring. My other favorites are things like clams, squid, and octopus. I’m a big fan of that texture. It’s got a good chew to it. I prefer that, or like a shellfish.”

“In terms of sake. We had an extensive sake menu at The Crimson Sparrow, and later at Oka, and a couple of 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 pricey. 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.”

Sake Reduces Wine Waste

“We were doing beverage programs at The Crimson Sparrow that incorporate sake. 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 one of the benefits of serving sake as part of your beverage program. The waste rate on typical 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 have to dump it. Or use it for some application in the kitchen. Whereas with sake, the shelf life is long. In a successful ongoing restaurant operation, you should have zero sake waste. So, if you look at it from the perspective of 50 percent 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 help the whole experience, and helps the dining experience.”

Reducing Labor and Space with CVap

[John McCarthy] “You were asking me about restaurants in New York. The startup of a restaurant in New York is incredibly expensive. One thing that I was thinking about, even before the pandemic, is that it’s 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 want to put in the hours. Find that there’s more money out front of house. Whatever the case is.”

“So, before the pandemic, and for a while, I have been bouncing the idea of a restaurant that would incorporate one, two, three different CVaps. It would allow a kitchen to be run on a skeleton crew. 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 five or six-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, it can serve to hold things or reheat things that you can make for an easy pick up.”

“Those are the things that 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 are gone. Because if this revisits 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 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.”

[Barry Yates] Man, I couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement there!

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

Chef and Artist

[Barry Yates] A lot of people don’t know this, but you’re a pretty well-known artist. Tell us about that.

[John McCarthy] “A lot of people know me. I don’t think they know me as an artist. I started painting a couple of years ago. 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 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 of other opportunities have popped up. So, things you force in life usually end up not working out, things that you pursue because you enjoy them, and you find 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 decompress. 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 really enjoy it. If you want to check it all out it’s on Instagram at @Sparrow_Suzume_art.”

The Last of Summer by John McCarthy
Yesteryear by John McCarthy
Pax No. 3 by John McCarthy
Autumn Heather by John McCarthy

Final Thoughts

[John McCarthy] “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. 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. It’s not to take advantage of them. And not to parasitically benefit from their trying times.”

“And what we’re trying to do, 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 gotten out of my last restaurant deal. So I don’t have a restaurant right now.”

[Barry Yates] I’ve got that figured out, and it’s in the future, and it’s in Louisville. It’s a sake bar – art gallery. Maybe a sake and bourbon bar or something.

[John McCarthy] “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 the problem.”

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

Follow John McCarthy

Operator Corner: Chef Andy Husbands

Chef Andy Husbands

Andy Husbands is an accomplished Boston chef. Born in Seattle, Washington, he moved to Massachusetts with his father in 1984. He’s probably best known for his restaurant Tremont 647, a South End fixture from 1996 to 2018. He shuttered that restaurant to focus on his new barbecue concept, The Smoke Shop, which has three locations: Cambridge, Boston’s Seaport, and Sommerville. A fourth is under construction in Harvard Square.

Andy has spent over 20 years on the competitive barbecue circuit (as a member of the IQUE BBQ team, winner of the 2009 Jack Daniels Invitational World BBQ Championships), and has earned national recognition, including appearances on The Food Network, and being named the 2014 Massachusetts Restaurant Association’s Chef of the Year. He’s also authored five cookbooks, including his latest, Pitmaster (co-written with Chris Hart).

Andy spoke to us in the Fall of 2020, a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic. It was (and still is) having a massive impact on the entire restaurant industry. We asked him how his business was weathering the storm.

The following is a conversation between Andy and our late friend, Chef Barry Yates.

Interview at a Glance

Chef Andy Husbands is a barbecue pitmaster

Facing the Latest Challenge

[Barry Yates] How’s your business? How are things in Boston, with all this craziness?

[Andy Husbands] “Things in Boston are interesting. I’m one of those positive guys. So I’m not going to be asking, begging for help. That’s just not how I do it. I put my head down and work. But things are okay. I’ve got a great business partner. We feel pretty strongly that we’re going to survive. We’re going to be okay. And we’re looking toward the future. Actually, we’e starting construction on a new place. Business-wise, we’re about 40 to 50 percent. For us, it’s going to be all about labor, and managing labor.”

“I’ve been through a lot. Nothing this bad, but I’ve been through 9/11, through 2008 [the Great Recession], the Marathon bombings, and ten feet of snow. What you do is circle the wagons. You make sure your key players are in place. Make sure you’re taking care of your team as best you can. You’re just defending what you have. And that’s what we’re doing. So, it’s going okay. We have lots of happy customers. Instead of serving the 3,000 people each location would serve in a week, now we’re serving about 1,000 to 1,500.”

[Barry Yates] Is the majority of that curbside and carryout, or are people actually coming in now?

[Andy Husbands] “A fair amount is curbside, carryout, third-party delivery, and catering. When I say catering, it’s not like the old days. It’s parties of ten, parties of 15, people getting together. We’ve been really lucky. In Cambridge, Sommerville, and Boston, everybody’s let us expand our patios, or even have a patio in some parking spots. I hope they let us do that every year. It’s awesome. So, just getting through, being as creative as possible. I’m working on a class. Looking at different revenue streams. Just figuring out what’s best for us. Being as creative as possible. I’m working on a class. Looking at different revenue streams.”

[Barry Yates] Like you’ve told us, you’ve dealt with 2008, 9/11, now COVID. How’d it all start, and how’d you get to where you are today?

[Andy Husbands] “In fourth grade, I did a demo on how to make doughnuts. I was, what they called back then, a latchkey kid. I’d come home from school and be home alone. I wanted to learn how to make doughnuts. So I picked up The Joy of Cooking, and I did it. It does beg the question, what adult lets their kid work with hot oil? But I just did it. I just always loved to cook. I liked the process and loved seeing people enjoy it. To me, that was something that I always had.”

“Fast forward to when I was 14. I’d moved out east, and wanted to get a job. My first job was in a bakery. It happened to be down the street. I was a baker’s assistant, which meant I did a lot of cleaning. But he’d let me scale stuff out, measure everything. He eventually taught me how to make bread…taught me how to do all this stuff. Which was great, because when I went to culinary school, I already knew how to do it, so I only had to learn the why, instead of the how. I knew how to feel it. When you make a lot of bread, you just know how it should feel.”

“I worked in a lot of other restaurants until I went to culinary school. Wasn’t the best high school student, mentally. But I loved to work, and so, Johnson & Wales accepted me. I couldn’t believe it. And believe it or not, I was a straight-A student. Not just in the culinary. I got a bachelor’s in foodservice management. I just loved this business.”

“What’s really great about it is that this business changes. What I did in my early 20s is not what I do now. People say, “oh, you must be working all the time.” And I’m like “yeah, sort of, but it’s not as physical as it used to be.” It’s not the intensity of a line cook. It’s like football. You can’t keep that up for 15 years.”

Experience is the Best Teacher

[Barry Yates] What lessons have you learned along the way?

[Andy Husbands] “When I opened my first Smoke Shop BBQ, my business partner came over to me and said ‘hey, maybe this is not for you anymore.’ I was just getting too intense about it. Was just losing my mind. I had a different role now, not just cooking.”

“I worked in a lot of great places. Was honored to work with Chris Schlesinger. He wrote the book on grilling, The Thrill of the Grill. If you don’t have it, you should. It is the best book on grilling, and that’s still true 40 years after he wrote it. He taught me so much…like flavors. But he also taught me how to be a man, how to be a manager. “

Winston Foodservice Andy-Husbands

“And he was like, ‘no, you’re gonna take two days off. No, I’m not going to crush you. I want you to work for me for a long time.’ My friends and I were working six, seven days, getting crushed. And he was on me. I didn’t always take two days off. But sometimes I did, and it was nice. It was humane. It actually made me work harder on those days that I did work. You know, I’d still clock in, 13 – 14 hours, when I’m young, five days a week. And I loved it. And I got two days off. How cool was that, right?”

“So, I worked for him, and then I moved on. I worked on a farm in Santa Fe. I worked in San Francisco, in a bunch of notable restaurants. I took a sabbatical from Boston. Rode my motorcycle everywhere on the west coast. And then I came back to Boston and opened my first restaurant in 1996. At the ripe old age of 26 years old. Tremont 647. And it was one of those things where you don’t know what you don’t know, until you know it. I’m glad I did it, but it was certainly a big learning curve for me. Had that restaurant for almost 21 years. It started off as a very cutting-edge restaurant. You know, whatever the cutting-edge trend of the day. It morphed into a really great neighborhood restaurant. I’m really proud of that. When we left, the neighborhood was bummed. If it snowed, you knew we were open. If it stormed, you knew we were open. We were always open, always there.”

“The thing is, during 9/11, during the marathon bombings, we were packed. Not just because people wanted our food and drink. It was because people wanted to be part of a neighborhood. We didn’t really have TVs, so it wasn’t like people were coming to watch what was on. They wanted to be together. We were like a neighborhood living room. And that to me was what I was very, very proud of. One of the things I’ve learned is that I’m good at building teams. And so, we had these teams that were there forever. I still have some of those people working for me at my new restaurant. It was really great. I’m still proud of everything that we did. We did a lot of charity and stuff.”

Andy Husbands Brisket

“All this time while I had Tremont 647…someone the other day said to me ‘oh, you did a really good job of re-inventing yourself.’ I didn’t sit down and go ‘oh, now I want to be a pit master.’ I don’t think anybody should ever say, ‘oh, I want to be a pit master.’ It’s like saying ‘oh, I want to be a doctor.’ You’ve got a long, long, long path to get there.”

“So, in 1997, my buddy, Chris Hart (who I write my books with) and I just started competing. And for five years straight, we just lost. And lost bad. If you love barbecue, and you love competition, it’s all about family and friends, and bourbon, and cussing. It’s all about having a great time. We were awful, and we didn’t know what we were doing. And then, at about our five-six year mark, we started to get good. And the reason is, we practiced. You’ve got to practice. To learn any craft, it takes time and energy.”

“We were able to, basically, parlay that into winning our region. Which is not a really big deal to Southerners. They don’t care. But then we won first place brisket in Kansas City, out of 510 teams. And then we won the Jack Daniels Invitational in 2009, becoming the first non-Southern team to win the World Championship.”

“I do need to make one thing very clear. I am not the pit master of the team. I am just a member…I’m like the Julian Edelman. Chris Hart is the Tom Brady. He really is the brains behind it. It’s his thunder. I’m a member of that team.”

Moving on to the Next Thing

[Barry Yates] What made you decide to close Tremont 647 and move on?

[Andy Husbands] “So, I’m about 20 years into my old restaurant. I knew I wanted to do something different. It wasn’t that I wanted to reinvent myself. “

“It wasn’t that I wanted to reinvent myself. Try doing anything for 20 years. It was time. Five years ago, I found a new partner, and we were like, let’s do something together. We both admired each other and had different strengths and skills. Originally we were thinking about doing a Japanese Izakaya. I love Japanese Izakaya, that’s what I’m going to do. It begs the question – what do you know about izakaya? About this much [holds thumb and index finger an inch apart]. I could make a couple of dishes. There’s a lot of history and knowledge that you have to have. And time to learn.” 

“My partner looked at me and was like ‘why are we not doing barbecue?’ And I was like ‘I have never thought about opening a barbecue restaurant. Give me a couple of days, let me do some research. Let me think about this.’ And I came back, and I was like ‘I think I want to do it.’ I didn’t want to…don’t know how to say this…I didn’t want to shit where I eat. My love of barbecue is so deep. I didn’t want to make it just a thing. Really wanted it to be special.”

“I didn’t want to do something I wasn’t passionate about. I’m very passionate about barbecue. And I have been successful at it. So that’s how I got here. We knew we wanted to open multiple units. And so now we’re working on our fourth unit. We couldn’t be prouder. It’s certainly a challenge every day, but that’s how you get here.”

[Barry Yates] It makes it hard when you’re passionate. You’re not too easy on yourself, are you?

[Andy Husbands] “I tried to explain to my younger employees that nobody’s telling me to go to work. I don’t have a schedule. And that’s a place that you earn and get to. It’s a passion. More than just barbecue. When I talk about barbecue, to be clear, I’m not just talking about smoking meats. I’m talking about hospitality, about a way of life. Barbecue is a noun, right? Not just a verb. It’s an event. I just love the process.”

[Barry Yates] Tell me your thoughts about charity. You probably get ten asks a day. How do you determine what to support? And on the other side, what kind of support are you getting now that you’re in need?

Andy Husbands' restaurant is a barbecue lover's dream

[Andy Husbands] “Wow. Let me answer the latter question. A lot of the people who we’ve helped throughout the years have bought gift cards and helped promote us in different ways. Just because they’re charities, they don’t necessarily have any money either. They’ve been giving us a lot of support, promoting us, things like that. We’re always thankful for that partnership.”

“In the very beginning, I partnered with Share Our Strength (#nokidhungry). It made sense to me. I come from a family that was federally assisted at some point. Had the cheap school lunch. And I just think it’s important to give back.”

“I think giving back in a food-hospitality way makes sense to me. Other people focus on diabetes or cancer, and I think that’s really great. The thing is restaurants are more than food. They are the neighborhood living room. They’re a place of celebration, of gathering. It’s important to recognize that, and to give back in that way.”

“I think it just ties together. It just makes a good puzzle piece that just goes together. So, for me, childhood hunger is something I’ve been focused on. Even more so now that I’m a father. Tremont 467 donated over a quarter million, in cash, in the 20 years it was open. I’m very proud of that. It’s a team effort.” 

“When people are asking us, pre-COVID, post-COVID, to donate, we have the things that we focus on, which are really charities for children. I’m also a member of the Rodman Celebration, which is about children’s charities. So that’s our focus. It’s nice that we’ve aligned with that. It also enables us to say ‘no, thank you for the ask, ask us next year. But just so you know, this is what we do.’ We’re known for donating and being active. And it makes us able to say no. I can’t support every charity. I would love to, but we have a business to run.”

The Smoke Shop barbecue restaurant

Can-Do and Cashflow

[Barry Yates] You’ve mentioned encountering challenges over your career. Which was the most challenging? What did you learn? 30 years in the business, quite successful. That’s not easy to do.

[Andy Husbands] “You have to have a positive, can-do attitude. That’s how I get through life. I think the biggest thing I’ve had to learn, which has to do with all the things I’ve talked about, 9/11, the bombings, COVID, my one piece of advice is cash flow. Understand cash flow.” 

“You often hear these guys in music. They have a big single. They think they’re the cat’s meow. They think they’re going to have this money forever. That is a rare, rare day. Same with restaurants.”

“There are some restaurants that just print money all day long. But most restaurants have a cycle. And even the ones that print money have a cycle. They all have a cycle. In New England, at least for us, this is a normal time. We’re doing great, we’re doing great, spring and summer, it’s barbecue season. And fall’s doing pretty good. It slows down a little bit in winter. Slows down a lot in the deep winter, in January.”

“So, you need to plan this stuff out, just like you do at home. Don’t spend when you don’t need to. Put cash aside. And for me, what I did at my restaurant is, I got ahead of my bills. Say I had 30 days to pay on something, I would pay in 15 days, try to keep everything at ten to 15 days – still having that 30 days available to me so if things got tight I could stretch a little bit. Above all, that’s probably one of the most important things I ever learned was cash flow. It’s something people don’t talk about in a restaurant, at all. It’s so important.”

Money Costs Money

[Barry Yates] If you were encouraging someone to start a restaurant, what would you tell them?

[Andy Husbands] “Use professionals. That is a business planner, an architect, a lawyer, and not your cousin. Use somebody who actually writes restaurant leases. Someone who actually designs restaurants. I know that your friend’s sister is really good at designing, but if she hasn’t designed a restaurant before, you don’t want her making mistakes on your dime. The one thing you have to understand about opening a restaurant, at least in my scenario, is every dollar I spend costs me $1.25. You’ve got to pay that money back unless it’s your money.”

“Every dollar you spend is going to cost you something. So you have to be very judicious about what you spend your money on. That’s part one. Part two is don’t spend any money. If it was me, and I was redoing it, starting today, I would find myself a pizza place that was going out of business. And try to keep the equipment they have. I would spend the bare minimum. And I would reinvest. Now I know that people dream of having a fancy restaurant. I get it. And they want to spend two million dollars. I guess that’s just not my path right now. But, you know, it’s hard. People think that everyone’s going to love it. The reality is, that’s not true. Not everyone’s gonna love it. Sorry. I would just be cautious.”

[Barry Yates] I try to tell people, if you go into this thinking you’re the best cook in the world and everybody’s going to love your food, you just don’t understand people. Our tastes are as diverse as our skin colors. How do you deal with the fact that everybody might not like your barbecue?

[Andy Husbands] “There are lots of people who don’t like my barbecue. One time I was called to a table, and they were like ‘did you guys make these collards? They taste canned. They’re awful.’ And I was like ‘okay, let me get you something else.’ I gave them something else. I go to the next table. They were like ‘did you make these collards? They’re the best collards we’ve ever had.’ It’s like music. If you want to open a restaurant, ask this question. Why would everybody like your food? Because it’s like writing a book. Why would anybody read your book? Like making music – why would anybody listen to your music? Why are you so great? I think you have to be honest with yourself.”

The Smoke Shop is one of Andy Husbands' latest

Good or Bad, Own It

[Andy Husbands] “What’s crazy is – your restaurant is the best restaurant ever until you open the door. And when you open the door, and Yelp starts coming in… It’s tough. You’ve got to be strong, mentally tough, and you’ve got to say ‘okay, we’re going to do this.’ Run your team to win. On the flip side, you’ve got to be honest, and you’ve got to go ‘not everyone’s going to like me.’ And that’s okay.”

“When they don’t like you, try to fix it. Maybe you can, and maybe you can’t. If you go right now to our Google reviews, I can tell you that 99 percent of them have been responded to by me, personally. Every Google review, I respond to. That’s not somebody else responding, that’s Andy Husbands. It is important for me to know what people are saying. It’s important for me to interact with them. And when they don’t like it, they’ve had a bad experience, I’ll own it. Own your mistakes. Because you own your wins. When you get that Beard award, you’re like ‘woohoo, I got this because of me and my team!’ But when you get that one-star review on Yelp or Google, you have to say, ‘I got this for me and my team!’ You don’t get either-or.”

We All Make Mistakes

[Andy Husbands] We all make mistakes; we’ve got to own them. Try to have more wins than losses. It’s what you need to do. Sometimes chefs get in their own way. We use a thing called Upserve. Love Upserve. They give you data on all your customers, through your credit card sales, through your POS. Likewise, they also do our processing. I can look at this thing called the magic quadrant. Not so much for my barbecue restaurant, but for my old restaurant. I could see dishes that people order, but don’t order again when they come back. Even though you may love it, that dish maybe needs to go.”

“What you want is a dish that people come back for. That’s what you need to understand, is that just because someone ordered it, it means you wrote a marketable menu, that’s all that means. If they order it again, if they order it multiple times, then you’ve got something.”

“That’s the same thing with you guys [Winston]. You guys have a good pitch. You pitched me at that Sleep No More thing and talked about it, and I’m like ‘okay, good pitch.’ And you brought me down there – great. But unless it really worked, and I really liked it, I’m not going to order another one. I keep ordering more CVaps.”

The Smoke Shop

Talking CVap®

[Barry Yates] Talk a little bit about CVap. Why do you think it’s good? What has it done for your business?

[Andy Husbands] “It changes the rules. I know it helps on labor. It helps on cooking. The style of restaurant that I do doesn’t use CVap to 100 percent advantage, like Tony Maws when he had Kirkland Tap & Trotter. He would take a whole pork loin, a marinated bone-in pork loin, and hold it in a CVap at about 130°F. Pop off a double chop, grill, and out it goes.”

“What does that save? Time, which is table turns. Labor, because it doesn’t take that long to cook it. And my understanding is it shrank by 7%, instead of 14%. Over years those little percentages do add up.”

A Just-Cooked Barbecue Experience

[Andy Husbands] “Now for Smoke Shop what it does for us is it enables us to offer a just-cooked experience. That is really what we want to have. You know, as a pit master who comes from the competition area, we are cooking it, we are timing it, and we are serving. And we’re cutting those ribs, and we’re giving them that just-cooked experience, besides all the other junk that we’re doing with it, but that’s what we’re doing, right?”

“There’s no better barbecue than the barbecue that’s pulled out of my pit and rested. And then served. That is what, with CVap, we’re able to do, with the level of browning, we’re able to keep that crust on the outside. The salty, peppery, sweet, whatever rub we’re using. Yet keep that meat so juicy and perfect, that it’s that just-cooked experience. By the way, if you use that tagline, I want some points for it. That is pure gold I just came up with right there. CVap, the just-cooked experience.”

[Barry Yates] What does Chris Hart think about the barbecue coming out of a CVap?

[Andy Husbands] “He believes in it. Both he and I have talked about owning a barbecue restaurant. Before I found out about CVap, I don’t know how long you’ve been around, but I was like ‘meh, I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to have some silly barbecue coming out all dry, out of some silly hot hold thing with a water pan at the bottom that just like, pfft, comes up from the bottom [waves hands and fingers to imitate steam rising]. But he loves it. He comes in and checks us out all the time.”

“You guys must be a major thing in the barbecue world. Everywhere I go, it’s mainly CVaps being used. I think people who know are fans. The people who need to know about it are burgers. That’s the number one thing people order. We know this. Anyone who’s serving lots of burgers should have a CVap full of just 120°F burgers. Sear it, out it goes.”

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Operator Corner: Chef Deb Paquette

Chef Deb Paquette

Chef Deb Paquette is truly one of a kind. A 30-year fixture in Nashville, she’s a renowned female chef in a male-dominated field. She became the first woman in Tennessee to qualify as a Certified Executive Chef, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America.

Chef Paquette is exuberant and unfiltered. When we approached her about inclusion in our Operator Corner blog series, her first question was, “do I have to act civil?” We assured her, no.

Our friend, the late Chef Barry Yates sat down with Chef Paquette for a lively conversation with her in August 2020. She is not only a highly accomplished chef, but also a colorful conversationalist.

Interview at a Glance

Chef Deb Paquette

A Strong Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

[Barry Yates] You are a very strong woman in a male-dominated field. How did you get where you are? What kinds of things did you face? Do you have advice for other women in the culinary field? Just go, because you’re amazing!

[Deb Paquette] “Well, first of all, I got where I am today by having bigger balls than most men! This means I had to assert myself and realize I could not be like the lion, the tin man, or especially, not that hay bale of the scarecrow…I had to be Dorothy. Determination was my state of mind. I was going to be the human sponge.”

“I found out about culinary school and somehow it was my calling…I am a bit crazy. A wacky sense of humor. Not afraid to work. Hyper, big mouth, and wore two different-colored socks. It turns out I was a perfect candidate to be trained for a professional position in the culinary field! (I did show some promise!)”

“The kitchen world drew the talent out of me that was just waiting to be expelled from my brain. I made the best choice ever, and those colored socks took me to places beyond what I imagined, plus a few trips to hell and back!”

Advice to Women

“What you experience in your early days and what happens years down the road can be like playing pinball. Well, that’s really what life is! Never stop educating yourself. Create a great management style. Mine is organized chaos! If you do not have a great sense of humor, start listening to Bill Cosby albums, know the rules, love to clean, and love to cook!”

Coping with Her Share of Toxic Men

[Deb Paquette] “What I faced early on was the incredible human library of people that I wanted to (and would get to) know and learn from. OMG! My first job was as a dishwasher at the ‘Cottontail Lounge.’ This was a man bar where waitress’s uniform skirt stopped at the bottom of their butt and frilly ruffled panty things were the undergarment! On the first day of my job, it was 10 A.M., and I ran into an all-night drinker, who happened to be the owner. He stumbly told me not to worry, he did not want to f***k me! ‘Okay,’ I said and asked where the kitchen was.”

“After working there for months, I knew my world would hold lots of fun. And lots of sweat! I also knew I would face other gents like ‘RAY,’ and I would deal with it as best as I could! Food was on my horizon.”

“I worked with many strong men. Many were awesome, and then there were the d*ckheads. No man sh*t was going to step on my yellow brick road. There are no tragic stories. Just sh*t that happens when men need to get their own way. I was not a promiscuous person, so I had no desire to put my two legs out with a rent sign on them. Therefore, I never became an interest, or an interesting story. Having a boyfriend, and then a husband kept potential douchebags from advertising their stuff!”

“As I stated before, there were a few issues with man-agers. Here is his story. Icky man wanted me to go on the road with him and open a few restaurants. I happened to get pregnant, and his decision-making process altered. Fate changed, and I lost the baby. When I returned to work, he fired me and didn’t want me coming back to work because I would likely get preggers again. I sorta understood, and I was not angry until my manager told me that the ‘piece of sh*t boss man’ wanted to offer me an abortion so I could continue working. D*CK!”

“I let this pass and realized I was not the problem!”

There are Still Nice Guys

[Deb Paquette] “So, no one thinks I am a man basher, here’s a better man story for you. A banquet dude ran into me at 5:30 A.M. getting ready for a big breakfast. I had not put my Farrah Fawcett beach hair up under the white pain-in-the-ass toque. Did not have my ugly oversized white chef’s coat on. But did have on my ugly JC Penney brogans.” 

“He took one long look and left the cooler! I was thankful for him leaving, ‘cause I was pretty sure he was in there to play with the whipped cream cans! He went back to the banquet hall and asked all his dude pals who the new girl was. They told him there is no new girl, it is probably Deb, the banquet chef. His reply was ‘you mean the lesbian?’ He asked me out that night, and he is now my husband! Turns out, he liked my boots!”

[Barry Yates] She’s a pretty seductive redhead, just so you know.

[Deb Paquette] “Whoa! Thanks, Barry! Don’t have those cataracts removed!”

“Now that we are done chatting about woman caca in the man world, let me just say that I do know quite a few love stories that came out of couples meeting on the job. Hookups with work ‘buddies’ are sorta natural. You find certain peeps spending a bit too much time in a supply closet, one of the hotel rooms, or maybe a locked office! And bless my mother’s ears, I just about froze in a walk-in cooler one night!”

“Not much else to share. In the past 20 years, I have worked with, and for, many wonderful men.”

[Barry Yates] That’s refreshing. I think you’re right. I have a lot of friends, longtime chefs that are female. And a lot of them don’t have that to say. So it’s refreshing to hear you say that. I’m glad that’s the case.

[Dep Paquette] “You have to be a hard-core insider to understand that you might face problems, but you don’t have to create problems. Ya just do your job. When I was accused of being a brown noser, I’d first say, ‘you are full of it.’ And then say, ‘have you seen the walk-in? You’re not going to go in and clean it, because you’re f^*king lazy. So, I will clean it! And I might even get a gold star on my forehead, and you won’t!’ (But I do love cleaning walk-ins!)”

“The walk-in has been my office on many occasions. As well as my therapy room. It’s the coolest place to go…ha!”

[Barry Yates] My first chef that I worked for was Ferd Grisanti. A real feisty Italian, right? One of the most lovely people in the world. He thought that if he took one of us into the walk-in and blasted us, that no one else could hear. Right? It didn’t matter if it was one of his own kids or one of us. When he said, “we’re going to the walk-in,” we knew we were in for it. But the whole kitchen heard it too. It was pretty funny.

[Deb Paquette] “After years of cheffin’, some of my past employees come into the back of the kitchen and ask my cooks jokingly, ‘has she taken you to the dining room with a glass of water?’ The joke was that if I have a glass of water in my hand and called you to the front of the house, there was a good chance somebody was in trouble! There was some truth to this!”

“Speaking of the walk-in, it’s terrible to say this, but when I get really frustrated, I call it the Helen Keller. I go in the walk-in and hold my arms up high, and grab my fists. Put all the pressure from my brain and body into my fists, hold them above my head. And I squint my eyes as tight as I can and silently scream. I know that’s cruel, but I’ll tell the kids when you’re upset, you’ve got to go into the walk-in and do the Hellen Keller as hard as you can for ten seconds. And when you’re done, your life’s better.”

[Barry Yates] Tell me about Chef Paquette. How many restaurants do you have now? How many have you had over the years? Which ones were your favorites? Which ones were your worst?

[Deb Paquette] “My first job was in my 20s. I just got out of culinary school. Went to New York City to work in a macrobiotic restaurant, which was probably the coolest job ever! I was working with a bunch of the coolest shrubber heads ever! All the kids that worked there were into acting, singing, dancing, and partying! It was the kind of restaurant where we’d sit around the tables, end of night, smoke weed, and drink coffee. What an education! One year later I went back to Florida, to get another degree in Restaurant Management. I felt that I needed to get a degree to prove to people that I was serious about what I was doing, even though the management degree did s*%t for me. [laughs]. Hey, I learned how to fold a hospital corner on a bed.”

Chef Paquette dish

“During my stint at FIU, I worked in a Danish restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale. Another great education. After FIU, I took a job at the Omni in Ft. Lauderdale, working banquets. I traveled to Nashville when I got a job as a banquet chef and settled into becoming a resident of Nashville.”

“In 1997, I opened a restaurant with my fabulous husband, Ernie. We had that baby (and ball and chain) for 13 years. Her name was Zola’s, where the food was a “bastardization of global cuisine.” (And my food still is). It was a great ride until we put a sign on the door in 2010 that said, “GONE FISHING.” I have so many wonderful guests who are still coming to dine with me at Etch and Etc., where I am a partner and owner. Of course, this was my dream job. I had no bad jobs!”

[Barry Yates] Were you and your husband together through your whole culinary career? When did you meet him?

[Deb Paquette] “Yes, I have been with Ernie 38 years and in the biz for 42. An amazing man who accepted what I do for a living and gave me the love and understanding to continue my career.”

“That story I told earlier, about working at the Omni, well that was where we began. I actually dumped another dude ‘cause Ernie was the nicest boy I’d ever met, and what a smile! And really tall! AND…he was almost 20 (I brought out the cradle…I was 25!). We married in ’84, and soon had two boys, Race and Croix.”

“Since I was the workaholic worker bee, Ern had the majority of raising those p*ckerheads. Ern had his own job, and was able to get homework done, coach soccer and inline hockey, and had to be the bad cop! Of course, I was the good witch! Ern did a fabulous job!”

[Barry Yates] If they come back to visit you, you didn’t do too bad.

[Deb Paquette] “Well, you would have to ask them that! I remember when the youngest called his dad ‘tripolar.’ Now they are best buds. We went through all the normal kid/parent crap, but now that they are 31 and 33 and have completed and accomplished their 30s. They are the best. Ernie and I are thrilled they are bought and paid for! Our lives are in a good place. The restaurant life has been good for all of us!”

Etch and Etc.

[Barry Yates] Tell us a little bit about Etch, and about Etc. Why Etc.?

[Deb Paquette] “Our downtown restaurant was going to be called Echo, due to being surrounded by the reverb of music all around us. Holy moly, there are a million businesses using the name echo. As to not cause trademark issues, we changed the name to ‘Etch.’ Very cerebral…ha! I want to leave an invisible etch on people, which keeps them returning to our restaurant. Etch seats about 180 guests, and has a bar, a party room, and an open kitchen with a chef’s counter. We just had our 8th anniversary! We have a great team of people, I am so proud of, running the show. They work their asses off!”

“Our smaller restaurant is etc. …the continuation of Etch. Etc. is in a great neighborhood and is greatly supported by guests who have been eating my food for 25 years. We seat 66 inside and 25 on the patio. Similar food, and always great service!”

“’Bastardization of Global Cuisine’ [laughs], is what I call my style of food. I love the culture, history, stories, and flavors of so many countries! I enjoy developing recipes that I feel are representative of a cuisine, but not always authentic. I have fun!”

[Barry Yates] All of your menus have always had that global twist. I never really asked you, why?

[Deb Paquette] “We did have one really good Spanish restaurant back in the day, but it didn’t last. People just didn’t know a lot about Spanish food, so they were scared to eat there. This was the 1980s. The only people cooking on TV were Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet. Homemakers were not aware pomegranate molasses, harissa, tamarind, and what to do with beets besides pickling them. I wanted to change that. I purchased so many cookbooks, and began a grand journey. Paula WolfertColman AndrewsDiane Kennedy, and Madjur Jaffrey were, and still are, my favorites. Big cities seemed to have the upper edge on dining, and it just took a while to make a move south. When the Food Network entered every home, it created a change that encouraged me to really take a big step outside the box and live on the edge!”

chanterelles

[Barry Yates] You’re very cerebral. What would you be if you weren’t a cook?

[Deb Paquette] “Oh, I would more than likely, probably, be in landscaping. I have to have color in my life (like my hair!). My house is a giant color wheel. Tons of color. My kitchen counters are red. My backyard is full of anything that brings butterflies and bees and hummingbirds. Landscaping and gardening are natural for me. Hard work and color! We work on composting, sharing vegetables, teaching. I’m also part of the Nashville Waste Initiative, in which I want to educate kids, and their families, to be more resourceful and kind to their country. Dirty hands are healthy! I spend time with my flowers daily… (we call that therapy!).”

“I also forage chanterelles…anywhere from 75 to 150 pounds a summer. Is it summer yet?”

[Barry Yates] How long have you been a gatherer? How important are local, indigenous ingredients to you? And how do you incorporate it into what you do today?

[Deb Paquette] “The husband and I have been foraging for 30 years. Local folks call them ‘sods.’ We still do not know why! Our babysitter was frying them one night when Ernie went to pick up the boys (this was in the 1980s). That was the only way they knew how to fix them, and once Ernie realized they were morels, he got the scoop on where to find them. That next night we feasted, a sauté pan full of ‘dry land fish’ with lots of caramelized onions! We never found enough morels to supply our friends, but we now forage plenty of chanterelles to sell to a few restaurants. We also pickle and confit a good deal of the chanties, so we can enjoy eating them year-round. YUM YUM!”

“I love using local products, at home and job. Supporting farmers is an important part of giving back to the community. Thirty years ago, I had three farmers in all of Nashville. Now we can choose from 30 to 40 exceptional farmers. I live outside Nashville, and in the middle of an incredible amount of local produce, meats, flowers, artists, and of course, grits, who bring their goods to our farmers’ market each weekend throughout the summer.”

“To keep all the pollinators happy, I supply the yard with indigenous flowers and herbs. Ernie is the veg gardener and the builder of our almost-finished greenhouse. The greenhouse is made of all recycled wood and windows and should be done in a few months. Early mornings we enjoy our coffee observing bees, butterflies, and birds buzzing in and out of the morning dew.”

[Barry Yates] I’m in the middle of pickling heaven or hell, whichever way you want to look at it, right now. I’ve pickled just about everything but chanterelles. How do you do it? What’s the brine?

[Deb Paquette] “We try different things, just like you would any other pickles. Spicey, herby, sweet…Ernie likes to try his hand with different brines. We will use apple cider vinegar, sherry vinegar, or white balsamic. He likes ‘em sweet and I prefer savory. Roasting the chanties prior to pickling makes for some really tasty flavor bombs! Refrigerator pickles are our thing, canning is too messy! Ernie is notorious for introducing neighbors and friends to our plethora of chanty pickles.”

Giving Back to the Community

[Barry Yates] You brought up that you’re part of the Waste Initiative in Nashville. I know that you’re very, very involved in Second Harvest.

[Deb Paquette] “Yes, the Waste Initiative is supported by the James Beard Foundation. We are a test city for what we can do to create solutions in dealing with waste in our community. Consequently, we have groups and individuals networking to provide education to reduce waste. Not only in restaurants but in homes, grocery stores, and office buildings. Go to Google and read about what you can do to help your community reduce waste.”

“Part of our responsibility as restaurant people is to work with charities that help people in need. Whether it is food, socks, prosthesis, or a Christmas present, these are people who live in the same cities we work in.”

Winston Foodservice Deb Paquette

“I have been involved for years in helping Second Harvest since I moved to Tennessee. For the past eight years, I was part of Taste of the NFL, which was an organization of chefs, one from each NFL city. We would show up every Super Bowl weekend, and provide food for a huge patrons’ party the night before the Super Bowl. The party had a big admission fee, and proceeds would be shared with the food banks in each chef’s city, as well as all of us raising funds locally. Each year my company gave a dollar of every sale of our cauliflower appetizer as our part in helping Second Harvest. In the past eight years, we have donated $100,000. Isn’t that fabulous?”

[Barry Yates] What is it that makes you that way?

[Deb Paquette] You know how a doctor takes the Hippocratic oath? In this glorious industry, we take the hospitality oath. It is not just an oath to yourself but to the people who support your business. We are leaders, born to give, encourage, love, and support.”

[Barry Yates] It’s interesting that you bring that up. You know, we are in the hospitality business. We are there to be of service. But I find very few people understand the complexities of putting a plate of food in front of them.

[Deb Paquette] “Do you mean the complexities of getting the food from the back door to the table? Yep, it’s the work that makes it all worthwhile. When you spend the day talking to salesmen, checking in food, teaching a line cook their craft, burning a sauce ‘cause you were telling jokes to a customer or calling your husband to be sure there is beer in the fridge, chopping a hundred pounds of onions, tasting 30 sauces, yelling at your CVap dude, and putting out the best special ever…I don’t want a client to know all that sh*t. Just sink into your food and Zen out! Let us do the work, and you just enjoy.”

Talking CVap

[Barry Yates] Why did you buy CVap? What have you learned since you’ve had it? Do you still like it? Would you buy another one?

[Deb Paquette] “I learned about CVaps from my friend Ashley Quick. He loves them. I began the research, and now we have one in each restaurant. It was a bit intimidating at first. But then, so am I…hah! The best equipment for short ribs and octopus, and holding fried chicken!”

“You have to understand that whole humidity thing. My husband used the weather as an example, and then it all clicked (he’s much smarter than me…I am the smart ass!).”

“I do love that little rain box! As we say in the south, “it cooks stuff up real good like.” I like that I can cook overnight and see beauty in the morning! (My husband also says that about me!) And yes, I would buy another…after COVID-19 season is over!”

Chef Deb Paquette's beautiful food

Finding Balance

[Barry Yates] We were talking about the craziness of this business. Do you have any advice on how to achieve a work/life balance?

[Deb Paquette] “Balance? I don’t know what that word means. Oh balance! That’s when I ride my unicycle! I still ride it. It’s funny to see a 64-year-old kid on a unicycle with her arms waving about! But then, that’s me!”

“Balance is letting your husband go fishing when he wants and hang out with his man friends at our local bar, and hoping he has the best time ever! He is the mayor of the bar, just so you know! I work too much, and he very rarely complains (I did just say rarely!). We see-saw!”

“I must use the word balance 20 times a day. Much of my time is working on the food for a new restaurant and all the recipes MUST balance. I have quite a few sauces and fun stuff on the plate, and each item has to taste great by itself and together…balance. A good cocktail has the perfect balance. Casamigos has fabulous balance.”

“My advice on balance with work and life…place priorities on what is most important for you and your loved ones. Don’t abuse your brain or your body! Let a sense of humor be your BFF! If you get unbalanced, go to the ocean. Don’t drink Jägermeister!”

Taking a Break

[Deb Paquette] “This year I achieved a momentous work/life situation. I actually did not change my vacation with the hubby three times this year! Something always comes up in the workplace, and this year I should have changed it. But we got people in place. I will be slip-sliding in 30 SPF with a sippy cup full of balanced juice all the way to the beach! We go to this place in Florida where there are no stores. It’s just this little peninsula that’s below Tallahassee, on the Gulf. Called Alligator Point. It’s just houses, beaches, and shrimp season. Late summer is when we go to the beach when it is bikini season for those over 60! Ernie fishes and shrimps. I walk a lot and read. Happy hour is whenever we like, and Ernie seems to like my bikini!”

“Ernie really wants to move back to the water, real bad. He has for years. The ocean is in his blood. Ernie grew up in Eastham, Massachusetts,  which is the narrowest point on Cape Cod. He grew up being a surfer boy, a fisherman, and a scalloper.”

“I am a Fort Lauderdale gal. The ocean runs through my veins! I left when I was 25. And I brought all those sunspots right along with my suitcase!”

“Oops, time for a story…when Ernie was 18, he worked on a scallop boat. Drags were out on the boat, and they were all playing cards on the lower deck. He went up top to pee off the side of the boat. A swell hit the boat and it was ‘bye now.’ He went over the side! As he kicked off his new boots, he watched the lights of the boat disappear. (Scary!) Someone still in the card game realized Ernie was taking longer than normal. Cards down and up they go. No Ernie. Ern has one of those monster-loud whistles. He began the call for survival…or ‘get me the hell out of this cold-ass water!’ Up came the drags and he saw the lights…luckily the boat lights!”

nashville

Why Nashville?

[Barry Yates] It seems to me that you like Nashville. You’re not from there. And you’ve not left there. What is it that you like about Nashville? And what is it that you think is goofy? Or am I mistaken, and you just don’t have anywhere else to go?

[Deb Paquette] “I love Nashville and the big trees. If I cannot have the ocean in my backyard, trees are the winners. They bring peace to my crazy life. I also love the southern charm (I have mastered nine southern dialects). Tennessee is beautiful, and the economy here is good (except for the red haze!). And the restaurant scene is fabulous!”

“The goofiest is the crazy amount of bachelorette parties going on. We are the number one city for girls to become the debutants of Fireball, Jägermeister, and vomit pales. It is crazy! The summer uniform is the same for all: cowboy boots, tank tops, wedding sashes, and shorts that have a zip code in the crack of your ass. Lovely.”

“There is something about southern folks. Rules of respect and hospitality are passed down from generation to generation. It is in their blood (right next to whiskey!). You can feel it and you can see it. Good people, and not-so-good people, still shake your hand, look you in the eye, and ask you how your mama’s doing. ‘Yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ are heard and listened to more than mating tree frogs! And if someone says, ‘well bless your cotton socks’ it means they care about you!”

“Will I leave Nashville? I really love it here. Our home is 28 miles from Nashville and is surrounded by lots of woods. My house gives me peace. Knowing there is a big couch and a sleepy husband waiting for me after a 13-hour day. One son lives down the street and the other son in Massachusetts. That isn’t far, is it?”

“I do have places, friends, and family to go and see. Maybe one day I may move, as long as my couch fits in the car!”

[Barry Yates] I think you gave me the answer. You found a place that had people similar to you.

[Deb Paquette] “Yeah, most likely. Why do you think I am in the restaurant business? We are perfectionists, most of us are ADHD. Drinking is a sport. Music is a necessity. Laughing is a prerequisite. And you must have a pet (or pets). Plus, we all like really good food!”

“Don’t most of us seem to surround ourselves with people who have similarities, (like political parties – ha!)? One has to find comfort and resemblance. I just want to be around people who play nice (and drink nice) with each other. There is a strong gravitational pull to people who make me laugh. Fun folks help me to find the funny in me! I make life-long friends with the people I most laugh with! Don’t you?”

“I am leaving you with another short story…this is a few years ago when Ernie and I had our restaurant (yes, another Ernie story!). He was the manager on duty, and a gentleman with a party of five called Ernie over to his table. This gent wanted Ern to open a $150 bottle of wine and pour him one glass. Ernie apologized and said it was not feasible for us to do so, and explained why. The gent was persistent and was told he would need to purchase the whole bottle. Nope, he only wanted a glass. Mr. Ern said, ‘I am sorry, but this is our house rule,’ and returned to the host station. Five minutes went by, and the bad dude approached Ernie. He looks at Ernie and says, ‘you know what…you made me look like an a*$hole in front of all my friends.’ And Ernie replied, ‘sir, I don’t think you need any help with that!’ The gent quietly left, with a tiny crack of almost a smile, and sat down.”

“Now you see our similarities…balance.”

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Operator Corner: Chef Neal Fraser

Chef Neil Fraser

You may have seen Chef Neal Fraser on “Top Chef Masters,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” or “Iron Chef America.” But Vibiana, a large Los Angeles event space that houses his restaurant Redbird is where his skills really shine. He taps into the versatility of CVap ovens to feed thousands of guests every year.

Ask chef Neil Fraser how many restaurants he’s owned and operated and he answers tellingly: “I’ve had many, but I’ve closed most of them to make room for this space.

Vibiana

The “space” is Vibiana, a former downtown Los Angeles cathedral turned into an events space. The cathedral was named after St. Vibiana, the Catholic patron saint of nobodies. But within the 35,000-square-foot facility, which includes a 3,000-square-foot outdoor garden, Fraser and his wife, Amy Knoll Fraser, cater to the bustling city’s somebodies.

Article at a Glance

The Frasers execute more than 100 large events annually using the cathedral’s historic rooms and buildings. Another 400-plus smaller events are held in the private dining rooms of Redbird, the restaurant nestled within the cathedral’s rectory building. There, dinner is served nightly and brunch on weekends in its 140-seat main dining room.

Chef Neal Fraser
[Neal Fraser]It’s complex, and there’s a lot going on all the time. You’ve got to be organized, and you have to understand how to cook on a large scale.” Fraser’s success can be credited, at least in part, to the tutelage of several famed A- list chefs. At Eureka and Spago he worked under Wolfgang Puck. Likewise, at Checkers Hotel Thomas Keller was his boss. Pinot Bistro had Joachim Splichal calling the shots. And Chef Hans Rockenwagner mentored him at Rox. Out on his own, he and Amy (who runs the front of the house) operated two Los Angeles hotspots, Grace and BLD. Fraser describes Redbird’s cuisine as “loosely American” and “a kind of Los Angeles cuisine.” [Neal Fraser]To me that means finer ingredients that stay true to the flavors and cultures that influence Los Angeles, which is a lot of them. We have Mexican restaurants, Thai restaurants, Indian, Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants, and we’re influenced by all those cultures.

Complexity simplified

Fraser’s first encounter with a CVap oven was in a John Besh restaurant in New Orleans. A fan of high-tech cooking equipment, Fraser had never seen a CVap before. He asked what it was. As the friend described it, Fraser became intrigued.

In addition to meals served in his restaurants, Fraser was (and still is) a caterer of large off-premise events, and CVap, as the friend described, excelled at cooking versatility, and at producing food at scale and to a high degree of consistency.

[Neal Fraser]Consistency is incredibly important to us because we do so many parties. We’ve learned to nail that part down with CVap. It’s the workhorse in our kitchens.

Several years ago, when the Frasers co-founded Beefsteak, an annual event beef-centric feast benefitting Share Our Strength, Neal’s battery of CVaps more than proved their worth.

[Neal Fraser]For Beefsteak, we cook 650 pounds of filet of beef for 600 patrons. Sear off all of it and put it in CVap to finish and hold it. When it’s time to serve, we’re slicing perfectly medium-rare beef for 600 people in 25 minutes. And that’s only one way we use it.

Vibiana, home to Redbird, is large facility made smaller by CVap’s mobility. Imagine being an independent restaurant owner whose business shares the same location as a large luxury event space. That’s Chef Neal Fraser’s reality and he loves it. His restaurant, Redbird, occupies the former rectory building at Vibiana, a cathedral repurposed for parties. But here’s the challenge: The event space spans 35,000 square feet indoors and 3,000 square feet outdoors. Moving food across the entire building in mere hot boxes would be difficult under the best of circumstances. But Fraser says CVaps’ mobility not only solve that problem, they go a step further by enabling cooking at the point of service. “If we couldn’t roll CVaps where we wanted to, I’m not sure how well we could do as many parties as we do. That I can roll it to a party and utilize it really well is one of the best things about it.” Since CVaps are electric, they can be plugged in wherever proper outlets exist.

Plating at the Point of Service

Moving CVaps into the event space creates another benefit: more kitchen space.

[Neal Fraser] “We have two small kitchens at Redbird, which makes things tight. We need all the room we can get.”

For smaller parties, Redbird has six private dining rooms near which a CVap can be placed. A good example is how Fraser sears large cuts of meat, such as porterhouse steaks, finishes them in CVap, then holds the meat at serving temperature for as long as two hours. At the right time, they’re right there and ready for plate-up.

[Neal Fraser] “We’re more or less…serving it where guests are. It takes a lot of legwork out of the picture.”

Redbird Interior

Since the plate-up process happens near the private dining room, servers don’t have to enter the kitchen, tray-up plates, and carry them. Kitchen entry and exit choke points disappear, along with pressure on the kitchen staff. Food warmth lost in the transition from kitchen to dining room is also eliminated.

Fraser says a good number of smaller parties do family-style service using platters of food. Service becomes even simpler using this tactic.

[Neil Fraser] “A party of 20 will get, say, five salads, five orders of scallops, five shishito peppers, five porterhouses, etc. Then all is staff has to do is pull the food out of the CVap, put it on a platter, and serve it. Doing that, we can have two people execute a party for 40 with no problem.”

Appetizers for Larger Parties

For larger parties where hors d’oeuvres are passed, Fraser has learned which appetizers can be assembled fully, held in CVap and served straight from the oven. The beef slider is one example of an item whose labor intensity would be nearly impossible to serve to large parties—unless CVap is involved.

[Neal Fraser] “For tray-passed hors d’oeuvres, the most elaborate dish we have to play with is a slider. Ours are made with a burger patty, cheese, arugula, aioli, and a bun. You can’t assemble to order 600 sliders and make people happy. But we can pre-build and hold them at 140°F for an hour without the arugula wilting.”

He says the trick to serving each slider in peak form is ensuring the patty is hot. Done perfectly, his sliders hold well for up to 90 minutes.

Fraser says that Redbird doesn’t serve much fried food, but fried black bass holds perfectly for as long as 20 minutes.

[Neal Fraser] “When you play around with these things as much as we do, you find what works and what doesn’t. We’ve got a good handle on what works now.”

Fraser says CVap’s versatility provides uses well beyond just cooking and holding.

Several years ago Amy Knoll Fraser and a group of friends co-founded Beefsteak, an annual event benefiting the Los Angeles Food Bank. As co-owner of Redbird, she enlisted her husband Neal to create a beefsteak dinner in which sliced tenderloin is served by the platter and eaten without utensils. The bacchanalia would be for 600 people: no small feat for any restaurant staff.

With CVap, however, something so large is possible with so little, says Fraser. During the annual Beefsteak fundraiser, 650 pounds of seared beef tenderloin is cooked, finished, and held in three full-size CVap units for an extended period.

[Neal Fraser] “That allows us to serve perfectly cooked, medium-rare beef to 600 people in 25 minutes.”

A total of eight CVaps are used at Redbird, ranging from full-size cook and hold ovens to warming drawers. A longtime CVap user, Fraser has experimented with multiple iterations of the oven to see which works best with the restaurant’s wide range of items. Sometimes the task is complex; other times remarkably simple.

Food and Wine

Take the Dummy Work Out of It

[Neal Fraser] “In the past, every time we had a sauce for dish, we’d have to heat it to order and risk it getting burned or reduced too much or splashed everywhere. Now we take deli cups, which won’t melt in the CVap, fill them with the sauce and hold them at 150°F all night long. When we need them, the consistency is perfect, out of the danger zone and ready to use.”

Experimentation and practice with CVap settings are essential to perfecting items made using it, Fraser says. Learning to cook lamb bellies and pork shoulders at 140°F and 1 for 24 hours, and then holding them for service, simplified the production of both and increased their quality and consistency.

[Neal Fraser] “It’s not hard to learn to cook with it, honestly, because a lot of that information is out there in owner’s manuals and online videos.”

Fraser adds that when a culinary team learns the crucial relationship between the oven’s evaporator temperature, dry heat temperature, and total cooking time, all that knowledge comes together to “take the dummy work out of it.”

[Neal Fraser] “The things we used to put a lot of effort into to make a dish perfect, we don’t have to do those anymore because of how we use CVap.”

Though he does use some immersion circulators for actual sous-vide cooking at Redbird, he prefers cooking vacuum-sealed items in CVap due to its remarkable temperature accuracy.

[Neal Fraser] “A CVap is much more accurate on temperature than a $400 immersion circulator with a heating element stuck in a pot of water. I want to know the food we’re making is safe, and CVap can be trusted with that.”

Fraser is working to finalize a HACCP protocol for all production at Redbird.

Redbird Reduces Labor with CVap

The nationwide kitchen labor shortage is an ongoing problem with no end in sight. Equally problematic to profits are wage increases demanded by cooks who are well aware they’re in high demand. To address both challenges, Chef Fraser is turning to kitchen technology that reduces labor needs and increases food consistency. And with each investment he makes, he says the result is ever-improved food quality. Working alongside the eight CVap units at Redbird are four combi ovens that perform a wide range of functions. The upfront expense required to buy so many ovens is steep, Fraser allows, but he says they pay for themselves reasonably quickly through reductions in labor cost and food waste.

[Neal Fraser] “Think about paying $15 an hour in L.A. That’s $30,000 a year going to one cook. But if I buy a piece of equipment for $40,000, it pays for itself in one-and-a-half years by reducing labor. There’s lots to be said about the relationship between cooking technology and labor.”

Fraser says that one-way CVap achieves that aim is with easy programmability that reduces human error. He compares CVap cooking to aiming at an easy-to-hit target.

[Neal Fraser] “If you’re cooking at 500°F in a convection oven, that bull’s-eye is the size of a quarter and very hard to hit because there’s so much room for error at that temperature. But if you’re cooking at 140°F in a CVap, the bull’s-eye is about the size of a wall and a lot easier to hit.”

Redbird uses CVap

When asked if better training of chefs and cooks can just as easily increase the size of the bull’s-eye, Fraser says yes, but only to a small degree.

[Neal Fraser] “Imagine a really talented cook or chef being like Wyatt Earp with a gun. Wyatt Earp can hit a quarter every time, but not a lot of others can consistently. CVap widens the bull’s-eye so that anyone can hit it.”

Temperature-targeted Cooking

About 80 percent of the proteins the Redbird staff cooks in CVap start off in vacuum-sealed bags. The oven’s use of water vapor to heat food creates a moisture-rich environment that simulates sous vide cooking but without immersion in water. Fraser says this is particularly effective for proteins that are seared and deglazed with liquids before bagging.

[Neal Fraser] “We do a lot of short ribs like that: seared, deglazed with red wine and veal stock, braised some, then bagged in 6-ounce portions and cooked at a low temperature. The added moisture in the bag further braises the protein. Depending on the desired finished product, we’ll rethermalize them in the bag, or, at other times, we finish them (without bags) in a hotel pan.”

For Redbird’s busy weekend brunch, Fraser combines combi oven and CVap technology to cook what’s commonly called the “62°C egg.” To achieve the silken texture balance of a semi-firm white and a warm, liquid yolk, eggs are cooked in the shell at 62°C (144°F) for 40 minutes in the combi oven. Once finished, they’re cracked into small cups and held in CVap, ready for service.

[Neal Fraser] “They hold perfectly (in CVap) like that, and they’re ready to pour on top of the finished item at pick up. It’s a lot easier to have them in the cups than it is trying to crack an egg and pour it on top of the dish.”

Fraser says seafood cooking is where CVap excels because of its ability to cook at unusually low temperatures. The flesh of tuna will begin firming at temps as low as 105°F, and the texture of salmon is amazing when cooked for just ten minutes at 118°F. He says that placing fish and olive oil in a vacuum-sealed bag is ideal

[Neal Fraser] “When you cook at lower temperatures, the texture is like poached fish.” 

Neil Fraser Outstanding in the Field

Fraser also cooks skate in CVap, first by cleaning it and placing layers of it on a small sheet pan. Next, he vacuum-seals the fish still on the pan and cooks it. He says the result is “like a skate loaf,” since the fish’s thin wings are layered to a modest thickness.

[Neal Fraser] “Once it’s cooked for 15 minutes, I throw the whole thing in ice (to shock it), and then we portion and sauté it to order. You can’t do that with any other oven.”

Chef Fraser’s Favorite CVap Settings

  • Porterhouse Steaks (holding), 120°F and 1 (new CVap 120°F Vapor Temp/125°F Air Temp)
  • Braising Lamb Belly or Short Ribs, 140°F and 1 (new CVap 140°F Vapor Temp/145°F Air Tempo)
  • Pork Shoulder, 150°F and 1 (new CVap 150°F Vapor Temp/155°F Air Temp)
  • Custards, 180°F and 1 (new CVap 180°F Vapor Temp/185°F Air Temp) for about 45 minutes
  • Fried Chicken (holding),155°F and 5 (new CVap 155°F Vapor Temp/195°F Air Temp)

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Operator Corner: Chef Reed Johnson

Chef Reed Johnson

Chef Reed Johnson has over two decades of culinary experience under his belt. He’s served as executive chef at several notable Louisville area establishments, including The Standard Plate & Pour and Wiltshire at the Speed. In spring 2022, he was named executive chef at Equus & Jack’s Bourbon Restaurant/Lounge.

Reed sat down with author Steve Coomes for this wide-ranging discussion in late 2019.

A Lifelong Curiosity

Neither Reed Johnson nor his parents knew it, but as a child, he displayed the personality traits common to successful chefs. He was bright, inquisitive, easily bored, and fond of food. Johnson was the boy who disassembled toys to learn how they worked and reassembled some as hybrids using different parts. His curiosity met its match when he destroyed a pricey Teddy Ruxpin toy bear to see how its eyes moved.

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[Reed Johnson] “I didn’t know how the cassette tape made the eyes move, so I took it apart. I beat the eyeballs out of it just to see how they worked.”

Horrified by the destroyed Christmas present, Johnson’s mother told her perplexed son that she spent half his father’s weekly paycheck on the fuzzy extravagance.

[Reed Johnson] “She didn’t understand that I wanted the stereo inside, not the talking bear. But I felt bad when she pointed out the cost.”

That lifelong interest in how things work would lead him to spend years mastering the CVap® oven. Well into his two-decade cooking career, Johnson hadn’t seen the vapor-heated oven until working as a chef at Artestano, a tapas restaurant. Those CVaps were small cook-and-hold models in which starches and sauces were reheated and held ready for service.

[Reed Johnson] “When it heats things up nice and slow, there’s no chance of scorching, no skins on sauces, no caramelized sugars like you get with pots or in steamtables. The quality of what you started with at 11 a.m. would be the same at 11 p.m.—if there was any leftover.”

Head Chef and New CVaps

When the same bosses called on him to become head chef at Red Barn Kitchen, a mid-scale southern restaurant specializing in barbecue, Johnson was thrilled to find larger CVaps to play with. Not intimidated by the new ovens, the novice dove in to learn more.

[Reed Johnson] “These were the big ones, the 220-volt units that had a ton of power and heated up really quickly. That was when I started to learn what they’d really do.”

Chef Reed Johnson

Fed from the Ground and the Trees

Madisonville, Kentucky, Johnson’s birthplace, is a town of 19,000 in Western Kentucky where he jokes about enjoying “a Duck Dynasty family life.” Relatives lived close by and gathered regularly for large meals centered on food from their gardens and fruit trees.

[Reed Johnson] “My grandmother was a great cook. I was fortunate that she and my grandfather lived next door. I was always into cooking with family. And I also liked art: painting and sculpture. Over time, what had been falling on paper began falling onto plates for me.”

A job at an Italian restaurant convinced Johnson he’d found his calling. He made plans to attend the National Center for Hospitality Studies in Louisville, Kentucky after high school. He earned culinary and business degrees in four years and laid down roots in Louisville. Working in multiple restaurants, he gobbled up each chef’s knowledge before moving along to the next to learn more.

[Reed Johnson] “I’m always trying to find new ways of doing things. It’s fair to say I had no idea how much I’d find to learn with CVaps. I think I’m pretty good with them now, yet I know there’s still so much more to go.”

Mastering CVap

When Johnson helped OLE Restaurant Group launch Red Barn Kitchen, he was already a skilled barbecuer. However, mastering that in a restaurant setting using CVaps called for a different skill set that required long hold times for briskets, shoulders, and even fried chicken. He quickly learned that CVap was the ideal tool for all three and much more.

[Steve Coomes] Going from Artesano to Red Barn Kitchen saw your CVap options change from cook and hold ovens to large, multipurpose retherm ovens. How did that change your cooking strategy?

[Reed Johnson] “I like to say that Red Barn was where I got the training wheels off and started playing around with CVap. The larger ones were powerful, 220 volts, and you could fill them and heat them up to 200°F in less than 90 minutes. Another thing about the 220-volt units is you could put in and pull stuff out all night long and the atmosphere never changed. They’re amazing.”

“Just like we did at Artesano, we were using them to reheat starches and sauces in heat-proof quart containers. Not only did they heat up incredibly fast in 100 percent humidity, but it was also a great way to control portions by breaking them down into quarts. They were the perfect size to heat up fast and evenly and then hold them. We’d keep those set on 150°F. But at Red Barn, where we did so much more volume, I’d set it on different stages. We started with 90 minutes of 200°F heat and then I’d dropped it down to 155°F for holding.”

Crispy fried chicken sandwich

[Steve Coomes] Talk about the increased volume and how you used CVap to adjust to that.

[Reed Johnson] “We’d have big prep days where everything was cooked to finished product, ‘quarted’ and cooled properly. Then, when we got ready for each day’s service, we reheated them in the CVap as we needed them.”

[Steve Coomes] Where did you start learning so much about CVap? Online? Networking with users? Hands-on?

[Reed Johnson] “A little bit of all of it. Winston has a lot of good material online. And there are a lot of YouTube videos out there. Being friends with Barry Yates was helpful, too. He told me lots of different methods we could apply to what we were doing.”

[Steve Coomes] Which was what, exactly?

[Reed Johnson] “At Red Barn, we needed perfect moist heat for briskets, butts, and beans. But since we also made a lot of fried chicken, it had to have an atmosphere of its own to stay crisp. Obviously, you can’t hold fried chicken with briskets. You have to pick an atmosphere for each. The good news is there are lots of different CVap designs between top and bottom that create unique atmospheres.”

[Reed Johnson] “Oh, one neat thing I bet nobody talks about that CVap does. Most barbecue places go through a lot of aluminum foil and plastic because they wrap the meat to hold in moisture. We didn’t need either with CVap. We hold it at 170°F and +5 and it’s perfect.”

[Steve Coomes] You had steaks and pork chops on Red Barn’s menu. How did you stage those with CVap?

[Reed Johnson] “Perfectly. We did a sort-of sous vide application with chops and steaks. Bagged them and brought the steaks up to perfect medium-rare and held them there for hours without denaturing the proteins. We could infuse other flavors into the meat by adding seasonings inside the bag. When one got ordered, we’d get a perfect sear and cook on it and send it out quickly.”

Striving for Balance

[Steve Coomes] Like so many chefs, you wanted to balance your work life and home life, so you tried a food sales role in hopes of achieving that.

[Reed Johnson] “Yeah, I did, but it wasn’t me. I just love to cook. Love working with other cooks, and feeding people. So, while it didn’t last long, I didn’t want to go back to working nights all the time in a restaurant.”

[Steve Coomes] What drew you back to a restaurant kitchen?

[Reed Johnson] “I worked a long time in catering for Wiltshire Pantry (a high-end Louisville caterer), which was a job I really liked. So, when I was still a distributor sales rep, I called on Wiltshire’s owner, (Susan Hershberg). We met at the Wiltshire at the Speed café. As we were walking and talking, I saw two CVaps and asked her how she liked them. She said she didn’t like them, that they screwed up product and she wouldn’t let the chefs use them. I’d known Susan for a long time, so I felt comfortable saying to her, ‘No they don’t. They’re amazing.’”

Fried Egg
English Muffins reed johnson
Local ramp bread formage blanc

Brunches and Baking

[Steve Coomes] Then, as luck would have it, the chef at Wiltshire at the Speed left, and you quit sales to take the job. I gather you auditioned those CVaps in short order?

[Reed Johnson] “Yeah, I really wanted to show Susan how amazing they were. The cool thing is I didn’t really have any idea how much they could do until I started playing with them using the café’s menu. We do lunch and brunch and really large events, so we change the menu a lot. I started experimenting with them to see how we could run things better.”

“We did brunch, so we needed to be good at egg cookery—which I say is the test of any good cook’s skills. But when you get busy, the first place where consistency goes out the window is egg cookery. So, we used CVap to do sunny-side-up eggs. Put them on a Silpat in a CVap set on 135°F, and you can hold those perfectly for hours— and they won’t lose their sheen. Of course, we didn’t have to hold them for hours since we turned them over so quickly. We also held poached eggs in water bath perfectly in CVap.”

“My sous chef loved to bake, and he used CVap for bread proofing and baking. Most kitchens are too cold or too hot to proof in, but if you do it in CVap and know the right settings, they leaven perfectly. We did English muffins a lot in CVap, and they’re perfect. We baked puff pastry in them, too, and Susan couldn’t believe how well it came out.”

“CVap is like any tool. You have to know how to use it. Once you understand the science behind it, you’ll start using it for everything.”

Using CVap for Large Events

[Steve Coomes] Talk about using CVap for large events at the museum.

[Reed Johnson] “If we had to cook that same food from raw to finished, it would take at least twice the employees to do it. I had one cook firing food, one cooked plating brigade style and I called out tickets. They pulled what they needed from CVap, garnished the plate and it was gone. In that setting, it takes the cooking out of service. We’d done it ahead of time.”

[Steve Coomes] If a group of chefs asked how to learn CVap quickly, what would you tell them?

[Reed Johnson] “I’d tell them to stage with somebody who uses it regularly. Nothing beats seeing them in action and working properly. I’d also tell them to search for CVap videos online.

I’d also tell them to talk to other chefs who use it. They’ll tell you that CVap allows you more freedom to do more things. The quick sales pitch would be to tell them it can hold cooked eggs perfectly for four hours and fried chicken to the point that, when you bite into it, it tastes like it just came from the deep fryer. I’d tell them to experience it for themselves.”

Birra style tacos Reed Johnson

[Steve Coomes] Based on your time working with it, is there any foodservice application that wouldn’t be a good fit for CVap?

[Reed Johnson] “I can’t think of any sort of food out there it wouldn’t work for. You can control humidity from zero percent to 100 percent, and temperature from 100°F for proofing and 200°F for baking. And anything you’re cooking in them will also hold perfectly in it.”

“The whole cook and hold system behind them is amazing to me. Just making something simple like prime rib…put the whole seasoned prime rib in, programming it to start with dry heat to sear and brown, then cook it for several hours, then it starts stepping the temperature down until you’ve got finished 130°F prime rib holding and ready to go on the buffet.”

“Some chefs say it reduces food costs through better yield. It does that, and it reduces food waste by keeping your products consistent. That also lowers food waste. And when you’re cooking food that doesn’t have to be remade, you’re saving on food and labor at the same time.”

[Steve Coomes] You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you appreciate its design. What’s unique about it?

[Reed Johnson] “Just making all the racks adjustable is huge. CVaps have wider rails than other holding cabinets, so a full sheet tray can slide in perfectly. You can also turn hotel pans sideways to fit. Deep hotel pans fit perfectly on those racks. If you load it smartly, there’s not an inch of waste. And you can’t really overload the unit because it’s built with two inches of space around everything. That creates its own natural convection that moves everything around.

It may not sound all that important, but they clean up so easily since they’re all stainless steel, and there aren’t any weird places for food to hide that you can’t get to. Somebody obviously put a hell of a lot of thought into them.”

Chef Reed’s Favorite CVap Settings

  • Holding poached eggs and sunny-side-up eggs: 140°F and +0 (new CVap 140°F Vapor Temp/140°F Air Temp); water bath for poached; on Silpat for sunny-side up
  • Holding fried chicken: 150°F and +80 (new CVap 150°F Vapor Temp/230°F Air Temp)
  • Pulled pork and brisket: 170°F and +5 (new CVap 170°F Vapor Temp/175°F Air Temp)
  • Proofing English muffins: 100°F and +0 (new CVap 100°F Vapor Temp/100°F Air Temp). Proof setting straight up for larger Pullman style loaves
  • Holding buttermilk biscuits: 150°F +30 (new CVap 150°F Vapor Temp/180°F Air Temp)

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Operator Corner: Chef Patrick Roney

Chef Patrick Roney

Chef Patrick Roney has literally worked around the globe. His career has taken him throughout the American west, and onto the high seas. Ultimately, it lead him back to Louisville, Kentucky. Here, he’s put down roots.

He sat down with author Steve Coomes for this autumn 2019 interview.

Traveling the World

Chef Patrick Roney spent roughly two decades in professional kitchens before spotting a CVap® in a historic Louisville, Kentucky restaurant. Its purpose? Holding bread pudding hot. It would take a while before he discovered it could do much more.

[Patrick Roney] “They didn’t understand what it could really do then, but I didn’t either right away. When someone told me it can do a lot more, I got curious.”

Article at a Glance

Curious is a good way to describe Roney himself. Combining a love of cooking and wanderlust to discover food on a global scale, he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and headed west to cook in Prescott, Arizona, Jackson, Wyoming, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, California. His stay in the last spot would be shorter than expected.

[Patrick Roney] “I thought I’d be at that restaurant for at least a little while. But that was 2001, which meant 9/11, followed by the dot.com implosion. The people who were filling restaurants out there weren’t able to eat at great restaurants any longer, and 70 percent of our business disappeared.”

Chef Patrick Roney

Life on the Water

With the restaurant’s end imminent, Roney packed up his “knife roll and a couple of pairs of khaki shorts and headed to Fort Lauderdale.” There, private yacht owners, unscathed by America’s tech-stock crash, sought chefs to feed them and their crews while motoring across the globe. Eager to experience foreign lands, he signed on.

[Patrick Roney] “When I got into the yachting world, I suddenly saw all these opportunities present themselves. You could really do whatever you wanted, travel wherever you wanted, and then make a great living doing it…I loved it.”

Since large private yachts can stay out of port for weeks, organization and provisioning were dialed in weeks ahead of time. Once told where the yacht would finally dock, he called ahead to have trucks waiting at the docks “because you might be there only five hours before leaving that port.”

Naturally easygoing and friendly, Roney also learned that intimate hospitality—even for chefs used to working away from guests—was essential.

[Patrick Roney] “I realized I had to sell myself to the guests and owners, not just cook. That’s where I got very comfortable with working the front of the house and interacting with people. I really liked that.”

Roney worked on multiple yachts—the largest was 180 feet long and carried a $50 million price tag. Keeping such ships running cost $2 million annually, just for fuel and crew expenses. Crews might get five days off in a two-and-a-half-month stretch, but shore leave was exciting, especially during a return trip to Ft. Lauderdale.

[Patrick Roney] “That’s where I met Heather—at a dive right on the beach called the Elbow Room. After we got married, she joined me for the last five years of yachting life.”

Heather, it turns out, would play a key role in leading him to CVap.

Cooking on Land

After ten years at sea, the Roneys were ready to put down roots. Heather Roney, a Louisville native, lobbied for her hometown and her husband obliged. Hired in catering sales at the legendary Seelbach Hotel, Heather heard its high-end restaurant, The Oak Room, needed a chef de cuisine. Tipped off by his insider wife, he applied and was hired.

As Roney got the lay of the land, he noticed the CVap and asked about its purpose. A quick look told him it was underutilized, so he began experimenting with it: tweaking its dry and moist cooking settings and asking other chefs how they used theirs. Though learning quickly how to use it, the more he tested it, the greater its capabilities became clear.

[Patrick Roney] “One really basic thing we did was put all the ingredients for a soup in the CVap at 180°F, and the next morning when we came in, all of it was perfectly cooked to the point that we could puree it and it was good to go. We just started playing with it to see what it would do. And it became this incredible workhouse that saved us so much time. Using it gave us an opportunity to spread our wings.”

In its century-long run, The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel has been the epitome of fine dining. While its luxurious dining room seats only 100, the technical level of the food produced by Chef Patrick Roney’s team was challenging. When he proposed several complicated dishes for a set menu planned for Kentucky Derby week—when the restaurant would be sold out. His supervisors doubted whether he could pull it off. He assured them, however, that using CVap, he could.

Learning to Use CVap

[Steve Coomes] Like most chefs, learning to cook with CVap is a bit of a journey. Talk about beginning with the basics and moving to more technical use.

[Patrick Roney] “One of the first things we mastered was planning out and starting our next day’s work by putting things into CVap overnight. Not only did it free up other ovens, we now had the opportunity to cook things in such a precise way that our food was elevated. We were using it for large format roasts, browning and holding at a desired temperature and being amazed by how moist the results were.”

[Steve Coomes] You also learned to stage with it, correct?

[Patrick Roney] “That’s something any busy restaurant can do. If you know your peak rush time and know during that you’ll sell 15 lamb, 20 beef, 25 pork, whatever, you can get ahead of that rush. Load your CVap up beforehand. Then, when all the tickets come in at once, you’ll be ahead of that rush. Getting ahead and staying there using CVap is mostly about knowing how to hold things at the correct temperature.”

[Steve Coomes] When did you start pushing your own boundaries and understanding of CVap?

[Patrick Rooney] “For Kentucky Derby week one year, we were doing a kind of deconstructed burgoo. Our take on it used a smoked, braised wild boar ragout topped with a Kentucky-fried rabbit leg and venison chop. The rabbit leg and the venison chop were staged and held the CVap at 130°F with browning set at 4. The wild boar ragout—which technically was really like a thick meat sauce—was bagged, in a water bath and held in the CVap. When pick-up was called, all we had to do was sear the venison chop, add the fried rabbit leg, and plate it over the boar ragout. We also were holding country ham hush puppies in the same CVap, all in the same atmosphere. That alone was amazing.”
Kentucky-fried rabbit leg and venison chop

[Steve Coomes] When you proposed that dish to your colleagues at the restaurant, they questioned whether you could really do it, right?

[Patrick Roney] “That’s right. When I said I intended to hold Kentucky-fried rabbit legs perfectly crispy for Derby night service, they weren’t sure it was possible. I knew we couldn’t drop rabbit legs to order in the fryer all night and risk the quality being all over the place. So, we had to fry them before service and hold them in the CVap. On a night when we were charging $275 a person, everything we did had to be spot on. But at that point, I’d used CVap enough to know what it did when I programmed it correctly.”

“Everything held perfectly through that four-hour service—perfectly. We were proud of the quality, but it also gave us an opportunity to prove we could really do what others doubted we could. It took guts to take that chance because I was holding $4,000 worth of food in the CVap. But I was confident it would work.”

[Steve Coomes] Who doubted your call to use CVap?

[Patrick Roney] “My boss back then, Chef Matt Durham, and Julie De Friend, the front-of-the-house manager. Julie was over the moon with the way it came out, and our guests were over the moon with the whole meal. Matt was quietly impressed that it worked that way.”

[Steve Coomes] I gather that was a confidence boost for you to see CVap perform exactly the way you needed it to.

[Patrick Roney] “We were really beginning to see that it was a kind of magic closet. You put food into it, opened the door, and pulled out perfectly held food. It opened so many avenues for different ways of plating and different thought processes on how service was going to go for us in the future.”

Garnished Steak - Patrick Roney

Networking: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Experimenting with CVap ovens helped Chef Roney master its basics. But networking with other chefs who used it was mind-expanding and unexpected.

[Steve Coomes] How did you meet so many chefs who also used CVap?

[Patrick Roney] “I know it sounds corny, but it was a wonderful day that I met Chef Barry Yates at a Star Chefs conference in New York. I told him what I was doing with CVap, and he started giving me his own research information.”

“During that Star Chefs event and one other I attended, I got to see what other chefs were doing, and I dug in further. At the second Star Chefs, I got to work the Winston booth and get feedback and find out how restaurants were thriving by using it.”

[Steve Coomes] What types of restaurants were using it?

[Patrick Roney] “It ran the gamut: fine dining, barbecue, fast food…and it didn’t matter what type, really, because CVap was the workhorse allowing them to save labor, time, money, effort, staffing, greatly increase quality and create new things. I learned a lot from being around other users.”

[Steve Coomes] You’ve mentioned that it saves time cooking by letting you do other things. Does that ultimately benefit your labor cost?

[Patrick Roney] “It saves people in the kitchen, which helps save labor. When I first used it at The Oakroom, I had a small team there—just four of us in that kitchen. So we called the CVap the Fifth Man. Every night we were open, that thing was running.”

“It also lowers the stress of a kitchen to have CVap in there. There are a lot of things happening during the early part of service. A lot of stuff that one cook is expected to pay attention to. Having that CVap prepped and full of whatever that cook needs, all of it staged and ready to finish or go right to the plate removes stress from that cook’s scope of responsibility. What then happens is it opens up a lot more opportunities to be better at some other aspect of the dishes coming off that station. The cook can do other things because CVap is taking care of the rest.”

[Steve Coomes] You hosted many large-scale events at Ashbourne Farms, where all events are large-scale dinners. How did CVap help?

[Patrick Roney] “When you’ve got to have 300 pieces of something cooked exactly the same for a high-end function, you can’t beat them. But to be able to cook and hold those perfectly for two hours before service, that’s what’s really amazing. Knowing you can do that frees you up during crunch time when so many plates are spinning. You have that ace in the hole.”

What Chef Roney Likes Best

That Chef Patrick Roney calls the CVap a “workhorse” nicely describes the burden it removes from professional cooking. But as he describes below, it’s also a precision cooking oven, created to cook and hold at exacting temperatures and without variation. Learning how to make it walk the fine line of perfection is a matter of gathering information and experimenting with food.

Chef Patrick Roney Operator Corner

[Steve Coomes] Easy question: What unique aspects of CVap help your style of precision cooking?

[Patrick Roney] “It’s just so precise, which is something other ovens I’ve used can’t do. They can get close, but not perfectly and not consistently. Things we put in CVap are cooked so precisely that we don’t even have to stick thermometers in the food to make sure the food is done. It’s that reliable.”

“The food that goes in hardly loses any moisture or weight, which means really high yield, which is great for food cost.”

“Being able to control the environment in the CVap and to maximize that moisture barrier that surrounds the food—things like eggs and scallops and steaks and fish, which all hold a lot of moisture—that’s a great asset to me.”

“It’s pretty fun when you figure out how to put different things inside it and see how it holds them all just perfectly. You can’t do that with a warming cabinet or an ordinary oven because you can’t control the moisture.”

precision cooking is what it's all about

[Steve Coomes] In the past few years you’ve used CVaps at several different restaurants. Has it changed the way you plan out a menu? Knowing what you can cook and hold with it surely influences that, right?

[Patrick Roney] “Most definitely. You have more comfort writing a menu toward the sweet spot of how the CVap works and what you can get from it. If you have a couple of CVaps in one place, you can develop a couple of menus that lean on those sweet spots and how you control the cooking environment in each. You can build your menu around a CVap to a great extent.”

[Steve Coomes] Earlier you mentioned holding scallops in CVap. What about finfish? Does that work as well?

[Patrick Roney] “It’s absolutely great for finfish. Knowing your desired temperature when that fish is perfect is the key to setting CVap correctly. But you have to know exactly what temp you want to hold each specific fish because one doesn’t work for all. A monkfish will be perfect at a temperature that a flounder isn’t, so it’s essential figure that out. But once you have that knowledge, it’s easy.”

Patrick Roney’s Five Faves

[Steve Coomes] Here’s a lighting round question: Give me your five favorite CVap settings and the foods you hold or cook them in.

[Patrick Roney] “OK, here goes:”

  • Fried rabbit legs, 130°F plus 4 browning (new CVap 130°F Vapor Temp/170°F Air Temp).
  • Holding New York strips, 125°F plus 0 browning (new CVap 125°F Vapor Temp/125°F Air Temp).
  • Braising anything—shanks oxtail, short ribs—180°F plus 2 browning (new CVap 180°F Vapor Temp/190°F Air Temp).
  • Large proteins, 125°F plus 2 browning (new CVap 125°F Vapor Temp/135°F Air Temp).
  • Fish, I have a couple: If holding scallops or flounder, 133°F plus 0 browning (new CVap 133°F Vapor Temp/133°F Air Temp).
    Salmon is kind of variable, in that you don’t want it dried out, but most people prefer it cooked all way through. So, 140°F plus 1 browning (new CVap 140°F Vapor Temp/145°F Air Temp).

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