Interview

Ask “Why?”: Russell Davis (Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue”)

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. This principle is probably the most basic and straight-forward introduction to philosophy in existence, but it seems to be the one society is most reluctant to adopt, especially when it comes to knowledge. “Why?” is the most important question an individual can ask. At least that’s the perspective of Russell Davis, Bar and Mixology Expert on Spike TV’s “Bar Rescue,” Nightclub and Bar Magazine’s 2012 Bartender of the Year, and Bar/Spirits/Mixology Consultant with a ridiculous variety of industry projects keeping him busy around-the-clock.

The only thing currently slowing Russell down is the knee surgery he is recovering from, but when I nervously shake his hand for the first time in-person, his energy is candid and jovial. After pouring me a glass of wine and preparing a pot of green tea, we sit across from one another with his best girl, aka his dog Daphne, climbing excitedly over both of us to provide a perfect ice-breaker to the next two hours I will spend learning and laughing (laughing a lot) from this talented multi-hyphenate.

Russell grew up on a 400-acre peach farm in a town of 80 people in East Texas, founded in 1836 by his great-great-great-great-grandfather. Everyone in town knew one another, and he briefly describes selling peaches on the side of the highway with his grandfather’s best friend. He speaks with affection about his father’s peaches, claiming they remain the best he has ever had, but wrinkles his nose when describing an aroma he hasn’t experienced since leaving home – rotten peaches. “Anything you produce in mass quantities – you know what it smells like decaying, and also as fresh as it can be.”

The majority of our conversation will end up revolving around senses, stimuli, and metaphor, which seem to encompass the most effective jargon to convey his opinions. He describes the bar as a gigantic piano, with each bottle embodying the notes played, then tells me the bar is also the story of his professional life. Smelling the contents of each bottle can transport him to each institution he has worked in since age 18, when he began bartending while studying Theater at the University of Texas at Austin. “My weird oddities reflect trends from each of those places,” he says, grinning, going on to describe the cumulating development of his love for green chartreuse with a root beer back, which began at Peche, a craft cocktail bar in Austin.

“It’s got 136 botanicals in it, but I hated green chartreuse at first. That’s the bottle that was never touched.” He likens the combination of green chartreuse and root beer to being in a pine forest surrounded by anise, and enjoys the effervescence of the soda bubbles carrying that aroma up to the nose.

“No one is more of an expert in root beer than me,” he responds, when I ask him if that combination is indicative of personal preference, since he has been acknowledged in the industry for developing a signature root beer float recipe.

He loved root beer as a child, and dug up sasafras roots in hopes of making it. (Someone in his family told him root beer came from roots, and I find myself giggling at the thought of tiny Russell carrying a root to an enchanted sorceress in the woods and returning with a mug of soda.) When he started experimenting with his own recipe, he had a very specific goal: he wanted his root beer to be like a cold-brewed tea, replicating root beer but thoroughly original to him. The version he uses starts with a black tea base, sassafras, marshmallow root (used in Indian culture as a thickening agent), and various essential oils.

Russell developed this recipe, along with 17 syrups, 70 tinctures, and 36 extracts (all non-alcoholic by FDA standards) while at The Ice Cream Bar in San Francisco, a take on a classic soda fountain. Not the Norman Rockwell soda fountain, the gritty 1890s version developed by pharmacists in drugstores to compete with popular saloon offerings, then made doubly appealing by the ability to get drugs. He describes this era (after the 1860 prohibition attempting to regulate the sale of pharmaceuticals) as the definition of what cocktails are.

I note that he seems to take much inspiration from this time period. “It’s not what I was interested in, it’s what people were interested in,” he replies, and we end up having a tangential discussion about history.

“How much of the story is told in alcohol?” he muses, describing a tonic made from dandelion and burdock root around the 12th Century AD described as “tonic of life.” After he reminds me that the phrase for distilled alcohol in Latin is aqua vitae, or “Water of Life,” we talk about legends about King Arthur, and how the Holy Grail is also described as “Water of Life.”

“I like to study people and culture. Alcohol is just my medium. You very rarely see people at their best in a bar. Very often, you see them at their worst. I’ve seen the layers of a person peeled back,” he says. “I love the bar industry, and I love what I do, but at home I’m a different person. Get the gasoline of your life from something else to fuel your passion.”

After asking him to describe his early bar memories, he comments that he can envision the exact spot he is standing in with each scenario, and describes after-hours at Cain & Abel’s in Austin listening to “Heaven” by The Talking Heads and “Where is My Mind” by Pixies. These early memories cause us to be temporarily derailed (again – my bad) by a discussion of Top Ramen (not Cup-O-Noodles, there’s a difference) and Sour Punch Straws, after which I learn one of the first cocktails that struck a meaningful chord with him: a sazerac, developed around 1836 in New Orleans. The manager of one of the first bars Russell worked in would regularly describe driving to New Orleans for this drink, especially the look and smell of the absinthe and whiskey in it.

Russell got his chance to try a sazerac while at a cocktail convention. He visited a bartender named Marvin (who he now sees every year – usually during summer) at the Carousel Bar & Lounge of the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, the city’s only rotating bar. “My year is not complete without one,” he says. His eyes brighten when he describes the rotating bar, and I’m wondering if he catches the same metaphor I do when he continues, “You go back to the same seat, but the carousel has spun around.”

Is there a cocktail he’s created that has left a similar lasting impression on him? Ask him about “The Unforgiven.” “It defined something for me.”

Created after being asked what he would make if Clint Eastwood (or Bon Jovi, the only celebrity he claims he would be star-struck by) sat in front of him at the bar, “The Unforgiven” is a room temperature cocktail of aged Old Tom Gin, mezcal, carpano antica, spring water, and a tobacco-infused moonshine aromatic. Russell’s matter-of-fact pride in the drink comes both from the inspiration behind it (a riff on a frontier cocktail) and his love of the dirty mezcal against the bright gin.

Coincidentally, mezcal is one of the beverages he uses to describe his love life. That or a Flaming Dr. Pepper. “Dirty, but hits you just right,” he jokes.

So how else can someone or something hit the sweet spot of a man whose baseball walkout song would be “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi? For example, what cocktail could a bar-back or runner prepare to prove their worth? Answer: A Daiquiri or an Old Fashioned.

Why?

“To me, what makes a good anything is being able to look at a portion of a drink, and whoever made it can tell you why. I like people to make decisions. It has to have a reason. ‘I was trained to do this,’ is the wrong answer. It’s a way to have bad techniques perpetuate. Ask ‘why’ it was made the way it was made….It took seeing people care about it to make me care about it.”

Russell takes his steak black and blue and believes pho is the best hangover and illness cure in the world. “I don’t want where I eat pho to have a name. I just want a neon sign that says “pho” or a graphic of a soup bowl.”

When he’s feeling blue, he eats a low country boil or any other large pot of shellfish (sometimes in bed), and he only drinks piña coladas when he’s on vacation. For breakfast, he likes chai tea and scrambling a few eggs.

When he gets good news about a project and has a dance party in his living room to celebrate (come on, we all do it), he switches on “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk or “Pompeii” by Bastille. He hasn’t officially worked behind a bar for a couple of years beyond consulting and promoting, but he remembers getting “Everyday I’m Hustlin'” by Rick Ross and “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz stuck in his head.

When the times comes to ask, “Why?” He chooses to ask, “What next?”

“When I answer, ‘What next?’ the ‘why’ is in there.”

 

For more information about Russell Davis and updates on his latest projects follow him on Facebook and Twitter or check out the Unlimited Liabilities website.

Eat It, Live It, Breathe It: A Conversation with Bar Pintxo’s James Martinez

James Martinez strolls out of the kitchen in typical form – fitted baseball hat worn backward, prep container of iced tea in-hand, apron with a folded towel tucked into the waist, lip ring, and tattoos. For once, he’s not headed for a station on the line; he’s graciously agreed to give me two hours of his time to talk about himself and the people he cares for most: his kitchen family. We head for the outside corner table of Bar Pintxo in Santa Monica. Almost three hours later, I emerge with a full belly and brain full of inspiration. I’m honored to know this man and call him friend – enough that I’m up at 6:30 in the morning before a long day of museum professional development hoping I do his passion justice.

James has spent his life bouncing around Los Angeles – born in East Los Angeles, moving to the West Side with his family, then over to North Hollywood after a few years in the kitchen. Maybe his love of cooking is connected to his father, a courier who took the family for sushi dinners and attempted to mimic recipes from cooking shows, but he’s not certain. His first kitchen memories were the result of necessity: both his parents worked, and his mother saved her days off for much-needed rest. As a result, fourteen-year-old James started making Spaghetti-Os for his four-year-old sister and newborn niece. He realized food was something he could get lost in and fall asleep thinking about when he began attempting recipes from the L.A. Times newspaper. Whenever he was uncertain, he improvised.

Kitchen pursuits temporarily diffused when James entered his junior year of high school, during which he swapped his L.A. Times recipe experiments for Taco Bell family packs with varsity football teammates. The topic of cooking resurfaced in a conversation with his father before the end of his senior year, who surprised James by admitting a previous desire to become a chef.

After graduating, an aunt’s boyfriend mentioned a connection to a culinary training course. James jumped at the opportunity, and showed up to a rehabilitation program for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Never one to turn away an opportunity to grow, he stayed and learned the basics, eventually working in the coffee shop operated by program alumni. After a brief stint at a Pavillion’s deli counter, he decided to expand his culinary knowledge and deepen his anxiety about debt by enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.

“School was different. It’s sped-up and rushed, which makes things inconsistent…..I picked everything up – it’s somewhere, but I’m still not sure what I paid for,” he admits, laughing as he remembers his externships. “With a restaurant, you master things. You do them again, and again, and again. I’ve seen people get fired over cooking a steak. I’ve seen people get pans thrown at them.”

His professional kitchen experience started at the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa with a pre-“Top Chef: Season 6” winner Michael Voltaggio, who now owns ink. on Melrose, where James worked for five months while finishing Le Cordon Bleu, and externing for Wolfgang Puck’s catering company. He speaks fondly of both experiences, noting Voltaggio’s energy and presence. “You knew when he was in the kitchen. Hearing his voice, hearing something happening – you knew….you had to just do something. Put your head down, cut carrots, cut anything. He was always there for his kitchen, making sure every single plate was perfect.”

He doesn’t need pressing to recall his most memorable experience with Wolfgang Puck. It occurred at the Oscars Governor’s Ball party, which Puck has catered for almost two decades. Appetizers were going out, James one of the many young externs cooking meat. A hand reached around him to grab a set of tongs, and James glanced over his shoulder to see Puck himself flipping over the steak on his station. “He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t let me do your job again.’ ….What else was I supposed to say? ‘Oui, chef.’ ”

After changing his metaphorical pants, of course.

His began his first post-school job after meeting Jimmy Martinez, a chef at BOA steakhouse in Santa Monica, at a barber shop. Even though he was taken on for pastry duties, he became a line cook after two months, and a line lead one month after that.

His eyes light up and I can feel electrical energy shooting out of his fingertips when I ask him to talk with me about cooking on the line. His entire demeanor changes. He sits up straight, looking across Santa Monica Boulevard at a kitchen I can’t see.

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“There’s nothing else like it. It’s hot. Yelling. Feet hurting. Intense. My first time cooking on the line, I asked, ‘Is this what I want to do?” It’s fearful. After one week,  I knew this is what I want to do…..it’s the funnest thing. Cooking defines who you are: the way you keep your stations, your mise [en place]. You develop obsessions with knives. You get addictions like coffee, Redbull. You go out afterward….If you’re worried about cutting yourself, burning yourself, you make it harder. You have to just go. That’s how you can tell [who the naturals are], because their bodies take over. It’s a lifestyle. No one will understand kitchen humor. Sexual. I mean sexual….lighting people on fire. It’s more family than your actual family, than your girlfriend, than your boyfriend.”

BOA Santa Monica also led James to his first mentor, Jason Ryczek. Executive sous chef at the time, he pulled something – the spark I love seeing every time James is on the line at Bar Pintxo – out of James. On James’ first day, Ryczek asked him to whip four quarts of chantilly cream by hand. Halfway through, he pulled an electric mixer out and placed it on the counter. He checked every detail of James’ work, pushing plates back to him if they weren’t perfect. “To me, he was God. He taught me the world.”

Ryczek eventually left BOA to open his own restaurant, calling James one week after leaving to work at Artisan House in Downtown Los Angeles. However, James didn’t make the transition as a line cook. “He started me doing salad. He told me I’d never want to go back and learn those stations if I started as a chef or line cook. After one month, I moved up.”

There is also an overlap with BOA and Artisan House of James working for Red O by Rick Bayless, cooking on the line and working the saute and grill stations. It was a normal thing for others in the kitchen to be six or seven years older than him, with over a decade more experience. The cooks at Red O helped him realize speed comes from cooking intelligently: working clean, controlling tickets, and knowing how to read accurate temperatures when cooking proteins. All these lessons occurred during service, since there was no time for training in the hectic environment of morning and afternoon prep.

“When you see a full board of tickets, all you want to do is run. Just….fuck. Close the restaurant. Leave. We’re done.”

He emphasizes the importance of working smart and clean again, citing it as the most important thing he picked up during his time at Red O. “It’s like a dance. We should know where everything is without looking, no matter what. You can tell how long a chef has worked and where they’ve worked by the way they keep their station. Everything is a unit. The chef gets the credit, but he’s directing the orchestra and we’re helping making this beautiful music.”

James was eventually offered a promotion at Red O – more money, more control. The same day, he received a call from a chef named Brad Mathews, who he’d met on the line at Artisan House. Mathews was the first chef I encountered at Bar Pintxo, and my conversation with James becomes more vivacious and quick as we delve into familiar territory. Our snacks are gone and I’m pressing pen to legal pad so hard I’m almost ripping the paper.

He laughs as he describes his first encounter with Mathews, who was working at Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City at the time. Mathews had accidentally burned bread while working the saute station – a joke which runs through their friendship to this day. Mathews was in transition to work at Bar Pintxo, and offered James a junior sous chef position. When Mathews said Bar Pintxo was a Spanish restaurant, James responded, “Like paella?”

“I had no idea what else Spanish food was,” he laughs. He ate at Bar Pintxo twice before starting work, and was blown away by how much was accomplished in the small space. He remembers tasting the carrilleras de buy a la riojana, beef cheeks braised for three hours in red wine and iberico stock, served with market vegetables. He would later help Plonowski execute this dish at James Beard House in New York City.

We pause for a short trip down memory lane, where I talk about remembering the first time I saw him walk into Bar Pintxo for a meeting with Mathews, thinking he looked like a high school student. He reminds me that I acted bitchy the first time I saw him working on the line. Our relationship hasn’t changed much.

Plonowski is almost twelve years older than James, and was initially hesitant about what a twenty-something with a backward fitted hat, funky sneakers, and a lip ring could bring to his restaurant. He asks every interviewee the same question: “What are the last three restaurants you ate at, and what did you eat?”

James was prepared, flippantly answering, “Bar Pintxo, of course,” drawing a laugh out of Plownowski, before talking about Pica, Hatfield, and Animal. And after calling mentor Ryczek for a reference, James was asked to cook one piece each of meat and fish. James decided to make complete dishes to express more creativity: seared duck with fingerling potatoes and cherry reduction and chimichurri shrimp over rice with calamari and pea puree.

A unit formed. Plonowski, Mathews, and James quickly learned how to collaborate and put out fantastic food. “Every single tasting menu since I’ve started working here has had a dish by me. But something I’ve learned is that ‘we‘ made this food. Not ‘I‘ made this food.”

In January of this year, Mathews left Bar Pintxo, and it was James’ turn to step up. “I’ve learned simplicity, not restraint. Flavors. Balance. One quick punch, then you’re out. One to two things on a plate to bring out flavors.”

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Plonowski has become a second mentor, providing insight to the business side of running a restaurant. “Spanish cuisine is fun. We want to pioneer this. There’s bar food….there’s bizarre food….but where is the middle ground? We’re trying to find that comforting mix.”

Fast forward to James Beard House in New York City. The crew slept at the restaurant during preparations the week before, and James was reunited with mentor Ryczek, who came along to provide help and support. The trip started precariously, with Virgin Airlines leaving two packages containing 80 rabbits in Los Angeles. Arriving at the James Beard House to prep for service, the group discovered the pastry scale wasn’t calibrated properly, and the evening’s menu had already been printed advertising chocolate pate with blueberry caviar. James spent two hours mixing tapioca maltodextrin and calcium chloride blindly before giving up. He squints his eyes closed in frustration while relating the story back to me, clenching his fists while relating how the first thing he did after returning from New York was make a full batch of blueberry caviar – belated closure.

Regardless of the hiccup, the four-hour service went well. To James, it felt like twenty minutes. Each course meant sending sixty plates out at once from a kitchen the size of Bar Pintxo’s. James was happiest with the rabbit that almost got left behind, braised in sherry over lentils with chorizo, bacon, and iberico stock. The emotional circle completed with Ryczek expressing his pride in James’ growth. “Having a mentor is like having [a father] who says you’ve never done anything. He’s only said he was proud of me twice. It was amazing. I was always aching for a compliment from him – something. Anything.”

The food James puts out speaks to his constant desire to improve and ability to absorb. He gives as much credit and love to his kitchen family as he does to his accomplishments – he loves everyone he works with, down to the dishwashers. “You have to eat, sleep, breathe, dream, live it. If you’re not doing that, you’re not cut out for this. I go to bed every night thinking about my mise [en place] for the next day. I don’t count sheep.”

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We head inside and I sit in my usual seat at the bar that runs around the Bar Pintxo kitchen. I eat bone-in elk with tequila-infused tomatillos and peppercorn sauce, heirloom tomato salad with anchovies, padron peppers flashed in a pan with olive oil and salt, and end with the beef cheeks that started James’ journey. Per usual, he gets a hug and smooch on the cheek from me before I head out the door. He gets an invite to dinner at my apartment, as long as he agrees not to give me too hard of a time about my food.

Twenty minutes later, I receive a text that sums everything up.

A chef with that mindset and care can prepare my food any day, time, or way. Oui chef.

The Human Part of It: Coffee and Community with Chef Brad Mathews

Having coffee with Chef Brad Mathews is remarkably similar to putting one’s toes in the sand and hearing nothing but the sound of surf. That’s not an exaggeration. The man is so invested in those surrounding him, it’s hard to not feel at ease, valued, and respected. Our conversation doesn’t follow a linear structure, but moves me through different chunks of time. Shifts of seasons, types of cuisine, and people important to him are acknowledged, but everything revolves around his passion for generating feelings of inspiration and community.

Some of Brad’s earliest and most vivid food memories start in his great-grandmother’s garden. The feisty soul who cursed, drank beer, and liked good food has had a huge influence over Brad. A lunch lady who took care of him and his brother while his parents were working, he can only describe her garden as “awesome,” his descriptions transporting me to beds of heirloom tomatoes, corn, herbs, and flowers in small-town Watkins Glen, New York. “She showed me how good asparagus with just salt and butter is….it’s very good,” he says, grinning. “It was really simple food, focusing on freshness. Not playing with it too much. It took until I was doing what I’m doing and trying to figure out why I was moving into this career to answer how she had an impact.”

Then there’s his father, a butcher who worked in a family-owned grocery store as far back as Brad’s memory stretches. A simple and useful store for the small town consisting of a few aisles of produce and household goods, it managed to maintain a well-stocked meat counter for his father to work behind. He pauses to mention the quality of simple food made in small communities: the ability to grow vegetables and make better quality meals with the freshest possible ingredients; the satisfaction of knowing everything on a plate is the result of someone’s contribution. His father maintained this barn butcher shop for free for his friends, thinking nothing of sharing his abilities.

The circle of friends revolving around his father’s butcher counter led Brad to his first out-of-the-box (at the time) food experience. An early memory of waking up to his father breaking down a fresh deer in the garage pans to a friend’s mother braising the heart and serving it thinly shaved with olive oil on toasted bread remains with him. “There’s a sense of community and sense of person. It’s still very resonant to me. It’s cool for me to carry that on. I get the most satisfaction cooking for my friends and carrying that on in a different way.”

We pause so Brad can buy a coffee, and it gives me the opportunity to show him my gift for him – a shirt from Flavour Gallery with a quote by James Beard spaced around rows of pig screen prints: If I had to narrow my choice of meats down to one for the rest of my life, I am quite certain that meat would be pork. Maybe he’s thankful for the gift. Maybe the coffee is kicking in. He responds with renewed enthusiasm when I jump to his style of cooking on the line.

“Service is fast. It’s like being on a basketball court or part of a football team…you can’t do it with a six-inch voice. I’m the guy saying, ‘Push, push, push, go, go, go.’ Always positive, though.” He smiles sheepishly. “It’s loud in the kitchen. You have to have presence. You have to have a voice.”

It hits me that I’ve been trying to pick out subtleties in his voice. Brad has the ability to command attention without raising his voice. He mentions he is still trying to figure out his kitchen presence. He knows he doesn’t need to put others down to gain confidence, and mentions his desire to teach and coach those around him for nothing more than the satisfaction of watching them succeed.

This ability to exude respect for his craft led to his current job at Fishing with Dynamite with David LeFevre, who also owns Manhattan Beach Post. During what was supposed to be a first informal meeting, LeFevre and Brad had a three-hour conversation over biscuits, coffee, and a shared boyish excitement about food. Brad realized LeFevre  was the type of owner he eventually wants to be. Their conversation flowed around restaurant culture, good food, good music….a general desire to make the community surrounding a restaurant better. “It was the first time someone vocalized the human types of characteristics that make restaurants better. Not about prep and pushing on the line, but who you are.”

A position was centered around Brad’s needs: a love of cooking, but a desire to refocus on his marriage and helping his wife’s dreams come true, in addition to his own. His role at Fishing with Dynamite is an executive one, but from a different angle than his previous jobs. He uses his hands when he talks for the first time, expressing a renaissance of inspiration and feeling of being pushed out of a former comfort zone.

“I always loved restaurants. I loved the cast of characters. I loved them, wanted to get one, and didn’t know how…..I still don’t know how. But I always knew this is what I want to do.”

We deter from chef talk to romance, and I hear the story of how he met his wife, Kelly, after filling a 1999 V.W. Jetta with clothing and guitars and leaving Watkins Glen for Orlando, Florida. He developed an infatuation for a bartender in the restaurant he worked in. One evening in her apartment after work, a friend he is still close with told the two of them to cut the crap and admit their feelings for one another.

He doesn’t hesitate when citing his most important inspirations: his wife Kelly, Sarah – the friend who introduced him, and his best friend Steven. “I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. More so than anything, I’m focused on managing my state of mind. These people love, influence, and inspire me….if I were a single guy, I’d work seven days a week, twenty hours a day without batting an eyelash.” His current search for balance factors in: being a supportive husband, harnessing his creativity at Fishing with Dynamite, cultivating talent within team members, and maintaining friendships with farmers and others he has promised to surround himself with for the rest of his career.

Brad’s exposure to the importance of maintaining relationships with farmers started at a restaurant called Just a Taste in Ithaca, New York, a twenty-four-table tapas bar with a continuously changing menu. Jen Irwin, the owner, has had the restaurant for more than twenty years. Sustainable not for trendiness, but for necessity, this was the biggest job Brad had before relocating to Los Angeles. He loved the forward-thinking about local and sustainable food and the concept of no menu restrictions, believing it should (and will) keep customers excited and coming back for more.

Another pause to acknowledge the importance of seasonality in cooking, then more tangents about his love for “market day” and how right now is the perfect time to eat tomatoes, since the middle of summer is when they contain the perfect amount of sugar.

“I want Wednesday off because that’s market day. That’s where my inspiration comes from….The best time is before the sun comes up. Cruising my bike down Arizona and seeing the farmers setting up….Going home and making a great lunch or dinner based on what we got that day. Inviting friends over for what we call ‘family meal.’ My way to give back to my friends is getting them wasted and feeding them to the gills.”

Brad can’t talk about the Santa Monica Farmers Market without talking about Chef David Plonowski from Bar Pintxo. “I credit all my success at this point to David, because he’s the one who gave me a shot…..He takes people who have talent, finds a way to harbor their vision, and helps it happen.”

His first time at the farmers market in Los Angeles was with Plonowski. He had just taken a job at Bar Pintxo and was learning about the market and seasonal qualities unique to California. They explored together, getting to know the farmers, local chefs, and industry players. He has been going every week for over two years, vacation the only temporary exception for his absence. The market community, including Alex Wieser, Chefs Kris and Brian from The Heart and the Hunter, and newest influence David LeFevre is one he happily supports and gives back to. “The human side of things is important. If you….look deeper, it’s the real reason why we do this….it’s infectious. It’s so infectious. The human experience – the give and take is what I really cherish.”

The most passion comes to his voice when he shares food memories at random: watching friends eat octopus for the first time, happiness that his mother now eats bone marrow, the intangible and hard-to-capture joy of watching people he cares about eat. Brad has spent our entire conversation selflessly talking about taking inspiration and to try making lives of people around him easier. He believes this mentality is key for finding his place in the world.

“I don’t ever get emotional about the food. The thing that touches me most is the response – the human part of it. We all do different things, but the process and appreciation ties us all together….It’s about finding a way to take this thing that I’m so rich in, and sharing with others to make them happy.”

Brad’s coffee mug is empty, and our conversation is slowing down for the first time in two hours. We discuss our respective school experiences and reactions. I selfishly prod him for help about an upcoming recipe experiment. We compare notes about favorite Rolling Stones songs. He expresses his surprise at my having filled up fourteen pages of notes with his words.

It’s been one week since we’ve talked, and I’ve spent most of my mornings before work smiling over his no-nonsense, open desire to build community. The following quarter page of notes has ten stars and a bunch of smiley-faces drawn around it:

“I don’t know my path or how it’s going to transpire. It’s just so unusual, ever-changing, and ever-evolving. It’s about the people. People are so strange and awesome. All that means more than James Beard or Michelin….I never want to compromise integrity and jeopardize everything. I just want to be happy with the things I do and make.”

 Happiness is the goal. Community is the key. It’s a universal truth of food, life, and Chef Brad.