If you have friends you text random questions to with absolutely no surrounding context at random hours of the day, use that as your frame of reference when picturing Chef Brad Mathews.
I met Brad at a tapas bar in Santa Monica, had an awesome time eating his food at Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, and now anxiously await the opening of Cadet, a new restaurant in Santa Monica where he will be throwing down with Kris Tominaga from Hart and the Hunter. (Who in turn, is partners with Jeff Weinstein, who opened The Counter. If you want more of the Kevin Bacon-like degrees of separation, just ask Google. Don’t worry, it’s easier to keep track of if you don’t try to talk it out.)
Seriously though, isn’t that the best restaurant name ever? It’s more magical than Harry Potter. When I go, I expect all of you to join me. And bring friends. Otherwise, we can’t be friends.
This month’s attempt to put my spin on a chef’s food memories and associations garnered some fantastic results.
Brad ate eggs at his (Great-) Grandmother’s house in the morning before school, but mostly remembers receiving one dollar from her to spend at a doughnut shop next door to his middle school each day. With a 30-minute window between the shop’s opening and the school day beginning, he would buy a fresh doughnut for 50-cents. With the remaining 50-cents, he would either buy 50 Swedish Fish (at a cost of one penny each) or play video games (Street Fighters or Lethal Enforcers.)
I respect anyone with a love for Swedish Fish and who actually remembers playing Street Fighters in a doughnut shop, so I became curious about what he looks for in a good doughnut. Midway through the coffee we have used as an excuse for meeting, he relates his love for the eclairs and Boston Creams at Bob’s Donuts in San Francisco, where the line of drunk hungry people wraps around the building at 2:00 AM and the doughnuts go directly from the fryer into a glaze into the box. Served while hot enough to release steam when torn open, this memory incites a tangent discussion about the ridiculous nature of chocolate.
Brad has shared several early food memories with me, thanks to being patient with my constant stream of questions over the course of our friendship, including a vivid one of thinly shaved venison heart over toast. Our conversation turns to chicken gizzards and his Uncle “Fireball” Marty, who uses them to make a tomatoey “hillbilly menudo,” served with peppers on a bun.
Which is more wonderful to discover: The Uncle sharing a name with the most disgusting-hangover-inducing whiskey known to man, or the fact that he makes a version of a soup known for curing the worst morning-after headaches?
For comfort food after a difficult day, Brad turns to pork shanks manipulated into a smoked pork bolognese, with his version of capitelli pasta shaped into “pigs tails.” As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have never associated pasta with comfort, but understand why people do. Still, his demeanor becomes more relaxed just by discussing pasta and the “good Italian” food he associates with date nights with his wife, so I make a mental note to try making some sort of pasta dish ASAP. (Not a bad excuse to carb-load.)
My inspiration increases when he discusses his desire to make “magic” food and describes brown butter as “something special.”
The culinary trends he hates to love revolve around menu items “everyone thinks they can do,” like crudo and pork belly. He pushes up his glasses and we share a bonding moment about our respective tendencies to be underwhelmed when we are served pork belly. “It’s supposed to be flavorful, salty, sweet, succulent, gelatinous, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth delicious,” he exclaims, going on to describe the ideal pork belly texture as being spoon-tender, with a caramelized top layer of fat after a day-long cure in sugar, salt, chili, garlic, and herbs and cooked on a low 250 until “ridiculously tender.”
When he’s sick, he eats pad thai and watches “Ghostbusters.”
Damn, I meant to ask him if he prefers the original or the sequel.
Occasionally, he’ll cure his colds with ramen, which he takes with pork, soft-boiled egg, green onions, and sambal. He mentions a dream from the previous night involving pork broth, flavored with ginger, garlic, and lemongrass after cooking the flavor out of a pig’s head and trotters (the hoof up to the knee, which he helpfully indicates on his tattoo.)
Always trust a man who is good with knives and willing to tattoo a pig on himself.
If you’re thinking a lot of my conversation with Brad was about pork, it’s because pork is an ingredient that makes him feel better, regardless of what has happened that day. (He says a whole roasted or grilled fish will also suffice.) Brad likes foods that require nurturing, and as such get mistaken for being finicky. Akin to a healthy relationship, he favors working with ingredients that require patience and skill to emphasize their versatility – think radishes, peas, fish (especially black bass), and stone fruit.
A few days after this conversation, I text him a photo of pulled pork, which I have finally gussied up the patience to prepare.
A Thank You Card, In 100 Words (Since chefs opening new restaurants hardly have time to breathe normally, let alone read my blog posts):
Dear Chef Brad,
Talking with you seems to simultaneously make my brain simplify and stop worrying while making my cooking times longer. Thank you for your advice and feedback without ego – there’s a reason why myself and several others look to you as a source of knowledge. You’ve helped remove some of my insecurities about cooking pork, which led to a new goal being set and achieved….With help from our conversation (and that pulled pork recipe), my family will be trying my food for the first time in November. I can’t freaking wait for Cadet to open.