Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Q&A with Jose Garces and Garrett Oliver

Ten years ago, Jose Garces was part of the growing Stephen Starr empire of Philadelphia restaurants. He was barely thirty years of age and was making a name for himself in the culinary world.

Not quite 40, Garces is now growing his own empire of restaurants in Philadelphia. In just the last five years, he has opened seven restaurants in the city and has been named Iron Chef on The Food Network, which he can count amongst numerous other accolades.

Ten years ago, Garrett Oliver was continuing to grow the Brooklyn Brewery reputation for well-crafted American beer and furthering his own reputation in the intersecting culinary world. He was in the midst of finalizing what many would come to call a hallmark book, The Brewmaster's Table, and traveling the world in search of great beer and food, spreading the message along the way.

Tomorrow night, January 20, 2011, these two larger-than-life figures in the world of food and beverage come together at Garces' Chifa Restaurant in Philadelphia to create a six-course, chocolate-themed dinner. This dinner was originally scheduled in August 2010. The postponement gave guests another five months to even more eagerly anticipate this dinner.

I recently had the opportunity to ask questions of both Garces and Oliver and the conversation follows below. Thanks to Jennie Hatton of Profile PR for facilitating this Q&A.

Check back next week for a full wrap-up of what promises to be a memorable dinner. Until then, you can check out the planned menu via this link. And, by the way, if you're thinking you'd like to still get in on this dinner, the restaurant has said that they began working a waiting list in light of a few cancellations--so, you may wish to call the restaurant.

Bryan Kolesar/The Brew Lounge: How much time did the two of you personally spend together constructing this dinner?
Jose Garces: I've wanted to collaborate with Brooklyn Brewery ever since we started our beer dinners at Chifa. In terms of menu planning and coordinating our schedules, it was a challenge to bring two such busy people together--it took several months to get everything lined up and settled on a date that worked for us both.

TBL: Do you have a history together or has this been the most you've worked together to-date? Where did the idea for this dinner event come from?
Jose: Philadelphia is a beer-loving town, and we've hosted a very successful series of beer dinners at Chifa, pairing our Latin-Asian cuisine with various craft beers, rather than wines, to introduce our guests to the delicious potential of artisanal beer and how beautifully it complements food. Brooklyn Brewery was a natural choice, both because they're located relatively nearby and because I've always been a fan of their beers. Garrett and I previously worked together on a successful, sold-out beer dinner at Amada, and I'm thrilled to work with him again.
Garrett Oliver: It happened pretty quickly by e-mail. Unusually, though, at our last beer dinner together at Amada, Jose spent almost the whole beer dinner at our table, which was nice.

TBL: Chocolate jumps out as an obvious theme in this dinner. Where did this particular inspiration come from?
Jose: Both Garrett and I use chocolate in unusual ways, and when we started conceptualizing the menu for this meal we found that we both had chocolate components in mind - so we ran with it as a theme from there.

TBL: Was there much taste-testing to prove out the concept?
Garrett: It wasn't necessary, because I've eaten at Chifa a number of times--I understand chef's approach to flavor.

TBL: Are there other inspirations/themes in the menu that we may not pick up on?
Jose: I think the driving influence behind the whole meal is coupling flavorful food with flavorful beer - exploring how they can highlight each others' tastes and make the meal more satisfying.

TBL: You've got quite a resume to your name and Garrett literally wrote the book on Beer and Food. There's quite an excitement leading up to this dinner. What are your expectations for the night as a whole? Is there a course that you expect to be a grand slam?
Jose: I think it's going to be a very special and delicious evening. It's always great to be able to interact with my guests and share interesting food and beverage pairings with them, and I think that having Garrett on hand will make it that much more exciting.

TBL: For you personally, where do your beverage tendencies fall or are you an equal opportunity imbiber?
Jose: As with food, I'm a fan of many different beverages, from craft beer to great wine to bourbon. What I drink on a given day depends on a lot of things, including what I'm having to eat (and what I need to get done that day!).

TBL: Garrett, regarding your book which is nearing ten years since its first printing, what gaps do you feel you've left in covering the subject and are you planning a follow-up?
Garrett: Right now I'm finishing up "The Oxford Companion to Beer" which will be published this year by Oxford University Press. It will cover 1,172 subjects, and I'm editor-in-chief. After that, I think I'll just make beer for a while.

TBL: Jose, you've begun building your own resume of beer dinners. Talk about the complexities of making a "collaborative" dinner like this happen. For example, challenges, lessons learned, etc.
Jose: I'm not always available to cook personally for our beer dinners, but my chef de cuisine, Natalie Maronski, and general manager, Marc Grika, are both beer lovers who do a tremendous job of facilitating these special meals. It can be tough logistically to coordinate with a brewer and select a particular date for their event, but it's always worth it to be able to bring in extraordinary products and create a menu that spotlights them. My team and I also put in extra time to make sure that each course pairs well with the beers that the brewer has chosen to share with us, but again--it's worth it to create a menu of fun, unusual dishes.

TBL: Can you name a beer that you find the most versatile in cooking?
Jose: It depends so much on what I'm cooking that I don't think I could name just one. I'd pair totally different beers with the tapas at Tinto than with the seasonal American plates at JG Domestic.

TBL: And, Garrett, you do numerous beer dinners every year around the country. How do you expect this one to be different than any in the past?
Garrett: I like the fact that we're doing almost tapas-like small plates. The chocolate theme is unique--I've never done that before, though I've done a lot of straight "beer and chocolate" tastings. And Jose's seasoning style is balanced, but really punchy.

TBL: Do you have a favorite, or most memorable, beer dinner to-date?
Garrett: After 700 beer dinners in 10 countries, that's pretty tough. Per Se was a highlight, as was Mathias Dahlgren (Grand Hotel, Stockholm) last year. Beer dinners can be hard to compare, though - we've done great beer dinners in small neighborhood restaurants too.

TBL: Along the same lines, do you have a can't-miss beer and food pairing recommendation for newbies?
Garrett: I wrote a 360-page book about that, and you want me to pick one?! Well, you're not going to go wrong with good smoked salmon, fresh cream cheese, good bread, and a nice Belgian-style witbier, I'll tell you that.

TBL: To what level of experience and/or interest do you have in the restaurant industry/commercial kitchens?
Garrett: I cook regularly in front of audiences, but I am not a trained chef and have never cooked for a living. Two of our brewers have, though, and we've started a series of dinners where three Brooklyn brewers cook a really serious meal for about 20 people, paired with our beers.

TBL: On the other hand, Jose, do you ever have conversations about a "house beer" brewed just for GRG restaurants?
Jose: Creating or collaborating on a "house beer" is something of a dream of mine, but it can be really tough, partly because the restaurants are all so different and the menus change seasonally.

It's definitely something I'd consider, and we've dipped our toes into that pool before, bringing in new or unusual beers that are only available in Philadelphia at our restaurants, such as Inedit, a Spanish beer that we debuted exclusively at Amada.

TBL: Where/how do you feel beer shines with food and stands apart from other beverages and where do you think beer comes up short?
Jose: The incredible diversity of beer styles and flavors means that there's almost always a spot-on pairing for any given dish. The challenge, as with wine, is finding the pairing that complements both the dish and the beverage and helps you to discover new aspects of them both, without overwhelming them.
Garrett: Beer does harmonious pairing better because it has a much wider range of flavor than other beverages, from light and lemony to heavily roasted. Beer can come up short against big concentrations of sugar and/or acid, which some wines can handle more easily.

TBL: Describe a major pet peeve of yours when it comes to matter of taste.
Jose: It drives me crazy when people insist that restaurants be hyper-formal places where fun is secondary to a thousand nit-picky steps of service.

We're serving food and drinks - effectively, we're throwing a party every night! - and it should be a fun, convivial affair that leaves people satisfied and happy. There's a time and a place for fine dining, but there's also a time and a place for simple, delicious food served by people who are happy to be doing so, and that's the kind of place where I'd like to eat. The kind of place where the substance of the meal (the food) isn't overshadowed by fussy details.

TBL: Are there other areas of creative dining where you feel either people in your own kitchen or guests in the dining room don't get it and you'd like to scream "why don't you get it?!"
Jose: I've been very fortunate in my career so far that my guests have pretty much always been willing to come along with me for the ride, so to speak, starting with tapas and small-plates-style dining at Amada and right up to our daily-changing menus and meticulous ingredient sourcing at JG Domestic.

Philadelphia is a terrific place to be a chef, because diners here are pretty well educated about food and very adventurous - they're eager to eat well, and that means they're generally eager to try new things and see if they'll like them.

TBL: Speaking of pet peeves, Garrett, how do you respond to something like "pairing beer and food is pretentious"?
Garrett: The very idea is of beer pairing being "pretentious" is absurd, because the purpose of pairing is pleasure. Pleasure is never pretentious--pleasure is elemental. And such a statement pre-supposes that all beer is supposed to be simple. I like my beer the way I like my food and my music--tailored to my mood at the time. Sometimes I want foie gras, sometimes I want a greasy slice of pizza. Beer is like that too--it's a human thing.

TBL: Has cooking with beer been a part of your training and, in turn, part of your tutelage of others? Or has it been more of a recent phenomenon that has made you and other restaurateurs and chefs take notice?
Jose: The current interest in craft beers has inspired me, but I've always looked at beer as a solid choice to complement a great meal.

There's such complexity of flavor there, and it's every bit as effective as wine in enhancing a dish and making different flavors come to the forefront.

TBL: Most beer dinners tend to showcase creative cuisine from the kitchen. Have you witnessed any beer dinners featuring, how shall we say, "everyday food for the common person" that helps people with how they can work with beer in their own home kitchen and food that they might normally prepare?
Garrett: That's exactly what we do when we cook dinner for people. We make some great dishes from scratch and really feature the ease of preparation. Sometimes the chef wants to show off his or her chops by making the beer dinner a fireworks display, but it doesn't have to be. There's a lot to be said for a perfectly cooked lamb chop.

TBL: Give us a glimpse into the last meal you ate.
Garrett: Last night was a beer dinner at Colicchio & Sons. Partridge, venison, turbot, scallops, Fosterkase cheese--it was pretty awesome!

TBL: And, Jose, what does a typical night look like in your home kitchen?
Jose: We love to cook at home, which people sometimes think is strange since I cook all day for a living. But it's a family affair in our house, and dinnertime is an opportunity for all of us to come together and create something delicious while spending time together, both preparing and eating the meal. Last night, my kids and I whipped up waffles for dinner - it's one of their favorite treats to have breakfast at night, and I love that they both enjoy preparing food with me, just as I did with my mother and grandmother growing up.

TBL: Thanks very much to both of you for taking time out for this in advance of the dinner. I probably speak for all your guests when I say that I'm looking forward to an enjoyable night.


Pete LaVerghetta said...

Nice job, Bryan. Good interview, thanks.

Mike said...

Bravo, my good sir!

Bryan Kolesar said...

THanks guys. It really turned out to be everything I expected and hoped it would be. Full writeup to follow by Monday, or Tuesday at the latest.