Chef Chad Brown Balances Work with Humor
An Interview by Kara Chin
Executive Chef Chad Brown’s culinary background is impressive. He became the executive chef of Zaza’s Cucina Restaurant at age 21, worked his way up from chef de partie to banquet chef at Del Posto, was the executive chef at Bond 45, and opened the contemporary seafood restaurant Catch with his friend, “Top Chef” Season 3 winner Hung Huynh. Despite studying mechanical engineering at Clarkson University, Brown couldn’t deny his true passion: cooking. A connoisseur of Italian food and seafood, he currently works as the executive chef of Davio’s Manhattan.
This executive chef has deep-seated opinions (especially when it comes to bananas but it’s better not to ask), has been known to yell at his kitchen staff, and doesn’t censor his profanity (don’t worry, we did). But ask any of his coworkers and they’ll tell you he’s a funny guy. In fact, he would frequently turn the interview around and ask the interviewer questions (sorry, that’s gone, too).
As Battman snapped photos of his latest Italian creations, Brown gave us insight into why his food tastes so good and what to expect as patrons of Davio’s. But here’s a hint: One bite of his seafood dish with fresh clams and pasta made by hand, and you’re transported to the shores of Italy – but that is something you’ll have to experience for yourself.
The Chef’s Connection (CC): You studied mechanical engineering. How did you get from there to cooking?
“A bus. I like physics and math, but I don’t like sitting down and doing nothing – not being able to yell at people.”
CC: So, you yell at people?
“I yell at them with my eyes. Plus, I’m too funny to be an engineer.”
CC: Tell me about your culinary journey.
“Started out in a small town. Needed to get a job. Ended up in a kitchen. It came pretty naturally; I thought it was pretty easy. Went to the closest city. I had my first executive chef position at age 21. I ran that restaurant in Ithaca for over four years. And then I decided I wanted to teach at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America]. I had a whole curriculum planned out for the kids. It was going to be a disaster course. It would be like this [a real kitchen] and I would turn off the power. Or I would grab them and say, ‘Okay, you just cut your whole hand off. Someone’s got to step in.’
“CIA students don’t know what the real world is like. They get their degree and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m a chef.’ So then I went to the CIA and enrolled [to teach there]. And I learned something very important: I hate the CIA, so I left. CIA students are brats and the school has become a bank. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
“So I decided to go to New York and see, not how good I was, but how bad I was. I wanted to be around by people better than me. I ended up at Del Posto. I was there for four years, worked my way from the bottom: from chef de partie, junior sous chef, sous chef, banquet sous chef. And by the time I left, I was the banquet chef. After that, I hooked up with my buddy Hung Huynh, who won ‘Top Chef’ Season 3. We opened Catch in the meatpacking district together. From there, I went to Bon 45 Steak House in Times Square as the executive chef. And then from there, I came here [to Davio’s].”
CC: Do you have any good memories from these places you’ve worked at?
“Do they have to be good? Or do they have to just be vivid?”
CC: Vivid is good.
“One of my sous Paprika … Well, his name is István, but he’s from Hungary, so I call him Paprika. So he was one of my line cooks when I was at Catch. And he had the privilege of being the line cook that was right next to me, as I was running the line. So I yelled at him every single day at the top of my lungs. I threw him off the line [and said], “What is this? How are you giving me this garbage? It took a year of constantly [yelling at him] and now I trust him enough to let him run the line.”
CC: Great. How does he feel about that? Is he happy?
“Paprika, she wants to know if you’re happy.”
István: “I am happy. Yes. Definitely.”
CC: He said he yelled at you a lot and now you’re in good shape.
István: “Of course.”
CC: Davio’s Manhattan opened in November. How would you describe the cuisine and the atmosphere here, in your own words?
“Yeah, I hate when people use other people’s words. The cuisine is elegant Italian food in a steakhouse atmosphere. But you get a lot more value than you would expect. I’m using ingredients and techniques that you would find in 3- and 4-star New York Times restaurants, because that’s where my training comes from. But I’m making it approachable enough that the average businessman – who has heard of Le Bernardin, but doesn’t know where it is – can come here and get that same kind of experience. They can get the finest dining experience as good as they can get anywhere else, and the food as good as they can get anywhere else – but it’s much more approachable. Here, we fuss over you, but we’re not fussy about it.”
CC: So what excites you most about working here?
“I think that the people is the biggest reason that draws me. The guest is important, yeah. But I care more about this guy [in the kitchen] paying his bills, and that guy paying his bills, and that guy not being a shoemaker. That’s what I care about more. They’ll put in however many hours a week that I ask for, from whenever to whenever. So I’m always going to be there for them.”
CC: You’re from South Korea originally. Did you grow up there?
“I was born in Korea. And I think I was 2 or 3, but I don’t really know. I don’t actually really know when I was born either. It’s kind of up in the air. So I was an orphan in Korea and I was adopted into this country. And my adopting family didn’t really work out, so I was on my own again. I was orphaned again when I was here. I was a teenager, about 16 or so. I’ve been on my own since then. I really don’t have any memories before 16 or 17.”
CC: What was your first job in food?
“I was a line cook at this Italian pizzeria, bar-type place in Ithaca. I learned a lot about being really fast there. At that age, I learned a lot about performing well under pressure, performing well under supervision, performing well under various mind-altering … things. I was young. That was a long time ago.”
CC: You’ve said that you’re always learning. What is something you’ve learned recently?
“I learned that I will never be able to make mole as good as my line cooks. I can’t make it. It’s not programmed into my head. There are a couple things I can’t do. I’m good at everything, but there are a couple things I can’t do. I can’t make pancakes. Don’t give me that look. Why does everyone look at me like that when I say that? Is it a normal thing to know how to do? I don’t know how to make pancakes.”
CC: What is it that doesn’t work out?
“Pretty much everything. I put it in the pan; the building catches on fire. The other thing I can’t do is I can’t alphabetize. So I’d be a really bad librarian. I have to say the entire alphabet starting from A for every single letter. It’s sad.”
CC: So you need your line cooks to make mole, pancakes and alphabetize for you?
“Yes. If they do those three things, I can do everything else.”
CC: Do you have a favorite Italian or seafood dish that you enjoy?
“I’m going to tell you the best answer from almost every chef. My favorite thing to eat is anything that I don’t make. Anything that someone else makes for me is my favorite thing to eat. Even if they think it’s bad. That’s the biggest misconception: that if you cook for a chef, they’re going to be hypercritical. We are, but we would rather you do it than not do it. I don’t care if you mess something up. I know you’re not a chef.”
CC: Do you have pets?
“My wife has two little monsters. They’re called cats. I mean, cats are like kids; they love me, but I don’t really love them back. For some reason, they love me – [maybe] because I feed them.”
[Corporate Chef Rodney Murillo stops by]
RM: “Now, if you ask her, she’ll say she has two cats and Chad. That’s the right answer every time.”
CB: “One fat cat, one fat husband, and one skinny cat.”
RM: “Wives are always right.”
CB: “Goddamn right they are – even when they’re wrong.”
“But she’s got one really fat cat, and the other one we adopted from a bodega. Layla is the chubby one. Lola is the charity case. When we got her, she was missing her front teeth, so her tongue was always sticking out. It’s always sticking out! I walk into the room and she’s sticking her tongue out at me. I used to have a [another] cat and his name was Dog.”
CC: How did he get that name?
“How did you get your name?”
CC: My parents heard it and they liked it.
CB: “Exactly. Me, I’m stuck with this name.”
RM: “I know. Chad Brown. Does that match?”
CB: “We could trade jackets and it wouldn’t matter.”
RM: “It would be no problem, no problem. I remember when I first met him. We arranged to meet and I didn’t know what he looked like. I walked into the lobby of the hotel and there was one big, giant fat guy sitting there. I said, ‘Please don’t let him be Chad Brown.’ The guy was like 500 pounds. I went up to the guy and said, ‘Chad?’ [He shook his head]. ‘Okay, thank you.’ Next!
“So then we go upstairs, we’re sitting in the lobby, and we just keep talking. We see this guy come in; we take a look and then we just keep talking, because that is not Chad Brown. So he says, ‘Rodney?’ I’m like, this is weird. He says, ‘I swear, I didn’t kill anybody for this name.’”
CB: “I told him, ‘I just killed a white guy and stole his jacket. I don’t know what I’m doing back here.’”
CC: So the last time you weren’t at work, what were you doing?
“When I’m not at work, my wife leaves me a prep list. She’s a cook, so she leaves me a list of things to do. So I had to start packing for a move. We’re moving to Morocco and we’re going to start a small farm with pigs.”
“No. But we’re moving to Long Island City.”
CC: That’s not Morocco.
“It’s the Morocco of Queens.”
CC: And you’re going to have a pig farm?
“Well, that’s what I call the cats. Little piggies.”
CC: I’ve read that you speak Spanish and French.
“I learned French in grade school. And then recently, three or four years ago, I met this Peruvian girl. Beautiful girl. Gorgeous. Stunning. Breathtaking. [Pauses] Totally crazy. Didn’t speak a single word of English. So the only way I had any chance at all was to learn Spanish. So I taught myself Spanish in three weeks.”
CC: Do you have a favorite word or phrase in Spanish or French?
“In English, my favorite word is ‘shoemaker,’ because I’m surrounded by shoemakers. It’s an old school kitchen term. It’s a combination of everything: a lazy person, a general fool, an idiot. But in Spanish or French? When you learn a new language, the first words you learn are the naughty things. I’m not saying those are my favorite things to say. It’s hard to think about favorite things to say without going in that direction.
“When I learn Spanish, I would think in English and then translate to French and then translate to Spanish. So the way that I speak in those languages, it sounds like English. In Korean, I say, ‘Ee-dohk-hae.’ ‘Ee-dohk-hae’ means ‘like that.’ With my wife, she’ll want something and I’ll say, ‘Ee-dohk-hae, Ee-dohk-hae, Ee-dohk-hae.’ It’s like, ‘You want me to this and then that and then that? You want me to do all this?'”
CC: Do you do that in the kitchen as well?
“No. In the kitchen, I sneak up behind people and I peer over their shoulder. My favorite thing to say, besides shoemaker, or the thing I say a lot is – actually, I don’t really say much. I just shake my head. ‘No. Not good enough. Shhh.’ That’s the other thing I do. Shhh. When I’m in the middle of plating, it’s always ‘Shhh.'”
CC: Do you have any tips for people cooking Italian food at home?
“I have a ton of tips. The big secret to good restaurant food is butter and salt. Use it. Always salt your water. Don’t buy cheaper, because it always ends up worse. You get what you pay for. With ingredients, meat, fish, vegetables, engagement rings.
“But the most important thing to be successful when you’re cooking is: true passion. A lot of people say they have passion, but it’s just like potassium, they don’t know what that means. So you’re passionate about cooking, [but] what does that mean? I cook for a living? That doesn’t mean I’m passionate. How many people are stuck in a job just for a paycheck? It’s just what they do. But to be successful when you cook, whether it’s at home or in a restaurant, you have to be in love with what you’re cooking and who you’re cooking for. Then it’ll come out great.
“I always tell my cooks, ‘You will never cook as good as me.’ We can have the exact same ingredients. We can talk about it, and move motion by motion, doing it exactly the same, but my food will always be better. You know why? Because when I’m cooking, I fall in love with what I’m doing. If I’m plating, shhh, don’t talk. This is our moment. I won’t let anyone touch it. I won’t let anyone come move something. I’m infatuated with what I’m working on. It’s why it comes out so good.”
CC: If you were not a chef, what would you do?
“A parachute tester. That’s what I tell my guys. ‘You guys are driving me crazy today. That’s it. I’m gonna go be a parachute tester. Just strap things to my bag, and jump off a plane, and whatever happens, happens.’ Nah, if I wasn’t doing this, I would be … I don’t know. I’ve done a ton of different things. I’ve been a photographer, a carpenter, and a computer programmer. I don’t know. A stay-at-home dad? But I couldn’t do that. Because my wife would never trust me. She doesn’t even trust me to clean. She has to re-do it. The higher up you go, the less you actually cook. So my job is less and less to cook, and more and more to just read people – and get the most out of them. To do well in life, you have to be a good liar. That’s fact, solid fact. Women are better at deciphering lies than men. Men lie more often … This is what my story time turns into.”
CC: So your story time turns into philosophy?
“This industry is about philosophy.”
CC: What’s your philosophy?
“My philosophy has many facets, but the first one is: To have a successful restaurant, you have to have a successful kitchen. To have a successful kitchen, you have to build up the kitchen culture first. And the culture is an understanding of a direction and an understanding of expectations. It’s a unified effort, and almost a pledge, that this is the way we’re gonna do things. And if you don’t have that, you can’t run a kitchen. If you can’t instill that sense, you can’t run a kitchen.”
Interview by Kara Chin; photos by Kara Chin, Laurie Ulster, and Battman