We sat down with Andrew Whitcomb to discuss his love of all things fermented and to find out more about how he became a chef. What we discovered is his passion for sustainability and commitment to constant experimentation in the kitchen. Learn more about how he found a home as Executive Chef of Colonie in Brooklyn.
The Chefs Connection (CC): When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
“I’ve always liked to cook since I was a little kid. It was really busy growing up, so when my mom or grandmother were in the kitchen they would give me something to do.”
“Yes, tasks to leave them alone more or less. We always had a garden, so I helped in the garden. I was very involved with food at a young age but it didn’t really click. The food that we ate wasn’t really exquisite. I mean my parents ate food out of a can.”
CC: But they had a garden.
“Yes, but they didn’t fully utilize it. They had the garden for carrots, radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers and that was basically the extent of it. There was a month and a half where we could have fresh vegetables, which was awesome, and I always looked forward to that.”
CC: So when did you start cooking professionally?
“I guess you would say I started cooking professionally when I was 13. I worked at a monster 880-seat clam fry place in Maine. It was a behemoth. My first day was Mother’s Day. I had no clue, but I liked it because I got along with the people and everyone was fast-paced and fun to be around. I knew then that it was my calling in some facet. It didn’t seem like work to me to be there. I worked there for 10 years.”
CC: You kind of grew up there.
“Yeah, I grew up there. All the people there were very much family for a very long time. I talk to many of them to this day.”
CC: Did you have formal training or were you mostly self-taught?
“Well, I went to school to be an engineer to do prosthetics for athletes. I broke my foot in college running track and that was a turning point for me. A couple of weeks after that, a friend of mine was going to visit a culinary school in New York, and asked if I was interested in coming with him. I said I would go visit. I had the day off, so no big deal. So I went to visit the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and I was in awe. We ate there and at that second, I knew this is it.
“I went home that day, called my career service counselor, dropped out of school with less than a month left, applied to CIA, and got accepted. I threw myself into my training, reckless abandon. I’d go to lectures, come to New York City, walk into restaurants and ask if I could work there that day, I read lots of books, and I met lots of chefs.
“I haven’t worked at any three Michelin star restaurants, but I’ve staged at them, and I could work at them. But I don’t feel, for me, that that atmosphere is conducive to creativity. I started to realize that a grilled steak is a grilled steak, a roasted fish is a roasted fish, a slow-roasted leg of lamb is a slow-roasted leg of lamb; it doesn’t change from restaurant to restaurant. So I had this epiphany, a bit of a rough point, and I felt it was time for a change. I got a job working for Ken Oringer at a restaurant he had opened in Maine. He opened my whole eyes to this new world that I had never experienced before.”
CC: Would you consider him a mentor?
“Yeah, I look at him as the person who shaped who I am today. His product knowledge alone is inspiring. He would say, ‘Go grab the mint.’ So I would go grab the mint and he would say ‘No, no, no. There are so many types out there and you get me the regular kind?’ I had never seen that before. Mint wasn’t just mint, basil wasn’t just basil. But we weren’t cooking white tablecloth food. It was refined rustic cooking. I fell in love with all the old rustic techniques: curing, salting, smoking, vinegar-making. After that, I took a year off and raised pigs in my back yard. I gardened and sold vegetables and herbs to restaurants. I taught myself how to smoke, to cure, and to make vinegar. All these proper techniques that were essential 200 years ago when there was no refrigeration.”
CC: What led you to Colonie?
“At that point, I felt I was more self-taught than trained by somebody else. So I wanted to go work for someone. I came back to New York and did more stages at a couple of well-regarded New York restaurants. I thought the food was amazing, but they didn’t feel like a good fit for me. We have a responsibility as chefs to be environmentally sound and it’s irresponsible if we don’t do the right thing. We have to make sure we are not sending hundred of pounds of food into landfills for no reason. And many restaurants do not make that a priority. That is until I came to Colonie. I met our former chef Brad McDonald and his co-chefs Greg Kuzia-Carmel and Jonny Black and they took me under their wing. What they let me do was a big risk: they gave me free reign of creativity with no repercussions. They let me make mistakes, as long as they were educated mistakes. If I was making mistakes on the right track, it was all worth it to them. I would have cold rolled steel and mushrooms fermenting in a pot outside rotting, but we ended up getting a product that was like soy sauce without the soy. I would run tests to push myself. If I made carrot puree, I would make 10 at the same time all with slight modifications just to see the difference.”
CC: So it seems like at Colonie, there was a willingness to experiment, play, and fail. But fail to succeed.
“Sometimes when you are trapped in the rigor that everything has to be perfect you lose sight of the fact that food isn’t perfect. Food is perfect, because it is imperfect. It comes in as it is. So if the leaves aren’t as nice, okay, we can’t use them raw but we can figure out another way. A product may not look as pretty as it did yesterday, but we still have to use it, how can we do that? They also believed it was important to develop a relationship with your purveyors because then it became more personal. And food at the end of the day is a personal thing. We are creating something that could alter the mood of the person eating it.”
CC: So why do you think food is important?
“I think it’s important for a couple of reasons. I can get very carried away with an egotistical approach, but my job here is to create food that people want to eat. I have the skill to do all these crazy things — pig’s blood croquettes or bone marrow flan or caramelized curried cauliflower as a dessert — but how many people really want to eat that? You have to let your clientele speak. At the end of they day we are here to nurture and nourish. So when cooking, I try to cook with health in mind, I source food that is close to the restaurant, I make sure everything is well balanced. I want it to be a complete composed dish. I want people to leave here having had a delicious meal saying, ‘I can’t believe it was that good for me.’ At the end of the day if a guest leaves feeling happy, nourished, and they want to come back, then I’m happy. You have to let the restaurant’s soul speak to you, because if you try to force it, it is never going to work.”
CC: Colonie seems to focus on fresh produce, sustainability, and specifically vegetables. Is putting vegetables at the forefront something you wanted to do?
“The first thing I liked about Colonie was that they had a relationship with the farms. And since becoming Executive Chef, I’ve developed even stronger relationships with those farms. I’m cutting out the middlemen. Being in Brooklyn, you have to keep price in mind. We can’t charge the same prices as Manhattan, and prices are going up, so I have to figure out a system where I don’t have to raise my price as well. The answer is to cut out the middlemen.”
CC: Which works out great because then you have an even closer relationship with the people who are providing your food.
“Exactly, it’s a win-win situation. We’ve always had a vegetable section on the menu. We want you to feel like you can have a composed vegetable dish that has thought behind it. My goal is by mid-summer to be 90 percent vegetarian. But come winter, there are less vegetables, so it will be more meat driven. It’s a full cycle; you have to play to the season. There are certain times of year that you can get certain things. I don’t use foie gras except in the fall; I only use truffles in truffle season. Growing up in Maine, I’d have three days to pick wild strawberries or else all the wild animals would eat them. Three days. To have the most delicious strawberries you have ever had IN YOUR LIFE. The size of the dime. To me that is more luxurious than eating foie gras. The rarity of it is beautiful in itself. I want to redefine what luxury is and show that vegetables can be luxurious and sexy and they are also healthy for you. It also helps the environment because the carbon footprint on a vegetable is a fraction of the carbon footprint on a side of beef.”
CC: Do you have a favorite cookbook?
“I read “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. I like reading “The Art of Fermentation” a lot by Sandor Ellix Katz. It is all things fermented: yogurt, pickles, beer. And I like to read the old masters too. I tell the guys who work for me, ‘Why don’t you find a cookbook that was made before the internet was around, so you can see how awesome it is.’ I’m a cookbook nerd. I like the way they smell.”
CC: What do you cook at home?
“I am never home. But I always have soup in my freezer.”
CC: Do you have any crazy kitchen stories to tell us?
“My first day cooking, I dropped the tin foil roll and cut my hand to the bone. The guy I was working for wrapped my hand in a towel and said ‘You can’t leave. It’s Mother’s Day. We will deal with it when we’re done.’ It was 11 in the morning and I didn’t get off till 10 at night. Or I seared my whole hand a couple times by doing stupid stuff. I don’t do that very often anymore.”
CC: And TSA interfered with your foraging on a recent trip home, correct?
“Yes! So last time I was home — I live in rural Maine — I went into the woods to go foraging for mushrooms, greens, spruce shoots, etc. I’m out there and I find some winter greens. I tasted them and ended up eating something else with the winter greens that made me violently sick by the time I got home. Sometimes that happens. It’s part of the foraging game. Also before that, I was on all fours picking the herbs, and this huge jack rabbit jumps out of a hole right by my head and goes running. It scared the living daylights out of me. Anyway, I went home with lichens, winter greens, a ton of stuff, to bring back to Colonie and TSA busted me for trying to transport narcotics. I was like, ‘This is mint. From Maine. This is nothing.’ But they ended up taking it anyway.”
CC: Colonie has an open kitchen. How does that work? Does it change the dynamic?
“The open kitchen is a whole different game altogether. There is a lot of outside noise: music, people talking to you while they eat, it’s dark in the dining room. So it’s hard to focus. They built that open kitchen specifically so that a chef could not shout at the staff. They didn’t want a restaurant where the chef yelled the whole time. Which is great. I personally work well in that environment. If somebody yells at me I think, ‘Let me show them I can do better.’ But not everyone works well that way. We all have a different methods to our madness.
“I try to be as nurturing as possible. Sometimes when you are starting to cook, you forget where food comes from. You think, ‘This is just a carrot. There are more downstairs.’ But it’s not just a carrot. It comes from somewhere. So one of the things I decided to do is start taking the cooks to the farms to see. Some of the guys are from the city and have never been to a farm. It changes their entire outlook on cooking. If I can be the person who inspires them just by bringing them to a farm to see what a carrot looks like growing [in the ground], that’s so much more fulfilling for me as a chef than doing a 200-dollar cover night. To really watch as a cook finally gets it and it clicks; that to me, is the best.”
Interview by Chiara Motley; photos by Battman