Bernie Kantak is the chef and partner of In Good Spirits Hospitality Group in Phoenix, Arizona, but he hails from Upstate New York and a family of Hungarian cooks and butchers. After coming to Scottsdale for culinary school, he never left and worked his way up through classic area restaurants before opening his own restaurants. He may be soft spoken, but his dishes are loud. Here’s what he, with assistance from his sous-chef Donald Hawk, had to share when TCC sat down with him at The Gladly:
The Chef’s Connection: Did you go to culinary school, and where if you did?
Bernie Kantak: I did, Scottsdale Culinary Institute.
TCC: Did you like it?
TCC: Are you from out here?
BK: No, I came here for it. It was a long, long time ago.
TCC: Where are you from originally?
BK: Upstate New York, Syracuse.
TCC: Besides your restaurants now, where did you start? How did you get here?
BK: My grandfather on my dad’s side was a butcher. He had a butcher shop when I was little, and a meat market. My grandmother on my mom’s side ran a reception hall at a church, a Hungarian church in Ohio. I’d spend the summers with her. I’d eat Fritos and drink Pepsi while she and all her Hungarian church lady friends would make stuffed cabbage and chicken paprikash.
TCC: What was your favorite food from out there?
BK: Stuffed cabbage…and chicken paprikash…and Fritos.
TCC: What other restaurants have you been at?
BK: We have here Citizen Public House. Before that I was at Cowboy Ciao for twelve years almost. Kazimierz, which is their sister restaurant, I did both of those. Before that I just kind of bounced around. I worked at restaurants back in New York, Upstate New York before culinary school, it was nothing…
TCC: Why did you choose out here?
BK: At the time the school was ranked really high. I wanted to get away from the snow and cold and rain. And also, the couple who owned the school at the time were really all about teaching students. They don’t own it anymore, they sold it to Le Courdon Bleu and you know how that works.
TCC: What was the first job you had in food?
BK: I washed dishes in my grandmother’s church when I was ten. I was a dishwasher at Aunt Josie’s in Syracuse. I worked at Spaghetti Warehouse as a busboy and a bartender.
TCC: Where was the first place you cooked?
BK: The first place I cooked? Well I did like prep cook stuff at Aunt Josie’s but it was pretty minimal.
TCC: When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
BK: Independently wealthy? I don’t know!
TCC: Was there another career path you were thinking about?
BK: I have a degree in art. I was planning on being an art teacher. My ceramics professor convinced me to look into expressing myself in the kitchen. I don’t know what that says about my ceramics ability.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing about being a chef?
BK: I don’t know, I think if you’re in this business, especially on that side, it’s just where you belong. I wouldn’t feel right doing anything else.
TCC: Was there an “aha” moment besides your ceramics teacher?
BK: I think that actually was the “aha” moment. Having worked in a couple other places, everybody I saw who was in the restaurant business was kind of miserable. I never really thought about it as being a creative outlet and making people happy.
TCC: What’s the best advice you ever got?
BK: Use it or lose it.
TCC: What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten or served?
BK: I don’t know. There’s a little Japanese place over on 7th Ave and Missouri called Hana Sushi, she makes this fermented squid insides, I forget what it’s called. So basically they take the guts from a squid, salt it, let it ferment, and then they stuff raw squid into that. It’s really, really funky and textural. She always has fun stuff there.
TCC: Is there anything you’ve had on your menus that people were skeptical of at first and then they try it?
BK: No, we’ve had a lot of stuff on the menu that are employees favorites, my favorites, and they don’t sell at all.
TCC: What’s your favorite ingredient?
BK: Hmm, hard to say. Can’t live without salt, literally. Really good pork, can I pitch tender belly?
BK: Sweet potatoes, sweet potatoes are awesome.
TCC: You looked like you had an answer for him, what do you think his favorite ingredient is?
Donald Hawk: Pork. Pork is one of them. Buttermilk would be one of them.
TCC: Who would you like to meet?
BK: Donald Hawk.
TCC: That’s not helpful, he’s right here you already know him!
BK: In general or in the food world?
BK: I would have liked to meet Prince.
TCC: Or you could do the whom do you want to have dinner with living or dead?
BK: It would mostly be family members. My grandmother on my mom’s side, my grandfather on my mom’s side, I have met him but he died when I was two. My dad passed away when I was nine, I’d like to see him.
TCC: Who would you like to cook for?
TCC: What was the hardest thing for you to learn, or is there something you’re still trying to get right?
BK: I just started, I never made pie until about six months ago. Right now if I could make pie every day, if I had time to do it every day I probably would.
TCC: What flavor is your favorite so far?
BK: I don’t necessarily have a favorite flavor. I don’t think I’ve made the same one twice.
TCC: Double crust or single crust?
BK: Double, and then also I do different little shapes too. And I do little tiny ones.
TCC: So sweet and savory?
BK: Sweet and savory.
TCC: Are they on the menu so far?
TCC: Are they gonna get there?
BK: No, just when I have time.
TCC: Do you have family out here?
BK: I do not.
TCC: Did becoming a chef change your direction, I guess from being an art teacher?
BK: Dramatically. I think in a sense I’m still a teacher, just in a different way. The reason I wanted to be an art teacher was to encourage the creative side because I thought my art teachers in elementary school were horrible. So trying to help guys like Donald find his way and he’s pretty amazing.
TCC: Is there an ingredient that turns you off the most?
BK: Chocolate covered pretzels. No reason, they just don’t belong together.
TCC: What’s your favorite tool in the kitchen?
BK: Just a knife.
TCC: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not cooking? Do you still do art?
BK: No, I’ve been wanting to get back into it. I’d really like to make my own plates at some point, but trying to find enough time to do that is, needle in a haystack.
TCC: What would you like to do before you get too old to do it?
BK: Go to Spain and Hungary.
TCC: Have you been anywhere in Europe?
TCC: How do you deal with stress in the kitchen and being in this industry?
BK: I used to drink, I tend not to do that anymore because you’re just hungover the next day and miserable, and that just makes it even more stressful. Stopping, breathing, stepping out when you have a second to gather your thoughts.
TCC: Do you divide your time between restaurants?
BK: I’m here [at The Gladly] 98 percent of my time.
TCC: Cooking every night?
BK: I’m in the kitchen 99 percent of my time.
TCC: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
BK: I’ve been to the Beard House twice.
TCC: Do you have a goal in the industry besides these restaurants?
BK: World domination! No…chopped salads for everybody! The chopped salad is my thing.
TCC: How did that start?
BK: I actually did it when I was still at Cowboy Ciao. The owner walked by the window and stopped, looked at me and said, the had a different little antipasta chopped salad at the time, and he said change the chopped salad, and I said OK! The next day I just brought him the one with the smoked salad. The one previously was prosciutto, lentils, provolone, radicchio, Italian. Mine came from fennel soup, which sounds a little bit weird, but we used to do this fennel soup with smoked salmon and freeze dried corn, I just kind of liked that combination.
TCC: Do you have a cooking tip for home cooks?
BK: Don’t overthink stuff. I think that’s people’s biggest obstacle when cooking. Putting too much stuff into things, not putting enough of a specific thing – use it or lose it – don’t do little dots of shit on the plates, that’s it. Don’t be shy with the salt, and acid is your friend.
TCC: Do you have a funny story from the kitchen?
BK: I do.
TCC: That you can tell me?
TCC: Do you have women in your kitchen?
TCC: In more than pastry?
BK: Yeah. Actually here right now no, but at Citizen I do.
TCC: I haven’t been there, is the food and vibe a lot different?
BK: Yes. So my partner Andrew, he’s probably 31 but he’s very clean cut. He looks like a model, and I’m 46 now so I kind of describe Citizen as a little more me. It looks like it’s been there for a while. Here is a little more clean cut and put together. Citizen is a little more, like it feels like it’s been there forever.
TCC: Which was first?
BK: Citizen was first.
TCC: Were you partners already?
TCC: How did you guys meet?
BK: We worked at Cowboy Ciao together.
TCC: Does he cook too?
BK: No. He handles all the front of house stuff.
TCC: Anything else besides spread the gospel of chopped salad?
BK: Yeah, chopped salad, chopped salad, chopped salad!