Happy Fourth! Reposting about the conversation I had with the amazing chef, Kent Rathbun last year. Delicious and inspiring – read on!!
I had a delightful conversation with Kent Rathbun, four-time Beard Award-nominated chef and restaurateur. I’d like to add to his impressive list of accomplishments that he is an intrepid systems thinker and STEM practitioner. Whether it comes to development of a specific dish, a menu, a restaurant, or a series of restaurants and catering operation that employs about 600 people, Kent’s systems thinking was evident as he talked to me about the evolution of his cooking, his kitchen and his restaurants. The National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council commissioned a study of the status of engineering in K-12 education. In their 2009 report, the commission outlined three general principles for engineering education.
Principle 1) K-12 engineering education should emphasize engineering design. The design process, the engineering approach to identifying and solving problems, is (1) highly iterative; (2) open to the idea that a problem may have many possible solutions; (3) a meaningful context for learning scientific, mathematical, and technological concepts; and (4) a stimulus to systems thinking, modeling, and analysis. In all of these ways, engineering design is a potentially useful pedagogical strategy.
Principle 2) K-12 engineering education should incorporate important and developmentally appropriate mathematics, science, and technology knowledge and skills. (Read below to hear about the ways in which Kent develops and uses these knowledge bases in his work and life)
Principle 3) K-12 engineering education should promote engineering habits of mind. These include (1) systems thinking, (2) creativity, (3) optimism, (4) collaboration, (5) communication, and (6) attention to ethical considerations.
As you read Kent’s perspectives below, think about ways in which to foster systems thinking in the various contexts in which you interact with students – in and out of the classroom.
How did you get into the restaurant world? What is your take on what makes for great cuisine?
I started working in a restaurant when I was 14, and I just had my 54th birthday. So that means I have been in a kitchen now for 40 years. I have written thousands of menus and thousands of dishes over the years. I am really interested in food the way it is supposed to be, meaning I want to learn, for example, about Italian cuisine. I want to know why Italian cuisine is great, what are the signature dishes, what are the signature ingredients, what are the techniques because I feel like until you learn the cuisine well and have a good working knowledge in what you are trying to do you could miss on it a lot. The term fusion is something that drives me crazy because fusion is not something that I want to be known for. I think I want to be known for doing foods from around the world and doing them well. I think sometimes fusion is foods that are intermingled together on the same plate and I just don’t like to do that. I like to do things that are true to the cuisine, so I feel like learning the foods from each of the countries that I want to work with. Of course, I can’t say that I am an expert in every single country that I work in but I think that we do some nice foods from around the world, which is my goal.
I grew up in Kansas City. I started cooking with my family when I was 5-years-old and by the time I was 8-9 years old I was cooking for myself at home. My father and mother both worked, so there were some times where we were on our own to do the cooking. I started cooking outside on a campfire in the Boy Scotts when I turned 11 and by the time I was 14, I was ready to start in a restaurant. I started working at Sambo’s. Sambo’s was very much like Denny’s. Back in the day it was a 24-hour restaurant I worked at Sambo’s from the time I was 14 until the time I was 17, so about two-and-a-half years, and my mother was the maître d’ of the top French restaurant in Kansas City. She asked the chef and owner if he would take me on as an apprentice. So I literally left Sambo’s and went to a five-star French restaurant while I was a junior in high school. The reason that’s significant I think is because it was the no.1 restaurant in the city, so it got me into a place that was serving some really nice food really early on. Not only that, but I was so young so I was absorbing all of that.
After I graduated high school I worked at a few different restaurants, and became the executive chef of a restaurant when I was 21. So I had to start immediately learning about math. I mean I had to understand food cost and I had to understand inventory, I had to understand how to build a team and I had to understand sanitation and all the things that goes along with me being manager of a kitchen. I was there for seven years after which I took jobs at two other really high-end restaurants before I came to Dallas. One was in New Orleans and then one was in Kansas City. Both of them were 4 or 5 star level restaurants. So I think my good luck charm is being able to say that I have worked at restaurants throughout most of my career that were all 4 and 5-star level restaurants, with the exception of Sambo’s.
Would you walk me through some of the ways your menus have evolved?
Sure. Let’s just use Abacus as an example because Abacus is known for global eclectic food. So when we look at a menu we want to make sure that we have certain countries represented. So we always feel like we need to have some Mediterranean food on there whether it is from Italy, Spain, French whatever… We want food that is European, Mediterranean, we want Asian food, we want Southwestern food – we are in Texas. We want what I call home-grown food, we want sophisticated food and then we want food that might not be sophisticated; it might be street food in one country but we are trying to do something really fantastic on the plate of the Abacus. So, we first look at what slots need to be filled, and we say okay, if we have got three dishes from Italy on there that might be enough. We manually take note of what dishes run the menu now and what we are trying to change. So let’s say that we pull off a menu out that’s Chinese. We don’t necessarily have to go back with a Chinese dish but we look at the mix. So the mix is really something that we look at first. Then we look at – is this going to be an appetizer, is it going to be a salad, a soup, an entree or dessert. So we need to know what slot we need to fill there. Then we need to look at the protein that is in the center of the plate and not all dishes have protein but let’s just say for instance that we don’t have a scallop dish on the menu and now it’s time to put a scallop dish on the menu. So there are certain dishes that we know that work really well with scallops and there are certain dishes that we know that don’t work so well. So then we start to define that scallop dish and how it’s going to be. So let’s say that it is a Chinese dish and we want to do a scallop and then we want to do some sort of cool side, like soy seared scallop with Chinese fried rice or bok choy or whatever.
Now, along with that we also have to think about cost. So if this is an appetizer and we are using the most expensive item on the menu, is this a good place to put it? Should it be an entree where we can get a little bit of more money for it because obviously we have to pay for it and it has come in at a certain margin and then the other thing is, how does it form in the kitchen brigade. So there are a number of different things that take place in our head and on paper during a menu session. At the end of that session we want to make sure that we want to have all the proteins, fruits and vegetables that are in season on the menu that we are wanting to work with, that’s no.1. No.2 we want to make sure that the menu is evenly distributed between the stations and the kitchen so that not one station gets crumbled in the middle of the Saturday night and then we want to make sure that each of menus has a good array of what we call global eclectic food. When I look at a menu that I have written or any of my cooks, if they call out an item on the menu, let’s say it is ramps… baby leeks. I don’t want to see ramps three or four places on the menu; I want to see it once, because I feel like once you start using a certain dish or certain ingredient over and over and over, it displays a lack of creativity. Unless it’s right in the middle of let’s say it is copper river salmon season and we want to do a copper river salmon appetizer and a copper river salmon entrée- that is a little different thing….you want to be able to serve the products that are in the season but there’s still that mix that you want to have. I don’t allow the same ingredient name to be used in the same description more than once. So let’s just say for instance you said scallop chowder with base scallops and roasted potatoes and sweet leafs. I never want to see the word scallop in the same description twice. So there are a lot of restaurants that will write a heading that says seared sea scallops and then the next line will say diver scallops sautéed with blah, blah, blah and I don’t like that because it is just too wordy, it’s too redundant. It’s almost as if they want to list every single thing on the plate.When we write a menu, I want it to sound sounds like it’s authored and when you read it you say to yourself, I want that dish.
How many stations are there in the kitchen and how does that all work?
In our kitchen at Abacus, we have a sauté cook, we have a grill cook, we have two appetizer cooks, we have two dessert people and they also handle cheese and then we have a person that handles the pantry which is cold soups, cold appetizers and salads and then we have a sushi person. So 8 people – on kind of a busy night and it could be 9 as there is usually a floater and then we count the chefs so it is usually a chef and a sous chef in the kitchen at all times. So, to run the line at Abacus you are talking about 10 or 11 people.
Everybody knows their job and at our kitchen at Abacus it is very driven by the set up at the kitchen. So the set up at Abacus has a brigade staff kitchen which means there is an iron man in the middle of the kitchen and there are chefs working on both sides of the iron man. So they are facing each other and they can look at each other and they can talk and they can almost look in there and see what’s going on on the other side of the line… okay, he is plating two scallops, I need to get my salmon up in the window. If you have ever been to Abacus also and noticed, there are no heat lamps in the kitchen. I did that on purpose to force us to become better coordinators because without the right coordination you can have 9 out of 10 dishes sitting in the window waiting on a temp dish. We have a standard that we like to serve the entire table at one time so that those nine plates could easily sit too long and have to be re-plated just because they are waiting on one plate. There has to be a lot of discussion back and forth between the chefs that are picking up the food, the expeditors and the cooks and I don’t want to sound crazy but I have purposely designed the kitchen that way because I wanted everybody to be thinking all the time. I don’t want somebody to just think that they can throw their food up in the window under a heat lamp and it is going to be fine. As the food comes up, we have three expeditors that run the opposite side of the line. Their job is to lay out the food in a way that when the waiters pick it up or the runners pick it up, they are picking up seat 1, seat 2 and seat 3 (in the correct order). And they also know that seat 3 is a woman and seat 1 and 2 are not women, so this person needs to get their food first. They also go so far as to line that up in accordance to the way that the waiters place the food. You serve from the left, pick up from the right and so then it also becomes what plate is in what hand. There is a lot of method that goes into presenting what we do at Abacus. That’s one of the reasons that Abacus is what it is because we go to those levels of detail and there are plenty of restaurants that are super nice like that but they don’t all do that level of detail.
Related to Cooking, Kent and I briefly discussed these interesting STEM-based articles on flavor in food:
By creating an astounding culinary legacy in Texas, Rathbun has thrived in the national scene. He has cooked at the James Beard House in New York on several occasions and was nominated as the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southwest in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2004. He has repeatedly appeared on a number of TV shows, including the Food Network’s “Chef du Jour”, Cooking Live with Sara Moulton, “Ready Set Cook”, the CBS Early Show, the Rosie O’Donnell Show and NBC’s Today Show. In 2008, Rathbun competed on Food Network’s hit series “Iron Chef America” and defeated grill master Bobby Flay in a frenetic culinary battle.
Rathbun was honored to be one of the featured chefs for the Bush 2001 Inaugural Ball and has participated in the Pre-Super Bowl Event, “Taste of the NFL” for the past 10 years. Passionate about charitable organizations, Rathbun is actively involved in the American Cancer Society, March of Dimes, Zoo to Do, the North Texas Food Bank and the American Heart Association.
He love to travel with his children, and to watch them see new places through their eyes. He and his wife, Tracy, have had the kids in China, in Turkey, in Mexico, and just spent three weeks in Italy of the summer.