This is Part II of a post based upon a conversation with Kent about his experience and perspectives on food, kitchens, his restaurants, and more. Systems Thinking was very much evident in the ways he thoughts about his work, and systems thinking is very much a key higher order STEM skill and habit of mind. As mentioned in part I, 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 with a focus on the importance of developing systems thinking. Please read part 1 of this post, entitled Labor Day Special, to read more about these principles.
For sure we have experiments that work and some that don’t. I had an experiment that didn’t work for me on a Sunday morning. We went down to Dripping Springs to cater a really nice wedding. We had catered the wedding the night before and then there was a brunch the next day. We had served these grilled prawn grits along with some of the meats and things for the dinner the night before, so we had some grits left over. We were kind of freewheeling a little bit on the brunch; we knew what the menu was but we had some things left from the night before that we thought we would also use. So I decided to try to take some grits and make a grit cake, and I was going to put some poached eggs as well. I knew going in that if I wanted it to work the way I wanted it to, the grits would have to be cold. They have to set up into a brick and then you cut them or shape them and then you can fry them or sauté or whatever. I was trying to do this while they were a little warm and they just didn’t work out. So we all learned something and we laughed and we said, well, it didn’t work as well as hoped and we moved on. It would have been an extra thing on the menu so it wasn’t like the guest was deprived of anything. We all really kind of knew that the chances of that working was slim but we were going, let’s see if it works because how cool would that have been to have this slight crispy grit cake with poached eggs on it!
How did the lobster shooters at Abacus develop… since that is one of my absolute favorites?
Well, so there is a great story behind the lobster shooters. Years ago, before I opened Abacus, I was at the DMA (Dallas Museum of Art). I opened the restaurant there called 17-17 and I was asked to cook a dinner for Julia Child. She was coming in town for a book tour and she was here with a television network. They had called me and they asked me if we would be willing to cook a dinner for her. It was her birthday and so I said well, sure, of course this is very flattering for me. So we cooked a five or six-course meal but the first course was a red curry coconut soup with crab dumplings floating on the top of it. I am not really sure what we served for the rest of the meal but she was really, really impressed with the soup. In fact, the very first thing she said when she got up to the podium she said, I don’t know about you all but I thought that that soup one of the best things I have had in my life. So we thought well, we’re going to hold on to that. Not long after that, we were on the way out to New York to cook at the James Beard House. She was in charge of helping a startup foundation after her friend James Beard and so we thought, it might be a good idea for us to cook the soup. We were literally on the plane on the way up to New York and decided that we had too much food. We were trying to scale things down because you know coming from Texas to New York, the portion sizes are a little different. So we were trying to make sure that nobody got offended or over-filled and all that. So we decided to go to Chinatown and we picked up saki, the tray, the pitcher and the little saki cups. We took that dish and we cut the dumplings in half and we served them in a short glass instead of as one of the courses and literally within two minutes of serving the first tray of those, people were coming into the kitchen with an empty cup going, I don’t know what that was but I want to have one right now. It was amazingly successful from that moment. When we came back, we put it on the menu at Abacus when we opened and it has literally become an icon.
What are some foods you love in different countries?
I spent some time in Thailand and I worked in Bangkok in a hotel that did lots of different types of food. One of the greatest things I did there is I worked with the curry chef and he cooked Thai curry, Malaysian curry and Indian curry. So he was the guy that did all of those foods but he did it off from one huge tray. Literally the tray of spices that he worked off of was six times that many spices (as in the garam masala container that Kent was showing me in his pantry). Just rows and rows and rows of cups of little things and what I learnt was it was the emphasis of one or two of those in a certain dish that took it to a different country. It was really interesting for me to see that.
What’s some technology you could not live without in your kitchen?
So you know I actually started using the computer for recipes years ago and there’s a couple of reasons that I did that. Number one, when I first came to Dallas I was the only person that I knew had an Apple. I was an Apple freak and I am still an Apple freak. So after I started writing recipes early on, I got asked for recipes from magazines and newspapers and then I would have to go back in and I had had to take the recipe that I’d already written and figure out how to write it now for six or eight people. So I got this idea 23 years ago to start writing all my recipes for eight people – everything is for eight. So if it’s a soup it serves eight, if it’s steak, it’s eight strip steaks. So there were a couple of things that that really benefitted me and one of them was just a convenience in the organization and the professionalism of the way the recipes look but also what was nice was that I began to begin to learn the mathematics of food. So I know that if you have eight pieces of meat that are weighing between seven and eight ounces per person it’s going to take two tablespoons of seasoning to get that where I want it to be. So now I know that whenever I write recipes for eight people I know, sort of the sodium level or correct pepper level, the oil level that it’s going to take to sauté that or that it’s going to take to add to that and so I have sort of a working knowledge now of the mathematics of these dishes and for that reason my recipes actually work pretty well too. We tested to see how they work and I always want to write recipes that work. I will tell you a lot of chefs will throw out something on a piece of paper and they don’t ever test it and they really don’t even have necessarily a strategy so they end up not working sometimes. So the computer part of that is huge for us. Obviously, photography, I mean, you eat with your eyes first and so when we have such great technology now where we can just snap a shot and we get a really nice food shot, that’s big. Social media is huge because you might have an experience in a restaurant and you might like it or you might hate it either way you might start talking about it but now before you leave that restaurant you can have that posted on an internet site depending on how many people you have following and you could be able to hundreds of people, thousands of people. So it’s a different world today. So the technology and the computers for sure is huge.
And your favorite kitchen tools or gadgets?
I use a Vitamix blender all the time. A lot of the equipment that we use is the same equipment we have been using forever but they have improved the way they are built, they have improved how long they last, there might be some new features on these things but at the end of the day if you are working on a four-burner stove or a six-burner stove you turn it on, it lights and the fire comes up and that’s it.
What are your kids like when it comes to food?
Max is in fifth grade and Garrett is in second. Garrett, she is the one that probably has the more interest in cooking but Max is very, very in the food. His palate is very good, he knows immediately if something is over-cooked, under-cooked, or if it is under-seasoned.
And is this culinary sense something that you think people just have from the get go or does it develop over time?
Well, I think you have to experience the food. I mean it’s just like anything else, you have to eat food that’s well-prepared to understand what that is. It doesn’t just come to you. You don’t know that food is well-prepared until you have had food that hadn’t been well-prepared. There has got to be a benchmark that what you are looking to see. You may like it but let’s face it if you know you could eat some food that you may like a lot but it may only be a no.5 on a level of 10, and then when you start hitting those restaurants that have 10-level food then you go, okay that’s good. No.5 food is still good but now there is no.10 stuff and that’s the benchmark. So for Max and Garrett I think they have been around such good food for so long, they can tell you right away if the food is presented nicely, if it’s good. They know why it’s good, that’s the interesting part. It’s not just that they think it’s good and they like it but they can tell you why it’s good. They also understand service levels, how quickly you are served and how friendly the server is. They understand our business pretty well for where they are at in their age.
How many restaurants do you have and how do you find managing them all?
If you take a look at our company we have Abacus, Shinsei, Jasper’s, Hickory, The Kitchen at 6130, and the catering operation, and we are getting ready to build our fourth Jasper’s. So by the end of this year we are going to employ over 600 people and have 9 operations going. It’s overwhelming sometimes. Thankfully the details in every restaurant are same ones in the other restaurants. If a decision is made that not everybody agrees with, I try to work through things with people because I need to get them to at least understand why the decision was made and I think that that helps our turnover when you can make people believe that – look – we made this decision for the benefit of the company as a whole, although you and maybe a few others look at this as a bad decision; in fact it’s really a good decision for the entire company. You have to make sure that they understand how that all works. I tell people all the time the most important thing about our company is our staff and I could never do what I do without the right people.
Do you have a particular stance when it comes to nutrition and food quality?
Well, I do. I think it’s part of the reason why I have a garden, it’s part of the reason I have a beehive here in my yard. We are getting ready to put in a chicken coup. I want my children to at least understand the difference between food that comes out of a grocery store for the most part and food that is wholesome and good. As a chef we always are looking to use products that are the best products out there and they are not easy to find all the time. What’s mostly interesting about this too is that they are not cheap. When you do find them they are more expensive than what you normally would pay and people by and large haven’t quite sort of grasped that. So restaurants continue to rise in their prices and it’s not that we want to be richer people necessarily when I think we all want to move forward but the deal is that the food is getting so expensive and everybody’s wages are going up and so is the price of every single thing in the line. So it starts with the farmer who is growing the corn, he wants to make more money, so he charges more for the corn and that’s where it starts. So everything that that corn is found in whether it is flour, whether it is cornmeal, whether it is fresh corn, whether it is canned corn, it starts there and it goes up from there. And everybody along the line is trying to make more money too. For a long time we have absorbed the pricing increases because we didn’t want to have to raise our prices because there is a certain level that you get to where people just don’t want to pay more money for their food. But that whole idea about the wholesome food – it makes it even worse because it’s all more expensive.
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.