This is part of a chef interview series. View all interviews here.
On a Wednesday afternoon, I sat down with Chef David from The Cowfish. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, and even after I was done recording, we continued talking. Which delayed putting in my lunch order, which then in turn made me late for my “real job”. #YOLO. I ended up ordering a side salad before my sushi and he totally freaked out thinking that’s all I ordered. Don’t worry, I assured him that sushi was coming, I think he was relieved.
What are your thoughts on social media playing such a huge role in the restaurant scene? Has it made a good or a bad impact?
What we mainly use it for is to communicate a lot of what we are trying to accomplish from a food standpoint out on those social media networks. We want to talk about antibiotic free beef or humanely certified slaughter, things of that nature, that quite frankly we don’t have time to talk about in the restaurant.
We are really, really involved in trying to find the best possible fish. So when we find a 100 pound tuna and the guys are butchering it, we like to put that on there just to see who’s interested. And you know, we develop a little bit of a rapport with the guests that we wouldn’t otherwise.
The thing I like best about that, is that we get to kind of interact with guests that from a BOH [Back of the House] perspective, we don’t get to do that much. What I don’t like about it is the comments can be anything. It’s easy to take shots. We’re genuinely interested in hearing about bad experiences so we can be better.
What is the first thing you do after a long day at the restaurant?
I generally go home and play with my kids, one of them is in high school and one of them is in middle school. So typically I’m doing homework with them. My life has changed a little bit with the multi-unit roll. I’m not working here closing the kitchen until 1am anymore. I will relax with a small batch bourbon occasionally. So, homework and bourbon. [Cool Dad alert!]
For you, what is the most challenging part of running a restaurant?
I think for me it’s keeping the standards high. Especially when you get to a multi-unit role. It’s one thing when you’re in the restaurant all the time, watching every plate. Developing a set of standards, I call it a ‘kitchen culture’. Our culture is really focused on the quality of the food.
I look for people who are passionate about food, even when nobody’s watching. It’s very hard to get that across to people. Because their natural tendency is to do what’s easiest and pass it along and push the food out. I think if there’s anything that’s going to make us better, it’s the fact that we care. Trying to instill that into people is very difficult. Not everybody has that passion and it’s almost impossible to teach it and it’s really hard to regulate it. We really interview to try to find the people that care about food. All I really care about is that they have a sense of pride in what they produce. If I can get that across, than I’m happy. Pride is key. [PREACH Chef David!]
Where do you see the Charlotte food scene going in the near future?
It’s hard to say. I think like anything, Charlotte is growing up. The diners today are much more in tune with what they’re buying. Twenty years ago nobody asked me anything about food. Nobody cared. Now, not a week goes by when I’m not answering questions about what ingredients are in what or what our stand is on local food.
I think Charlotte is always going to be a step behind the trend, but it’s better than being three steps behind the trend. You see a thing like ramen is now getting hot in Charlotte and that’s old now in New York. I just think the guests are getting much more educated and it’s making chefs be much more in tune with what those people want. And when you get that, you end up with some kind of innovation. It’s very likely that some innovation with come out of Charlotte. I hope that sushi burger bar is one of them!
I hope the downtown scene becomes the next big thing. I think without a thriving downtown food scene you end up with regional, local pockets of food. That’s ok, that’s worked well for Dilworth, South End and NoDa. But without a real downtown scene it makes it tough.
Besides Charlotte [of course!], what’s your favorite city to eat your way through?
New York, Chicago, New Orleans.
What is your prediction for the next “Big Ingredient” in the food world?
Sprouted wheat flours are the next big thing. Besides what they do for the nutritional value, the flavors are unbelievable. If you’ve ever had sprouted corn cornbread you’ll forget about eating it any other way. I think people are going to look at wheat and flour and rethink the whole program.
Do you have any advice you would give an aspiring chef that you wish someone would have given you when you first began your culinary journey?
Go find the guy you always wanted to work for and do it. It’s easy to get caught up in, “let’s all make a bunch of money”. Find that mentor relationship with somebody that you can put your 100% into. Make them a part of your career.
What is your biggest pet peeve in restaurants?
Clean kitchens is a big one. The way you present yourself in the kitchen. If you’re not dressed right, your equipment is not clean, the way you handle things isn’t the best you can be. You’re kind of setting yourself up for failure in someway. It’s easy in the restaurant world to go down a level. It’s very hard to go up a level.
Is there an ingredient or dish that you feel in completely overrated?
Escolar. I’m done with escolar. I’ve washed my hands of it.
How do you juggle the work versus life balance?
I’ve been doing it a long time so I’m used to it. I love my work and I love my job. I love working with the people I work with. For me, I work six days a week not because they wont give me another day off. I’ve got great bosses and they let me do my thing. When I need time off, I take time off.
It is a battle. I think for me in a high volume restaurant, it’s not so bad because I got to try to create a culture of food personnel that are dedicated to what we want. So I’m not here late. I’ve never been off on a Saturday. So my big problem is weekends. The kids are out of school on weekends so that makes it hard. I love what I do so it’s not really a juggle.
What do you think about this “Celebrity Chef” phenomenon?
I think the Food Network is kind of at a turning point. I was on when it first began on a show called “Dining Around” with Alan Richman. [Say what?!] I think the celebrity chef thing is great. One of my good friends from Cleveland, Mike Symon is a great celebrity chef… Rocco Whalen, celebrity chef. I think there are different levels of celebrity chefs. It gives people an outlet, and chefs are great for this, to talk about food. Celebrity chefs have a responsibility to talk about ingredients and talk about what people are putting into their bodies. And I think that’s the biggest benefit and the greatest part of it. They have the ability to shape the food culture of America. And it needs shaping. I love the fact that McDonalds is hurting because ‘pink slime’ came out. Someone’s gotta be on humanity’s side.
Connect with Chef David and The Cowfish