Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Profile: Chef Scotty Schwartz

I am lucky to present to you an interview with Chef Scotty Schwartz today. Chef is the owner and executive chef of Blushing Hideout, 29 South, in Fernandina Beach, Florida, the Jacksonville area's Best Restaurant for the past three years running.

Chef Schwartz was formerly the Executive Chef at several of Atlanta's best restaurants and has received numerous achievement awards and accolades, including Gourmet Magazine's top chef list, featured Chef to the Olympic Games, and has cooked for the James Beard House and Foundation. His achievements are too many to recap here and you are best to experience these talents by dining at 29 South rather than reading about them, but to encourage you to do so, here is a profile in American cooking courage: As I have noted before (here and here), I hope you eat Scotty Schwartz's food, not only because he runs the best restaurant in Jacksonville, or because he is one of the greatest chef's whose food you will eat reasonably, and not because of all the love on his plates; Go because the guy cares about the American family and looking after them in every item that enters his kitchen. Go because the good guys are too few, and Sysco too huge. Go, because, for just once in your life, you should know what it is to have both your belly and heart feel good about a meal. The families supported by 29 South and Chef Schwartz's tireless attention to humanity will thank you, and so will I.

There is one question I forgot to ask Chef, however: How do I get invited to employee-family dinners? I was in the restaurant front-house gig for a long time and never once saw a thank you of this caliber.

Q:How did you get into the food business?
A: I didn’t get into medical school and always loved food. Decided to go to culinary school to take some time to figure out what I was going to do with my life and it just fit. I can’t draw or paint or even play a radio but food became this artistic outlet and for me it was easy. I excelled in every aspect of it…school, my apprenticeship, my role as a chef. I was one of the youngest chefs in town when I got my first kitchen in Atlanta and I proved myself with many bumps and bruises along the way.

Q: How would you describe your style?
A: Old school with a modern kick. I’m not sure now. I have evolved over the past 17 years and so has my food. Working in top kitchens in the 90’s it was all about architecture and little to do with taste flavor or sustainability. We ordered food from all over the world for no other reason than we could get it. So what if that vegetable was never meant to be eaten in the winter? Find that one place in the world it was growing and ship the mother. Carbon footprint…please. If it wasn’t growing have someone in a lab or greenhouse create a hybrid that would. Taste was almost second to the need to constantly be the cutting edge. Charlie Trotter was a god and if he cooked with marinated cat tongue we all had to do it. It was a great time for chefs because we came out of the cave. People asked for the chef and not the cook. The idea that XYZ is an acquired taste became the norm.

One day I was sitting in the kitchen and I was cooking an employee meal for the staff and people loved it when I cooked e-meal not because it was served with a foie milkshake but because it was usually simple, delicious no frills food. It hit me that for years I cooked with my ego and not my heart and soul and that I was a follower instead of the great chef I wanted to become. I began to embrace a simple approach to food. The west coast is a little odd at times but thank god for Alice Waters and the simple revelation that if you start with a great ingredient and baby it the least you will get is something very good. This is when I started cooking. This is how I cook. This is my style.

Q: What professional achievement are you most proud of?
A: There are awards, titles, memberships to ancient culinary fraternities, invitations to cook for the who’s who in the culinary world. All of that is worthless in the grand scheme of things. Nothing compares to the pride I feel for earning the respect of my peers, fellow chefs, restaurateurs, employees, patron etc. by serving good honest food. Food that makes someone stop, close their eyes and think this was worth the trip and I can’t wait to share this with my friends. You gave me the best award when you mentioned your experience in your blog. That’s what I’m proud of.

Q: How do you develop dishes and plan menus for 29 South now that you are growing your own produce?
A: Can’t cook with my ego anymore…mother nature writes the menu. We have an amazing climate for growing, and with the amount of product available at our doorstep we had to farm and buy locally. We drive hours to get eggs from our hens because they are the best we can procure. We have a pig farmer that raises Berkshire pigs for us to our specs. We make our own bacon, cure our own corned beef and, yes, pick our own strawberries. Cooks need to see where the food comes from. They need to get their hands dirty. People in this area think I’m insane. The say “You go to all of that trouble and you pay as much or more than we do”. More chefs should support local farms, even if it is just one ingredient it would make a major impact. There is nothing better than shaking the hand of the family that raised your pigs. The impact of that can be seen in the pride our staff has in selling and preparing our food.

Q:Tell me what tool - besides a knife and your hands - no kitchen should be without?
A: A staff. Just kidding. I use a micro plane quite often. I love my mixer, most of all the grinder attachment.

Q:Most essential and versatile ingredient not found in every pantry but worth seeking out?
A: Truffle Salt, dill pollen, fennel pollen and chestnut honey are my favorites.

Q: Best meal you ever ate?
A: French Laundry is up there with Charlie Trotters. Both were worth the pilgrimage but it might have been a dinner at my mom’s house. Hard to say.

Q: When you go out to dinner, where do you go?
A: The Spotted Pig in NYC, I crave it fortnightly. Regionally, Biscotti’s, B.B.’s Bistro Aix and now Orsay.

Q: Cookbook no cook should be without?
A: Simple Food by Alice Waters, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. For those new to cooking anything by the Barefoot Contessa, the recipes always work.

Q: Food or eating experience no one should miss?
A: Dine at a Michelin 3 Star restaurant at least once in your life. It will teach you how serious we are about food and at the same time that we take ourselves way too seriously.

*29 South is not a sponsor of Blushing Hostess and has in no way compensated for this or any mention at Blushing Hostess.
** Reservations are the best way to assure a table.
** You can now follow the adventures of 29 South through the key pad of Nan on the restaurant's new blog, Ecoculinaire.

1 comment:

Southern Aspirations said...

I sadly have not been here in my visits to JAX. Will have to stop by!