For Bottomless – the Bloody Mary, we looked at a series of conflicting opinions on the polarizing issue of brunch. No two opinions could have been more different, nor well argued, as the two posited by Sother Teague and Chef Kyle Bailey. Their interviews are fully transcribed below, side by side, to weigh the points of these dueling brunchos:
Sother Teague, Beverage Director at Amor y Amargo in New York City’s Historic East Village.
GB: The last time we talked, we touched briefly on the subject of Brunch, this new episode we’re doing –
ST: Fuck Brunch. … Do you swear on your podcast?
GB: The rest of that question was going to be, how do you feel about brunch, but I think that we’ve touched on that pretty succinctly.
‘Fuck Brunch… Do You Swear on your podcast?’
ST: I mean if you’ll recall, maybe you never came to it or knew about it, but I had a service here at Amor Y Amargo on Saturdays and Sundays for almost two years called Double Buzz, where we did very a cool coffee and amaro cocktail, coffee being buzz, amaro being a buzz, that’s your double buzz, and our hashtag on all photos or tweets or anything that we put out was #fuckbrunch.
This was our ‘up-yours’ to brunch. I would come in and make some snacks, which I never called brunch outright, and we would do coffee and amaro cocktails, which was a ton of fun, but no one came to it. It we did for almost two years.
GB: Ah, that sucks. I mean, is that – do you think its because everyone else was going to real brunch?
ST: I think – I’m in the perfect neighborhood for a cocktail bar. I’m at kind of ground zero for all that action, being so close to PT and Death and Co and not that far from Angel’s Share, Attaboy, or– I’m right there in the thick of it. What I’m not in the thick of is a neighborhood that really drives a lot of brunch traffic, so the folks who did come had to come from far away, it wasn’t like — someone in this building across the street might be a patron of mine at night doesn’t just walk over here in the daytime. We don’t do a lot of brunch in this neighborhood. So I think it failed for that reason. We had a really cool product, and we really loved it, in fact I did for way longer than I should have, it never made money, I just kept thinking to myself “it’s so fuckin’ cool, why is it not working?” So it finally just exhausted me, and then exhausted itself, but the crazy part is the minute that I killed it, it went on tour.
We did Double Buzz on Tour because– you know Bar Institute? Portland Cocktail Week turned into what’s called Bar Institute, it used to be a week long event in Portland run by Lush Lack, which is amazing, but they sort of outgrew their venues and space and kind of – frankly- the city, so this year for the first time ever, they did what they called a Bar Institute. The whole thing is run like a college. Like, when you sign up for it, you sign up for a major, take all the classes inside that major, pretty cool. So they did a seven city tour of Bar Institute, which was basically the same thing but instead of being in one place for a week, it was in seven cities for three or four days at a time. They had this sort of like area where people were showcasing products or items or whatever and they asked Double Buzz to be part of that so they could have coffee for the students basically – coffee cocktails.
Double Buzz went on tour almost immediately after I killed it. I killed it in October of last year and then it was asked to go on tour in November and it went on tour all this past year. So there’s a market for it, it just isn’t in this room.
GB: Fair enough. Did you carry the #fuckbrunch attitude with you when you took Double Buzz on tour?
ST: Well, even more so I think because we didn’t do any kind of food at the Double Buzz on tour. So, yeah we definitely had #fuckbrunch there. But yeah, you know I just – I was a chef for twelve years, and I think that’s important to note, with my attitude about brunch. I worked in places that did brunch, lots of ‘em. I can tell you right now, it’s a loser for everybody involved, in my opinion. Including the guest. So it’s a loser for the team because even if you do brunch Saturday and Sunday, all year long, that’s your MO, right? It’s only 104 services, roughly, right? So when is your team ever getting good at that, because also: no one wants to work brunch, so it’s not even the same people working every one of those 104. So you got maybe two months worth of pro team going into brunch every time that you go to brunch? Right, pro service in the front and the back, don’t forget I’m talking about both sides of the coin.
‘It’s a loser for everybody involved, in my opinion.’
So I think that it’s a curveball for the staff, cause they’re not really good at it or ready for it, ever. It’s a curveball for the kitchen because it’s not a food they normally make, it’s two days a week, maybe. It’s a curveball for the guest because even if you came in last night, you can’t get the thing you got last night if you’re here for brunch. Like “oh, no, that was last night, we don’t do that:” it’s just a weirdo thing for everybody involved, in my opinion. So that’s why I always say #fuckbrunch.
GB: Fair enough. And if I’m getting my timelines correct here – correct me if I’m not – you were working as a chef when the sort of modern strain of brunch started – you know have multiple strains of a virus, I feel like the modern strain of brunch kind of came on as soon as the late nineties. So what was it like watching this franken-meal change from a novelty that a couple people would do into almost a necessity, the way it is now?
ST: What was it like watching that happen? I mean, don’t forget also that right around that time I was cooking in what I consider to be one of the most brunchy cities in America: I was cooking in New Orleans, right? That’s an interesting way to put it – franken- what did you say?
‘I’ve been to brunches that are like, eggs and sushi, you know? That’s crazy town.’
ST: Frankenmeal. Yeah that’s an apt way to put it, because the items that you get at a brunch try across the lines — you I’ve been to brunches that are like, eggs and sushi, you know? That’s crazy town. Like, ‘I want poached eggs and a maki roll,’ or whatever, you know it’s – at one of the places I worked here in New York, actually – I was a bartender at that place – then back to being a chef – yeah I definitely saw it jump over that bridge, bringing bigger items like, I don’t know, I remember on a menu where I was in New Orleans we had cracked black pepper parmesean biscuits with pulled pork barbecue and poached eggs. And then a crazy sort of cayenne-infused hollandaise-style sauce. Like, yeah, what the fuck is that? Fuck brunch. I’ma say that a lot.
GB: But was it one of these things were people didn’t think it was gonna be like, I remember briefly when I worked for a newspaper I kind of got this insight into how all the newspapers approached online news when it first became a thing. They were like ‘this is a novelty, it will never catch on, so sure let’s throw some cash, let’s start a division in a different building, sometimes even a different county, then they’ll be the IT nerds that can play around with this internet thing, but people are always gonna want an actual physical newspaper. And of course, they were dead wrong about that. Was there sort of that attitude of like ‘yeah, fuck it, we’ll do poached eggs with cracked black pepper biscuit or whatever that thing was you were just telling me about, we’ll do that as a novelty, drum up some business, sure,’ not realizing what had sort of been unleashed?
ST: Yeah, oh absolutely. I think, I assume we’re going to talk about bar stuff as we talk today, and I think it’s important to see that drinking culture has always had a tie to early day drinking. Right? The mint julep was almost medicine that you took when you got out of bed first thing in the morning that was your, you know, all the tiki drinkings that are known as fog cutters, right, those are cutting the fog from last night, these are early morning drinks, you know? All the champagne cocktails that exist, death in the afternoon, etc., have a pretty high potency as well.
‘We seek and go hard for the leisure time that we’re afforded.’
These were what got your day started, so I think daytime drinking has always been there, and that now we’re in a culture of, I don’t wanna call us leisure, but we are – we seek and go hard for the leisure time that we’re afforded, right? And so for the masses, that’s Saturday and Sunday. I think what they wanna do is get off work Friday night, hit the happy hours, hit the bars, do the thing they normally do, weekend warrior, and then they wanna get up in the morning on Saturday and Sunday and continue that high. They wanna have a drink, of course, but they also wanna have some sustenance to help them get over what they did to themselves last night, and get them started on what they’re about to do tonight.
GB: And what does that say about our society at large? As that that’s how we choose to spend our time, do you think?
ST: I mean, I think again, it says that we have more opportunities for leisure than we used to have. But also I think that it’s our chicken nature, right, I talk about chickens sometimes and how funny it is to go to a freerange chicken farm, I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one: chickens are flocking birds. They like to be really close together, so even when they have a lot of room, they stand really in the corner all together. I think that humans have a similarity to that in that we wanna be around people and that getting out of bed on Saturday morning and dragging your hungover ass to brunch with your friends and among people is a thing that we seek.
GB: It’s interesting that you mention that, because I kind of – one thing that I’ve been playing around with here is that brunch I think more so than a lot of the meals, because the other three meals were carved in the back of the ten commandments or whatever, it’s like ‘breakfast, lunch, dinner: thou shalt not mix these up.’ Then there’s this extra meal that seems because it’s not tied down to any of the three squares is a lot more versatile and can be a much better reflection of the times I think than breakfast, lunch and dinner can be.
ST: Yeah I feel like you said it earlier, frankenmeal, and that’s exactly what it is, it’s two meals being crushed together: breakfast-lunch, that’s brunch, you know, Brangelina, all those things that we just slam together.
‘I didn’t have that meal if I haven’t shown you a picture of it.’
I think that’s again, certainly an opportunity for creative cooks and chefs to put out dishes that are unique. And then in our culture today as well we have so much interaction with one another, even when we’re not together, via social media: facebook, Instagram – it’s not real if I don’t photo it. I didn’t have that meal if I haven’t shown you a picture of it.
GB: Yeah, prove it.
ST: Which I think is, which drives a lot of this stuff, you know, that’s where the fuckin’ cronut took off, right? Again, another mash up of things, a croissant and a donut. Rainbow sprinkles on every fuckin’ thing, you know? Rainbow colors? Thank god I’m color blind: I saw a grilled cheese sandwich that had rainbow cheese on it. I don’t know what the fuck that is.
‘I think it’s kind of a curveball for everybody involved.’
ST: Yeah, disgusting. But the fact that we want to share that stuff also exemplifies an – you know, I’m banging on this pretty hard about how fucked this whole situation – but I feel like, you know, I don’t want to take away the fact that we are humans and human nature dictates that we wanna be together like the chickens I just mentioned and also we wanna share stuff. I think this is a grand opportunity for that. I don’t decry it for those reasons. I decry it because I think it’s – as I mentioned before – I think it’s kind of a curveball for everybody involved.
You know, there used to be a spot over in my old neighborhood in Williamsburg called The Wombat which was an Australian place (ish) – I don’t know what that really means but all the guys I knew there were Australian – but it was seven days a week brunch, so the brunch there was actually pretty dope, ‘cause they were doing it every day, they were good, they knew how to fuckin’ do this meal, and you knew how order when you went there, because that was it on the daily. I just find that the places that only do it on Saturday and Sunday, which is the most accessible, turn out to be a curve ball for everybody. And that’s the part I don’t like.
My Double Buzz was fun as fuck because we did coffee and amaro and I would go in the kitchen and just make one or two things, we didn’t ever have really a menu, it was like ‘oh, I’m gonna make scotched eggs today, and I’m gonna smoke some brisket and we’re gonna have, you know, brisket sandwiches or whatever. You know, I’d make tacos for a friend of mine one time ‘cause it was her birthday and she did it on request: Breakfast tacos. Like, okay, great. But I didn’t try to make a meal out of it, and I didn’t encourage people to come in thinking they could get a meal, you know, concurs on coming in, get a drink, and a snack, I’ve got a taco for you. But I don’t have three different kinds of hash an multiple horrific Mr. Potato head versions of fucking eggs benedict you know?
GB: Well it’s like, I remember the last time we talked you were talking about this sort of – I’ve come to think of it as like the TGI Friday’s phenomenon of just like – bars and restaurants being places where people now think they can go and get whatever the fuck they want at any given time. And brunch kinda seems like a symptom of that, it seems like very much more of a kind of have it your way type of thing.
ST: Yeah, and that’s – I feel like there’s – there should be – although there probably aren’t – rules to even that ‘have it your way.’ Have it your way, within my parameters. You know what I mean? Otherwise, I mean, how, the exact word I’d use for that a lot – I also have to point out because I’ll feel terrible if I don’t – I’m a privileged person, I get it, I assume you are and frankly I assume your audience probably is as well.
GB: Oh yeah.
ST: We’re privileged people so when I say this, I’m speaking to my own privilege and to the privilege of the people that are probably listening. Which is to say, I don’t know a single person in my own privileged circle who would enjoy going to a restaurant if they were touting sushi and hamburgers and spaghetti and tacos.
‘We want it all our way, but we don’t realize that by maybe giving up some of getting it our way, we’re getting it better.’
However, every person in my privileged circle would be stoked to go a new restaurant that was having either sushi or hamburgers or spaghetti or tacos. Because if that place did that one thing, they were probably doing it really well, instead of trying to do these four things, poorly. You know, I also equate to thai food restaurants. I often to thai food restaurants and they plump down the menu and it’s a tome, it’s a book, it’s got you know, literally hundreds of items to choose from in there, which I pour over for twenty minutes, and then I order pad thai, that’s mediocre. Meanwhile, if they had a menu that was ten items long, I’d probably still order the pad thai, but I bet it would be great. That’s how I run my business as well, my bar’s really focused. I think that that’s kind of a problem that we have: we want it all our way, but we don’t realize that by maybe giving up some of getting it our way, we’re getting it better. Does that make sense?
GB: No, it makes total sense.
ST: It’s kind of a roundabout way of saying what I was trying to say but —
GB: No, no, no, I totally get it. So talking about the, like you were saying, getting into the bar side of things, the interesting thing about brunch is that as much as this is sort of this free-wheeling thing, it almost seems like it’s contained what used to be a much more pervasive day drinking culture. A lot of the people that I see decrying brunch and granted there is a grain of truth to this, but it will be people who say like they can’t understand why you have all these grown ass people with jobs ostensibly decide that they’re gonna go out, starting at like 11am, they’re gonna get fucked up and they’re gonna stay fucked up all day and that’s how they’re gonna spend their two days off a week that they get and granted, there are problems associated with that, but they’re not new problems.
Like you mentioned the cocktail was originally a breakfast drink and a lot of the words that we still use to describe cocktails are you know like eye opener or fog cutter as you mentioned, are things that are supposed to wake you up, as opposed to things that you have after work, so…
ST: Well, I think it’s important to note that old culture of having that eye opener or fog cutter, your, you know, morning medicinal, by the way, I wake up every single day of my life and have an underbird is the first thing I do. Like, do you know underbird? Do you want one? I’ve had one already today, I’ll have one with you before we’re done.
GB: Yeah sure why not?
ST: It toes the line between tincture and political bitter, it’s basically a shot of medicine. But I don’t drink coffee so that’s my giddy-up. I think it’s important to note that back in those days, you weren’t looking to get just kind of fucked up and stay fucked up the for the weekend. This is what you had every morning on Monday morning, this is what you had, you know, you had a beer when you got up if you were a farmer, you know, you needed some food in your stomach just to get out there and go till the land or whatever. And don’t forget also that a lot of these times that we’re talking about, booze was safer than water. We didn’t have – we hadn’t come to the scientific conclusion that ‘oh, if I boil the water or treat it in some way that it will be better for me.’ So it was caloric dense, obviously there’s alcohol in there, also acts as medicinal, and you know, get your system going and help you through the workday. Again, now we’re in a time where leisure is much more attainable, even if we have to toil the week away, and you know and go home and eat ramen or whatever to scrimp and save for that weekend where we can go out with our friends and show off and have a good time, get loud and rowdy and yeah, get a little buzzed and stay that way for 48 hours. I think that’s – I think it’s great, frankly. Like, I feel like it, it’s marking a time that’s still new to us, we’re still adjusting to the idea that we don’t work a six day work week. That’s not that long ago. You know what I mean? that the six day work week was a mandate. And guess what you did on Sunday? Fuckin’ church, right? So, I feel like we’re finally to the place where we can say to ourselves comfortably and without feeling too selfish ‘yeah I’m just gonna get pleasantly buzzed and stay that way all weekend long, why not?’ Every weekend. I earned it, it’s without question, too. It’s like ‘what you doing this weekend?’ ‘What the fuck you think I’m doing this weekend? I’m going to brunch, hanging out with some people, might play some golf, which I am going to carry a six pack on the course with me, there’s the drink cart that fucking comes to me,’ We relish our leisure time. I think that’s really what brunch comes down to: it’s a frivolity. Don’t forget, that I’m one of the first people who stand in line and says the entire culture of drinking is frivolity, there’s no need for it whatsoever. Every bit of business I do is for no reason. I love it. It’s great. But I have to check myself sometimes and make myself remember ‘oh yeah this doesn’t mean a fucking thing.’ I’m not building ships that go to Mars. I’m not working on someone’s brain. I’m not inventing technology that’s gonna help the world. I’m keeping people lightly stupefied. For no reason. You got to eat, you do not have to drink.
GB: I still remember finding, I had that uncomfortable conversation a couple years out of college when I was a bartender and I had friends who were like doctors – sorry, not doctors – teachers, social workers, you know, people that were giving back to the community and I found out how much more money I make per year than they do and I was just like ‘oh my god,’ cause it is a frivolous thing, but it’s like ‘wow, society values it so much more deeply than it does helping people with mental illness, at least if you look at the price tag, you know?
ST: Sure. Well, I mean, that’s why, if you want to go on a slight tangent right here, I don’t know if you know about how many charitable organizations are built around bartending and drinking. Two of my favorites that come immediately to mind are Speedrack, I’m sure you know what that one is, it’s um, Annette Barrero and Ivy Mix’s national and soon to be going, this year, going international, competition for lady bartenders that all helps benefit breast cancer research. Then there’s the Barmitzvah, made by Bryan Floyd, which is now a multi-city conglomerate, and it all started here in New York. The Barmitzvah was just we would pick a particular night of the month and say that that’s gonna be Bar Mitzvah night and all tips would go to local charity. Now he’s given, you know, very close to if not over a million dollars at this point, and maybe six years he’s been doing it? To local charities, mostly for kids, you know, so there’s ways to harvest that tide, make yourself feel a little bit better, you know, the Bar Mitzvah has a great tagline that they use on all their events: drink with a purpose. Cause that’s exactly kind of what I’m saying: there is no purpose, so if you can create one, and have it be for the greater good then, all the better.
GB: Yeah, exactly.
ST: And then you feel better and you have a nice buzz on and
GB: then you can feel good about drinking more and
ST: and you don’t feel bad. ‘Every beer I drink helped to put a computer in front of a kid at school,’
GB: I believe I’ll have another – for the kids.’
ST: I’m drinking for the kids.
GB: Getting back to your chef days here, you moved to New York in the early 2000’s, is that correct?
GB: And that was kind of right around the time that brunch was kind of starting to again, the modern strain was starting to take off, but wasn’t quite done, so what was it like watching that meal kind of change and evolve in such a fantastic culinary city like this?
ST: Yeah, when I moved here, I worked the bar on the upper east side, which is certainly a brunch neighborhood. That’s the place that I worked that offered sushi as well as eggs and – it was a seafood restaurant, served sushi all the time, but it stilled served sushi during brunch so, yeah you could look over at a table and see a tower of oysters and clams and shrimp and some maki and some pieces of raw fish and sashimi. Somebody at the table’s got pancakes, like, these things just don’t look like they go together and they’re all just all on the same table. Blackened tuna with grits and — it was just crazy in my mind. It was just all over the map. But I remember watching the people who came to that service and they were not the same people who came to dinner service. Dinner service was kind of the elite of the upper east side – this restaurant was kind of like their kitchen – maybe you and I consider like the local thing on our street is where I go and it doesn’t cost me a lot, but these guys had plenty money to spend and they would go to a place where they were plucking down forty bucks an entrée on the nightly. But the people who came in the daytime were young. They probably didn’t have crazy bottomless pockets to come in and spend and brunch was a cheaper experience. So you could come to this place that maybe you couldn’t afford on the regular and get your coffee, free juice and a free mimosa or vodka-based cocktail, with your (again) pancakes, oysters, sushi, what the fuck all we served. So I think that that’s where the tide started turning. Is, brunch appeals to a set that maybe are a little bit more (at that time anyway) a little more money conscious, but still wanted to go have fun at a place that maybe they didn’t get to go very often, so there was this special event back then I think but it was huge. We always had a line. And it would always befuddle me endlessly. I’d be behind the bar – I worked brunch there for three years – I’d be behind the bar and I’d see this perky, bright-eyed, wide awake nineteen-year-old kid who’s the host or hostess and she’d be greeting these like twenty-three, twenty-four-year-old’s just panic-stricken wrecks, just sweaty hung over masses, and say to them, ‘it’d be about an hour and forty-five minute wait,’ and they’d stand out and let the sun just beat on them on the sidewalk of New York for that hour an forty-five minutes to come in and eat fucking eggs, and I was just always dumbstruck by that, and all I could think to myself was ‘go to your local bodega and grab a forty, go back to your house, turn on a movie, and order Chinese food, and fucking take care of yourself.’ That sounds better to me than – so I think for me, another #fuckbrunch is, I’m just, I’m not, I’m not gonna wait in line for eggs and pancakes or cronut, I don’t give a fuck, you know what I mean?
GB: I totally do.
ST: I can go pick up some Chinese food and a beer and be perfectly happy
GB: Yeah I mean I’m a hundred percent with you on that but what is it about modern society that makes people willing to do that? Like, why do you think so many people will wait with a hangover in the sun for two hours to… for a cronut, I don’t know, what’s uh –
ST: I hate to keep beating on the same points, but I think it’s our need to gather, our need to experience things back then still sort of in your group but now again, flashing back and forth between fifteen years ago, but now you get to do that and share it with your entire social media group, not just your immediate friends who are at the table with you. I think, I don’t know, it’s our inherit desire to not miss out, FOMO, people want to not miss out, they want to say, yeah I fucking had a cronut, I did the thing, I stood in line and I did the thing, you know it’s just like, standing in line for the roller coaster I guess, it’s a short ride for such a long line. I think that’s it, it’s kind of a – I don’t know if it’s a grand board that people are ticking things off of, but it’s definitely, you know, a little thing that you can say ‘yeah I did that,’ you know? I don’t know – I also used to think back then, I think I’ve changed my mind a bit now – back then, though, I feel like brunch was a predominantly female service period. The story that I always tell people about that when I was – it’s never happened in my experience as a 47-year-old man that I was hanging out on Friday night with my bros or whatever depending on what age I was getting pretty ripped up and it’s two in the morning and they’re about to call last call and I look at my buddies, say, ‘fellahs! Let’s get up and do brunch tomorrow!’ Right? So I feel like when you – when I saw these young people at that restaurant three years ago, it would be mostly women and the men that were there in my opinion, again I didn’t poll them, were only there because the woman asked them/ made them come. Right? So these dudes would look just pitiful. The ladies would be all set up, you know, hair blown out, whatever, make-up on, wearing nice clothes; the dudes were just a haggard mass of hung over ‘ah I gotta do this for my girlfriend or she’s gonna be pissed at me all week long’ you know? That’s total conjecture. But I see less and less of that. People look more put together and ready to go to brunch now and it’s become, just another thing we do. I assume it will probably make us fatter. We’ve just created two extra meal periods for the week. You know? Like I said before, breakfast-lunch-dinner’s gone, so now you’ve got instead of, you know, seven times three, twenty one, now you’ve got, you know, two extra meals a week. And they’re pretty (typically) pretty fatty, grease, milk, calorie-laden, rich: poached eggs with hollandaise, which is an egg-based sauce. So eggs on eggs is what you’re having.
GB: Let’s get up and slow your metabolism just to a grinding halt all weekend.
ST: Oh man yeah, instead of going out and exercising, playing football or hitting the beach or going golfing: yeah, let’s go sit for two extra hours we wouldn’t normally sit at and consume dense, heavy-calories, then wash it all down with alcohol.
GB: So what is it, this is kind of like the major ‘why’ I’m trying to get out when I’m researching this phenomenon, this kind of modern strain, is like, what is it about modern society that’s made us do that? That’s made us turn inward, and like you said, I think it’s a lot of FOMO, I think it’s a lot of the gathering, I think it’s a lot of this pathological need to be appearing to lead the perfect life in front of everybody else but I do wonder if there’s also a little – because you brought up the women thing – and that’s something else that I’ve been kind of interested in – in that it’s, because it’s kind of sneaky and outside of the established way of doing things, it’s a – it was almost kind of a celebration of people that don’t normally, weren’t normally included in sort of the fine dining, the foody culture, at least at first. I mean it was kind of a way for them to sneak into that. So what do you, I don’t know, what are your thoughts on that? What is it about modern day society when you take into account the fact that we are, there is this very heavy push towards ‘everybody gets a seat at the table, everybody is included,’ and there’s also, combined with this intense fear that you’re not gonna be living the perfect life in full view of all your friends and family, that to me seems like the major factors that have shaped modern brunch culture into what it is, do you think I’m kind of on the mark there?
ST: Well yeah, definitely I think so, even based just on the stuff we’ve talked about in this conversation. Yeah, people want to belong, they want to share, they want to you know, in some ways, maybe kind of brag, and also, in a lot of ways, I think we’re all comfortable with the idea that what you see about someone on social media is probably not the whole truth. Right? You’re only seeing the highlight reel, you’re not getting any of the shit storm, you know? I think that this is just another way to add a chip to that stack, and to be like, ‘look at me, I’m at this fancy place having a cronut or having some bloody mary that’s garnished with a whole fried chicken, you know, or fucking a whole pizza? Have you seen that shit? It’s insane.’ And it’s fun and kitschy and weird and is also just an easy out, some easy thing to be like, ‘here’s my social media post for the weekend, I did this,’ that’s pretty easy, and plus I got fed, and again, I caught a little buzz.’ I think it’s, it can’t be overlooked that brunch is just as much a drinking period as it a meal period. You may or may not have a bottle or a glass of wine with your dinner but if you’re going to brunch, you’re fucking drinking. I just don’t see any way around it. If you’re a drinker, unless you’re just not a drinker, I think you’re having a drink at brunch. I think that people – again I am in this business so I see it from my angle – people fucking love drinking. More power to em, it’s a legal drug that we can medicate ourselves with, that, generally speaking, lifts our spirits, at least for the time being, we might have a crash when we’re coming down or are hung over the next day. Makes us more gregarious, makes us more of that highlight reel, it makes you into that thing that you are presenting whether it’s true or not. Does that make sense?
GB: Makes perfect sense. It’s absolutely why I made more the first five years out of college than my friends who were like actively working to better society and you know educating the children of tomorrow or whatever. So speaking of – you’ve mentioned the bloody mary, that’s the drink we’re using for this episode to kind of zero in on brunch – at first glance, seems like kind of an odd pairing with brunch. What are your sort of thoughts on that particular drink?
ST: Man, the bloody mary. I have a lot of trouble with that drink. Mainly for the tomato juice. Like, that stuff is just not a thing that I drink on its own. Granted, I don’t drink anything on its own, you may or may not know this about me: New Year’s just went by, marks seventeen years since I’ve had anything to drink except water and alcohol. That was my New Year’s resolution in two thousand to drink water only for a year, and I did, water only. And that following New Years’, I said ‘I can have alcohol again, but that’s it,’ so I haven’t had coke, juice, milk, soda, tea, coffee… I know, I drink water and I drink alcohol. That’s it. I’ll drink stuff that’s in alcohol. Someone hands me a daiquiri of course I’ll have it but it’s not a thing I would typically order, frankly, and I haven’t had a glass of orange juice or lemonade, you know, I mean don’t drink anything. But, even when I did, I don’t think I touched fuckin’ – I don’t think I could ever in my life say ‘ you know what sounds great right now, I’m a have a nice tall glass of tomato juice.’ So I struggle with that drink, outright, for that reason. I struggle with it equally for the vodka, which I just don’t think brings anything to the party, so I’d much rather have a red snapper- a bloody mary made with gin – and then, yeah, I feel like it’s a very filling drink. I feel like I see these people at these places drinking bloody mary in a pint glass and I’m thinking to myself, ‘man, you’re about to just take down probably somewhere in the neighborhood of like eight ounces of tomato juice in addition to whatever else is in that plus the ice taking up the room, and you’re gonna order another one? Like that’s just two big bowls of soup! On top of the meal that you’re intending on having here at brunch. I don’t know, the bloody mary is a, it’s a mind fucker. And for a minute, I just briefly touched on this just unbelievable cavalcade of the horror of the garnish game on the bloody mary. You know? I wasn’t kidding, there’s in Alabama that serves a whole fried chicken as a garnish on a bloody mary. There is a place that stands a pizza up on – a whole pizza, round – is standing on the edge of your glass. I don’t know how they – it’s a marvel of engineering, you know? Soup and salad is what I used to call it because this soupy thing with a stalk of celery and maybe a pickled onion, it was like soup and salad, and now it’s like soup and appetizer/entrée/desert, like it’s a full meal right there! I’ve seen ‘em garnished with shrimp, crab claws, and whole lobsters, hamburgers, you know, it’s just insane. And I don’t think it’s a good food pairing, either. It is food. I think I would probably have less trouble with the bloody mary if I was just having a bloody mary. But I just much prefer something like a michelada, you know? Lighter body, not as coying, not as heavy on my palate as well as on my system.
GB: I guess the thing that I’m trying to figure out is that it is a fairly unique drink for several reasons. I mean, one, it’s one of the only kind of like, aside from the variations on the bloody mary, like you mentioned the michelada, the red snapper, the bloody Caesar, all that, like it’s one of the only savory drinks, kind of, in the firmament? And, it’s one of the few drinks that I can imagine where you can mess with the recipe so much: you can mutate it, you can change it, you can stand an entire fucking pizza on top of it –and people will still say ‘well that’s still a bloody mary.’ So I am kind of wondering, why, I am wondering if maybe it’s just that mutability of it, maybe? That made it attach itself to an already kind of mutable meal?
ST: Yeah, I think that’s a fair assumption, you know, it’s also – it can be a very interactive drink- you know, I don’t know if you’ve been, but I’ve been to many places that have bloody mary bars, you know, it’s just basically here’s your spirit and here’s your tomato, but over there’s a thing that’s got you know, lime juice and lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce, and old bay seasoning, and pickled okras and pickled green beans and the brine from those, and you get so kind of have like ‘here’s your-what you just said – a mutable or blank canvas that I as the proprietor or bartender at one of these places feel confident enough to say ‘yeah, you kind of can’t fuck this up, so I’m just gonna put it in your hands, do what you want.’ You still gonna do it: ‘my god, I went to this fuckin’ great place,’ lots of selfies happening, you know, like, ‘they garnish my bloody mary with a whole fried chicken pizza!’ I mean it’s also, you know, it can be manipulated into lots of ways, and oddly, it’s such a drink that’s so relegated to its time of day. You know? Folks are pretty rare to order a bloody mary at eleven o’clock on Friday. But, you know, let’s fast forward twelve hours to eleven am Saturday and it’s all bloody mary all the time, right? It’s like, such a hastle on bartenders, you see it on their face, if you do happen to order a bloody mary, ‘ah, I don’t have the fuckin’ mix, I don’t have the—“ what, you can’t crack open a can of tomato juice? At this bar where I know for a fact you squeeze all your juices to fucking order? But the bloody mary’s the one thing: no one’s making their own tomato juice, pretty rare, I’m sure. You’re maligned by this whole situation. “Oh, I gotta crack open a can of tomato juice for this guy wants a bloody mary it’s eleven o’clock on Friday,” whatever, if you’re so inclined to offer it, or probably you’ll just say ‘yeah, not right now, come by at eleven in the morning.’ Then there’s other mutations that are out there as well: I worked for Dave Arnold at Booker and Dack’s for a long time, when the place first opened, I was there for the first nine months, and uh, we did what we called the Lady of the Night, right? And it was a clarified bloody mary. So, we had all the technology and the tools over there to clarify tomato juice, and clarify sriracha and clarify worcestshire sauce and we made this martini-looking drink that was a bloody mary in flavor. Horse radish that we pushed through the roto-vap like, all those clarified pieces, and it was just like dirt, very bloody mary tasting, very light-palated drink that we made at night and called it the lady of the night. It’s doable to translate that information. But it’s just not, you know, even the folks who would see that on the menu, they’d kind of stir around it until we were like, you should have this drink, it’s savory, it’s fucking delicious. But yeah, the traditional just tomato, couple dashes of horse radish, couple dashes of tobacco, maybe a shake of celery salt, and a squeeze of lemon, yeah not my bag.
GB: Fair enough.
ST: I still don’t like brunch, I still pretty much won’t do it. My whenever I’m with someone I’m dating and we wake up in the morning, you know we’re all sleepy-eyed, and she’ll say ‘oh, maybe we should go to brunch,” I’m like, “that sounds great, what do you think you want?” and she’ll say “I think I want pancakes,” and I’m making pancakes first thing I’m here.
GB: ‘Great, I got that.’
ST: ‘I just need the info.’ Yeah, I will do pretty much anything to get out of it. Not because, not just because of the spectacle and all the things that we talked about. But also because I just, I’m not, well we talked about that, too – I’m not gonna wait, I’m not gonna fucking get up and go wait to eat pancakes, something that, it’s literally called quick bread for a reason, it’s supposed to be fast. Like, I’m not gonna go, first of all, I guess I should back up and say I’m not the type who will wait for anything. Like, I live in New York City. There’s some place I can go where there’s not a wait, you know, or, much shorter. So I’m, yeah I don’t wait to get into bars, I don’t wait to get into restaurants, or any meal pretty much. Certainly not to eat eggs, which are inexpensive and easy to make myself if I really want them. The whole brunch phenomenon is far beyond my capacity.
GB: First off, as a chef, what is your opinion of brunch?
CK: Personally, I love brunch. I think it’s one of the best meals. If you’re gonna run a serious kitchen, it is the best meal period. ‘Cause everybody’s miserable. You know, the entire staff is miserable, and everyone hates being there. If you are – I know a lot of chefs who take brunch off – if you are the one chef in town who doesn’t take off on Sundays when you’re doing brunch, you can have the best brunch because you are keeping your staff in line, keep morale high, they’re gonna have fun, they’re gonna wanna do a good job.
CK: I personally love brunch, I think as a chef, who, you know, wants to do your best, you want to work every brunch shift because everybody else is completely miserable and it’s easy to let that slip into the service and let that slip into the food. So, be the chef who works on Sundays: you’re gonna have the best meals. You’ll have the best brunches.
GB: Nice! So I’m kind of – I’m a little bit surprised to hear you say that because there’s not a lot of love from the chef community at large for brunch, so what are- why – I don’t know, what your feelings on being sort of in the minority there?<
CK: I understand. Brunch is definitely the cheapest. For what you get, it is definitely the people with the most requests. You know, there’s so many ways to have brunch food that a lot of customers will come in and they want what they want, and you gotta give it to them, you know That’s a part of service, it’s what we do. And instead of taking it like ‘oh, I can’t believe they want it over hard eggs,’ it’s like, ‘just make a few more hard eggs, man, just do it.’ Makes it kind of fun. It can be fun. But I understand why a lot of people hate it: it’s a crush, you get knocked around, but you’re gonna find too, as you look on almost any restaurant’s Yelp page, 90% of the reviews are about their brunch, if they have a good brunch. Sometimes it’s hard for them to come to terms with. They – we – you get cracked down on a four hour meal period that happens before the other meal period, you know what I mean?
‘Be the chef who works on Sundays. You’re gonna have the best meals. You’ll have the best brunches.’
GB: So you were in New York in the early to the mid to late 2000’s? Which is kind of as brunch seems it was transitioning from being like a novelty that a couple people did to being something that you were sort of expected to do as a restaurant, so kind of what was, what was that like? What was that evolution like, watching from the inside?
CK: So brunch when it first started was – or at least up until around that same time –was your neighborhood diner. And they would crank eggs and pancakes and that’s kind of what you got. I mean, it was like what Denny’s serves all day long is what you could get. It was fine, it was cheap and fast, and it was brunch. It was no big deal. And then, at least from what I saw in New York, it became – you would do a slightly elevated kind of a thing, but it was still kind of that same attitude, where you could have whatever you want, it’s gonna be eggs, you’re gonna get some carbs, you know? Maybe a granola kind of a dish, nothing big or crazy or cool or all that cool. Because nobody had to have brunch, brunch as a meal period is just, you make more money – you make money. And if you’re already doing really well in dinner service and lunch service then you don’t need to even pick up brunch service, and that just translates to the quality of life, which is great.
And then you saw into 2007/2008, with this grand recession, a lot of restaurants in New York closing. You really had to do all you could to make money. It was pretty nuts. So – not that that was the only thing that could have – not that that was the only catalyst for having great brunches – but it definitely started this big deal where you wanted to have an awesome brunch, you wanted to really blow it out for those people. You needed to make the money. And then getting into the late 2000’s, you know 2009, 2010, it became a very big deal. You needed to have a great brunch. That’s what really, I mean, that’s what drove the restaurant Birch and Barley, where me and my wife were the chefs at – it was a giant, very very big deal.
GB: Cool. So that’s interesting that you mention that it’s sort of – it rose to prominence because of the recession, it kind of makes me think of like, movie theatre popcorn. Where in the Depression, movie theatres were closing down, they tried to find ways to generate business, they were like, ‘hey, let’s make this cheap food that’s a crowd pleaser, now people can come and like get a snack while they watch the movies’ and all of a sudden it – it totally changed the industry, and we – it’s still – I don’t even like popcorn all that much and I get it every fucking time I go to the movies. So like, is it kind of, what is it about brunch that sort of, is it the populist aspect? Is it the fact that it’s kind of, there’s a sort of hedonistic release to it? Why do you think it got popularized in the sort of economic downturn?
CK: What you see definitely is around cities, around major cities, you see, really where they have name restaurants, where they have these great restaurants, and they are doing these amazing brunches, it’s the population based around that city. It’s the young people with disposable income, but not too much disposable income, and they’re still trying to pay off, you know, their colleges or whatever it is. You can get out of there with a twenty-five dollar check average and be completely full and drunk and it’s the last day of your weekend. Go home and take a nap. And it is a hedonistic kind of fix, man. It’s something to do after church. So you get the 2:00/2:30 rush after church. It’s an entirely different crowd. And I mean it’s kind of, brunch is pretty much desert. It’s like breakfast desert. And who doesn’t love desert?
Nobody wants a stuffy brunch. Nobody wants an expensive brunch.
GB: True. Real quick, what brought you to New York in the first place? And eventually, what prompted you – cause you came to DC after New York, right? What brought you there (NYC) and what brought you here (DC)?
CK: Pretty much the same thing as any of the places I’ve moved. It was a girl. Got together, moved to New York, and got to work at some of the best restaurants in the country, it was amazing, and then, by the time 2009 rolled around, 2008 maybe, 2009? I had met my wife, we had gotten married, and we got a call from a restauranteur in DC who was looking for a chef to open his restaurant, a brand new restaurant. I’d never really wanted to go to DC or – I don’t think I’d ever even been, except for like field trips when I was in grade school. But it was an excellent opportunity and we came to visit and it was recession-proof and I was like ‘well that’s – how are you going to beat that, man, in a booming restaurant scene?’ It was like just about to start booming. I definitely wanted to be groundfloor on that one.
GB: So it does kind of seem like the brunch boom nationally and the restaurant boom in DC happened pretty much simultaneously, is that fair to say?
CK: I’d say so, I mean, not exactly the same time, some were great brunches, like great high end brunches, before that boom. But um, I mean like they definitely took off during that time.
GB: Great. And so between the seven years in between then and now what would you say is kind of, has it plateaued and stayed the same? Or has it continued to evolve and become more grandiose and involved and drunk?
CK: You know I don’t think that you can get to any brunch anymore that doesn’t have a bottomless. Bottomless mimosa thing, and that’s kind of a cool thing for the customers I think. It’s a slow growth kind of a grandiose thing, and it gets a little bit better and a little bit better. But really, I mean, how far can you take it, without pricing yourself out of it? And those have to be cheap still, those have to be inexpensive. Nobody wants an expensive brunch. Nobody wants a stuffy brunch. It should be fun and playful and warm and inviting. And plenty of booze.
GB: Yeah, that’s kind of the thing that fascinates me about this sort of hybrid meal is that because it’s kind of like, it’s cheeky it seems very agile and lithe, and it kind of can adapt to the times as it goes so like the other, the holy trinity of meals that are sort of enshrined in the ten commandments or whatever, it’s like ‘thou shalt eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner,’ because it’s this extra thing, it seems much more adaptable to what people want at a given time in a given era. Would you say that’s true?
CK: I would definitely say that’s true. But when you think about – that’s really the only reason I like to do Sunday brunches: you can do a Saturday and a Sunday brunch as a chef but really I like to save all of our brunch effort into just having Sundays. Try not to spread out the fun too much.
‘That’s what it says about society, I guess. We’re trying to eke out as much fun as we can.’
GB: So I guess sort of this – this takes us kind of into a why question here – is that what does it say about society that as we continue to change that as brunch continues to co-evolve with us, it gets to be a bigger and bigger affair? It gets to be, you were saying, well first, only diners did it, and then a few places did it, and now it seems like everyone has to do it. For, you know, to fit the restaurant culture that we’re living in today. But what does that say about us as a society, that that’s how we like to spend our time on the weekend?
CK: You know it’s not I don’t think everybody goes to brunch, I think it’s a continuation of the party. It’s – you went out the night before, you got lit, maybe stayed up all night, maybe come to crash and get some waffles, man. And that’s fun, that’s cool and it’s – or even if it’s not that, then it’s, you know, you get to go out with your friends, maybe you can’t go out at night time and get plastered, so you go to an awesome brunch spot, as an adult, as a responsible adult, you go to a nice brunch spot, you get some eggs benedict and a Bloody Mary and that can be your fun time. That’s what it says about society, I guess. We’re trying to eke out as much fun as we can. Things never get easier, things only ever get harder.
GB: That seems- it’s sort of, its very millennial-centric meal, and I think it does the fact that we are trying to eke out as much fun as possible, almost made it, maybe we feel like we’re not having as much fun as we’re supposed to or as we could be having. Like we feel kind of, very stressed and overworked and crushed by student loan debt all the time. It’s kind of a reaction against that almost.
CK: Yeah, I think that fits, I think it definitely fits.
GB: So now we’ve taken it up to the present day. What do you would you say is next as this thing continues to evolve? I hate framing things this way, but in Donald Trump’s America, What’s going to happen to brunch?
CK: Ah nothing, I don’t think anything man. Brunch is one of those cool things that exists outside of politics and religion and any other creed that you may have or not have. It’s just a great meal, and it’s fun, and it’s cool, and I don’t think anyone’s every gonna wanna not do it, you know? That goes for all of dining, all the food, I can’t think of anything that would land a crushing blow to food culture at all. That’s one really cool, that’s one thing that I really have loved about food is that everyone’s going to be hungry, man. I love to cook food so that’s a very synergistic relationship that I got to have there.
CK: Yeah, I actually do feel the foodie bubble thing happening. However, as long as you’re doing it sincerely and for real, you’re gonna make it out. A lot of anger’s on the periphery of the true food people, I can see the bubble bursting, I don’t think it has anything to do with politics and with the celebritization of chef, cheffing, or chefdom or whatever you want to call it, this was gonna happen. It started in the early mid nineties. I feel like it’s coming to a head, maybe I’m wrong, I do think eventually it’s gonna pop. People are just gonna get tired of hearing about you know, who Bobby Flay is better than or whatever. However, people always need to eat, and there will always be restaurants. And if one day, they get to take away restaurants, I’m still gonna be cooking stuff. Come find me. I’ll do brunch.
GB: In a way, that seems that’s what we’re talking about about brunch. I’m with you, I think that eventually the foodie bubble’s gonna pop and people are gonna be sick of – like you were saying – celebrity chef culture, but I think that I agree, that if you do what you do sincerely and without bullshit -because there’s one thing the public can smell, I think it’s bullshit – people will still come to your restaurant. I feel like that’s kind of what you’re saying about brunch, like don’t blow smoke up people’s ass, don’t try and you know, make this, eh, serve an eggs benedict on an ice sculpture or anything. Just do fun food that people like to eat.
CK: Yeah. Hot delicious food. That’s all anybody wants man, you know? Anything other than that is extra: fun and cool sometimes, but taking that too far, it’s ridiculous. And kind of what I – I guess what I hope for is that the foodie bubble will burst because I’m tired of hearing that word, I’m tired of people self-describing as foodies, even though I appreciate that people are more into food. I hope that bubble pops, I hope that label fucking goes away, and it’s just normal. If you say you’re a foodie, you’re not: ‘cause we’re all just foodies, man. We all know what’s going on, we all know what good is. Hope you’re uh – maybe we’ll get to that, one day.
GB: Fingers crossed, man. Is there any sort of extra expectations that having to make an extra meal that didn’t exist twenty years ago put on you as a chef? I mean I feel like obviously there has but, do you feel like it sort of trickles into the rest of your work as a whole, or is it kind of a fun extra thing you get to do?
CK: It’s a very fun extra thing you get to do. Think about what breakfast dessert even is and what that means. Well breakfast, especially if you’re on the go, it’s one thing: it’s a bowl of cereal, we cut up a banana in there or something, but it’s not very extravagant. I’m out the door before I’m even done with my meal. So, I think that you definitely used to see it bleed more into at least the appetizer portion of the meal in menus. You think about what brunch food is: it’s eggs and they actually do go well with sweets. Sweets and salts. It’s sweet: the sweetened carbs that pancakes and that waffles, those go really well with the salty, savory meats. If you look at these salty, savory meats: the breakfast sausage, the pork roll and scrapple, and even the steak from steak and eggs, they still go well with sweets, too. But you can really turn the sweets out. And people like that, humans like sweet stuff, man. And all that food goes together. You know? Like when you do your dinner menu, or your lunch menu, you kind of want to stay away from sweets. Kind of bait that savory salt thing so that they’re gonna want dessert at the end. Your stomach can be completely full but then your dessert stomach is completely empty, means: time to get a piece of pie. But for brunch, you look at eggs, that’s a very decadent item, man. You can cook them a billion ways, they’re full of protein, super duper good for you, and they go really well with sweet and salty. I really feel like you used to see it more bleeding into the appetizer section, when everybody had pork belly – there was a time when everybody had pork belly on their menu, for an app or an entrée or whatever it was – and it was done with sweet things, and it was an over the top dish, make it as crispy as you could so you couldn’t crack through the skin, which was really cool. It’s kind of rare to see it now but I think that’s where that came from. The only other time you would ever see pork belly on a menu prior to that was bacon, you know? That was it.
‘It’s one of those perfect trainwrecks that if you play it correctly, you can turn the entire day around and have an awesome day.’
GB: I guess one, well, you’re a very, of the chatter that’s out there, it seems that you’re in the minority. One of the reasons I’m looking forward to doing this episode is that it’s a polarizing issue and you have – I have yet to encounter anyone who’s like ‘I’m kind of blasé about brunch.’ They either love it or they hate it. But is there something about it that you’re just like, ‘I hate this one aspect of this meal, or this culture, or the people that eat it,’ or anything like that? Is there one thing that just really gets under your skin?
CK: Everything gets under my skin. And that’s kind of why I like it. I like the idea of just shutting up and doing your job. There’s a sort of nobility that comes out of that; humility, and dignity that you can pull from that. Where, you know like I said, it’s in an early meal, so you gotta wake up early, man, and I don’t go to bed until like four in the morning, man. Every night, and not just me, it’s every chef, man. You go to bed late, and wake up very early to come in and everybody’s miserable and hung over and you get to snap them out, and like “hey everyone, we’re gonna be here anyway, let’s just have a good time, let’s do a good job.’ We’ll make some money, we’ll have some fun, we’ll cook a big family meal, we’ll have that thing. The customers are difficult. Your host doesn’t show up, you know? And the servers who do show up haven’t combed their hair, and like ‘come on, man, what is this?’ You know, it’s like it’s one of those perfect trainwrecks that if you play it correctly, you can turn the entire day around and have an awesome day and then at the end of the day it’s Sunday and you get to go home and have an awesome night’s sleep knowing that you made an impression. You did a good job.
GB: Cool. Fuck yeah, man.
CK: But to answer your question, everything: the entire day sucks, man. It’s misery. It’s also I mean, especially in the kitchen it’s usually deep clean day, you know? And it’s a slow dinner service, and the misery is palpable, man. So it’s amazing, you know? And then the last thing that anybody wants to do is to scrub the underneath of a table. Sunday’s the day to do it, dude. Might as well smile while you’re doing it, right?
GB: I agree, there’s something that’s almost tasty about the misery of brunch. It’s just –
CK: It’s great, dude. When you get through it, you’re like ‘yo, I survived. I survived that.’ And that’s fun. And if you can do it all while the customer has no idea what’s going on? Amazing. So cool. That’s what hospitality’s about, you know?
GB: Cool. Awesome, dude. Yeah, I’m actually – I haven’t worked a morning shift in ages but I’m opening on Christmas eve and I’m like ‘man, this is gonna be – this is – I don’t know how I’m gonna pull this together ‘cause this is like just me and one other dude all day. I’m like, this could be a trainwreck but I’m gonna wear a goddamned Santa Hat and I’m gonna make this festive –
CK: It’ll be fun. Especially if it’s only you and one other guy. Like, for New Year’s here, it’s gonna be – you know we got a buyout or whatever– and I gave everybody off except for me and our owner, and we’re gonna do the whole thing ourselves. It’s gonna be really hard. But it’s like, we’re gonna have a fucking blast. I know we’re gonna have a blast, dude. It’s great, dude.
GB: Yeah just kind of blasting through it all at light speed.
CK: Make some money. Have some fun. Make some food.
GB: Chill out, drink a little champagne at midnight, whole deal.
CK: There ya go.