The process and mechanism of an interview is a delicious little tidbit that stands on its own. While it’s not quite a profile, it is an intimate reveal, a portrait of both interviewer and interviewee. No two minds perform the same, thus, what I think is an interesting question to one subject falls flat with another. It’s like word association. I ask a question and the answers are the associations the mind conjures, while the questions are the vehicles that stir the mind—and hopefully, both reader and interviewer, along with the subject, come to learn something new about each other and themselves. What I hope to achieve is to sneak past someone’s protective self and meet them in the delicate landscape of their humanity. I’m humbled and excited; I hope he’ll trust me. We got to talking…
Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?
Mark Kiffin: There’s a passion to the craft, a great romance to cooking that is very personal. I feel that what I’m doing matters, that I’ve contributed to other people’s significant moments and memories. There’s a joy in understanding that my work is important to people I’ll never really know. I think the passion and love of what you do shows up in the food you serve.
I’m bilingual everywhere in the world. I can’t speak Chinese, but when I’ve been in China––and I’ve even done various stages in Singapore, Spain, North Africa––we don’t have the same language, but we’re in the kitchen cooking together, seeing what the other is making, and we communicate unencumbered by language differences. Everywhere I go in the world, there’s food, and I have a connection with someone because of it. It’s very exciting to continually be learning new techniques, to travel and see the world of food. I love the fact that food has taken me to so many places in the world. I think my job is unlimited, because it’s everywhere.
Food has only made my life better, through learning more about it as well as myself. It has given me a lot of great things that have happened in my life; it has introduced me to a way of life that I can’t imagine ever leaving. My life’s work has been expressing my joy of cooking for others. I’ve met my family, my wives through the joy of food. I’ve had the pleasure of watching my daughter, London, seeing and tasting things for the first time. That re-invigorates me and opens my eyes that here’s a one-year-old who has never seen this or had that and either falls in love with it or hates it. It’s the joy of watching that come about.
I prepared my father’s last meal. He was in hospice dying of cancer. He asked me three days before he died to cook his last meal for him. He said, “This is what I’d like for my last meal.” And he devoured it.
MO: What did you cook?
MK: Blinis and caviar, pan-roasted salmon with sautéed spinach and a small amount of chocolate. He ate everything, he said, ‘Thank you,” and that’s it. He didn’t eat another thing. He had ice chips and water for three days, and then he died.
MO: What do you think is an essential quality of a chef?
MK: It’s understanding taste and flavor combinations. It’s also challenging yourself to learn different techniques and different applications of food. You’re continuously growing your vision and your cooking style. But you have to know [culinary] history. One of the things I learned from Mark Miller was the anthropology of food. Everything has a history and comes from an actual place. America is young; learning about European, Asian and the Americas—cuisines that have been around forever—is essential and fundamental to our craft. We need to understand and respect where a food comes from.
MO: Agnes Martin said, “The measure of your life is the amount of beauty and happiness of which you are aware.”
MK: I’ve had tough times in the restaurant business, but I’ve never not wanted to walk in my own door. Everyday, I enjoy coming here. There were times when I’ve had tough times at home. I got divorced in 2004. I received my James Beard Award in 2005. I just came to work. That part of my life was coming to an end. But this part was full-on, head down, “I got this, nobody can take this away from me, no matter what anyone else may think of me, or what I might have done right or wrong in that relationship. Inside here, I got this and it was focused and it was fun and it was a great release, a great outlet. This is biking to me in a lot of ways; you know there’s hills to climb and you know when you need to tuck into the peloton and let somebody else pull. Then there’s times where you’re in the front and you’re leading the charge and you’ve got to get them up the hill. I still love the energy of what the restaurant brings everyday. That’s the fun of it to me.
MO: It might seem an easy target to criticize molecular gastronomy and chefs who tweeze food onto plates. But I’m sure you can appreciate the challenges, the rich explorations and rigorous experimentation of these chefs. As a classic but innovative chef, what do you think can be gleaned from this and used in your work?
MK: The new food molecularly shows you some really interesting elements; it’s food chemistry on display. Much of it stirs the imagination and creativity, and then you can determine whether it fits into your style or whether it can be useful in your own business or craft. I see it as, “That’s a really cool idea, or,“Wow, that’s really interesting…hmmm, that’s a combination I haven’t thought of before.”While I’ve had a number of those meals and enjoyed them, I don’t gravitate to those restaurants. But you know where some of the most amazing food I’ve ever had in the world is on the streets, from Mexico to Morocco to Southeast Asia, and there’s somebody creating these incredible flavors and you’re thankful to eat it, and you’re thankful for their hard work and the animal that died, and you gave it it’s due. You respected it. There’s little waste, and you received the bounty of its love.
MO: What is Deliciousness?
MK: Barbara and I would laugh, good food is like sex, you know when it’s working, you get it. You feel the sensation immediately. Deliciousness is that you’re excited by it when you’re eating, and it takes you somewhere. In Barcelona, you get tapas restaurants—you have sardines, shrimp, shaved ham on a plate, olives, roast peppers and popo. The simplicity it’s just awesome. Yeah, that’s all delicious. So deliciousness is—it’s that simple. Food is exciting. Food gets us jazzed. Food is passion and you’re driven by it, driven to it. You can either be excited by seeing it and know it’s going to be good and can’t wait to dive into it, or you close your eyes and it’s just like the most perfect velvety, creamy soup—it’s perfectly textured, silky, it warms you and you feel it deeply in your bones.
MO: As you evolve as a chef, does it become simpler or more complex?
MK: Now, I think it becomes simpler because it’s always about the craft of the ingredient. If you don’t have great ingredients, I don’t care what you try to play with or if you try to make it look pretty, it’s just not the same.
Once, when my friends Nancy Silverton and Nancy Oakes cooked here, they were like, “What ingredients can you take off?”—(not what can you add).“You’ve got great ingredients, you’ve got salt, olive oil…” The food is it’s own flavor, you do less to it because you know it’s so good. When Alice Waters gives you a tomato salad, you’re going to be frickin’ wild, because you know she wouldn’t hand you a tomato that didn’t taste good, with a little first-pressed olive oil, a little Maldon salt and tear of basil that would be the garnish, nothing more extravagant. Most of the best food in the world is just simple food on a plate.
MO: Do you ever look over old menus for inspiration and reintroduce dishes you’ve forgotten about?
MK: Yes! I do go back. I definitely go back to some of the older menus, because I think they’re still relevant and they still hold up. There’s not a lot of things I wouldn’t do again. When I go back to some of our old menus, I often times think, “I remember that, that was really good, we haven’t done that in a long time, maybe we should think about that again?”
There’s also the joy of changing our menus every 90 days. As summer approaches, and we leave spring behind, we put aside the peas and favas and asparagus to pick up the corn, tomatoes and stone fruit. As the nights warm, we’ll leave some of the braising and come up with lighter fish and meat dishes.
There’s always someone who comes into The Compound now and asks, “When are you going to put that back on the menu?”, or, “When is it pea-soup time?” It gives us joy that people are aware of the seasonality of our menu and that we’re always going to change things.
MO: Have you been shaped more by your failures or successes? Which is more complicated: dealing with success or failure?
MK: There’s a humbling experience to both failure and success. There’s a difference between confidence and cockiness, failure and humiliation, not only accepting the consequences but also learning from both. I think there’s an honesty to failure that you have to admit to yourself. Failure is more about the honesty. But you have to be honest to the core. I work everything backwards so you have to be honest with how you got to that point, and then, let’s see what got you there and learn from that so you don’t go back.
I have the same conversations with our staff. OK, everything we did well we’re going to do again. While not taking for granted the success or achievements, those are also the things that I expect to happen again. People who know me know I don’t lower the bar. I’m not coming down any level, you’ve got to come up to mine. I expect them to still have their successes. I expect them to still have their achievements because I’ve seen them do it. So I want you to do it again. I’ll hold you to the line; don’t tell me you can’t, I’ve seen it, look how good you are, look at what you just did. Let’s do that again.
MO: By this time in your career, many chefs are considering exit strategies, looking deeply inward toward their legacy or just wanting to simplify and reap the benefits of having given so much to so many. Now, with a 19-month-old daughter, has that trajectory changed?
MK: Fresh eyes. [It’s] a whole different form of responsibilities. It’s a whole different form of excitement. It’s a whole different form of importance to me that I took on the life of a child at an older age and the responsibilities don’t change whether I was 20 or 55; but the way one looks at responsibilities does, and that’s why I chose to do it at an older age. If I had kids in my 20’s or 30’s, I would have screwed it up. For me, the fresh eyes also [give] you fresh eyes into your life. Barbara and I discussed this when we wanted to have a baby—that now I can spend the time and be present. It’s like how at our age we cycle differently, because we know our limitations, we better understand our limited resources, we manage the pain differently, we know how to climb differently and know we’ll make it to the top. Having kids now at my age, you understand your emotions better. It’s about knowing to come home now or being able to do your schedule in a way where you’re present—you want to be present for those early years.
My parents weren’t around a good part of my upbringing in high school. I’m a totally different parent than my parents were. I’ve learned to understand my parents better, they gave me the gift of travel, to learn, see and experience other cultures, and that was one of the reasons I got into food, because it was like, wow, there’s just so much, there’s no parameters, it’s all wide open. With London, it’s the same way. I feel better prepared, and I know I’m better prepared because of having Phoebe around as the teenager, I know what I went through before, and I know I can handle it, and that reduces a lot of anxiety and pressure.
MO: You learned your craft at The Culinary Institute of America. Back in the ‘40s, The Culinary Institute started out as a school to teach returning veterans a vocation, and grew into what it is today.
MK: The Kitchen was never glamorous. It was designed to provide useful skills—not about creating celebrity chefs. I hope it’s not that way now, because The Culinary I went to was about the work—teaching the things you’re going to need to know to prepare you for a long life of hard work. They didn’t glamorize it. I think that’s prepared me for a better, longer career. After graduation, I put myself in places that were very similar, and I knew working six days a week for a year, with two days off twice a year, in a hotel kitchen wasn’t going to hurt me, and I wasn’t going to complain about it either. Because simply, there was no one to complain to.
I also put myself in certain situations where I was glad I was there; I wasn’t thinking about somewhere else I should be; I wasn’t trying to go home. I didn’t have a wife and kids yet. We’re going to open up a hotel, work for 90 days in a row and no one’s complaining. I surrounded myself with other people who are rowing the boat with me. Everyone had an oar, and just like the peloton, we all pull as one, and there’s nothing more elegant than the Tour de France. When you see them go by and it’s just one motion of pure force all concentrated, that’s cycling, and cycling is what it’s like in the kitchen. We are line cooks, we are together, these were my mates, we’re pulling together. I’ve had the greatest stories of my life, and working with people who had the same drive, same core values, an appreciation for the craft. I’m old. I’m an old line cook
MO: Claudia Fleming the celebrated pastry chef said, “There are no original dishes.” And she freely admits cooking other chefs’ recipes.
MK: Until molecular cuisine appeared, I used to say there’s no new food. Wolfgang has carrots, I have carrots, McDonald’s has carrots. It’s what’s in your heart and your hands that defines your carrot, your plate, your food. But we all work off each other. Stealing? Well, that chef over there stole from someone else. Alice Waters didn’t invent foods from Provence or tomato salad. But she went there and she thought, That would really work in my place, in my restaurant, and the true ones like Alice Waters, her way to give back for that idea is to produce a great dish everyone can enjoy.
MO: What would be your last meal on earth?
MK: Charolais cattle, bistecca fiorentina, pastas, seafood.
MO: What would be the setting for the meal?
MK: Naples, Italy. Summertime. Looking out over the ocean.
MO: What would you drink with your meal?
MK: Super Tuscans red wine Tignanello, Salon and Krug Champagnes.
MO: Who would be your dining companions?
MK: As it would be a celebration, I’d like my two girls, London and Phoebe, there; my wife Barbara; my sisters and brother in laws; [a] small amount of family; [a] small group of friends; some people that would love the meal, that we could have some great laughs with.
MO: Who would prepare the meal?
MK: Dario Cecchini from Panzano [in Chianti, Tuscany], the butcher of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini, would do the beef—that would be exceptional. There’s a restaurant in Naples called Da Dora—they would do the oysters, seafood and pasta.
MO: If you had to give up one or the other, would it be cake or potato chips?