Walking uninvited through the swinging doors into a chef’s kitchen is like wandering into someone’s walk-in closet. Either you’re curiously welcomed, or unceremoniously tossed out. That’s how I first met Joe, breaching the swinging doors of Joseph’s of Santa Fe in the middle of service, and strangely asking to meet and shake the hand of the chef. Crazy, I know.
But slowly over the last few years, we’ve gotten to know each other––talking about food, life and, of course, baseball. My Cubs won it all this year, while his Big Red Machine floundered.
In preparation to interview Joe, I proposed I work in the kitchen for a few nights. He agreed. So one night, I showed up with my knives and got to work. Afterward, we got to talking.
Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?
Joseph Wrede: Good conversation and thought feeds me. My work is how I express myself, but I also express my limitations. Cooking, the restaurant, the aesthetic of the restaurant, the style of the food, how the staff is behaving, their focus, are all expressions of me, and those expressions are how I want the world to see me. That’s my best side, and sometimes, that best side has limitations.
For me, how I’m fed is through meeting people who are engaged in stimulating conversation, have heartfelt, interesting and authentic experiences. The way I express myself is 100 percent through the restaurant, and I try to leave it at that for better or worse. Often it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Mark: At this stage of your career, you’re swinging with the fattest part of the bat––what are the challenges you welcome, those you fear?
Joe: I welcome tomorrow. I welcome the beginning of any service, no matter how I’m feeling mentally or physically. By playing the game, I feel happy, I feel like I belong to this community, and I’m contributing to something bigger than myself. I really look forward to participating, and I really feel excited, privileged and honored to be part of this community.
Once the first ticket comes in, all of a sudden my mood increases. I receive a certain jolt of joy and happiness because I’m starting to realize I’m expressing who I am, and I believe self-expression is really the greatest freedom.
I think my greatest challenges are me. In the process of aging, it’s the pleasures and the wisdom you collect along the way. Yet there’s still the physical challenges of moving, being present, aware and not being overly concerned with age, time and mortality.
Mark: When my friends ask me about cooking, I usually tell them, for me, it’s an experiment, an investigation of ingredients and to embrace whatever happens—failure and success. Very little separates them.
Joe: The risk factor is the dynamic that makes a restaurant. It’s a very intimate exchange––it’s the most intimate art form. You eat it, you chew it, you swallow it––at the end, it leaves you from your most vulnerable spot. The risk that you take is what garnishes the greatest praise and makes people want to talk about your cooking and keep coming back. It’s intense to night after night have people come into your establishment—the nature of the intimate act of eating and the risks you take. So I guess for me, the risk is what makes this worth doing, as well as what will eventually lead to your biggest heartbreak.
Mark: When Led Zeppelin did a reunion tour, a reviewer said, ‘While in their youth they played with an unbridled ferocity, now they are playing with the grace and dignity of mature men.’ Similarly, 16 years ago when you were 30 years old, you were one of Food and Wine’s “America’s 10 Best Young Chefs” of 2000. After 16 years’ experience, how do you continue to grow into your work?
Joe: I think about this all the time. Once you’re discovering your power, you’re giving it everything you have because you have the exuberance of youth. With age, I now have an intimacy with my craft––so I’m no longer trying to prove to you I’m a great chef ––you may at the end of this experience say [I’m] not a great chef for whatever reason, but I now know I am. I didn’t know I was a great chef when Food and Wine came. I was trying to prove that I wasn’t a phony, so I gave all of myself, all of my energy. Now, I don’t have to give you all my energy. But what I can give you is my collective experience, and I know more than I’ve ever known––whether or not I’m hitting the note, or what the correct note really is.
When Food and Wine discovered me, I had an enormous amount of energy but not as much experience. As you grow older you expand your horizons, the possibilities become far greater and your skill to express those possibilities increases. So your scope and your knowledge is larger and in a sense maybe your risk is somewhere in between those two places. In the beginning, you wouldn’t have even taken those chances because they weren’t even in your scope. You were taking chances that you were capable of doing and making useful mistakes. I would have taken that chance when I was a young chef and hopefully made up the difference with my enthusiasm. Now, I won’t even take those chances because I don’t think my enthusiasm can make up the difference. I have gained experience and I’ve lost my youth, and this is what enables me to continue to move on and grow as a chef.
Mark: David Chang admonished his staff once after a particularly bad service night, “You have to ask yourself how much you want this, because for me it’s life and death.” In contrast, a friend at a prestigious restaurant in Los Angeles once admonished the wait staff, “Now remember, it’s just dinner.” I can see it both ways without giving up any ground to mediocrity.
Joe: It is both of those things and it’s very precarious. I think that you really do have to go into every night, every dish, as if it were life and death. But at the end you need to say, “[Remember], you have to have integrity.” It’s probably better to die with a certain amount of integrity, even if it’s the death part, than to leave your integrity for the idea that the fight is greater than the means.
I hate to admit it but it’s… I guess, I’m on the David Chang side on this. ‘It’s not just dinner!?’ Just Dinner? It’s Got To Be Better Than Dinner. That’s the point. You have to believe in the illusion of perfection, but when you don’t accomplish that, or you don’t get close enough, so it’s blurred, you have to reside in the fact that we’re not perfect and we do have limitations and things do go awry. Sitting in those moments of life and death, we come to realize we’re human. I’m trying to hold myself to a high standard, and very often through repetition, I’m hitting my head on my limitations. And my limitations unfortunately sometimes can be very humiliating.
Mark: How do you work with that humiliation?
Joe: By getting up and doing it again. I think that’s the point. Do it again. And through believing in myself and by being brutally honest when the illusion of our humanity is really rattled by whatever it is, through the intimacy of the act of cooking. Then you have to have the ability to tell yourself the truth, which is probably the best accomplishment of all.
Mark: Jerry Saltz, the art critic, wrote: “Great contemporary artists, schooled or not, are essentially self-taught and are de-skilling like crazy… I’m interested in people who rethink skill, who redefine or reimagine it.” As a culinary-school alumnus, how do you relate to this?
Joe: I think you have to learn the rules. Your master can beat them into you or you can learn them and follow them and believe in them. But you shouldn’t forget them. Because if you do forget them, the point of intimacy will be compromised and those compromises will create your death as an artist. And we’ve already determined that’s the thing we’re desperately trying to avoid. I can’t totally redefine the rules; I can learn the rules by being self-taught.
Mark: Is it useful to think of dishes as either classic or trendy? Do they contribute to each other?
Joe: I think you need to know the classics. You need to know them well and you may even need to become a master to then do the variations. So the classic is usually well-received because most people don’t have the intimacy of understanding the nuances of some of these techniques and how things work.
Trend is fun; trend is discovery….Trend is cool when you’re trying to master particular techniques and ideas. I understand how warm, reassuring and wonderful it is when someone’s able to land a classic in a place 10,000 miles away from its source. That’s pretty f***ing awesome. But doing classics is just not fulfilling enough for me.
Mark: Clearly, you have a lot of experience and technique to draw upon. At any point in the service do you feel vulnerable and exposed?
Joe: Oh, for sure. I felt vulnerable and exposed the nights you were working in the kitchen. I’m doing more things than I’m capable of doing very often. I said 27 dishes are my limit, but occasionally there’s 29 dishes going on that night, that’s two more things than I can do. I feel vulnerable absolutely every night. I feel like I’m going to make a mistake every night. I feel exposed. I take chances every night, and I’m trying, as I get wiser, to know how to take better risks––and to know when those risks are being successful, as well as to recognize when they are failing. When you’ve made a mistake and when it’s time to admit the risks that once would have created great things [are] now going to create the opposite––this all takes experience and wisdom.
Mark: Poetry blends together the seemingly contradictory, creating new and complex meaning. Likewise, food can create the same montage of flavors as poetry does.
Joe: Exactly, they’re all familiar ingredients, and there’s a poetry created by their gathering that you’re responsible for. If there were excessive amounts of adjectives or adverbs or frivolous stuff in there, it wouldn’t work as well, all meaning would be lost. But with cooking, there is also the wow factor, so wowness is this entertainment issue. But while that wow factor may be entertaining, it may also be impeding.
I’d been making this dish forever, it’s a root vegetable napoleon––it’s fantastic, it’s cool, people love it. It’s light, crispy, it’s vegetarian and it presents well. For a while, we were doing it with a carrot foam; we mastered this extremely beautiful foam that looked as though it had just crashed on the beach, but it only held for 10 minutes. So, in wanting to give the customer the wow factor, they had to eat it in 10 minutes––it was an air emulsion. Unfortunately, if you sat with the dish for more than 10 minutes, the air would break. So suddenly you were left with water and juice that impeded on the filo dough (the main component of the dish were three layers of filo). So by design, I had only given you 10 minutes to eat this dish the way I wanted you to. That’s insane and selfish as f***. Ultimately, I had to take the foam off the dish. While the foam may have created the wow factor and the wow factor is a good symbol of the difference between you eating at home and you eating at a restaurant, but at the same time, over a 10-minute period, it f*****d the dish up, and it was redundant, there already were carrots in the dish. The foam was only there to show you how big my balls were.
Mark: Mise en place [French for “putting in place” or “everything in its place”] is foundational to any working kitchen. Does it have a meaning or relevance to you beyond the kitchen? What do you think it says about somebody?
Joe: I believe in mise en place in all aspects. There’s kind of a funny saying in kitchens––’mess in place.’ But it’s not a mess, that’s not it. It’s organization, it’s seeing what your palate is and trusting that it’s going to be there for you. It’s not leaving the pan to go get something that you forgot and therefore leaving what you just accomplished in a vulnerable state. It’s also knowing what you want to do, a little bit like playing a jazz song. You know we’re going to play “A Train” and where the improvisation starts. But, if we’re not all playing at the same tempo there’ll be a chaotic, disjointed sound at what might be the most exciting piece of the music; the part where we express our vulnerability.
I believe in mise en place in the way I organize my life because I’m a creative person, I have a proclivity toward disorganization. In the kitchen I cannot stand it when people are running around. I told this new cook we have, “I want you to stand in place as much as you possibly can.” Once the battle begins to be fought having all of your mise en place and not walking away from it is the best chance we have of doing an incredible job, because you’re going to be put into a position during this night where it could be disastrous.
The worst case scenario is we haven’t prepared this dish to it’s fullest and we’ve been disrespectful of the ingredients and the dish and we’ve not taken the craft of cooking with respect to what we all hold to be the standard.
Mark: When referring to the ‘oysters’ on the back of the chicken, there’s a French saying, “Les sots l’y laissent,” loosely translated as, “The bits that silly idiots leave behind.”
Joe: At first, you think it’s only the things you can see and that everything is the front, where as the back, which is mostly bones and skin is really hiding the best two pieces. You discover those things through repetition. So you’ve been learning that you could sell the breast, sell the legs, and use the carcass for stock, but eventually you’re going to see the whole thing, realize the value, and see the whole bird. You begin to realize that in the discovery of the process, an intimacy of knowledge of how things work is revealed. In valuing the entire beast, it helps when you realize the more you can use, the better your chances are of survival. So by seeing, valuing and discovering, while taking nothing for granted—[those are] really going to help you survive. Imagine, if you slowly went out of business because you kept throwing away the best two pieces, where you could have collected them all and made a masterpiece.
Mark: Dan Barber says in My Last Supper that he wants to cook his last meal, so he’d have one final chance to get it right. Is there a final getting it right or is getting it right an ever-changing process? Is it the end of the mystery or the beginning?
Joe: I know that I’m going to discover more and I know that I can grow as a chef, and I know I can grow as a person. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Maybe through time I’ll get to know more about my limitations, my shortcomings and the things that I’ve collected along the way that are inhibiting me to grow as a person. Perhaps I may be able to get past those things, but most likely my limitations will be the death of me.
Story by Mark Oppenheimer