Brian McCracken & Dana Tough
F&W Star Chef
CHEFS: Brian McCracken and Dana Tough
Restaurants: Spur, Tavern Law, The Coterie Room (Seattle)
Education: McCracken:Western Culinary Institute (Portland, OR); Tough: South Seattle Community College
McCracken:Earth & Ocean, Mona’s (Seattle); Tough: Tilth, Earth & Ocean (Seattle)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
The first person to teach me to cook was my mother. I grew up in the kitchen, helping her where I could. In hindsight, I realize she taught me the scientific part of cooking. She’s a retired biochemist and approached cooking scientifically, which also comes naturally to me.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Tough: Our flavors are strong and bold. A dish we’ve had since we opened Spur in 2008 is brined sockeye salmon crostini. We brine the salmon, cold smoke it on ice and sous vide it at 117 degrees Fahrenheit so it’s just warm enough to delicately flake apart, but it appears raw. We serve it on a baked, crispy baguette with olive oil, salt and pepper. We make the mascarpone in the style of an old recipe we dug up from Italy, where they used tamarind concentrate rather than tartaric acid, and it lends a nutty quality. We lightly whip it so it’s not too dense, and do a little smear on the baguette with pickled shallots and a really good Spanish olive oil, fried capers and arugula sprouts. We focus on textures and packing as much flavor as possible into each bite, and how the flavors are going to hit you.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
McCracken:The first dish I cooked myself was cracking and frying an egg. My mom taught cooking classes as I was growing up and I learned a good fried, over-easy egg. It’s always been a comfort dish, a good BLT with a fried egg. I’ve been making it since middle school for myself.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
McCracken:A pretty easy dish that’s incredibly delicious is a good carbonara. All you need is a big bowl and a boiling pot of water. Boil your pasta and in the bowl you’ve got cheese, some egg, maybe some vermouth. Take your pasta out, toss it through with the cheese and the egg and cracked pepper and sometimes add some bacon, and it’s so delicious.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
Tough: I have multiple mentors. Vicky McCaffrey exposed me to the finer things in the restaurant industry, was very ingredient-driven and taught me respect of the ingredients was the most important thing.
Walter Pisano taught me a newer way to cook Italian food.
Maria Hines taught us both how to manage a kitchen from the outside and how to get a team to produce work. That’s really important, because a chef doesn’t cook on the line. It’s important to lead a team.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
Tough: Cookbooks are just the way to keep progressing, as a point of reference and inspiration. I have too many to list. The ones I was looking at ten years ago, I don’t look at anymore. It’s more keeping up with what’s new and that’s what it takes to stay relevant. The ones I tend to like are more the food I would never cook and take me out of my comfort zone, things like Au Pied du Cochon. I’d never be that gluttonous.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
McCracken:Time management as far as a skill, and then a good palate.
Tough: As a young cook, I spent a lot of money to go to New York once a year and to see what was going on and to eat the food people were saying was the best. If you don’t do that, you don’t know where to set the bar. It’s important to eat and to set your own standards.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
McCracken:Butchering a whole animal. It doesn’t excite me, but I wish I were faster at it.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
McCracken:That’s tough. We’re very vegetable focused in our cuisine and very seasonal, and we try to grab whatever’s great at that moment.
Tough: Pork cheeks, because you sear them, braise them and they’re 100 percent yield. They’re not expensive. They’re delicious, and you can cook them with vegetables or make them into a pork slider.
What is your current food obsession?
McCracken:We’re writing our new menu now and I’d say interestingly smoked items, and we’re playing with using things other than wood. We’re drying out lavender and smoldering it to smoke it. It brings a really interesting floral note.
Tough: We’re sprouting seeds and fermenting the sprouts; we’re playing around with the probiotic qualities. It goes with the Old World techniques. And we’re using the entire lavender branch, smoking not for preservation but to make the food unique and interesting.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
McCracken:I’d love to knock out the San Pellegrino list. We’ve been to all of them in the U.S. I’d like to make it to Noma, El Cellar de Can Roca and D.O.M in São Paulo. It’s to see what the standards are, how they vary and to get inspiration.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
McCracken:Oaxaca. The food has layers of flavor and it’s delicious.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Tough: We were cooking at the ICC in September and there was a knife maker there. from Takamura. He was personally engraving knives. We each got to pick out our knives and got our names engraved.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would it be?
Tough: I’d take Thomas Keller to Korean barbeque in Seattle. There are a few charcoal wood places and it’s better than the gas. I’d want to take him out to dinner and it’s easy to talk about current events and what’s going on with food now but I’d be curious to see what his opinion is on Korean food and outside of what we do everyday.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
McCracken:Hopefully it doesn’t go this way, but vegetable protein. We just read an article about how there’s a huge shortage of animal protein for human consumption, and the cost and carbon footprint are rising. There are people taking vegetable-based proteins as a solution, and both of us would hope that that’s not what people are talking about in five years. I think farming chickens in your backyard is more of a solution than using texturized vegetable proteins. It has to be a way of life versus for profit. Thinking you can save the world is a radical thought.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
McCracken:I eat kimchi out of the jar a lot out of my fridge. My favorite snack is the BLT with fried egg and the one I’m not so proud of is gummy candy, anything I can get my hands on.
Tough: I eat a banana standing up every morning. If you do have a hangover, a banana kills it. It’s the perfect little morning snack. I like granola. We make it at the restaurant with flaxseed and quinoa. At home, I use Kashi Berry Crumble with fresh fruit and almond milk or yogurt.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
McCracken:We got this really delicious yuzu chili paste called Yuzu Kosho. There’s a red and a green. It’s yuzu with chiles and these big crystal pieces of salt still in it, and the flavor works so well. We both prefer the red one, which is much more citric. And it’s fermented. You can add it to things like soup because it’s a little salty on its own.