Meet the MISFITs: Adam Kaye

 
 

Fill in the blank: Chef Adam Kaye ____ food. You can't really go wrong: he ferments food, cures it, studies it, talks about it, lives it. Food is a part of Chef Kaye's DNA, which is no surprise for a man who serves as Kitchen Director for Blue Hill and has been on the Blue Hill team for sixteen years. Last year, Chef Kaye and Blue Hill showed us how wastED food can be delicious, helping to develop a bigger conversation on food waste. 


You spend a lot of time working on the backend of food, but consumers are pretty much seeing the end of the process, which is the product.  How do you as a chef, and as a consumer yourself, reconcile that gap between producers and consumers in our food system?

Blue Hill does everything in its power to learn about our suppliers and the producers.  It’s a very rare thing in our restaurant, that our products are anonymous to us. So much of what I do and so much of what I’ve done over the years, building upon Dan’s work, is really developing relationships with suppliers and with producers because as chefs we’re consumers too.  We are producers and we're consumers.  We’re sort of the intermediary step between the original producer, the farmer or the artisan, and then the end-user, our restaurant’s clientele.

For us, shortening that gap in any way possible, by learning whatever we can, by familiarizing ourselves, and being able to translate that message to our clientele through our food, I think is a huge part of what we do and it’s what we do to address the issue that you talk about. 

 

"To bridge this gap [between producers and consumers], we need to demystify who’s behind our food."

 

On that point, as you mentioned, you work with different stakeholders, back to front, in the food system.  Why is it for yourself that you’ve decided to dedicate your life’s work to where you are in that sort of value chain as a chef rather than say as a farmer or any other point in the value chain?

Now you’re tapping into my history! I’ve always loved food, that’s the obvious response.  Food has been a part of my life in a way in which I’ve really seen the power of food—in terms of bringing family together, in terms of preserving traditions, in my case the religious tradition of being Jewish and having celebrations that involve food that were very specific to cultural celebrations.  So food is in the literal sense part of our DNA because we all need food but it is something to me that was always front and center.  So ending up in a career revolving around food seemed natural ultimately.

I don’t come from a farming background.  My interest in farming and other aspects of food production, farming or fishing or factory, again has come through the prism of being a cook.  That’s where I found my calling. My love and passion for food was best expressed through that medium rather my love of food being expressed through being out in the field and working with seeds and soil and cultivating plants. 

 

"Food is in the literal sense part of our DNA because we all need food but it is something to me that was always front and center." 

 

Becoming a chef was my way to channel a lifelong interest and love of cooking. That then dovetails with all these other things that I came to a little later on in my career.  In terms of the social implications of cooking, the environmental implications and everything else.  That was a product of my time at Blue Hill, pretty much from when I started working with Dan.  I’d never thought about food in the way that I currently do until I started working at Blue Hill.  That has evolved immensely over the years, as Blue Hill has evolved.  

My current food consciousness is not what I grew up with in terms of the role of the chef and the choices we make, in terms of, for chefs and consumers, the food decisions we make and the implications those decisions have.  When I was a kid, or when I was in college, or even when I was in culinary school, those were the last things on my mind, they weren’t even on the horizon. It’s hard to imagine that in 2016, but in 1998 when I started cooking, the kind of dialogue that we have today, the fact that you and I have found a common ground through a wasted food product, those sorts of things weren’t in currency back in the late 90s, and that wasn’t that long ago.  Things have changed a lot.  It’s not what drew me to food.  What drew me to food was the pleasure of cooking and feeding people and loving going to markets and stores and the cultural knowledge that you learn through cooking and eating and ingredients.  All of that stuff I loved and it’s still a part of what I do.  But the consciousness about food production and food choices developed over the years of working at Blue Hill.

One year later can you reflected on the wastED pop-up and what additional work you hope to do on creatively utilizing or transforming these notions of food waste?

There’s a lot that’s come out of it.  There’s a lot that we continue to do in a very literal sense, some of the exact same things we did during wastED we continue to do.  Every week I make juice pulp burger mix for Blue Hill New York and they’ve got a version of that dish in some form or another on their menu ever since.   

Juice Pulp Burger, Nancy Borowick for the New York Times.

Juice Pulp Burger, Nancy Borowick for the New York Times.

There’s things that we were doing long before wastED that informed wastED that we still continue to do. I mean, the whole point of wastED was to draw attention to what chefs kind of do all of the time, or not even what chefs do, what a lot of cuisines out there do.  We sort of packaged it nicely and were able to draw attention to it but there was a lot on that menu, in some form or another, that have been woven into our cooking for some time now—whether specific dishes or components of dishes or just sort of a way of thinking about food. I think what we did with wastED was we sort of pushed the envelope a little bit further in terms of looking a lot further beyond simply our kitchen.  That was certainly a unique twist on food waste in terms of looking at the whole continuum of food production.

But in the year since a lot of things have continued.  I think that consciousness, that sensibility—while it’s always been there, we’ll be doing something and we’ll be like “oh that’s kind of like a wastED idea!” There’s things like that that will come up.  It’s hard to look at the world the same way after having gone through the whole wastED process, right?  

There’s been a lot of interest, we’ve done many events around wastED, from our work with sweetgreen, who ran a salad inspired by the Dumpster Dive Salad to a one-off thing we did with Shake Shack over the summer when they re-opened their Madison Square Park location—they ran our juice pulp cheeseburger for a day.

It’s taken on a life of its own without having to do another pop-up.  There are some other irons in the fire as well.  It certainly didn’t end with the pop-up.  It’s only the beginning.

Shifting gears a bit to your experience at Blue Hill, what is it that energizes you most about your work day-to-day?  

There’s a lot of different ways I could answer but knowing that I’m a part of something that is really trying to ask some pretty big questions and sort of deal with some pretty interesting topics out there.  I like being part of a place where I’m not simply cooking to feed people, we’re actually trying to change the way people think about food, about eating and about producing food.  Being in an environment where I can practice the art of being a cook and a chef and still have that greater impact to me is a pretty exciting thing to do.  Once I came to this conclusion, when I began to fully understand how the idea of what you eat and cook has such huge implications, agricultural implications, environmental implications, socioeconomic implications—all these different things that come out of the act of eating are huge.  To be at a place where you can somehow have an impact, or at least get people thinking about those things, because we certainly don’t have all of the answers here, very far from it—that truly motivates me. 

 

"I like being part of a place where I’m not simply cooking to feed people, we’re actually trying to change the way people think about food, about eating and about producing food."

 

The idea of having some creative freedom, to have an idea like wastED and to be able to follow that through and to work with a chef like Dan Barber and sit and kind of workshop that idea and then bring it to fruition, having that sort of an opportunity, that keeps me going.

It’s the simple stuff as well.  After cooking professionally for something—like twenty years—I'm happy to say that I don’t get tired of it.  I don’t get tired of great ingredients, and tasting them, and transforming them, and learning about them.  But forget all of the other stuff. I love the food.  Part of the reason I think I’ve been doing it for a while is I found myself in a place that has allowed me to grow simply beyond being a line cook. 

At the end of the day, it’s food we’re talking about here.  It’s still going to be delicious. It’s still going to be done right.  It’s still going to have good technique.  At the end of the day, wastED was about cooking, about preparing food and making it tasty to eat.  I still get psyched about that. I’ll go home tonight and I’ll cook wings for dinner and I’ll be psyched about that.  I’m sure you guys have your passions too. It’s kind of hard to imagine being as into something else as much as I’m into food.

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"At the end of the day, wastED was about cooking, about preparing food and making it tasty to eat.  I still get psyched about that. I’ll go home tonight and I’ll cook wings for dinner and I’ll be psyched about that."

 


I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the almost last sixteen years--five or six days out of a week—working side by side with Dan.  I’ve known Dan as long as I’ve known my wife.  I’ve certainly spent more time with Dan than my wife--much to my wife’s chagrin.  I’m very fortunate that I’ve gotten to work with a guy who’s taken me under his wing and allowed me to learn from him and allowed me to be a part of shaping the vision of the restaurant and brand. 

You talked a lot about creative freedom and expressing yourself.  What aspects of the Blue Hill menu and experience do you think most reflect you?

As an undergrad I studied history and geology--which makes perfect sense for cooking right? I love the tradition of food. I love the history of food.  I love the culture of food.  I don’t think it’s an accident that as I sort of drifted further and further away from the stove.  I’m not involved in service anymore, I haven’t been involved in service for a few years. I’m working on a variety of other projects along with r and d for new products--for the yogurt business for example—and special events like wastED. I’m in the kitchen everyday but I’m not a working restaurant chef , at least not in the traditional sense. 

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence given my background that my culinary interests tend to revolve around some of the more old world/traditional techniques, like fermentation and curing. That’s stuff that truly informs our menu on a daily basis, especially this time of year.  From lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables to preserves, to all of our charcuterie, all of that stuff is truly a culinary passion of mine that’s all over the menu.  It’s the most mundane and ancient of techniques.  People have been making sauerkraut for millennia.  People have been salting meats for millennia. I’m so into that kind of stuff and it’s something that finds its way throughout the menu and it’s sort of always my little touch because I’m not involved in cooking the dishes every night. 

Blue Hill Berkshire Pig, Eater.com

Blue Hill Berkshire Pig, Eater.com

 

"As an undergrad I studied history and geology--which makes perfect sense for cooking right? I love the tradition of food. I love the history of food.  I love the culture of food." 

 

With all these other projects going on, Dan knows that I’ll always be curing the meats, I’ll always be making fresh sausage, I’ll always be pickling and salting and fermenting and doing all of this other stuff and experimenting.  That’s something that I love and see scattered throughout the meal every night when the menus go out.  It’s something that I continue learning as well. 

Like I said, I don’t think what I do is an accident.  I love history and I studied ancient cultures. I still love reading history and learning about whatever in the past.  I feel like I’m sort of more into that than—I’d rather read a book about ancient techniques of preserving vegetables than read about molecular gastronomy.  It’s not that I’m not interested in molecular gastronomy, it’s just more of my natural tendency to want to reach backwards and learn from the past.  That’s why I studied early modern European history in college. The same DNA that led me to that interest is leading me to want me to perfect great sauerkraut.  

In your experience and journey at Stone Barns what’s something that you’ve changed your mind about?

wastED was probably the most transformative culinary experience that I’ve been a part of in a long long time.  Just looking at ingredients in a very different way, looking at food in a very different way. 

My big learning moment was when I truly realized that that we can always continue to dig deeper—there’s a lot more out there, that we can take the blinders off and look at the array of the ingredients that we’re used to working with and turn them on their heads and rethink what we’ve been taught.  Again, we’re taught not to waste things, we’re taught to be thrifty in the kitchen but you still just cook with the florets with cauliflower, you cut out the core.  You still buy brussel sprouts off the stalk at the supermarket. But it really doesn’t have to be that way and for so I long I was stuck in that paradigm that we’ve got to be thrifty, and that there are these culinary dishes that are exemplary of thriftiness but when push comes to shove I feel like it was still a fairly narrow paradigm.

My turning point came about a year and a half ago.  Thinking that juice pulp would be a really good ingredient for something would have been unlikely. But having the experience of having our backs against the wall and thinking, “oh shit, we really have to pull this wastED thing off,” and come up with a menu, really taking a step back and looking at edible matter in a different way, and what is edible and what isn’t—I’m not a proponent of eating garbage or eating things that are inedible, but as chefs I think we have a responsibility to figure out, have we exhausted every possibility when it comes to cauliflower stalk or some bi-product of a manufacturing process. I’ll never look at food the same way.  

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Ira Lippke

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Ira Lippke

It’s very easy for me in the kitchen and the restaurant to pay attention to this but I think people like you are doing the exceptional work, are the real inspiration, because it’s hard to message to someone, and say at home you should be more conscious about your food waste.  Well that’s obvious.  Don’t buy too much food, don’t let things go bad in your fridge, there’s that thing. But the whole idea of you should really be using your kale stems, the ribs of your kale—that’s very easy for me to say in the kitchen.  We have an army of prep cooks, huge quantities of kale, so we generate a lot of kale ribs, so we can actually create a dish out of them rather than having four kale ribs that you’ll generate out of the frittata that you make.

How do we push this idea and make it more mainstream?  I think it’s going to take the MISFITs of this world. Blue Hill can draw attention to food waste, help develop a global consciousness, taking it to the next, that’s your task. I think that the real advances will come through the cool work of people like yourselves who are thinking how can we market this idea more effectively, with a great product.

Do I expect every home-cook to suddenly become hyper-conscious about saving their parsnip peelings while they’re following a recipe for parsnip soup and make parsnip chips out of the parsnip peelings? I don’t know, but I hope so.  

The last question we’d like to ask, you mentioned you like reading history books.  Do you have a suggested reading list for us? We’re avid readers here at MISFIT.

You have time to read?

Book in one hand, ugly fruit that we’re juicing in another. 

The first book that comes to mind is Paul Greenberg’s America’s Catch, about several seafood industries.  I read it on the beach in Rhode Island last summer and found it absolutely fascinating.  I think about it a lot.  The state of the world’s fish stocks is quite alarming.

I’m a huge Bill Bryson fan – I think I’ve read all his books and One Summer, about the summer of 1927 in America, is such an incredible read.  He is the best storyteller and an incredible historian (and humorist!)  He weaves together all these unbelievable events from that one year, like Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic to the 1927 Yankees to the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti.  Absolutely brilliant.

And The Third Plate by Dan Barber.  Seriously, if you haven’t already read it, you should. WastED was The Third Plate in action.