Facing My Tormentor: Going Back in the Kitchen with Upland's Justin Smillie
In which a Birmingham editor renews his mentorship with a New York City chef through a new cookbook brimming with big ideas.
The only time I've ever thought about stabbing anyone was one Indian summer night in 2006, while cooking on the line at Barbuto, a restaurant on the fringes of New York City's West Village. My would-be weapon was my 10.5-inch Glestain chef's knife. My would-be victim was my 26-year-old chef de cuisine Justin Smillie, a 6-foot-6-inch, 220-pound polar bear barking orders and hurling insults across the stainless steel pass, berating me for not keeping up with tickets for ever more pork chops, skirt steaks, and chickens sizzling on my station's hulking iron grill and oven.
Smillie kicked me off the line. I walked a few blocks west to the bank of the Hudson River and sat on a bench looking out into the dark maw. I thought about quitting. And for whatever reason I went back to face my tormentor. I always went back.
SLOW FIRESI boarded the pirate ship Barbuto in 2005 as a 27-year-old interloper, a former newspaperman and aspiring food writer seeking legitimacy in the rough seas of restaurant work. I had worked stints as a prep cook and short-order cook before, but I couldn't hold a knife properly. I didn't understand how to control heat, much less fold a side towel correctly to clean my station. Smillie taught me these things and much more. He broke me down and built me back up as a professional cook. That's when I fell in love with the cooking life.
Now I'm the editor of Cooking Light, and Justin is the chef-partner of Upland—a gorgeous California-centric restaurant in Manhattan—and the author of the new cookbook Slow Fires: Mastering New Ways to Braise, Roast, and Grill. The culinary Stockholm syndrome wore off years ago; tormentor is now close friend. As I sat at my kitchen table in Birmingham, Alabama, dog-earing the pages of his cookbook, I realized how differently I cook now than I did 10 years ago. We all fall into ruts, but I'd plowed headlong into a ditch while cooking for my young family—the culinary equivalent of dad jeans. Fatherhood and suburbia had conspired to mellow my cooking edge. So I resolved to sharpen my knives, renew my mentorship with Smillie by cooking from his book, and share some of his hard-won lessons along the way.
My first course of study was a recipe for chicken legs braised in peperonata, an Italian pepper stew. Like the other 51 braised, roasted, or grilled meals in Slow Fires, this is a project meant for leisurely weekend cooking. The approach delivers robust restaurant tastes and textures by "building flavor from the bottom up" through a progression of straightforward techniques and steps spread out over the course of two or three days.
Step one calls for brining the chicken, a crucial method that makes the bird taste "of itself, only better and bolder," Smillie writes. Once brined, the chicken air-dries in the refrigerator overnight so the slackened skin tightens and turns tacky. Air-drying made it easier to brown in a Dutch oven the next day, filling my kitchen with the aroma of caramelizing meat. Peppers, onions, and garlic go into the crowded pot next and sweat down until they surrender themselves—then oregano, orange zest and juice, chile flakes, and vinegar, the tang that always sings in Smillie's food as a back note or top note. I nestled the chicken legs back into the stew and braised them uncovered, basting with the liquids, until chicken and pepper stew compromised into a rustic and refined one.
As I leaned over the fragrant pot and swiped a hunk of sourdough bread into the stew, I thought back to the late nights after our dinner shifts when Smillie and his cooks would BS over Brooklyn Lagers at our regular West Village haunt, Tavern on Jane. We talked about the canon of cookbooks that informed Barbuto's rustic Italy-by-way-of-California-and-France style, classic books by Richard Olney, Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers, and Paul Bertolli, whose writing inspired Smillie to temporarily ban all machines from the kitchen. He forced us to connect with the food. We pounded gallons of pesto by hand with mortar and pestle. "Good cooking is trouble," Bertolli wrote in Cooking by Hand, paraphrasing cookbook author Elizabeth David. "The learning never ends." Slow Fires shares a direct lineage with these authors; Smillie occupies a branch on the same culinary family tree.
Go figure: The guy I almost stabbed has his own instant classic.
THE ZEN MASTERNew York City's post–economic collapse and boom era ushered in a new wave of cool and casual joints. Barbuto helped pave the way for today's looser, ingredient-driven venues, and to cook there meant going down a rabbit hole where the seasonality of the farmers' markets dictated the pace of the day. It meant cooking chef-owner Jonathan Waxman's way, with soul and spontaneity. In Waxman's world, servers wore jeans, black T-shirts with the restaurant's shaggy dog emblem, and Chuck Taylors. In his world a Dixieland jazz band randomly marched through a packed dining room of bankers, supermodels, and neighborhood regulars on a busy Friday night and played "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Waxman broke the city's dining rules twice, first as a pioneer when he brought California cuisine east in 1984 with Jams (which he reincarnated this summer) and again when he opened Barbuto in a former car garage on Washington Street in 2004. More Zen philosopher than technician, Waxman is the kind of chef who will walk on the line in a T-shirt and shorts with a glass of rosé in hand to teach a sweating cook a lesson in searing squid: "Dude, dude, shut your eyes and listen. You hear that? Not hot enough. Dude. Listen to what the pan is telling you."
When I arrived, Smillie was spreading his wings as Waxman's chef, just as Waxman had done 26 years before as the young chef at Michael McCarty's eponymous restaurant in Santa Monica, 52 miles from where Smillie was born in Upland, California. At 15, Smillie moved with his family to New Jersey. By 17 he was working as a dishwasher and crab boil cook. He dropped out of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York (where he delivered the commencement speech in September), and took his lumps in some of Manhattan's best restaurants, learning to dole them out, too. His short fuse and size intimidated us cooks, but we didn't stray because he could cook unlike anyone else—damn, could he cook. He connects with the food in a physical way, always tasting, smelling, prodding, and hunching his massive frame over a tiny pan to get closer to it.
"I love putting my hands on my food, feeling the salt between my fingers and knowing how those crystals will transform the ingredients before me," Smillie writes in Slow Fires. That same physicality shows up on the plate. You can taste primitive finesse in the way he staggers briny, funky, and acidic flavors. You can feel the craggy and frayed textures. You eat his food with your hands.
Both Waxman and Smillie were musicians, which makes sense: They play by feel. "We're very similar in many respects," Waxman told me. "I used to be a trombone player, and Justin was a trumpet player—they play all the high notes as fast as they can. Trombone players are more melodic ensemble players."
Waxman's signature melody is a roasted half chicken, a simple, confident dish. Smillie's high note is a peppercorn-crusted, pastrami-like short rib, a brawny, urban dish that inspired the late food writer Josh Ozersky to channel the epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and emote on YouTube, "The discovery of a new dish contributes more to the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star."
Lacquered and lush, Upland glows golden at night. It has more midtown polish than steely downtown Barbuto, but it maintains the same air of spontaneity. This spring I witnessed one of Smillie's friends sing thanks for her supper by belting out an Italian opera song to a kitchen full of rapt cooks.
SHARING THE EMBERSI recently invited work friends, all good cooks, over for dinner and hunkered down to continue my lessons from Slow Fires. I brined head-on shrimp as instructed and pureed garlic, roasted red peppers, and toasted bread with olive oil and smoked paprika to make the Spanish sauce romesco. Pork chops marinated in the fridge. On the stove simmered dashi, a Japanese broth, in which I later steeped dried shrimp and bits of prosciutto for a "tea" that would flavor paella. My senses—and kitchen—had come alive.
Friends arrived. We seared the shrimp on a cast-iron griddle and set them out on a platter, their flesh snappy and sweet from the brine, with the romesco. We grilled pork chops and served them with sweet potatoes roasted directly in the coals. Good food tastes better in good company.
I pulled Smillie's paella off the grill. We ate the rice quietly, savoring its saline, earthy qualities. No dad-jeans flavors here. It was an honor to share my mentor's food with fellow cooks, and the more I cooked from Slow Fires, the more I realized that the fire Smillie stoked in me continues to burn slow and steady.
Recipes adapted from Slow Fires. Copyright © 2015 by Justin Smillie. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. $40, 320 pages
Try Smillie's recipes, adapted for nutrition purposes, for Cooking Light readers below.