Chef Kent Rathbun: Chef, Genius, Travelr, Big Green Egg Partner
By Andrea Haughton
Me: So what’s a big green egg?
Rathbun: I don’t think I can talk to you anymore.
Oh crap, we just sat down!
Because he’s a legit guy who genuinely likes engaging with people, James Beard recipient Kent Rathbun forgave my Green Egg ignorance and stuck the interview out. I did my best to hide my wonderment from this highly – and worldly – acclaimed culinary mastermind. Through the nerves, I hear: “My calendar scares the hell out of people.” I can’t believe my name is on it.
Nerves are soon mitigated because Rathbun is a seriously awesome person to chat with. The chef, who masterminded the sophisticated approachability of Abacus and Jasper’s, less formal Blue Plate Kitchen and successful Elements line, has a central goal among his eateries: inspiring customers to say “Holy shit, I’ll want more of that!.” Rathbun’s goal is to leave customers craving food – not because of microscopic portions, but because the components inspire both taste and nostalgic sensations.
“I stopped cooking for myself a long time ago – when I was young, I cooked over the top food and learned that people, including myself, more often like frill-less food.”
That’s not to discount the ingenuity and creativity that pulse through the renowned Abacus’ kitchens. Rathbun studies dishes that resonate and elevates them through excellent sourcing, quality ingredients and innovative products. Definitively more “traditional,” Jasper’s and Blue Plate Kitchen are geared to favorites; though still focus on integrity of ingredients.
The chef draws creativity and inspiration from travel where he can absorbs a multitude of ideas and confirms accuracy of techniques essential to regional dishes.
“I love global cooking, but I want to represent these dishes accurately – do them justice. So I look to the experts wherever they may be. There are so many peasant or street foods that can be elevated and that’s what I like to bring home to my restaurants.”
Fusion food is not something that you will find on this chef’s menus – whatever the cuisine, he remains true to its origins. Rathbun strives to understand the baseline of foods, but insists that if you can’t get the basics right – you can’t tweak it. He isn’t in the business of bastardizing dishes to showcase the latest fad. Though he likes the creativity in technique and flavor profiles that young chefs exude nowadays, appreciates molecular dining and experiencing the latest gastro-technique fresh from the lab, Rathbun’s cooking has steadfastly been executed authentically and with purpose.
“Food should always be purposeful. Unpurposeful food should not be on a plate.” His restaurants boast dishes that adhere to the technical roots and every element on the place is there with the purpose of elevating the dish.
And diners appreciate him for it, coming back more and more and always leaving wishing they had a bit more.
In his home kitchen, Rathbun’s approach is no different – food is sourced or shot personally.
“I shot my first rabbit as a child with my grandmother, I grew up eating from the land.” He also learned culinary diversity at a young age in the presence of two foreign exchange students. This childhood adherence to quality, resource and authenticity provided a wealth of knowledge and inspiration to young Rathbun.
Rathbun, who taught himself to cook out of necessity and tradition, became a chef at 21 with no formal training, joining the ranks of untrained chef gods. He credits exposure to fantastic chefs and products in various stints at four and five-star restaurants with his ability to excel on his own. Mentors also exposed him to the art of finesse that has earned the chef praise for years over.
“You have to walk the line, know the sauce needs a pinch of salt or lemon, steep fresh herbs to elevate a dish and these little things make the food great. I have been known to walk the line and say throw in three onions – it is the difference between a good meal and a great meal. It is the finesse that makes you say, “Holy shit, I’ll never forget that!” It is the magic element that makes you crave the food and leaves you wanting more. You always have to leave them wanting more.”
KR: My travel was kicked off during a stint at the Melrose Hotel when the executive chef asked if I had a passport. No? Well, we are going to need to have that expedited – and he sent me off to Thailand – a cuisine which claims the most significant influence on my personal style of cooking. But I bring back the basics from all of my travels.
Where have you been? Where are you going next?
What is your favorite thing to cook with?
KR: I just turned Tyson onto to Royal Red Shrimp – I cannot get enough of these clean and sweet shrimp from Florida. Royal Red Shrimp are fished 4,000 feet deep – it is almost a shame to cook them. They are a dream in ceviches.
What’s your favorite meal?
KR: It’s been the same for 30 years. Ribeye or strip steak, seasoned very well, cooked over wood. Corn on the cob, with a lot of butter. Fresh veggies. A fantastic baked potato with lots of good stuff on it – start everything with a Caesar salad and end with something cherry or caramel.
Why is quality important to you?
KR: I grew up in Kansas City and my Dad was friends with a meat company guy (Corey Savella). He would just walk in and we had access to restaurant meat.
What is one of your favorite food memories?
KR: On my fifth birthday, my dad said “what do you want for dinner? Resoundingly, I said “steak!” We went to Corey’s every year on my birthday. I got to skip school every year on my birthday and he would show me off, he was such a proud dad, and we would go to breakfast at Mohawk, then to the meat company. On my fifth birthday, Corey asked me how old I was. “Five.” Then he would give me a five-dollar bill. Those are the things that drive me and my brother.
Why do you cook?
KR: I think cooking for people is a lovely thing to do. I cook on my day off because I simply love to cook. Food is such a glue for people.
Tell me about the Elements line?
KR: I had two business partners in Texas, one unfortunately passed away and the other was Bill Hue. Bill said we need to brand something – said I needed to “me” more than I do. He wanted to bottle some items that we had become known for – I was hesitant at first because I thought that we would not be able to retain the quality of the items. We couldn’t use fresh herbs, but that was how we discovered herb resin. I remember the BBQ sauce had cilantro resin that would go into it and it tasted like spring. We ended up being quite pleased with the test products and snuck them into the restaurants to see what impact they would have on our diners. We used them for a week – everything was accurate – they color, viscosity, flavor – no one knew they were eating a sauce wee had bottled. We knew we had a quality product.
Who was your mentor?
KR: I was blessed to work under and with some incredible chefs. Jim Mills (Houstonian Hotel) used to be at Mansion at Turtle Creek. He taught me the finesse of food and the art of managing and meeting people.
What do you consider the finesse of food?
KR: You have to walk the line, know the sauce needs a pinch of salt or lemon, steep fresh herbs to elevate a dish and these little things make the food great. I have been known to walk the line and say throw in three onions – it is the difference between a good meal and a great meal. It is the finesse that makes you say, “Holy shit, I’ll never forget that!” It is what makes you crave the food and leaves you wanting more.
What excites you most about cooking?
KR: We take ordinary food and make it unordinary. I love that.
What issues, if any, have you experienced with your recent expansion to Austin?
KR: We were surprised by the number of dissenters and people who equated us with Dallas. I said look – at the end of the day we are here to do business in your community, we are hiring Austinites and we enjoy being part of this great community. We want to give you good food in a good atmosphere and help enhance the lives of our patrons and staff.