Cooking alongside of the railroad tracks is quite a scenery change from your country club days. What inspired the transition from table cloths to picnic tables?
I hate to say that I’m starting to get older, but I actually started feeling it recently. The kitchen is like athletics – it’s a grueling kind of pace, and I spent the last 38 years really away from my family. I started feeling more sore when I woke up and more exhausted when I went to bed. I just started thinking it would be really nice to have a very simple restaurant but with extremely real food.
BBQ is as real as it can get. It’s harder to cook than most things. It’s easy to cook a piece of fish correctly or a piece of Kobe beef or to make a carpaccio or whatever we do. But BBQ has everything to do with how hot the fire is, whether or not you’re getting enough oxygen. A BBQ sandwich, for example, has about forty hours worth of preparation as opposed to a hamburger which will have five minutes. I wanted to do something that was kind of artisan, but I wanted to also have a restaurant that I didn’t need a partner for. Fine dining restaurants cost a lot of money to put together so this was kind of our idea. We found this shack and we refurbished it. And here I am. Plus, I get to work with my wife which is really nice. I get to see her on a daily basis. I’ve gone literally months without seeing my family at all during these times.
Chew the Fat is your online podcast. What can we expect to learn from the show?
I think what I’m hoping that people will learn is that there are some common things with chefs and some really uncommon things. The main thing is that they are all pretty passionate and that they are people. I think lots of times on TV you see these personalities but you really don’t know what’s in the heart of those folks. When you go into a restaurant there are many hours of mental and physical preparation that goes into a dish.
I really try to get to their heart because I think if people can hear the voice of the chef when they’re eating their food they get a better sense of them. Plus, for the chefs, it’s kind of like the “chef files.” They’re putting their words out there for eternity. Sometimes TV or radio interviews are kind of flowery or they’re more for entertainment. For this one, I want them to just let it out.
We’re hoping that people who love food and love chefs will listen to it so that they can get a sense of who these people really are. So when they go to eat the food at their restaurants they will look at that plate in a whole different way. Not like, “Oh, I just got a steak today.”
But the funny thing is that none of the people that I’ve interviewed yet are the same. I used to think that to be a great chef you would have to grow up in this atmosphere where you had to have fresh vegetables and parents who loved food or travel. There are some really great chefs out there who ate from cans when they were kids. When you learn that, you just realize that everyone is different but they are all extremely passionate.
Young chefs and maybe other foodies will get inspired because the chefs that I am interviewing are successful and people love their food. I think that anyone who gets into this industry would aspire to that. They would like to be known for making people happy. We are coming out every Sunday with a new chef interview at Cvillepodcasts.com and I also have a blog – www.chewfat.net.
Most of us dream of having an “Oprah” moment. What’s yours?
I’m kind of a stoic chef type. I don’t really show my emotions all that much. People used to say to me, we’d get this big award or something, and they’d be jumping up and down and they would ask me “Chef, are you excited?” I’m jumping up and down inside.
But yeah, I found my birth parents in April. I was adopted from the time I was three months old. I was always told I was adopted and the family I grew up with was beautiful. They took great care of me. My grandmother had a hotel in Ocean City, MD, where I lived every summer. They had the most amazing buffets with scrapple, bacon, crabs, sausage, eggs, fresh melon. You talk about farm to table, the farmer used to drive up in a truck with shelves on the back.
I had this amazing life, but my children wanted to know their heritage so I decided I would do this half-hearted search because they’d tell me “Dad, please. You have grandchildren.” I knew my mother’s name but nothing was coming up. One day I found a brother in Hawaii. I sent an email to his son who would be my cousin and he sent it on to my birth mother and instead of finding my heritage, I actually found a family that was like waiting for me. They’d been talking and searching and waiting for me to come home.
So it was definitely an Oprah moment. When I went to meet them, I went to find my heritage but found out I have four full brothers who just welcomed me home. I’ve learned now the kind of things that a young girl in the late fifties would go through when she was pregnant and going to these homes. You find out these things. You go to a home for unwed mothers and they didn’t teach them any prenatal classes, just sent them straight to the hospital. So we’ve been through an amazing journey together and I’m now totally in love with my new family. I hate to say that because I don’t normally have emotions.
The visual resume on your website (chefhartman.com) illustrates an incredible smorgasbord of culinary ventures like cooking at the Olympics, the Beard House, Governor’s Mansions, cruises, culinary schools and hotels. Is the BBQ Exchange your last hurrah?
No. You know what I really want to do? I really want to have a summer camp for kids. I need to do it in the next eight years because I have a 7-year-old grandson, a 6-year-old granddaughter, and two 5-year-old grandsons, and I need to do it while they are in high school so I can hang out with them the entire summers.
This is my whole goal. How can I can I hang out with my grandchildren? Because grandchildren, when they hit a certain age, don’t think their grandparents are as cool, but I need to be around them. I can’t get enough of these kids. They are so beautiful. My wife and I share this. We’d like to have a culinary camp. In the mornings, we’d have a kitchen and they’d wear little chef duds and we’d teach them very simple preparations of baking, soups, salads, how to make dressings, how do some gardening, how to compost and some meat preparation but all very simple. And in the afternoon, they can swim, ride a horse, play soccer, stuff like that. And at nighttime, we might watch cooking movies. So that would maybe be my last hurrah. We’ll see. I just can’t sit still.
Biggest challenge opening BBQ Exchange? New discoveries – as we got through the building, we’d find we had to put new beams in and replace other things. The amount of time was the other thing because I was working 60-80 hours a week at Keswick.
Favorite condiment: Ketchup. I wish that I invented ketchup. I actually invented a ketchup made from roasted eggplant but there was no way to market it.
Always with him: Cellphone.
Most-used cookbook: Le Répertoire de la Cuisine – it’s a good foundations book.
Music in the kitchen: I’m a singer/songwriter kind of guy. I’m a Neil Young fan. When it’s clean up time, though, I like Rage Against the Machine. Early morning time, we like fun music. At Keswick, whenever we had to get there at 5 am to do Christmas or Thanksgiving, we always started with Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.” It’s very eclectic. We go from blues to soul to southern rock.
Cooking philosophy: Use the greatest ingredient you can find and then treat it with respect and dignity.
Always in the fridge at home: Cheese – usually multiple types.
Best thing about job: I get to vent. If I want to act stupid, I can. Actually, people expect chefs to act stupid so every once in awhile I give them the opportunity to see what they expect.
Menu inspiration: The ingredients.
Biggest self-indulgence: Reality TV like Top Chef. Sommelier Steven from Season 1 used to work for me at Cornell.
Favorite kitchen gadget: Vita-Prep.
Book on your nightstand: The Mayflower. I found out recently that I’m related to seven families from the Mayflower. As I’ve gone through the history of my seven families, I don’t believe yet that any were actually Pilgrims. I think they were like the workers, the people on the ship.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Fish, crab, lobster, clams, oysters. There would have to be grouper and flounder. It would be all kinds of fish. I love fish so much. I would eat the biggest seafood feast of all time.
What would be the setting for the meal?
A beach in the Caribbean – somewhere warm where we can just sit on beach, see that peaceful water, eat all that seafood.
What would you drink with your meal?
Definitely lots of wine and a bottle of twenty-year-old Barbancourt rum.
Who would be your dining companions?
My wife, grandchildren…my family.
Who would prepare the meal?
I would love to have all of the people who have worked for me over the years who have a really good heart for food. Melissa Close Hart at Palladio. Brooks Tanner and Curtis Shaver at Keswick. Molly Scatena from Pippin Hill. Brian McKenzie up in Vermont and Alisha Prizio out in Hawaii. Chris Bates from the Hotel Fauchiere in PA. I wish I could name them all because they worked so hard for me and they sacrificed a lot.
Would there be music?
Calypso music! What could make you happier? Maybe some fake parrots as background noise. Just kidding.
Click above to read the extended interview, in which Chef Hartman discusses Virginia BBQ vs. Carolina, Memphis, and Texas BBQs, and more!