You aren’t covered in homestyle southern BBQ and grits. How much of your Georgia roots comes through in the flavor of your food and how much do you leave behind?
It comes back accidentally. I first started cooking in Auburn, Alabama. All my family is from Alabama. My grandparents had a farm and that’s where we catfished and picked corn in the summer, so it comes into the background of my food and then carries forward. What’s been fun is that I’ve accidentally ended up with a Southern restaurant just like how I grew up and first learned to cook, a Southwestern restaurant that’s like what I did in Arizona and LA, and my Boston type of food is at The Tip Tap.
How are their personalities different?
The Rattlesnake was my first experiment with fun dining and spicy food. It’s over the top. At the Tip Tap, I refine fine dining and that’s where I do my fancy pants cooking. Tip Tap is off the charts, but it’s simple off the charts that focuses more on the flavor of the meats. Estelle’s is a laid back Southern hospitality neighborhood bar.
You turned The Rattlesnake’s rep of “just a bar” into a thriving restaurant. How did that happen?
I credit the support of my partners and driving hard to say I’m going to serve good food here. It was a challenge to see if I could get people to eat there. And we did. I turned around the first six months thinking what am I doing here, then the second six months thinking wow, we’re selling a lot of food. We were doing dishes like quail tacos served in duck fat with black truffle risotto and pumpkin seed salsa with jalapenos. So it’s taking classic styles of cooking that were very South American and turning them into classic bar food. It was a roll of the dice that ended up also resulting in the other two restaurants.
Where does your inspiration come from?
It comes from all places. I did rattlesnake cakes like little crab cakes with rattlesnake meat. The inspiration from that was some drunk guy said, ‘This place would be a lot cooler if you served rattlesnake meat.’ I thought I know how to cook that, got on the phone to Arizona, got the meat and did it.
Part of the reason I enjoy being in the bar industry I’m in right now is that I used to go to bars and write menus. I wrote The Tip Tap room’s menu at BK’s in Revere. I wrote The Rattlesnake menu at Tides in Nahant. Once this woman came in in a tank top with a sunburn and two kids, asking whether they served lime rickeys and I thought to myself—what a great idea, lime rickey vinaigrette. Then a guy came into a bar and talked about how he liked Durgin Park because it’s the only place you can get turkey year-round, so I made turkey tips at The Tip Tap. It just kind of happens if you read a lot and pay attention to what’s around you. Then I also play some of the molecular games and it just happens accidentally.
It’s very much like playing music. When you first learn an instrument, you’re the kid at Best Buy clanging on the keyboards. But you learn other people’s songs, then you start to play, then you start to write your own music. Yes, I flip through all these cooking books, but it’s more about watching for eighth notes and quarter notes that I can throw into the dish. As I get older, I’m finding I’m getting calmer and more refined with it.
Boston’s chefs community is so tight. Have you ever experienced such a close-knit industry?
I haven’t. When I was in Arizona I was lucky to have met some people who would let me into their kitchens to play around, but you would often feel a little edge to it. Here, you could pretty much walk in and just be like, ‘What’s up man.’ I’m very aware and proud of what they’re doing.
Your wife Cristiana is from Brazil, home to some amazing culinary flavors. Does she have any influence?
She’s got a great influence on me. I did a feijoada (Brazil’s famous dish of pork and beans) puree with a bacon-wrapped chicken that I put on the menu when I first got to The Rattlesnake. Then it’s little things. For instance, she and her friends go to BJs and buy buckets of quinoa, so I though that I would do quinoa. She lets me cook and she likes it, so I cook at home.
Flying down to Brazil of course makes a difference. In 2008, I took the year off and went to Chili, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil twice, so it was again just letting yourself relax and go. Food is everywhere, so you can pick up ideas everywhere.
Also a lot about food is what you’re experiencing when you’re eating it. It’s everything that comes with it that makes it taste better. I was going to do an empanada tasting at The Rattlesnake – empanadas from Brazil, Chili, Peru and Mexico—but a lot of it is the actual experience of standing there looking at Matu Pitu or standing on the side of the road at a food stand. That’s where I began to do my own thing with it. For instance, we have a baked brie at Tip Tap that I made that into an empanada at The Rattlesnake.
How did you come up with your famous Poe Burger?
Daniel Boulud had done his Boulud burger. It was like $100 back then. I was just playing around and ended up folding in ground Kobe beef, foie gras and truffles with lobster meat and cooked that, topped it with whiskey bacon, foie gras truffle butter and avocado. It was a fun burger. We just took it off the menu and I’m moving it around.
(CF) I’m going to have a lot of friends who are upset to hear that the Poe Burger is gone.
Don’t worry. It’s coming back! The fun thing now is that I can move dishes around. The chalkboard at Tip Tap has become like a test kitchen. The other day I made a kangaroo asada with a charred poblano puree, which is now my carne asada at The Rattlesnake. Things moves around. I did a dueling banjos type thing when I did Estelle’s fried chicken with my gravy over at the Tip Tap Room, collard greens that were braised down in whiskey bacon and then put them over Cajun smoked pork belly. There’s an outlet for everything. We can make it up over at The Rattlesnake, and figure out that it fits better at Tip Tap.
The Tip Tap just had it’s first birthday. How does that make you feel, proud papa?
It has been the most incredible year. I opened two restaurants and I’ve met so many great people in this neighborhood and in the South Dnd. It’s been an amazing experience. I feel like I’ve gotten a restaurant degree in the past year. But there’s so much more to learn.
(CF) You certainly haven’t slowed down.
I don't want to slow down. About a month and a half before I opened The Tip Tap Room, I said to my wife, ‘Honey, once I get this restaurant open I promise I’ll settle down.’ She said, ‘I’ve known you for seven years, and you aren’t going to settle down.’ I was like, ‘OK, good you understand me.’ I’ve found what I love. I’ve always loved cooking. All these notes pads in my office are still ideas going. It used to be, ‘Oh, I’ll save that idea for elsewhere.’ Now it’s like, ‘Let’s do that idea here.’ I don't consider it work. This is just fun.