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Hitchcock's Brendan McGill Talks Business on Bainbridge, Achieving Zen

Forget YOLO: The chef, who's set to host FareStart's next Guest Chef Night, makes every moment count
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Alaska native Brendan McGill has worked in restaurants since he was 14. The first dollar he earned on a payroll was at a small eatery owned by family friends. "I washed dishes, prepped vegetables, cleaned windows and bathrooms," he says. "But as I grew up, so did my restaurant gigs. Eventually I decided to get a culinary education and really focus on a career as a chef."

And what a career he's had: McGill has served as the executive chef at Pike Place Market's Il Bistro before becoming the chef de partie at The Harvest Vine and eventually moving on as executive chef at Via Tribunali. In 2010, he decided to "follow the food" and open Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island.

"I was drawn to the island to try something different," he says. "It seemed to me that in all the best restaurants in Seattle, naturally the chefs were buying from the most high-quality vendors, which meant that you were getting the same carrots in any number of our high-end restaurants. I visited the island and realized there was a wealth of organic farms that never sold to restaurants before, and we forged great relationships."

The chef and managing partner for Hitchcock Group, which also owns Hitchcock Deli in Georgetown and Shady Acres Farm, has plenty of advice for budding chefs--don't buy into the hype, work on your knife skills, stop idolizing Anthony Bourdain--so it's only appropriate that he'd participate in a culinary program that gives back. On April 30, chef McGill will host the latest installment of FareStart's Guest Chef Night, a Thursday institution in which a local revered chef coaches students to prepare a three-course dinner for almost 300 in the downtown restaurant.

The educational evening is a tradition for McGill, who first participated in 2009 while he was working for Mike McConnell's Caffe Vita and Via Tribunali. "I thought it was a real stand-up move, since I was cooking food that wasn’t really available in the pizzerias or the cafes. The next year when I opened Hitchcock, I was eager to sign up and continue."

McGill's menu for his Guest Chef Night is still TBD, but you should make your reservations ASAP as tables go rather fast. Read on to learn a little bit more about chef McGill in preparation for the delicious food-filled event.

What is the best part of your job?
I have a lot of best parts. I really enjoy the teaching aspect--watching young cooks apprehend skills and become excited by everything classical cookery has to offer. Being able to provide an unforgettable life experience for someone--a wedding, anniversary, proposal dinner--is always an honor. Blowing someone’s mind, in a culinary sense, will never get old. When I get to see “a-ha” moments, from my staff and guests, I feel like I’m doing this for the right reasons.

The most challenging part?
Balancing the nuts and bolts of running a business versus my creative ambitions is a constant challenge. It’s tough to turn a dollar in the restaurant business, especially when you buy organic hogs and heritage geese from idyllic island farms. I always tell myself that I could dumb it down and be profitable more consistently, but I have yet to do that.

What’s the key to surviving in the kitchen?
Taking care of yourself physically is important--get some exercise, eat nutritiously and take it easy on the booze and drugs. In my 20's I could go out every night after work on the way home, but in my mid-30's with a young family, I’m much more interested in raw juice and a sober night’s rest than seeing/being seen at the bar.

I tell my younger cooks often that their lives will be easier if they get in some sort of steady romantic arrangement. Chasing the hostesses around after work is fun and all, but you can’t push yourself in the kitchen if you’re hung over and/or distracted. The rigors and stress of the kitchen naturally lead to easing the pain with all sorts of substances, and being unleashed on the city, ready to rage, at midnight or 1 a.m. is a recipe for lifestyle disaster.

Mentally, I work to achieve some sort of zen, almost a transcendental meditation, when things get busy. You can be exposed to so much stress that at some point it’s not stressful anymore, and you become an observer… almost an out-of-body experience. The samurai contemplated the paradox of the sword and the chrysanthemum: murderous warriors achieving a zen-like state in a manicured flower garden, then taking that mental state into life or death battle.

Name your three favorite places to eat out in Seattle right now.
I’m almost always eating on the run when I’m in Seattle these days: business lunch, or a quickie on the way to/from the ferry boat. If I had to pick three current favorites, I’d say Il Corvo, Le Caviste and Juicebox.

How does the island influence the way you do business?
Business on the island is unique. It is very seasonal, which is a challenge. We work with many, many different producers, all of whom have different harvest dates and different styles of communication. Staffing has been a little harder than usual, either coaxing staff to commute from Seattle, or trying to find cooks and servers with experience in this caliber of restaurant.

At its best, I can harvest food from our own farming property, then swing by an oyster bed on my way to work, where I may see my friends and neighbors in the deli, have myself a perfect shot of espresso before butchering a hog raised by my friend, or tucking into some fresh ducks. The truck pulls up from Neah Bay with fish fresh off the boats. It’s the sort of the scene that could only take place in an agricultural community; ours just happens to be tethered to downtown Seattle by a short ferry ride.

What’s your favorite dish right now at Hitchcock?
It’s super-simple and totally representative: pork rillettes, confit sirloin of island Mangalitsa hog, set in a terrine with a gelatin layer and a lovely fat cap. Served with our raw-fermented sour dill pickles, whey-fermented mustard, and sourdough toast from the wood-fired hearth.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Save a little money; get one step ahead. Don’t go into debt for clothes and cars, don’t spend your money on interest and penalties.

The worst?
YOLO. People say it like, since you only live once, you should just not give a f*ck about how you act. I feel like it’s the opposite; like, you only live once, so make it count.

What one celebrity would you love to have dinner with?
Jay-Z, all day. He's one of my personal heroes.

What advice do you have for budding chefs?

Don’t buy into the hype machine too much. First, really work on your knife skills, and work on mastering classical methodology before worrying too much about hydrocolloids and sous-vide cookery. There are lots of cooks out there who can’t properly braise a shank, running around trying to do encapsulations. In other words, before you mess around with gelatin clarifications, learn how to make consommé properly--the old school way--clarifying with a raft of albumen, ground meat and aromatic vegetables.

Also, when I started cooking we didn’t have access via the Internet to all the information about all the Michelin-starred restaurants across the world, and I think that helped to some degree. Young cooks seem to know everything about what goes on in Eleven Madison Park and El Bulli kitchens (from watching Mind of a Chef or some digital shorts) but they haven’t yet figured out how to plate salad nicely or shuck an oyster correctly. Now people plan on being famous television chefs, or break themselves staging for 10 years across the world, only to find themselves employable on the bottom of the ladder still, making just over minimum wage.

Bottom line, make sure you are cooking for the right reason--respect the craft, always work on doing everything a little better and a little quicker each time, forever. Be humble, watch your attitude; don’t fall into martyrdom or frustration. The biggest downfall of professional cooks: hyper-emotionalism, followed by drunken outbursts. Keep your head in the game.

Read the biographies of real chefs: Jacques Pepin, Bernard Louiseau; stop idolizing Anthony Bourdain.

Finally, read books. Not just cookbooks. Read books about food, food history, foraging, gardening, culture surrounding food.

What did you want to be when you were 5 years old?
When I was five? I don’t know, probably a ninja!