Interview with Chef Barton Seaver of Café St Ex and Bar Pilar– Washington, D.C.

December 13

Tejal Rao: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Barton Seaver: Cooking was a part of my family tradition. We always had a home-cooked family meal, seven days a week. After spending about twenty minutes in college, I realized that I needed something more physical and more creative. Cooking really made sense to me.

TR: Did you attend culinary school? Why or why not? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today?
BS: I went straight to restaurants and then later went to the Culinary Institute of American for three and a half years. I knew I wanted to be there and what I was getting myself into. I recommend that approach.

TR: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
BS: Corky Clark and Thoman Schneller from the CIA. Their attention to detail and appreciation of products really inspired me. While I was teaching a fish class under Corky I had experience using endless species of fish. I had access to the whole fish market and I had the opportunity to taste so many interesting products.

TR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
BS: I believe very much in a high quality of ingredients treated very simply by the chef. I would say I have a more feminine approach to cooking; a celebration of ingredients as they are, dressed up to fit the bill of the restaurant, rather than manipulated to fit my role as the creator. About 90 percent of my produce comes from family farms because I think it’s a chef’s responsibility to record and pass on gastronomic culture and tradition through his cooking, just like doctors and other professionals pass on their knowledge.

TR: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
BS: Pumpkin — I am really big on this pumpkin season. Radishes are awesome right now. I get them from a farm on Chesapeake Bay and serve them with olive oil. I use Arbequina olive oil from Spain. Spanish oils are very well-balanced and so luxurious on the palate.

TR: What flavor combinations do you favor?
BS: I love lemon with parsley and garlic to finish dishes. I don’t use any stock at all in my kitchen! I don’t use cream. I don’t use butter. I don’t have any crutches, so to speak; the food has just got to be cooked right. I often use garlic, chili flakes, and shallots to begin dishes. I like classic flavor combinations used in a non-classic way. I love throwing anchovies into things, to enhance the flavors already there. And I use smoke-infused water instead of stock for depth of flavor.

TR: How do you make your smoke-infused water?
BS: It began as a byproduct from cold smoking salmon. One day I tasted the ice from the cold smoking process and it was full of a delicate smoke flavor. It’s non-toxic, non-chemical, really soft, sweet and pleasant. I started using the water to cook lentils and sweet potatoes so I didn’t need bacon or stock. Vegetarians were sending it back saying, “You put bacon in there!” And I had to assure them it is 100% vegetarian.

TR: Where do you eat?
BS: At an El Salvadorian joint called Pupuseria San Miguel. For $7 you can stuff your face with consistent food. I’ve been eating tacos de lengua and pupusas del revueltas with pork and cheese for 15 years.

TR: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
BS: The wood grill allows for such simplicity in preparation because of the amazing flavor it imparts. I really do sit down and eat my food. I am so accustomed to eating food off the wood grill that when I eat something cooked over gas, I can taste the fuel. It’s a flavor I’m not used to and I appreciate the smoked flavor much more. I also enjoy the traditional aspect of cooking on wood. Before we had gas, everything was prepared over wood.

TR: Can you talk a bit about black pepper?
BS: I had a cook once whose overuse of black pepper was absolutely intolerable. So, it occurred to me, why does this guy use so much pepper? I think we just take it for granted, that it goes in everything. I find in some kitchens the use of pepper is habitual, rather than an intentional addition to the flavor of the dish. I tend to use chili flake instead because I think it infuses with a dish better, it’s not so overwhelming.

TR: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
BS: What the hell do you think you’re doing? No, not really. My interviews tend to be very personal. I like to ask then what they’re reading. I’m looking for someone who’s aware. When people read it shows a willingness to learn and learning should be a habitual process. You don’t have to read Hemmingway, Proust or Julia Child. Stephen King is fine too. It’s amazing how much you learn about food reading non-food books.

TR: What are your favorite cookbooks?
BS: Sunday Suppers at Lucque’s is phenomenal. Jeremiah Tower Cooks is unbelievable! He’s obviously sitting there writing it. He goes on and on, ending up with 15 variations on everything. That’s real cooking. I enjoy all of Elizabeth David’s books. She wrote about food, she lived food and had a great prose style. She pushed a lot of boundaries by sharing her anthropological studies of food culture with the world at large. I like Paul Bertoli’s Cooking by Hand. He includes a recipe for something that takes 2 ½ years! That takes courage!

TR: What cities do you like for culinary travel?
BS: I was in Piedmonte, Italy for 2 weeks for a Slow Food festival in the countryside. I’d really love to go back to San Francisco; I really respect Incanto and Chez Panisse and Aziza and their chefs for what they are accomplishing. I loved Zuni Cafe. The quality of food in San Francisco is so good even at corner bistros. People really take pride in their food there.

TR: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
BS: I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. I’d like to say still cooking. I have a third restaurant opening in less than a year and I’m seeing myself go more and more towards management. I’d like to see myself coming back to actually dealing with food on a daily basis but still in charge of a restaurant. The art and joy of creativity is in execution and that is where I would like to be focused.