Interview with Chef Thomas McNaughton of flour + water
Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Thomas McNaughton: I was actually 14 years old [when I] started to wash dishes. Being in the kitchen was the only job I could get at the time. The inspiration came from there; I wanted to hang out with the cool kids behind the line. Throughout high school I got more and more into it. I started to work at better jobs, and started to move up in country clubs in New Jersey; it went from there.
KM: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
TM: I actually went to The Culinary Institute of America—the two-year program—and half way through I started to talk with the La Folie chef about doing an externship there. The program was full at the time and not accepting any new restaurants so he said, “Why don’t you leave school and come work for me? You can leave school and come back any time.” I worked for him about a year then decided to go back and finish school.
KM: Do you hire chefs with and without culinary school backgrounds?
TM: I definitely do, but you need to have experience before you go to culinary school. You need to go out there and have your butt kicked and get a sense of how kitchens work—you absorb so much more from culinary school [if you do that first]. At culinary school you shouldn’t be learning to hold a knife for the first time. Kids get out of high school, watch the Food Network, and say, “This will be cool.” Then five years down the line they say, “What the hell did I do?”
KM: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
TM: I worked the whole time during culinary school. I had a full-time job 45 minutes south of the school, so didn’t get too much sleep at the time. I staged a lot at Gary Danko and built a relationship with him. Before I left to go back to school, I said “do you think there would be a position here when I come back?” and he said “absolutely.” I worked there for a year and a half. Then I went to Quince, worked there for about a year, and [then I] went to Europe. I staged at Michel Rostang in Paris and then at a small restaurant in Italy. I came back and ran Gary Danko’s kitchen as sous chef for almost two years.
After that I went back to Europe and worked in Munich, Germany at Tantris, the first three-star Michelin restaurant in Germany. I went back to Michel Rostang for a little while then I spent time in Bologna at a salumeria and pasta laboratory called Bruno e Franco. That’s when I started to talk to my two partners at flour + water about opening a restaurant together. I worked with one of them, David White, at Quince. He worked front of the house and we had this relationship. [At the time] I didn’t know the other partner David Steel. I was very standoffish when I came back to States and said I didn’t want to be partners just in case; but we hit it off, decided to become partners, and have been busy ever since.
KM: What advice would you offer to young chefs who are just getting started?
TM: Even when you run someone else’s kitchen you realize how hard it is to run your own place. It’s always 10 times harder than you think it’s going to be [and] you need to have a passion for it. You can’t work in the end for a paycheck—it has to be something that draws you every day. There are long hours, it’s not easy work, and it can take a toll on you. I don’t think anything in this industry happens overnight, you have to put in the time.
KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
TM: In particular [at flour + water] we talk about flow; we try to take every ounce of pretension out of food and dining. We’re trying to bring the high-end food and dining experience to people who can afford it, and trying to keep the price point as low as possible. We’re trying to bring awareness to the general public about how good food can be. That’s the mission statement here. We only work with small, local farms, we only use whole animals, and we are trying to get back to Old World ways.
KM: What goes into creating a new dish?
TM: I’ve worked for so many people, but the number one thing for me is that the entire kitchen here has an inspiration. Our menu changes every day and we talk about everything [so that everyone on our staff] has a sense of themselves in the dish. That’s really important to me. You can’t stop thinking. Once someone just repeats something, they’re not pushing themselves or thinking about food. Once we master something here, it comes off the menu. We ask ourselves, “What’s the next challenge?”
KM: You served us an entire wild boar menu. Tell me about your hunting practices.
TM: We work with small farms and I have farmer friends that I want to support. Some of it is illegal to bring in. It’s just a big connection. We’ll have greens on our menu that our goat was eating a month ago. We take cooks hunting for wild boar. It’s important to me because it comes full circle—the box doesn’t show up cryovaced. It’s more labor intensive.
KM: If there was one thing you could do again or do over in your career what would it be?
TM: I love traveling abroad and working abroad. I think it did a lot for me as a person. I’d definitely do it again, as soon as I have some time away from the restaurant. That’s my vacation! I would say a lot of young cooks think everyone has to go abroad, but it’s not true. It’s more of a life experience then a culinary experience. I have a young cook in the kitchen who doesn’t think he’ll be a good cook until he goes to France. He’s inexperienced and doesn’t speak the language, but if you have that kitchen sense you’ll be OK. A lot of young cooks don’t have that kitchen sense. One thing I would change [is that] I came out to San Francisco very blindly. I’m from New Jersey and I think I would have tried to stick around the East Coast a little longer—I just had a niece yesterday, that kind of thing. Now that I’m here, I’m stuck.
KM: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career?
TM: Definitely opening this restaurant. For me, just opening a place in a terrible economic time, and saying, “We have this game plan,” but we didn’t expect anything. We took it as a learning experience. It’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We opened on a dime budget with a few employees, and me and the other partner were putting nails in the walls and designing the kitchen. In a lot of ways we did it the hard way, but we didn’t have the money to do it the easy way. It made us what we are today as a restaurant. Nine months down the line to get a James Beard nomination is nuts. You don’t expect some things.
KM: What does success mean for you? Where will we find you in five years?
TM: Hopefully in five years I’ll be able to have a dog and take care of him. The biggest change for me is that I always wanted to be the badass line cook, the guy there for 14 or 15 hours a day with scars on their arms, the tortured chef who sees every single plate. Just maturing and growing up, I’m realizing that there are other things in life that don’t coincide with that. I want a family and a dog.
We just took out three new leases down the street for three very small new businesses. One will be a restaurant, Central Kitchen. One will be a commissary housing a pastry department, curing rooms, and production kitchen and we will do dinners a couple of days a week. There will be three long communal tables and we’ll do two seatings a night with set menus; they will be themed dinners with guest chefs. The salumeria will offer cured meats, cheeses, sandwiches, antipastas, and spit-roasted meats. The last will be a full-service bar with artisanal cocktails and a small food program. Everything will be in full connection with this neighborhood.