Host Chef Brad Parsons of Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park of Fairmont Chicago, Millenium Park

Host Chef Brad Parsons of Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park of Fairmont Chicago, Millenium Park
April 2011

Growing up outside San Francisco, with its farmers’ markets aplenty, Brad Parsons picked up an appreciation for food culture from an early age. Then, at age 9, Parsons ate at Alan Wong’s Restaurant on a family trip to Honolulu. This experience proved a formative one—Parsons began to cultivate a love for sushi and pan-Asian cuisine, and years later, he sought out Wong as a mentor.

Parsons earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Northern Arizona University, and after his first kitchen job, Parsons enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation, Parsons scored a spot on the line at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Napa Valley. After a year, he decided to pursue his dream of working for Alan Wong, who proved difficult to secure as a mentor. Parsons bought a ticket to Honolulu and showed up at the famed chef’s restaurant with no promise of work. Parsons auditioned for a stage, and once he proved a willing student, the stage developed into employment. Parsons’ next move was to a legendary Chicago kitchen, where he was schooled in Rick Tramonto’s special brand of finesse at Tru.

As executive chef of Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park, Parsons develops menus for the hotel’s restaurants: Aria, Aria Bar and Sushi, and Eno Wine Room. He also manages high-volume local catering, banquets, and room service. His appreciation for Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and South American cuisines inspires his global cuisine. His own blossoming advocacy of locally grown and seasonal ingredients has inspired Parsons to take his kitchen crew on field trips to the Green City Market, and together he and his team have started an herb garden on the roof of the hotel, just one of many green projects this prodigious chef is sure to undertake.

Interview with Chef Brad Parsons of Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park - Chicago, IL

Jessica Dukes: Describe the extent of your F&B Operation here. Do you do catering, banquets, and room service?

Brad Parsons: I do everything. Local catering, large groups, I do all groups that come in. There are the banquets of up to 1300 people, room service—typically we do over 3000 to 4000 room service covers per month. The size of my kitchen staff is roughly 55, which includes five chefs and myself.

JD: Describe the relationship between the hotel and dining rooms. Are most guests hotel guests?

BP: For breakfast, most of the guests are hotel guests. Lunch and dinner are primarily local clientele. We are gearing our restaurant toward outside guests and not just hotel guests. The hotel is unique, in that we’ve put a door in the front driveway that leads into the bar, so you can walk directly into the restaurant, which gives it more of a restaurant-feel. Chef Beverly [Kim-Clark] consults with me and we empower her to make any necessary changes at the hotel restaurants. And our sushi team is also very well trained and creative.

JD: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?

BP: My grandma was the inspiration. She would always cook for us, and no matter what it was, I could always tell that love was going into the food and she was cooking from her heart, and that’s what inspired me. I grew up about an hour north of San Francisco, in a part of the country that loved food and loved farmers’ markets. A lot is centered around food in that area of the country, way back before it became really popular. My mother and I would go out to eat once a week when I was in high school and we both really started getting into sushi. I decided on hospitality school [Northern Arizona University] in Arizona because there weren’t a lot of choices when I started out, and I wanted to get out of California and explore.

JD: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire people with and without a culinary degree?

BP: If they’ve gone to culinary school that’s great, but I’m more concerned about how they work. Everybody who comes in does a stage before they’re hired. In four to five hours, [so] I look for something—it may sound odd—but I look for how they’re going to work. I ask them to go into the produce cooler and grab a cucumber and see how fast they walk across the kitchen, and their sense of urgency and intensity. I watch their hand motions. Typically, I have them peel about 10 onions, and watch how fast their hands work and watch their cleanliness with the onions. In the interview process, I always ask one question. I learned this from Alan Wong. What’s the most important thing to them? Is it education, skill, or teamwork? Of course the right answer is teamwork. I can teach them anything else, whatever they’d learn in school. Teamwork is an attitude and a mentality; if they don’t embrace it then they’ll never be a part of the team. It doesn’t matter which culinary school they go to; it’s about the attitude. It’s about learning about food and embracing the kitchen mentality.

JD: Did you do an internship or an externship while at school?

BP: I did an externship at Commander's Palace [in New Orleans]. I learned about hard work. We did 800 covers at lunch, 800 covers at dinner. I learned about time management, and the food quality was very good. You’re sunk if don’t know how to manage time. Jamie Shannon would say ‘Trying is not good enough.’ He wanted to know why the sorbet was being scooped too slow. I said I was doing the best I can. In so many words, Chef Jamie told me that that wasn’t good enough. The way he delivered it to me, I learned it instantaneously. A great mentor.

JD: What advice would you give to young chefs just starting out?

BP: To learn two words: ‘Yes chef.’ It’s really important. There’s a lot of people who come out of culinary school…it’s almost a quotation in the industry: ‘When I worked for Chef Jim I learned it this way; at school I learned it this way.’ The more skills you can acquire the better you’re going to become.

JD: You worked at Bouchon for a time. What skills did you acquire there?

BP: Bouchon equals technique. There were two sous chefs who had come down from The French Laundry. Bouchon was Thomas Keller’s first branching off, and he was drawing from a pretty high talent pool out there.

JD: And you worked under Chef Alan Wong. What did you take from that experience?

BP: I ate his food when I was nine years old, on a trip to Honolulu with my family. After Bouchon, I was super interested in learning about wine, and about regional cuisine, and about learning from one of the masters out there. Alan Wong’s Restaurant taught me humility. I had to pay rent, and had to pay my way for a stage. And it wasn’t a job; it started as a stage. Wong told me that if I wanted to come out I’d have to pay my way and then he’d see. His kitchen staff taught me really quickly what they expected from me in that kitchen, even though I’d come out with maybe a little attitude—I’d just come from a Thomas Keller kitchen! I just immersed myself in learning about the food and cooking. By the time I left, the staff and I had grown to have a great level of respect for each other. It was definitely a life lesson.

JD: Can you tell me a little bit about what you took from your experience at Tru?

BP: At Tru, I learned finesse, and what it takes to run a four-star restaurant in Chicago. From line cook to manager, I got to see all aspects of that restaurant. Chris Pandel was there at that time; Graham Elliot was there. Alex Stupak was a line cook there at the time. There were some intimidating and talented cooks, and everything was done to perfection. There was absolutely lots of competition; that’s what made it so great. It was friendly competition; everybody pushed each other to be better than they thought they could be.

JD: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?

BP: There are a lot of fine dining chefs opening more comfort food diners, like Graham’s sandwich place, Rick Bayless, Thomas Keller’s ad hoc…chefs opening restaurants and serving the foods that they eat every day. Not every day are you eating 000 Iranian caviar, truffles, and foie gras. We want braised short ribs, and really casual food that chefs would eat. Chris Pandel is really into this. The whole comfort food thing is really just things that [while] working in the kitchen you can wrap up and take two bites. Chefs typically don’t have too much time.