Escoffier Questionnaire: Brad Farmerie of The Thomas
Brad Farmerie is a New York superstar chef, earning a Michelin star four years in a row (2009-2012) at Public. Fortunately for all of us in edible Marin & Wine Country, Farmerie and AvroKO, the New York design and concept firm behind Public, as well as Saxon + Parole, have just brought their many talents to downtown Napa. Last year, Farmerie and AvroKO acquired the former home of Fagiani's, the storied real estate on Napa's Main Street that was rumored to have been stalked by heavy-hitters like Thomas Keller, and set about a major renovation. Just opening as we went to press on this issue, the new restaurant, named The Thomas in homage to name of the building before it was changed to Fagiani's in the 1940s, serves Farmerie's luscious version of rustic California cuisine.
From a Prohibition-era speakeasy to the site of Anita Andrews' 1974 murder, the site is on many dots in Napa's timeline. The conviction of Andrews' murderer just last year brought some closure to the tragedy and the timing is right for a new iteration of 813 Main Street. The newly constructed third floor, offering whole-animal roasting, will also house outdoor seating. Pork-smoke-infused views of the Napa River - sign me up!
Farmerie and his family arrived in Napa this spring and quickly began integrating themselves into the community, even planting a garden plot at the former Copia site that is now in full splendor and gracing the tables at The Thomas. Farmerie's the good kind of outsider: humble, welcoming and talented.
Chef: Brad Farmerie
Restaurant: Public (The Daily), Saxon + Parole (Madam Geneva) and The Thomas
Q. What was your favorite food as a kid?
A. When I was a really little kid I was a huge fan of green Jell-O with canned pears suspended in its limey gelatinous form. When I hit about 10, I was all excited about my "grown up" taste for shrimp (garlic, lemon, parsley) until I got a bit of food poisoning, which killed my new-found affection for shellfish for the better part of 10 years (kinda like my first friendship with Jack Daniel's).
Generally speaking, my most favorite foods from childhood stem from my mother's love of cooking and her Lebanese father: hummus, baba ghanoush, raw kibbeh (raw lamb), toasted pita bread, tabbouleh and grilled lamb.
Q. What was the first meal you made that you were proud of?
A. All things considered, it was pretty recent. The first time I was invited to cook at the James Beard House in 2006, I felt that my food was finally being recognized as something unique and that the 10 years of blood, sweat and lack of sleep was amounting to something.
Q. What three adjectives describe your cuisine?
A. Unique, heartfelt and bold
Q. What book most influences your food, cookbook or otherwise?
A. On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee didn't necessarily influence my food, but my approach to the world of cooking. I got my first copy when I was in culinary school in 1995 and it was inspirational, not just in the science behind cooking but the history that has led to cuisine as we know it. I still have that copy with its wrinkled, dog-eared pages with highlighted text and notes in the margin, and I still credit it as pushing me to learn more about the craft of cooking. The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten redefined food writing for me and inspired the fanatical pursuit of "the best" or "the right" way to do things, not in a scientific way but in a mental/obsessive way (which is sort of how I like to do things!).
The Sugar Club Cookbook by Peter Gordon is the book that probably most influenced the food that I cook. I was working for Peter when he was finishing the book and it was such an incredibly unique addition to the world of cookbooks, much like his cooking was the breath of fresh air that London was looking for in the mid 1990s. The palette of international ingredients and rustic yet beautiful plating style was way ahead of its time and is still a model that I hold in high regard.
Q. What is your favorite ingredient?
A. That might be impossible for me to answer since I have so many. My quick list would be Aleppo chili for seasoning, five spice or straight up star anise a close second, smoked paprika third and fennel pollen making a run for the medals; white miso or olive oil for richness, cilantro for herbs, with herbs de Provence as a runner up; fresh chili or ginger for aromatics, sea urchin and either New Zealand venison (quick cook) or lamb shank (long cook) for meat. How's that for the short answer?
Q. What music do you like to hear when you cook?
A. I like to listen to a wide range of stuff that can keep the wide range of humans working in the kitchen happy, but its sad to say that I‚Äôm still rocking out to the same stuff I listened to in the '90s. In general I like bands that can vary the speed, like the Beastie Boys, Beck, Fugazi, Pixies and John Spencer Blues Explosion to mix up something hard and fast with punk, rap and general freakiness. Round that out with some mellowish stuff (Built to Spill, Pavement), heavy stuff (Jesus Lizard, Primus) and old man rock (Hendrix, Black Sabbath).
Q. What is your favorite hangover meal?
A. If I'm really hurting and can't see straight I always crave pasta aglio e olio (olive oil, Parmesan, garlic and chili flakes), even if it's 10am. If I'm getting a later start and can actually leave the house to face the day I would go for a spicy laksa.
Q. What is your favorite midnight snack?
A. Spicy tripe stew with a runny egg served in The Daily next to Public. I tend to indulge at least two or three times a week.
Q. What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
A. All of the restaurants I am dying to try are places that friends of mine own but I haven't gotten to yet: Ollie Dabbous's place Dabbous and The Modern Pantry (Anna Hansen) in London; Esquina in Singapore (Andy Walsh); and The Country Cat (the hilarious Adam Sappington) in Portland.
Q. What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
A. I've answered this question many times but I think I always answered it incorrectly. I just recently wrote up a list of equip- ment to buy for The Thomas, and I found myself double and triple checking on the blue steel sauté pans and the electric scales (which I take with me when I travel for work). Neither one is expensive, yet I find them indispensable.
Q. Whom do you most like to cook for?
A. I love cooking for my wife and kids. The kids have recently found the power of "no," but at least my wife still likes what I make.
Q. If you could do one other job, what would it be?
A. Travel photographer
Q. What do you most value in a sous-chef?
A. Integrity, attention to detail, the ability to put up with me and a good sense of humor
Q. What is your favorite guilty-pleasure treat?
A. Fresh bread from the oven and amazing cheese
Q. What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
A. I'm not that into sweets, but I still seem to take more than my fair share of the ice cream in my house...
Q. What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
A. Probably some disgusting indulgence like a whole Thanks- giving meal (made by my mother, of course) or a dry-aged rib eye followed by some chocolate death bomb dessert with lashings of ice cream. Might be the only time you could get crazy without the food hangover or guilt?
Q. Cheeseburger or foie gras?
A. Cheeseburger every time. I have indulged in more than my fair share of foie gras, but a cheeseburger is a timeless, every week indulgence.
Q. What's your favorite place to go (and what is your favorite thing to order) for... ... happy hour?
A. I think the last time I went to happy hour was 1995 in Pittsburgh, so I am no expert on this ritual.
... a splurge meal?
A. A few weeks ago I went to Meadowood and the whole experience was spectacular, with a relaxed feel to the space and service that genuinely made me feel like a welcome guest in someone‚Äôs home. The food really was inspired and just downright delicious, with a corn soup as one of the highlights. I also like that they have a well-priced wine list with quirky-cool options. The whole dinner was pretty badass.
I want to make sure that I get to Cyrus soon but I don't know how many of these splurge menus my credit card can take. [Editor's Note: Farmerie better get there quickly, as Douglas Keane and Nick Peyton, the owners of Healdsburg's Cyrus, have recently sold the assets of the restaurant (but not the name) to the owners of the adjacent hotel property. At the end of October, Keane and Peyton will no longer operate Cyrus at its current location. The two had not announced their future plans as of press time, but stay tuned - we'll keep you posted when we hear.]
A. I always have a great time when we load up the kids and head to the Fremont Diner - the kids can run around while my wife, Jocelyn, and I can have a relaxed bite in relative peace and quiet, eating up their biscuits and gravy.
I haven't gotten to Zazu yet, but it's on my "to do" list for brunch and dinner. I met Duskie [Estes] and John [Stewart] through Cochon 555 and have heard lots of great stuff about their place, so I will definitely be dining there in the next few weeks.
Last but not least (shameless self-promotion here), I'm pretty excited about the brunch that we are putting together to serve at The Thomas-tons of morning tipples, corn and saffron pancakes with blueberry syrup, banana and Nutella- stuffed French toast and homemade black pudding. Yum...
... a late-night/after-work meal?
A. In NYC it's hard to beat Blue Ribbon. I always order the same stuff: a dozen oysters, foie gras terrine, bone marrow with oxtail marmalade, and sometimes steak tartare. Just what you need to be ingesting at midnight. Around here I have had some great "later" meals courtesy of the crew at Morimoto, our neighbors in downtown Napa. They draw a pretty big crowd into the later hours and have such an addictive array of bites to go with the booze - I vaguely recall a "couch slider?" Too many sips of sake...
At The Thomas we want to try to generate the late night feel that Blue Ribbon has, serving super tasty, addictive food until late.
... a cup of coffee?
A. I pop into Model Bakery (at Oxbow Public Market) for a coffee every now and then, mostly so I can also have one of their amazing English muffins while I'm drinking it.
... kitchen equipment?
A. For the practical:
Korin - can't beat the sabres that they carry. I like the Masamoto sushi knives and western-style chef's knives and the Misono boning knife, which is as beautiful as it is practical.
For the stunning yet less practical:
Heritage Culinary Artifacts in Napa's Oxbow Public Market or Culinaire in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza Building for historical coolness.
Q. And lastly but not leastly ... what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
A. This summer I am in Napa, so I'm still in the process of adjusting my drinking indulgence to the local liquid. Generally speaking I'm a sucker for unique white wine varietals, so I've taken a shine to a small winery just five minutes from my house called Trouchard, which makes a delicious Rousanne. My wife loves it, too, so we always have a bottle in the fridge. Also on my summer wine line up is the super freaky/kinda funky wine from Marin County's Kalin Cellars, like their current release 1999 Semillon, the Robert Sinskey Abraxas Vin de Terroir which I hadn't had before I moved here, and Sinskey's Vin Gris Rose, too, and an old favorite of mine - Failla Pinot Noir, which is always a bit of a treat to drink.
We're also working with Sonoma Springs Brewery to develop a beer for The Thomas, so I have been drinking more than my fair share of their brews. Lagunitas is just a stone's throw away and I'm also digging the Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale this summer. Call me crazy.