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Hibiscus Chef Brent Hammer on Dish-Washing in a Suit, Vegas and the Blessing of Food TV

Chef Brent Hammer at Hibiscus
Chef Brent Hammer at Hibiscus

Chef Brent Hammer started his cooking career all because of a slight misunderstanding, in what turned out to be one of longest night of his life washing dishes at a restaurant in Milwaukee. The fast pace of the kitchen lured him in, and soon he began the career path that eventually led him to a hotel just off the Vegas strip, Westside Tavern in Los Angeles and, two years ago, to Dallas, where he's worked for Fireside Pies in Fort Worth, The Porch and Hibiscus.

We sat down with Hammer for this week's Three-Course Meal interview.

I read you got pantsed working as a chef in Milwaukee as retribution for sassing a boss? Yes, I was really young when that happened.

Do you pants here a lot? No, I try not to pants.

Don't you think it could be an effective motivational tool? No. Standing in the middle of a pre-shift with a sauté pan in both hands and nothing but an apron on in front of 18 servers was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life. I had never been so grateful to have on an apron; otherwise I would have been about as naked as the day I was born. I was mentally scarred by it.

How did you get into cooking? I went to college for three weeks and I realized that it wasn't the way I tend to learn. I'm not a big fan of sitting or of classrooms, so I quit and went home and my mom told me that if I was going to live there I had to pay rent. But I quickly decided that if I was going to pay rent, it was going to be for my own place.

So I got a job at a restaurant and thought I would be a server, so I went out and got a suit. When I showed up to my first day of work, in my suit, they asked me if I wanted to work a full 40-hour week. I said, "Yes, I need to pay rent." So they took me back to the dish pit and I washed dishes in my suit until 2 a.m. It was one of the worst nights ever.

That's a pretty miserable mix-up. I didn't really understand the industry at the time. Someone later explained to me that I could have worked 20 hours a week as a server and made significantly more money than 40 hours in the kitchen.

I woke up the next day and told myself there was no way I was going back there. But, I'm not much of a quitter so, I went back the next night and the chef helped me out a bit, but he also told me I only had until midnight to get it all done.

That night I remember taking a minute and looking up and down the line and I loved the pace, the control and I loved how much focus was required. I remember thinking about the camaraderie of the guys one the line.

You eventually worked your way out of the dishwasher pit? Yes. At the time restaurants weren't really a vogue job, this was before the Food Network, so often people would just disappear and I took their job. Then I began learning my way around the kitchen. I remember most of the jobs I had prior, an eight-hour day would seem like a 25-hour day. But in a restaurant the time would just fly by.

Aside from the mechanics, how did you learn to love food? I tend to get obsessed about everything. I've always figured if I'm going to be somewhere I'm going to succeed. But, also it was that someone took me aside and taught me how to hold a knife and how to chop. The work always has to be done well. I like standards. I like the fact that it's about more than just getting your work done, but getting it done perfectly. I obsessed about it almost immediately.

The good thing about food is that it never stops teaching you lessons.

 

Where did you cook prior to moving to Dallas two years ago? I was in Wisconsin for my formative years, opened one hotel and took over another. One was in Laverne and Shirley a lot, which they pronounced as the "P-fister," but is really the Pfister. Then, Hotel Phillips in Kansas City, Missouri. After that I went to the Platinum in Las Vegas.

How was working and living Las Vegas? People love it or hate it. I was grateful that our hotel wasn't too big -- by Las Vegas standards anyway. And we didn't have gaming. If you zipped up the strip in Las Vegas and made it all go away, it would be a lot like living in Scottsdale. There are some cool neighborhoods. But if someone asked me to go back today, absolutely not. The city just doesn't have any soul. Dallas, Kansas City, New York, San Francisco and New Orleans all have old souls, but Las Vegas is so transient that it almost doesn't know who it is.

Then we ended up in L.A. and wound up at the Westside Tavern for about a year and a half and Tristan (of the Consilient Group) was always in my ear about coming out here. Then, after my wife got pregnant with our second child, Dallas started to look more appealing with the cost of living standards.

What do you think about the Dallas food scene? I think it's great. It's coming up now and there are a lot of chefs doing what I think are the right things. Much like other cities, it's maturing. That's one thing I didn't like about Las Vegas was that we had a lot of restaurants with a lot of flash and no substance. I think the restaurant here have substance. Some are bordering on or have reached iconic status and it just needs to keep going.

What about the Dallas diner? As compared to L.A. where the diners are very fussy, here the customers are easier. I think people that come to this restaurant do so to be a little bit of escapist to leave it all behind -- enjoy the food, their company, the atmosphere and the music. For the most part I don't think their palates are any more or less sophisticated then anywhere else.

Are there any food trends in Dallas you particularly like? I like the fact that John Tesar opened a burger restaurant. I like that it's a simple food that's been knocked off a thousand times, but there are places devoted to doing it really well. I also like the fact that a lot of restaurants are leaning towards comfort and warmth in terms of their atmosphere and serving great food.

What are some of your favorite local places? B.B. Bopp, it's a small place on Greenville. Maple and Motor. La Picosa on Spring Valley for tacos. And I realize I'm plugging one of our own restaurants, but I love The Porch.

What would you like to see less of in Dallas? In terms of food trends, it all kind of comes and goes. People stay the course when they're focused just on good food. Like the Grape, the food is simple but it's awesome.

 

How has reality TV changed dining? Personally I think it's great. People rail on the Food Network all the time, I don't watch it, but I'm grateful for it because it took my career to another level. It matured our industry and made people want to be chefs.

Because people understood the job more? I think it just became interesting. My mom's reaction 18 years ago when I told her I wanted to be a chef was "no." I remember the first kitchen staff I ever worked with, there were a lot of undesirable elements on our staff and it wasn't all that professional. It was kind of a career that was catchall: maybe you work hard, maybe you don't, maybe you show up, maybe you don't. People made a decent living doing it. Then you get the Food Network and culinary schools are booming. Same thing like Top Chef, I think it's a great show, people are connecting and seeing what's going on. They like the intensity.

I wonder what this industry would have ever been like if not for the Food Network. For example, would I have ever had health insurance as a chef? It legitimized our profession.

You've mentioned that when you were younger and traveled more, you would save up for weeks to splurge on a really upscale dinner. What were some of your favorites? The French Laundry, Charlie Trotters in the late '90's and Gramercy Tavern.

Any big disappointments? I really don't like to bad-talk other restaurants. It's possible that the restaurant was just having an off day. I've definitely had some experiences that I was incredibly excited about that didn't nearly live up to my expectations. At the end of the day, I learned a lot from those letdowns. The most important thing is this: I've returned to each of my favorites a number of times, and will never return to the others. Which teaches us that we really often only get one shot at pleasing the people that walk through the door, and that our restaurant is only as good as the last meal we serve. If someone's first experience here doesn't meet or exceed their expectations, it's unlikely that we will ever get the opportunity to serve them again.


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