“Why Feeding People is a Privilege” with Chef Tony Baker

The food industry is way more rewarding than I could have expected it to be. Feeding people is a privilege — guests choosing to dine with you and part with their hard earned dollar is humbling and should never be taken for granted. Guests would often want to chat in the dining room, and when […]

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The food industry is way more rewarding than I could have expected it to be. Feeding people is a privilege — guests choosing to dine with you and part with their hard earned dollar is humbling and should never be taken for granted. Guests would often want to chat in the dining room, and when I was able, I was more than happy to oblige.

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Executive Chef Tony Baker. He began his career in England before making the jump to the states in 1994 as part of the Downtown Dining Group. For over 25 years, Chef Tony was the executive chef at Montrio Bistro in Monterey, California.

During his tenure at Montrio, Tony demonstrated his commitment to sustainable ingredients and local purveyors. Montrio is consistently voted “Best Restaurant in Monterey” by local readers polls. Chef Tony can also often be found offering up his talents for local causes and community events.

Unable to find bacon that met his high standards for freshness and ingredients, Chef Tony Baker founded his own brand in 2011. Baker’s Bacon began with a partnership between long time smoke master and bacon expert Steve Sacks at Prime Smoked Meats in Oakland, California. Baker and Sacks worked together for over a year experimenting with cures until they settled on the recipe that is still in use today. The goal was and is to make real bacon — Bacon The Way It’s Supposed To Be!

Chef Tony’s awards and accolades are extensive including the United Fresh Produce Excellence award in fine dining, the American Culinary Federation’s 2018 Chef of the Year award, Edible Magazine’s Chef of the Year and many others. Tony has also been a guest chef for multiple events including Obsession at Northcote Manor and the prestigious Pebble Beach Food & Wine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

Food was important growing up. My dad was blue-collar and liked cooking, so he would make meals from scratch with unusual cuts or items that others may not have deemed usable, so I learned an appreciation for that. When I was around 12 or 13, I was in the Boy Scouts. My scout master’s father was a military cook and would bake or cook for fundraising events so I would help him, making and selling doughnuts and loaves of pepper leek brioche among other things. It was hard work, but it was fun and I enjoyed it. In England, you’re given options of career-driven classes at age 13 or 14, you graduate comprehensive school at age 16, then the next option is some sort of college. I knew I didn’t want an office job or clerical job, so I was going to join the Army in their catering corps. I went to recruitment, took exams and attended intro weekend, but when it came down to final signatures or leaving, I chose the civilian route. I went into culinary school at age 16 and managed to accomplish a four-year program in two years. The country pays for two years for everybody, so I essentially got most of my education paid for by the state. My first job was near London. I aimed for the highest level, so I set my eyes on a Michelin-starred restaurants in my early career. I had no interest in front of house or waitstaff, so I threw myself into knowing everything about the kitchen and read a lot of trade magazines.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

Since I graduated from culinary school in 1989, my philosophy around food has evolved. I’ve always been passionate about game and wildlife, and respectful of what we take from the land and oceans. I like utilizing every aspect of what we’re given, literally nose to tail. When I first started, it was all about French cuisine from the teachings of Escoffier, tediously adding layers and layers of ingredients that didn’t improve the quality of the ingredients, but detracted instead. While I still have tremendous respect for that type of cuisine, I’m glad that era of food has gone by the wayside somewhat. You can still find it out there of course, but there’s more of a focus on letting quality ingredients shine through. There’s so much processed food in our society, when there’s a really premium ingredient, you don’t have to do too much to it.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

The TED conference started in Monterey as a very intimate event with a few hundred people. It was an interesting week for the town and the local restaurant industry with big names coming in — artists, politicians, creatives. One year, we had a group of 20 come in for dinner with some A-list celebrities. The host of the group came to me in the kitchen and asked if I would make them pot brownies. It was still illegal at the time, but we had two kitchens, it was a Wednesday and not very busy, and given the clientele, I figured it was harmless so I obliged. I Googled some recipes, talked to a few of my staff and whipped up some pot butter to make Valrhona chocolate with ivory swirl brownies. I packed them up and told the group not to consume them on property. Not one minute later, they were all chowing them down at the table. I’m not sure what lesson there is to be learned from that, except give the customer what they want.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I came up in the restaurant business in the early 90s, during the Gordon Ramsay era. We laugh and joke now about those kinds of TV shows shouting at and verbally abusing people, but that was the reality then. I was in kitchen environments that were quite abusive, mentally and physically. At one two-star Michelin restaurant, I had to literally pick a guy up from the floor because he got hit in the head with a silver tray and I had to drag him away from the front of the fridge so I could get my mise en place. My tooth is actually chipped from an incident where I was roasting a poussin in the oven and the restaurant was quiet with maybe two tickets on, so I was making small talk with one of the other cooks, not paying attention. When the sous chef came in and tested the chicken, it was overcooked and he slung the pan at me. It was covered in 500 degree fat, so not only chipped my tooth, but also burned my face. I’ve never overcooked a chicken since. Not all restaurants were like that, but there were only handful of Michelin-starred restaurants in the British Isles, so if you were working at one, it was hardcore and you were going to encounter maniacal chefs who wanted success and perfection at all costs. I had a tough time at a particular place and everyday I wanted to quit. But I put my head down, overcame it and almost became desensitized to it. Fortunately, things have changed over the years with employee and labor laws. Kitchens are still tense and serious, but with less shouting and throwing.

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

The ultimate goal is for someone to eat something you’ve created and immediately respond asking when are they going to get it again. The trick is though, when you are creating a dish, you don’t know if it’s going to be craveable. You have to layer components in a way that builds on flavor and makes people want to come back. It’s not easy and it’s not definite. It might be an amazing dish, but not a niche that’s craveable. Dishes that I think are amazing don’t always get the reaction you hope for from guests in terms of sales. One of the mistakes I made early at Montrio was making dishes I liked — unusual game, complicated, British roots — they were stunning in look and flavors but they didn’t sell. I had to refocus on what people actually wanted to eat. You have to pay attention to what people are buying and enjoying to be a successful restaurant. When I became a partner at Montrio, I had to transition from cook to chef and design dishes that were going to make the restaurant successful and not necessarily boost my ego.

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

Sitting around the dining room table and sharing the experience with loved ones, family and friends makes any meal perfect. I appreciate my family and the fellowship more now that I’m not in the daily restaurant business, so I look forward to the interaction and conversation between the food and the dining guests, coupled with incredible beverages.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

A forager or fisherman walking to your back door with items you didn’t know you needed triggers and inspires creativity. Whether it be gray morels or some fresh ramps, it makes you think “now what am I going to do with these?” They’re perishable and stunning, so you want to make them shine. When you have seasonal ingredients at your fingertips or you’re at the farmers market and you see different items, you get excited. You don’t know what you will do with them at the time, but it’s getting with other cooks/chefs and figuring out what you are going to make with them. I love to include sous chefs and cooks in the creative process. At Hintlesham Hall, the cooks would write the menu for Sunday brunch on Saturday night with items left over from the weekend’s service. It would be 8 or so of us cooks with a case of beer and everybody would brainstorm the menu. Sometimes we would prep until 2 a.m. because we had that sense of pride to see it succeed. I’m also inspired by dining out and seeing what other chefs are doing. The world has become so much smaller with different cuisines being fused together, which used to drive me nuts, but it’s become such a practice and you see a lot of new, interesting things.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

I launchedBaker’s Bacon in 2011 to create a premium product that didn’t exist on the market. Our bacon is made from sustainably and humanely-raised, vegetarian-fed, antibiotic-free heritage breed pork, sourced from family-owned farms in Iowa. I drew from my English roots to produce a rare and unique British-style back bacon using the center cut pork loin attached to a part of the belly. It was originally developed for other high-end restaurant chefs, and I retired from the restaurant business in 2019 to solely focus on Baker’s Bacon. When the pandemic hit and restaurants shut down, I launched a direct-to-consumer site with subscription and gift boxes and opened a retail store to feature the bacon and other ingredients I’ve used throughout my career that I feel everybody needs to have in their kitchen. We offer something that doesn’t exist within the current market, which is value. Current subscription boxes average about $25 a pound and shipped full of dry ice, which isn’t good for the environment. Ours works out to be around half that per pound, and we use sensible and sustainable packaging, no styrofoam, with recyclable cardboard boxes and reusable gel cold packs. We are leading the charge to be the premium online bacon source.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

Take care of #1. Trying to find a balance between work and life and making your family a priority is so important, because your job will be there the next day. Being a chef or restaurateur is a way of life and you have to be a little crazy to be in the business, so you have to find a life partner who gets it or the relationship won’t last. Also don’t get carried away on booze and drugs which unfortunately is so prevalent in our industry.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Focus on family life and don’t be afraid to speak up. My kids were small during the integral growth phase of the restaurant. I was working 7 days a week, lunch and dinner and wasn’t prioritizing my family. It was a choice and it didn’t need to be. I should have spoken up and said we needed to hire another sous chef. I still carry guilt from that and missing my daughter’s horse shows and other momentous occasions.
  2. Becoming a Chef does not mean that you have to work in a restaurant your whole life. The food industry is so incredibly diverse that jobs exist in areas that one may not first come to mind such as R&D, industrial, cooking for food manufacturers, conference business, entertainment. The bottom line, everyone needs to eat, which means you will never be without work. You may even get an urge to start a bacon business called Baker’s Bacon!
  3. The food industry is way more rewarding than I could have expected it to be. Feeding people is a privilege — guests choosing to dine with you and part with their hard earned dollar is humbling and should never be taken for granted. Guests would often want to chat in the dining room, and when I was able, I was more than happy to oblige.
  4. I have lifelong friends from jobs I had as a kid working in kitchens in the UK. The camaraderie was great. In the early days, we would often be around each other 24 hours a day since we lived in staff housing and worked split shifts each day. One of the cooks I worked with in the UK, Chef Lee Hillson, is now a recognized chef at the Royal Palms in Arizona, it’s a small world.
  5. Community and food brings people together in times of crisis. I have been fortunate to be involved in so many fundraising efforts, some raising in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, to help our community during times of significant need. The restaurant industry is one of the most difficult businesses to be in. A full service restaurant is lucky to average 5 cents on the dollar in net profit, yet restaurants are constantly giving back. Again, part of that rewarding component. Not many careers are as intense, hard and yet, rewarding, as the restaurant business.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

Montrio’s signature dish is the 24-hour bacon with bacon almond butter, pickled apples and poison oak honey. It is definitely a top-seller and people always order it when they come, so im sure it will stay on the menu. The must-try Baker’s Bacon product is the sous vide bacon. We start with a finished slab of our dry-cured or double-smoked bacon, then vacuum sealed and slow cooked in a water bath for up to 24 hours. This fully cooks the bacon and retains the fat and moisture from the meat, resulting in a supremely tender texture so soft it can be cut with a fork. From burgers to ramen, there’s no end to how this delicious bacon can be used.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

People need to get back to real food, plain and simple — eating fresh produce, more vegetables and being conscious of where their food comes from. People should look at sourcing products that have a conscious, that you can feel good about. You can buy a piece of bacon, but those factory animals had a terrible life. The chickens are so bred for the table, they often can’t even walk due to the size of the prized breast. Fast food restaurants have skyrocketed during COVID because of drive throughs and it’s pushed us back in the dining industry. People need to understand good ingredients don’t mean more expensive. Check out your farmer’s markets and local growers. Experiment with food at home, don’t be afraid of it. There are so many resources on YouTube and Google for home cooks that can inspire and get you cooking, so you don’t have to get unhealthy processed food.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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