Josh Monopoli, chef de cuisine of Black Cat & Bramble & Hare, on trustafarians, farm-to-table and food hangups
This is part one of my interview with Josh Monopoli, chef de cuisine of Black Cat and Bramble & Hare, Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Josh Monopoli is definitely not cooking the same food he made as a teenager growing up in Savannah, Georgia. "My parents were great cooks, and we had family dinners seven nights a week, but I didn't start cooking until I was a teenager, and my signature dish was salami and pepperoni on an everything bagel that I'd pop into the microwave and then dip into salsa," recalls the 26-year-old chef de cuisine at Black Cat and Bramble & Hare, Eric Skokan's season-celebrating restaurants in Boulder. "There's no microwave in Eric's kitchen," notes Monopoli.
Monopoli didn't set out to be a chef, either. When he wasn't zapping energy into his bagels and pepperoni, he was strapped to the computer, working on his programming skills and website-design talents, but a stint as a dish donkey changed his career path. "I needed the money -- I wanted stuff -- and after three or four months scraping plates, the boss moved me up to making sandwiches and pizza and, eventually, the lot line," he remembers. And while he admits it was "a shitty restaurant," he realized, too, that sitting in a cubicle for the duration of the day, his eyes glazed over the computer screen, wasn't the future he wanted.
Instead, Monopoli headed for Atlanta, where he started cooking at a barbecue joint. "It was horrible," he confesses, adding that the manager -- a convicted felon, Monopoli says -- threatened to end his life with a screwdriver after the young cook dared to speak to the manager's girlfriend. "Apparently, I said something inappropriate," surmises Monopoli, who left for a catering gig -- and culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu.
"I learned that I didn't like culinary students very much," says Monopoli. "They graduate thinking that they're so awesome, and they don't understand what it's like to work hard. There's this sense of privilege and entitlement, and while I know I had a bit of a pompous attitude when I graduated, I also knew damn well that I still had a lot to learn."
And it was Holeman and Finch, a farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta, that taught him to cook -- and think -- like a chef. "The chefs actually ran the food and talked to guests, and that's where I really started to get how to cook food properly, using science as knowledge," he says. He learned, for example, that a "mid-rare steak isn't mid-rare unless it's 49 degrees Celsius, and that an egg coagulates differently for every different degree of Celsius."