Alex Figura, chef of Lower48 Kitchen, on commodity chicken and cutting the tape
This is part one of my interview with Alex Figura, exec chef of Lower48 Kitchen; part two of my conversation with Figura will run tomorrow.
"My parents always joke that it's unlikely that I'll ever miss a meal," says Alex Figura, the executive chef at Lower48 Kitchen. "My mom and dad made dinner every night for my sisters and me, and I'd always help in the kitchen, first by force -- I always had to peel the shrimp and fry the chicken -- and then I started to actually like cooking. I knew from an early age that I wanted to work with food, but I wasn't sure in what capacity."
Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, he enrolled at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia to get a degree in food marketing -- but then his parents took him to Vetri, the city's most celebrated restaurant, on his nineteenth birthday, and while it wasn't the most sensational meal he'd ever had, it was good enough that he chucked college to cook full-time in Vetri's kitchen. "It was the hottest spot in Philly, and I knew I wanted to work there, so I did a stage, and then another stage, and then another, and when two guys quit and another two got fired, I got hired to fill in the blanks," recalls Figura, who was responsible for pastry, baking and composing the restaurant's first courses.
Figura spent more than two years behind the line at Vetri -- most of the time in over his head. "For the first eighteen months, I didn't really know as much about food as I would have liked," he admits, "but I had two saving graces: I was always there and worked really, really hard, and one of the lead cooks liked me, and we worked very, very well together." It was a kitchen that allowed him to "make pastas and pastries, bake bread and butcher whole animals" while seeing "every single facet of cooking," he recalls.
Still, Figura had an itch to cook overseas, so he left Philly for Spain. "I was a young cook and a little cocky, and my goal was to work at some of the best restaurants in the world to see what separated them from the pack, plus I wanted to explore different cuisines and cultures," explains Figura, who sent letters to fifty Michelin-star restaurants, all in Spain. He received three replies, one of which came from the chef of L'escaleta, a restaurant in Cocentaina. "The man who hired me was a young chef -- and fabulous -- and he really took me in as his son and taught me so much," remembers Figura. The most important thing he learned was how to cook rice -- important, he says, "because while it's such a basic technique, when you really get into it, there are so many steps involved in making it truly great."
Figura cooked at L'escaleta for six months, then moved on to another Michelin-starred restaurant just outside of Madrid, and after four months there, he returned to Alexandria and landed a job at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a world-renowned restaurant and working four-season farm in Tarrytown, thirty miles north of New York City. Marc Vetri, chef-owner of the eponymous Philadelphia restaurant where Figura got his start, had treated him to dinner there as well as a tour, and Figura was "completely blown away by the kitchen" and the farm. "I remember one night we were doing a dish that needed basil, which we didn't have in the kitchen, so I ran out to the fields and grabbed basil, and it occurred to me then that this was one of the most unique restaurants in the world," says Figura, who soaked up the "amazing learning experience" for eighteen months before burning out.