The mentor chef

Karl Wells
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Chris Brown on 20 years of cooking and coaching

Big Night is a movie about two brothers who run a restaurant.

Two brothers run downtown's The Cellar Restaurant. While Big Night is one of their favourite movies, there are few similarities between brothers Harold and Chris Brown of The Cellar and Primo and Secondo of Big Night. Harold and Chris get along much better and their restaurant is successful, as opposed to the struggling fictional restaurant of Big Night.

Both Brown brothers received culinary training at Humber College in Toronto. Chris, 41, followed older brother Harold to Humber with trepidation.

The Cellar's Chris Brown (left) with Adam Gollop. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

Big Night is a movie about two brothers who run a restaurant.

Two brothers run downtown's The Cellar Restaurant. While Big Night is one of their favourite movies, there are few similarities between brothers Harold and Chris Brown of The Cellar and Primo and Secondo of Big Night. Harold and Chris get along much better and their restaurant is successful, as opposed to the struggling fictional restaurant of Big Night.

Both Brown brothers received culinary training at Humber College in Toronto. Chris, 41, followed older brother Harold to Humber with trepidation.

I had a lot to live up to because Harold had been at the same school with the same instructors and they all knew Harold, and Harold excelled at Humber College. He was definitely at the top of the class, he says.

After spending 20 years in The Cellar's kitchen, these days you can see genial Chris at the front of the restaurant greeting guests and carrying out the duties of maÎtre d'. Recently I sat down with him to chat about his cooking years and especially about his role as mentor to many of the cook apprentices employed by The Cellar since it opened.

Apprentices

Over the years, The Cellar helped launch the cooking careers of, among others, chef Edward Farrell of Portobello's, chef Darryl Haynes of the Marine Institute, as well as newcomer Adam Gollop currently cooking at The Cellar.

Each of them can attest to being guided in their development as fine chefs by veteran hand Chris Brown. Gollop is effusive in his praise for the mentor chef. Chris is really strict on you knowing

what you need to do. Working with Chris, there was never any doubt in direction or where you were heading. That was when I was just starting out. It was fantastic. When he realized that I could do things and I would start to feel confident, he would throw little hurdles at me during the day.

You know, all of a sudden, We need this made,' or all of a sudden, We need a cake made,' or, This just came in and we need it all produced immediately.' For me these challenges were fantastic. He had a great attitude. He was a great mediator, too, not that there was any conflict with individuals, but it was mostly to do with methods. And that's when I learned from Chris, that there is more than one way to do things.

From Chris Brown's perspective, good mentoring is about gently encouraging people to find their own way. What I've always done is allow people to try things and to make mistakes.

And they do make mistakes, but often you get a really nice result by letting someone create a dish or try something new with a dish. First I'll ask them to make something. It might be mayonnaise. If I see them doing something wrong or if I can show them a better way, I will. Then, gradually, they build enough confidence where I'll let them show somebody else how to make mayonnaise or whatever. It's important to give them the freedom to be creative, as long as it's within reason.

Best lesson

I asked Gollop to tell me one thing he learned from Chris Brown that has made him a better chef. It wasn't a profound lesson, but one so elemental I cannot imagine a mentor receiving a better compliment.

To use the individual skills properly, to assign them to their proper duty which makes things much more efficient, the orchestration of a kitchen. That's what he taught me, how to orchestrate a busy kitchen. Chris Brown would be the first to tell you that, while you can learn a lot about being a chef in a restaurant kitchen like The Cellar's, it is also important to attend culinary school.

When I got into school I realized that I knew a lot of stuff, but I didn't know why I knew it. I didn't know anything about origins. There were so many aspects to the culinary arts that I'd had absolutely no exposure to for example, baking. I could make a cheesecake, but there's so much more to it. I could make bread, but there's thousands of different kinds of bread.

However, there are times when culinary school is not an option, as in the one and only case where Chris had to teach someone only how to pretend to be a chef. The student was Academy Award winning actor William Hurt. He was in St. John's to star in a film about a restaurateur/chef. The movie, Rare Birds, was based on Ed Riche's popular novel of the same name.

Hurt

He came into the restaurant quite a lot when he was filming. But when he first came he explained that he'd be playing a chef in the movie and asked if he could spend a few days in the kitchen with us. I didn't have a problem with that. He watched a lot. I remember him telling me that he thought the way everyone moved

around in the kitchen, instinctively knowing when to switch places, for example, without burning anyone or cutting anyone was like a ballet.' He seemed very impressed by that and I did notice a bit of that in the movie. He did some things in the kitchen. I taught him how to shell oysters using an oyster knife. You know, how to get the blade in and to give a little twist and then lift. I warned him he had to be careful because it's really easy to cut your fingers. And, of course, on the first try he did cut his finger. But he was great and it was fun.

Both Chris and Harold Brown have had many highlights in their cooking careers. Harold once cooked a meal for Prince Edward. In Chris's case it was the time, during a convention of Canadian premiers, that practically every premier in the land ended up at The Cellar for supper. Brown summed up the very unique experience with understatement. It was neat. I ended our conversation by asking Chris how he's enjoying working at the front of the house as opposed to the kitchen.

I love the business and it's great to actually be able to make contact with

the customers. So far, I think I'm doing a pretty good job with it. I hope so anyway.

It's given me a different perspective on what servers have to cope with,

both at the front and in the kitchen, that's for sure. Whatever challenges lie ahead for Chris Brown, I'm confident he will continue to handle them in his typically calm, cheerful and gentlemanly way.

Chris Brown's Blackened Chicken with Dijon

Cream

Ingredients for Cajun spice:

1 tbsp. cayenne pepper

1 tbsp. salt

1 tbsp. garlic powder

1 tbsp. onion powder

1 tbsp. paprika

2 tsp. black pepper

2 tsp. white pepper

1 tsp. ground thyme

1 tsp. ground oregano

16 one-ounce boneless chicken breast pieces

4 oz clarified butter

Ingredients for Dijon sauce:

1 oz. butter

1 tbsp. fine-diced onion or shallot

1 tbsp. fine chopped garlic

2 tbsp. spice mixture

1 half-cup dry white wine

1-cup heavy cream

2 tbsp. grainy Dijon mustard

Parsley

Method:

Combine dry spices in bowl and mix thoroughly. Preheat iron skillet until extremely hot preferably outdoors.

If skillet is heated indoors, move outdoors for the cooking because of the smoke that will be created.

Coat chicken with the clarified butter and then with the spice mixture.

Carefully place the chicken pieces on the hot skillet and turn after approximately one minute. Remove chicken to a clean plate.

Heat a clean frying pan to moderate heat. Add 1 oz. of butter. After butter has melted, sautÉ onion and garlic, sprinkled with spice. When aromatics have softened add wine, and reduce heat by half. Next add cream and mustard.

Using a whisk, blend the cream and mustard evenly. Avoid rapid boiling, but reduce to desired thickness.

Pour sauce over chicken and garnish with parsley. Serve with quarters of oven-roasted potato and steamed broccoli.

Organizations: Humber College, The Cellar Restaurant, Marine Institute

Geographic location: Toronto, St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Tracy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    I am speechless! I received a call from my parents early Sunday morning asking me to check the Telegram online. They were tickled with excitement for me to read about my brother. It was such a wonderful piece....and so true. Adam has always enjoyed cooking but in the last several years it has been his passion. Living in Calgary, I don't get to taste his culinary delights but I hear about his creations constantly. Last year he came to visit and cooked me an amazing meal that brought tears to my eyes. So I thank you for such a great story. Such a great way to start my day.

  • DP
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    I love The Cellar, by far the best steak, pork, chicken and seafood I have ever had. I had the pleasure of dining here last night and had the blackened chicken for an appetizer! Delicious!!! The staff is extremely friendly and there is nothing bad I could say about the restaurant. Great food, great service, great atmosphere! What more can one ask for!

  • Tracy
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    I am speechless! I received a call from my parents early Sunday morning asking me to check the Telegram online. They were tickled with excitement for me to read about my brother. It was such a wonderful piece....and so true. Adam has always enjoyed cooking but in the last several years it has been his passion. Living in Calgary, I don't get to taste his culinary delights but I hear about his creations constantly. Last year he came to visit and cooked me an amazing meal that brought tears to my eyes. So I thank you for such a great story. Such a great way to start my day.

  • DP
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    I love The Cellar, by far the best steak, pork, chicken and seafood I have ever had. I had the pleasure of dining here last night and had the blackened chicken for an appetizer! Delicious!!! The staff is extremely friendly and there is nothing bad I could say about the restaurant. Great food, great service, great atmosphere! What more can one ask for!