An interview with Chef Kevin Fink of Austin's Emmer & Rye
Now in its second year, the azcentral Food & Wine Experience attracts a roster of renowned and award-winning chefs and industry professionals.. This year's event will be headlined by Mario Batali, and in November Chef Kevin Fink will join this illustrious group. That month will also celebrate a year of accolades and success for his Austin restaurant Emmer & Rye, including gracing the cover of the July issue of Food & Wine Magazine as one of the Best New Chefs 2016 and making Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurant list. Having grown up in Tucson, Arizona, Chef Fink previously served as director of operations for Zona 78 Italian Kitchen. He has since honed his industry and culinary skills at lauded restaurants such as the French Laundry, Trattoria 13 Gobbi in Florence, Italy, Copenhagen’s Noma and Noma Test Kitchen, and Olamie in Austin, but its his Arizona roots that have shaped him. Find out why the relationship he has forged with local farmers is an integral part of Emmer & Rye in my interview.
We're looking forward to your return to Arizona. Yes, we're both from Arizona. My wife is from Phoenix and her parents live there so we'll be doing some family dinners. Arizona's been a major part of my life. I have a lot of friends back there.
Do you have many chef friends here? I do, I run into Chris Bianco a lot in different areas, but I have a lot more friends in the industry down in Tucson than I do in Phoenix. The biggest takeaway when I left Arizona - that I struggle to recreate even here - are some of the farmers. They're so experimental and ahead of the game because Arizona really causes you to do that as far as farm practices; farms like Sleeping Frog Farms and Five Sons Farms. I have some amazing farms here, but I haven't found that same relationship that I have with those two. When I get back, I’m definitely going to try to catch up with those guys just to really have a good time.
You're also a big proponent of milling and grain. Yes. Obviously, we still use a tremendous amount of Hayden [Flour Mills] out here.
I visited their mill and saw the time-consuming process of dressing the stones. It gave me a bigger appreciation of what stone-ground really entails. Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I think one thing that most people don’t recognize is the reason why flour has become so distant from where we are, it's because of this process of milling. It has made it almost inaccessible for anybody to go directly from the field to your house; it's separated so much. As people, we really have to have emotional ties to things to truly understand them. To really understand the wheat field to table movement is about understanding how and why it gets there and what is wheat versus heirloom wheat.
What drew you in the beginning? I’ve always been interested in wheat because I cooked Italian food for so long. Really, the staple of the Italian diet, and also the American diet, is wheat. When you have a product that can define up to 50% or more of a dish, as a chef you have an obligation to understand it as much as you can. The more I understood and the more that I watched Hayden grow and work with others, it was really about finding this product, treating it inthe best way possible, and getting it to people. That was always the restaurant we wanted to have. We never wanted to be this big restaurant with huge numbers. I always wanted to be a restaurant where it really is sharing this intimate experience with people.
So your philosophy is an emotional connection to these origins. Absolutely. What we do as a restaurant was forged very much from my relationship with farmers in Arizona. In any successful relationship, you have to learn how to care for the other person. I think chefs can be so selfish, saying 'I only want the best,' or 'I want this and you grow this for me.' In reality , that would be a terrible relationship, whether it would be a romantic one, a work one, or any other. When you say 'you have to do this at this price point' or 'you have to give it to me then,' I think that is setting them up to fail, setting them up to constantly say no to you, setting them up to be adverse to you. And the opposite of that is what we did. We said, grow what you grow, tell us what’s ripe, tell us what’s good, and when that’s good, we’ll use it, and when it’s not good, we have a menu that is built around adapting to that.
You're known for preserving and fermenting. It makes so much sense. It’s funny to me that all of these things happen to be trendy right now because we didn’t do any of them for that. We did it because we truly want to support good farms and you need to find a way that when they have nothing that you’re okay, and when they have too much that you’re okay. That's what we have with Sleeping Frog. They say, 'well, we have 200 pounds of this that’s ready, I think we’re going to sell 100 pounds,' so we find a way to process the other 100 pounds, whether it be fermenting, pickling, or jamming so we don’t lose this product. In setting up this business it was all about how to be successful partners with farms, so we can constantly say yes to them. And then it was finding the best people around to make that happen.
And all this plays into your dim sum cart service. Yes, that's about 30% of the menu. The carts, again, are all about creating this relationship. When something is in front of you and somebody is describing it, there’s a difference in the amount of questions you can ask, there is a visual you have. Whenever you do new things, you want to take away what might be kind of scary, which is if this item is fermented, or something they've never seen before. Instead of saying this is the only way it can be done, we said why would we want to do this and what is the goal. I think whenever you are doing new things, you have people who get it and don’t get it, and the dim sum carts definitely have been the most widely talked about things for that exact reason.
What are your future plans and goals? We've had a really successful opening, but our impact is the real goal. To show other restauranteurs and farms there are different ways of looking at what we can do. To just continue to be a part of what is so great about the American food system. There are a lot of things that are wrong, but there are a lot of great things too, and we just want to support the new mom and pops that are coming up. Hopefully, we can influence the corporations to make the right decision as opposed to the more profitable decision. There are so many beautiful things in what we do here and it’s just being able to step out of the normal and let people experience things for the first time. I think that’s what we offer to our guests.
For more information on the azcentral Food & Wine Experience, visit this link. Chef Fink will be participating in the All Star Panel with Mario Batali, Alex Stratta, Bruce Kalman, and Gio Osso, conducting a Heritage Grains seminar, and cooking a course in the Grand Finale Dinner.