Since it is Father’s Day weekend I thought it would be fun to profile a chef who is also a father of three. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Tom Condron, the Executive Chef and co-owner of The Liberty Gastropub here in Charlotte.
Here is a little background on Tom from The Liberty’s website:
Tom has been in the restaurant business since he was fourteen, working at the famed Dorchester Hotel in England. He has worked for eight Michelin starred chefs throughout his career. He is University of Florida Graduate, and later attended Johnson & Wales. He went on to work at such restaurants as Le Cirque, Jean Louis @ the Watergate, Aqua Restaurant in San Fransisco, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Restaurant, the Peabody Hotel in Orlando and the Blue Ridge Grill in Atlanta. He joined the Harper’s Restaurant Group as Executive Chef for Mimosa Grill in 1997, and would come to open many of Charlotte’s best restaurants.
PJ Mullen: Tom, thanks for doing this. I really appreciate you taking time out to talk with me today. I’ve got a few questions for you, but first of all for those who don’t know, what is exactly is a Gastropub?
Chef Tom Condron: The term Gastropub was coined probably about 1985. It started out in Clerkenwell in London and some chefs who had all the Michelin restaurants decided that they were little tired of trying to keep up with the struggle that it is to be a Michelin chef, and the money has to be spent into it just to maintain and to gain more stars. They were British boys and they grew up in the pubs. The pub food in England back in that era was pretty much your typical pub fair. Good beer, not very good food, but most people didn’t go to the pub really to eat.
They decided that they wanted somewhere where they could go and have really good food, really good drink but at a more affordable price than you would pay to go to a Michelin starred restaurant. So, they took over an old freestanding pub and made it into what became The Eagle. Was it the first one? I don’t know, but it was definitely the one that put Gastropub’s on the map.
They started out producing really good food at really good price point with really good beers, and it really caught on. Now people from all walks of life could go and eat well and drink at affordable prices. It took off all throughout England and then all of a sudden some of the other big chefs got into it – the Gordon Ramsay’s of the world, the Marco Pierre White’s of the world; all of them got into to putting up Gastropub’s because not only was it affordable from the cost standpoint of opening a restaurant, but it was also something that you could give affordability to your patrons as well.
PJ: Now, you were with the Harper’s Restaurant before you opened The Liberty, what drove you to open The Liberty?
TC: The Harper’s group is great. I came on board in 1998 with the job of turning the Mimosa Grill into a fine dining restaurant. From that point, we started to grow the company before I left to five fine dining restaurants: Mimosa, Upstream, Zink, Arpa and M5. I absolutely loved it. It was a great learning experience to open up different concepts at the high-end, but it was all high-end.
To be really honest, I was tired of serving a $38 seabass on a plate just to try to make ends meet and make the food costs work and serving a $16 house wine by the glass. I couldn’t afford that when I would go out to eat and lot of people couldn’t afford that when they go out to eat, either.
My perspective on what should go on in the restaurant business changed. I really wanted to do my own place and do it where it’s affordable and approachable to the guests. Most people thought we are crazy to open up at the time when we opened, but we decided that we wanted to open the restaurant and try to give Charlotte a Gastropub.
PJ: Now, when you’re creating a dish, where do you draw your inspiration?
TC: You know it’s funny, Jean-Louis Palladin once told me when I worked with him that you’ll be in your late 30s, or even in your 40s, before you realize what type of chef you really want to be. Of course when I was in my early 20s, I thought he was full of baloney, but he’s absolutely right. I think the older you get, the more simplistic you become and with what you want to do. You no longer want to try to change the world and reinvent everything anew. You want things very simple, very pure. So, my inspiration is definitely to simplicity.
In the Gastropub, because of the price point that I sell my food at, it does limit me in the sense that I’m not going after that high-end, very expensive center of the plate item like a filet mignon, or even lobster as a signature thing. I’m not looking to put on something that I would need to sell in the high 20s or even in the 30s just to make the food costs work. The inspiration comes because now you’re using product like pork belly or shanks. Things that are not unfamiliar to the American palate, but are not the items that when most people think about when they’re going out to eat. Most people go out to eat and they want to eat salmon or filet mignon. They want lobster – higher end things because that’s what people are accustomed to eating.
The inspiration also comes by procuring really high-end quality product. Our pork is locally grown and raised; our beef is locally grown and raised. A good portion of our produce is locally farmed and organic and has very low carbon footprint. We’re not trying to make a statement here that we’re ecological, sustainable, local and everything. We’re not trying to make that statement. I think we let the food show that that’s what we do, but we’re really looking to do is to get the people back into eating good food and good food that’s affordable.
Also, teaching cooks to get back into cooking and to really enjoy what they’re doing. I’ve got a lot of young cooks here who still want to work with all the outlandish, but great ingredients that are out there, and we try to provide some of that to them, still I want them to become good cooks first. Then after that they can experiment and become who they’ll become 20 years from now.
PJ: Speaking of locally, you recently planted your own herb garden so some of your ingredients in your dishes are as local as they could be. How has that worked out for you?
TC: Oh great. You know there’s nothing better than being able to walk out and cut fresh herbs and use them that night and then the next day cut fresh herbs and use them that night again. We had a space and wanted to grow something, so we popped it in there.
We outsource a lot of our local stuff here. I have two farmers from whom I buy a lot of my basic ingredients on the menu. They grow a lot of fresh herbs for me. They’ve got a small little half-acre of land where everything they grow we will buy. And it’s all the herbs and everything. Stuff that I know that we used on a regular basis day in and day out and you want that to be as fresh as possible. I can get that four times a week versus buying it through other procurement sources, which is a week, two weeks old already by the time we get it. But we had a little spot we wanted to do something nice and aesthetically it looks good.
PJ: I’ve been to a couple of your cooking classes and I always have a great time at them. One of the things you said that really stuck into my mind is that good food takes time. And you talked a little about the slow food movement. Is that a part of the driver in using some of the lesser known cuts of meat for the main proteins in your dishes?
TC: I guess the upside to doing the Gastropub is like I said earlier that we have to do cuts of meat that are at a more affordable price point. Nowadays not much is inexpensive, most cuts are getting expensive, but because we have to use cuts that are working muscle meats they are better cuts to begin with. They are always more flavorful with a better fat to meat ratio. However, because they’re working muscles, most items are not something that you can just roast, quick sauté, or grill like a filet mignon. So, they need some time to be able to do correctly and a lot of that is slow, slow cooking. Either by slow roasting or braising to really enhance and bring out the flavors of these meats.
Filet mignon is a beloved meat not only in America but in England and pretty much worldwide, but the funny thing about filet is that it is very flavorless piece of meat. I did a cooking class last night and I showed people how to pan roast filet mignon to really get a good glaze on it – keep a liquid in it while it’s searing to keep it moist and how to get a good crust to form on it. Then you can get some good quality and good flavor out of a filet. But, to put a filet mignon on a grill and cook it in 12 minutes like most restaurants do to get it up to a medium rare temperature you don’t put a lot of flavor into it.
Even if you are using wood and hickory it’s not on the grill long enough to pick up the flavor. So, again, it’s a very tender piece of meat on a plate but it lacks depth and character in my opinion, whereas a braised piece of meat of working muscles, slow cooked and slow roasted you can really taste the work. Done right, you can really taste the passion and the love that somebody has put into it in cooking it.
PJ: I definitely agree with you on that one. When I was just out in the work force as a young professional I always wanted to go somewhere where I could get filet during business dinners. It wasn’t until I started really exploring cooking myself and started braising beef short ribs that I decided I would never order tenderloin again.
TC: It’s always great to watch the young cook when they first braise something for the first time and you watch their eyes when they take in the whole process. It’s not something like putting a piece of meat on a grill and grilling it, then 15 minutes later it’s off the grill and you plate it before it goes out into the dining room. When they finish that dish they’ve had to prepare and monitor throughout the day, you could just see the light go off on their heads and that’s one of those things I think really changes these cooks. I don’t know if the culinary schools really teach that, as much I think that’s something that they really learn when they’re in the restaurant business.
Come back next week for the second part of my talk with Chef Tom Condron, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of The Liberty Gastropub.