Chefs tell a few secrets of their success

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

After a long night of work Brad Seyfarth comes home for dinner.

It is likely his dinner will be a sandwich or maybe a plate of southern vegetables.

“Most of my meals are a ham sandwich on wheat bread with maybe a little lettuce,” Seyfarth said.

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Seyfarth, a professional chef, doesn’t cook for himself. He cooks for others.

The creativity and expertise he uses as executive chef in the kitchen at The Castle Restaurant at Dunleith, are left at the door of the restaurant and traded in for more traditional style in his home kitchen.

“A typical meal for my wife and me would be a plate of black-eyed peas and cornbread with a glass of iced milk,” Seyfarth said. “When we have company over for dinner we do try to do something more, but when it is just us, it is definitely casual.”

Casual cooking and comfort foods are what Seyfarth grew up eating and what he cut his teeth on as an amateur chef in his parent’s kitchen.

His first culinary experiences came under the watchful eye of his parents, but his technical training came in the kitchen of beloved Natchez chef the late John-Martin Terranova.

Seyfarth, who said he was fortunate to get his first restaurant job at one of Terranova’s restaurants, took advantage of the time spent under Terranova’s tutelage.

“I was like an empty jar for him,” Seyfarth said. “I just tried to collect and watch and learn as much as I could from him.

“Everyone loved him and everyone loved his food.”

Like Seyfarth, Andrew Haile was also a student of Terranova and credits him with much of his culinary success. Haile is the executive chef at The VUE restaurant at the Grand Soleil.

“He was probably the best teacher I had,” Haile said. “I didn’t necessarily mirror his style, but it is the little things that I picked up from him.”

One of the biggest secrets Seyfarth took away from his time under Terranova’s wing was the need for diversity and creativity in the restaurant kitchen.

He said Terranova was famous for bringing in the best and freshest meats and produce, and Seyfarth said that is a tradition he has tried to continue by changing the restaurant’s specials several times a week.

“I hate to leave a special on for more than a day or two,” Seyfarth said. “You have to use the freshest ingredients you can, and if something doesn’t move after a day or two, I’ll look to rework it or just cut my loses.

“It’s all about tastes and fresher is better.”

Haile agreed that ingredients make one of the biggest differences in cooking. Haile said having a stocked pantry at the restaurant kitchen is the biggest asset to cooking at a restaurant.

“At home my pantry literally has olive oil, salt and pepper in it,” Haile said.

The availability of ingredients makes it easier for Haile in the kitchen, but he has learned that an abundance of seasoning isn’t necessary to get good taste from food.

“There are a lot of seasoning products out there for sale and some of them are really good,” Haile said. “But I tend to season most everything with only salt and pepper.”

Seyfarth said his freshness- first attitude also lends itself to one of his other “tricks of the trade.” Seyfarth said to be a successful chef and to keep people coming back it is important to not get in a culinary rut.

“I cook all over the board,” Seyfarth said. “You want to have a variety.”

Seyfarth said it is easy to stick with things that are popular without ever changing but doing that, he said, is a bit of a disservice to his patrons.

But changing a well-received dish isn’t easy as Seyfarth discovered when he changed a popular pork tenderloin offering created by Terranova.

“It had been on a menu, unchanged, for 16 years or so, and it was extremely popular, Seyfarth said.

“I was nervous at first, and I had to tweak my recipe just a bit, but people have said they like it just as much as the other dish.”

But creating a wide variety of dishes does sometimes create a problem, since not everyone’s taste buds are the same. Seyfarth said creating dishes for someone else’s palate is something he struggles with.

“For me, there are a lot of things that I don’t like to eat,” he said. “But there are plenty of people who do like those ingredients.”

To get around that, Seyfarth said he has to find honest taste testers to sample his dishes.

“They usually tell me what’s good and what needs to be changed,” he said. “I just have to take the suggestions, because at the restaurant it isn’t my taste buds that matter.

“I may love it but if it doesn’t sell then it doesn’t matter.”

For Haile, success in the kitchen is all about timing. He said it is essential to get food out of the kitchen quickly and while it is still hot. And to do that, he said, he has to be organized.

“Setting up your station right saves a lot of time,” Haile said. “You don’t want to be running to the walk-in cooler a thousand times a night.

It might take a few shifts of getting run to death, but you will eventually learn.”