Hibiscus Chef Brent Hammer on Dish-Washing in a Suit, Vegas and the Blessing of Food TV
Chef Brent Hammer started his cooking career all because of a slight misunderstanding, in what turned out to be one of longest night of his life washing dishes at a restaurant in Milwaukee. The fast pace of the kitchen lured him in, and soon he began the career path that eventually led him to a hotel just off the Vegas strip, Westside Tavern in Los Angeles and, two years ago, to Dallas, where he's worked for Fireside Pies in Fort Worth, The Porch and Hibiscus.
Chef Brent Hammer at Hibiscus
We sat down with Hammer for this week's Three-Course Meal interview.
I read you got pantsed working as a chef in Milwaukee as retribution for sassing a boss?
Yes, I was really young when that happened.
Do you pants here a lot?
No, I try not to pants.
Don't you think it could be an effective motivational tool?
No. Standing in the middle of a pre-shift with a sauté pan in both hands and nothing but an apron on in front of 18 servers was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life. I had never been so grateful to have on an apron; otherwise I would have been about as naked as the day I was born. I was mentally scarred by it.
How did you get into cooking?
I went to college for three weeks and I realized that it wasn't the way I tend to learn. I'm not a big fan of sitting or of classrooms, so I quit and went home and my mom told me that if I was going to live there I had to pay rent. But I quickly decided that if I was going to pay rent, it was going to be for my own place.
So I got a job at a restaurant and thought I would be a server, so I went out and got a suit. When I showed up to my first day of work, in my suit, they asked me if I wanted to work a full 40-hour week. I said, "Yes, I need to pay rent." So they took me back to the dish pit and I washed dishes in my suit until 2 a.m. It was one of the worst nights ever.
That's a pretty miserable mix-up.
I didn't really understand the industry at the time. Someone later explained to me that I could have worked 20 hours a week as a server and made significantly more money than 40 hours in the kitchen.
I woke up the next day and told myself there was no way I was going back there. But, I'm not much of a quitter so, I went back the next night and the chef helped me out a bit, but he also told me I only had until midnight to get it all done.
That night I remember taking a minute and looking up and down the line and I loved the pace, the control and I loved how much focus was required. I remember thinking about the camaraderie of the guys one the line.
You eventually worked your way out of the dishwasher pit?
Yes. At the time restaurants weren't really a vogue job, this was before the Food Network, so often people would just disappear and I took their job. Then I began learning my way around the kitchen. I remember most of the jobs I had prior, an eight-hour day would seem like a 25-hour day. But in a restaurant the time would just fly by.
Aside from the mechanics, how did you learn to love food?
I tend to get obsessed about everything. I've always figured if I'm going to be somewhere I'm going to succeed. But, also it was that someone took me aside and taught me how to hold a knife and how to chop. The work always has to be done well. I like standards. I like the fact that it's about more than just getting your work done, but getting it done perfectly. I obsessed about it almost immediately.
The good thing about food is that it never stops teaching you lessons.