I first became aware of Kenan while browsing through #cookslife images on Instagram. This image of him after cleaning the oven immediately endeared me to him as a cook with an obviously fierce work ethic.
We started following each other on Instagram and I have been consistently impressed with his knife skills, adventures with foraging, dedication to quality ingredients, and his beautifully plated “food porn”. I contacted Kenan and he graciously and thoughtfully filled out our Real Life Cook Questionnaire. Please, enjoy this dispatch from Montana.
Kenan Hoy Anderson
Are you still cooking?
I’m still cooking because I still love doing it; the athleticism, the creativity, the happiness you see when you look out at the dining room and see people enjoying the food and experience, the camaraderie that working together through stressful times brings the crew. It’s pretty rewarding.
What do you eat?
I love rice, particularly with beans or lentils. Also, a day without chilies is a day without sunshine. I love lots of sauces and pickled accompaniments too, so I end up eating a lot of food inspired by Latin America and India. Turkish and Persian cooking are also favorites of mine, once again lots of pickles and condiments and baroque preparations like the food of Oaxaca and the Yucatan (the influence of the Muslim world came via the Moorish influence on Spain, who then invaded The Americas). I also really love the clean simplicity of Japanese food, especially a nice omakase or noodle bowl. I could go on all day. I eat everything.
When do you eat?
I really try to eat a good breakfast, often yogurt and salad right at the crack of 9 or 10 a.m. when I get up. Then snacks, maybe a late lunch, on days I work we usually have family meal (staff dinner) between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m., then we clean for another hour or two and go home.
What do you wish you could eat?
From a food curiosity viewpoint I wish seafood wasn’t something of a challenge for me. I grew up hating fish, and I have really pushed myself over the last 7 years or so to try everything aquatic I come across. It’s paid off, but I still have trouble with fish sauce, uni, and a few other things. From a biodiversity standpoint I sometimes wish I didn’t live in a relatively remote Montana town with a 3 month growing season. Farmer’s Markets in California or in Latin America make me want to start filling out change of address forms.
Who taught you?
I’ve loved food and cooking as long as I can remember, but I kept myself pretty sheltered from the amazing variety of ingredients and techniques available and spent a lot of years dicking around in kitchens serving mostly food from Sysco, US Foodservice, IBP, etc…. From them I learned how to crush a busy night without whining, how to butcher, how to be really uncomfortable and tired and sometimes injured and not let your kitchen down. I also learned that there are different ways to do a thing right, the method you learned may not be the one true approach.
I got to practice being creative and experimental with food while working with Connor, Katie and Dennis at The Reef in DC, then I learned how to dial that back and focus more on refining technique and paring down ingredients in Denver, especially from Jeremy at The Highland Tavern. At Root Down in Denver they taught us to pay close attention to the customer experience while being so stressed and busy I wanted to cry. My mom taught me how to cook for those you love. Bottom line is you learn from everyone, how not to reprimand people, a faster way to peel peaches, a million little details. Since I didn’t go to culinary school I had to learn everything by watching and listening to everybody.
What’s better in the kitchen, love or fear?
Loving what you do makes for a better end result, being kind makes for an environment more conducive to creativity and productivity. But there needs to be discipline to reign all that in and focus it. Fear is part of the old brigade system, you fear the chef’s outbreaks of anger and all that crap. But fear in the sense of taking chances is good, doing things that scare you helps you improve. This is all a work in progress for me. Balancing being kind while trying to maintain high standards while taking chances that scare me while trying to be disciplined can be exhausting and I don’t always nail it. Being an adult is just hard sometimes, I guess.
Something like 19% of chefs and 6% of head chefs are women, why is ‘a woman’s place in the kitchen’ until they start handing out paychecks? Why do female servers report 5 times the sexual harassment of other workplaces? And then there’s the convoluted topic of tips…that’s a whole conversation in itself. I think the restaurant industry is a microcosm of our society that is relatively unregulated. There is a legal near slave wage for servers, it’s been the same for decades, so then servers have to depend on discretionary payments from people, and there ends up being this pressure to take crap, including sexist crap, in exchange for gratuities. I’ve been fortunate since moving out west and working in better restaurants that I haven’t had to deal with that as much. I think the industry is changing, and society is changing, but it is at a pretty glacial pace.
What annoys you the most or what puts your teeth on edge in a professional kitchen environment?
Lazy knife work annoys me. The question “is this clean enough?” from dishwashers makes me batty. People being negligent about food safety make me mad. The worst thing, though, is not having a sense of urgency, if someone is trying hard to do a good job we can work on the details as we go.
Mexican Polka, Oldies, or Classic Rock in the kitchen? Why?
I love me some Ranchero, but not all the time. If I had to choose one of those three it would be classic rock. I grew up with oldies from the 50’s to the 70’s and can only handle that occasionally. Speaking of sexism, listening to those women gleefully crooning songs written by men about how happy they are to smile and do their hair just for their men… yeesh. But then Cyndi Lauper hated “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” for the same reasons in the 80’s, and I’m sure that still happens in pop. We use Spotify and Pandora, so we’re able to have a lot more variety.
How do you get inspired?
I think about food pretty often, I have to make an effort to not let myself go off on food related tangents on my days off, for instance. So a lot of times I’ll just be cleaning my room or on a hike or something like that and my brain will connect two disparate ideas I didn’t realize I was working on. It’s actually pretty exciting. I also read a lot of cookbooks and histories and menus. Cookbooks tell you how someone else tried to solve a problem to achieve a result, histories tell why it was important to solve that problem, and how different people in different parts of the world with different climate, flora, and fauna approached it, quite often creating analogous food items, like flatbreads, nut thickened sauces, fermentation, etc… Menus tell you what other people are doing and what ingredients are on the horizon (if restaurants in LA are using baby artichokes we can expect them in perhaps a month here in Montana). Magnus Nilsson makes the point that that doesn’t matter if you are trying to create instead of mimic or just follow trends. I wholeheartedly agree, but I also love reading menus, and I think it can give you ideas for approaches or techniques you can adapt with what you have available where you are.
Name the most impressive cook you have ever worked with. Why?
Probably have to say Victor Mena, who worked at Root Down when I was there. That place was stressful, but he was always cool as a cucumber. He’d only been in the US for like 5 or 6 years, but was already fluent in English and had become Root Down’s Chef de Cuisine after working under Jen Jasinski at Rioja for a few years. He was supportive, calm, hard working, not afraid to get back behind the line and cook, good at teaching and delegating and at being firm without being overbearing. He was also quietly sarcastic, pretty dead pan, which made it fun when he expedited.
Do you read cookbooks, blogs, Bon Appetit or watch cooking shows?
Chef’s Table, Mind Of A Chef, Lucky Peach, The Language Of Food, On Food And Cooking, Oaxaca An Infinite Gastronomy (or anything by Diana Kennedy), Foodways Of Latin America, Cocina Prehispanica, Gran Cocina Latina, Elogio De La Cocina Mexicana, Forgotten Skills Of Cooking (or anything by Darina Allen), I don’t really go in for cooking magazines other than Lucky Peach, but I read other food related things pretty voraciously.
Do you mix your salt and pepper in your mise en place?
What country do you want to eat?
That’s hard. All of them. I’ve made serious headway into eating Latin America. But I want to experience Brazil. Also, India, Morocco, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Laos…
I cut myself pretty badly while cleaning a slicer once. Don’t be in a hurry around a disassembled slicer, I’d say. I had a buddy cover his arm with blackened butter from a cajun style catfish fry, he had to have skin from his ass grafted onto his hand. That was pretty gnarly. Once I was cleaning the stainless steel wall behind the broiler right after service and my wet stainless steel scrubber got to close to the outlet, I got a bad shock that threw me against the back of the broiler, which burned the back of my left arm pretty bad. I made a silly collection of noises in the process.
Biggest asshole you ever met on staff?
Myself. I’ve learned a lot about how to treat people over the years, but haven’t always handled stress as well as I should have. Generally if I don’t like someone in the kitchen it’s because they are mirroring some flaw that I have.
Biggest asshole client or customer you ever met?
There were a couple of people who dined and ditched, a few who were extremely inappropriate with female servers or who made servers cry, some obnoxious loudmouths who had to be removed, I can’t think of any one person who stood out above (below?) everyone else.
Most pain in the ass ticket?
We had a woman come in who had a business card printed with an extensive list of dietary restrictions, I mean cumin to onions to wheat and everything in between. It was a fun challenge, but definitely a pain, too.
Anxiety dreams? Do you have them? What kind?
I do, cyclically, and lots of them. Often it is that the kitchen is totally rearranged and we have to create a new menu from scratch in a couple of hours. Once I had to leap over piles of rubble and we were very busy and there were no lights. Another time the kitchen was on stilts and I couldn’t find any ingredients or equipment. I was working on lucid dreaming at the time and after crawling through the ducts to find carrots I figured out it was a dream and made a fully stocked and prepped sauté station fall from the sky and land in the kitchen. That was by far my best lucid dream experience.
Currently working it. Blackbird Kitchen is a pretty sweet spot. The Highland Tavern in Denver and The Reef in D.C. were great too. Very collaborative and creative places, with small crews of close knit, eager people.
Dream restaurant location?
Colombia, maybe Bogotá or Medellin? The diversity and freshness of ingredients is mind blowing. I also know a lot of farmers, ranchers, etc… here in Montana, and know a lot of the wild mushrooms and plants that grow here, and so I would love to do something special in Bozeman.
Do you taste everything you serve?
All the time.
Food trend that makes you want to burn the world to ashes?
Paleo just annoys me. Especially since I’ve been reading so much about the actual paleolithic and it’s so rich and interesting, the diet seems bland and uncreative by comparison. Also any diets like Scarsdale, Atkins, South Beach because they’re dangerous for the people who follow them.
Food trend that you love?
Getting close to your food source, understanding what’s in the food you eat.
Biggest cooking secret ever revealed to you?
There is more than one way to get great results, judge the results, not the method. Or that you can tell someone who you are and how much you care by cooking a meal for them.
The first was a guy named Osama (we called him Sam) at the first restaurant I worked at, back when I was a total dick. The second was my mom.
What’s your end goal?
I want to own a restaurant, work for myself and my community, and really connect people to southwest Montana. I want to do that by using the techniques of the more developed cuisines I love, especially in the Americas, with more indigenous flavor profiles, more preconquest ingredients. In other words, like the great chefs who inspire me: Rene Redzepi, Magnus Nillson, and others, I want to be truly seasonal, and I want to continue foraging and learning what the land has to offer and incorporating that into my food. Like Diana Kennedy and Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid I want to really dive into the anthropological implications of a cuisine and work with very local and wild ingredients. I also want to create something really unique.
Dream picnic menu (plus location):
Somewhere in the mountains, near a huge lake… camped for days in the same spot, or in a cabin. Some animal we hunted and cooked in a pit, wrapped in leaves pibil style, some roasted vegetables and mushrooms, maybe during porcini season, a full moon, beer, berries, someone will have brought some cheese. We’ll finish by chanting while wandering the woods like in Dead Poet’s Society, but with a happier ending.