Jonathan Adams – Co-Founder Rival Bros. Coffee

Tell us a little about your culinary background and how you got into professional cooking?

I started in the coffee business in 1997 at Starbucks as a part time barista. Despite its rapid assimilation into a large commercial entity, Starbucks exposed me to specialty coffee and opened my eyes to this growing segment. I stayed with the company for 3 years before moving into restaurant life. Coffee would remain a focus and a passion.

My first cooking job was preparing staff meal for Fritz Blank and his team at Deux Cheminees in Philadelphia. I had been waiting tables at Davio’s and Brasserie Perrier when I was befriended by local chef Shola Olunloyo of Studiokitchen. He took me to Fritz as an apprentice. It was laborious and confusing. I was trying to make sense of the old school discipline but I wasn’t totally sold on it yet. I plugged away for 6 months before moving into the garde manger section at Brasserie Perrier.

I didn’t realize what a special time the early 00’s were in American culinaria. Fusion cooking was full tilt and established, pharmaceutical companies had royal expense accounts, chefs were becoming rock stars. Brasserie Perrier was my university. Under Chris Scarduzio, I learned the foundations of French cuisine alongside sensible Italian and rogue Asian cooking.  It was a constant state of anxiety: pushing, learning, rising up, fighting, burning. Cooks got fired all the time. Chef knew what and who he wanted on the line, and he wasn’t afraid to get it done his way. It was an amazing experience, and I am forever grateful for all of those I worked with there with, but I was still searching.


I moved on to Salt with Chef Vernon Morales. He had worked for Martin Berastegui and Ferran Adria and I was fascinated with that type of cooking. I was still earning my stripes at being a reliable cook, and Vernon awoke another side to cooking that I needed to learn: the scientific method. Ask questions. Understand the purpose. Anticipate the result. He was technique driven but had a wickedly creative mind. I stayed at Salt until it closed in 2004, and went to Marigold Kitchen to regroup with my Salt counterparts.

After 6 months at Marigold Kitchen, I was fortunate enough to be accepted at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain. Mind numbing cuisine. There were plenty of places in the States to go stage, but the challenge and enticement of being overseas was driving me. Chef Andoni Aduriz teaches cooking as it relates to time and sense of place. His flavors are deceiving. Some are simple, some are complicated, yet all of them represent Spain. I’ve never taken so much enjoyment in preparing vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. I didn’t spend enough time at Mugaritz to fully understand all of Andoni’s philosophy, but it changed my approach and respect for cooking which prepared me for my next job: Paul Liebrandt’s GILT.

Fran Derby from WD-50 came to Mugaritz during my last 2 weeks. Quite frankly, he talked me into the Gilt job. I wasn’t good enough to cook on THAT level…..NYC. A hotel. A badass chef. But I went for it. After Paul talked me into it as well. Gilt was a beast, but an absolutely gorgeous creation. It lived up to its name. I’ve never seen so many talented cooks under one roof. It was special and remains one of my favorite places of employment.

I returned to Philadelphia to open my own place, Snackbar. It was too early in my career to do this, however, everything happens for a reason and it’s another part of my story. I was full of ideas and anxious to show my hometown what I had gathered. Even Philadelphia Magazine called me “Best New Chef” in 2007. I enjoyed being in charge and had some great moments there, but I left to take on a gastropub down the street called Pub & Kitchen. A European inspired gastropub. We did it all. I had a blast, from fish ‘n’ chips to foie gras. La Frieda burgers to cochon au lait. So many good cooks came through there. Many of them are now running kitchens in Philly. We opened a seasonal shore dining restaurant called The Diving Horse that never got the credit it deserved. It was a gorgeous, airy place where we could really cook whatever we wanted to and take full advantage of the coastal New Jersey bounty.

Despite all of this success, I chose to leave the professional kitchen in January 2013.

After years as a chef, how did Rival Bros Coffee come to be?
Rival Bros was launched in Nov 2011 as a mobile cafe in Philly’s Love Park. We took an old DHL delivery truck and made it into a coffee shop. I was looking for another creative outlet, and my passion for coffee was shared by my best friend, Damien Pileggi. He had been working for La Colombe for the past 7 years and was ready to make a move. We have the same values and core ethics. We always wanted to do something together and we were just waiting for the right time. Damien learned to roast coffee, we raised some cash and pulled the trigger.

Tell us about Rival Bros Co-Founder Damien Pileggi and your relationship with him.

Damien Pileggi is a good ol boy. He was raised right and understands being hospitable. We met in high school but became very close friends during the years after that. We waited tables together, we lived together, we hung out together. Our wives were college roommates, so I have him to thank for that intro!!! Damien cares tremendously about coffee and I am continually learning from him.

What were some of the biggest challenges in getting the Rival Bros name out there and getting the cafe funded and open?

As with any business, startup is difficult. Because of my chef background and Damien’s expertise, we gained a following quickly. We chose to work with a PR company for the first few months because we weren’t interested in advertising, but rather sharing our message and we felt that was the best way to achieve results. Damien and I have always been workers, so we were faced with running the books and keeping a tight ship.

What’s the curation process for your single origin and blends? Do you favor particular growing methods, philosophies or regions?

At this time we use a number of high end green coffee importers. We have great relationships with them, and they have direct relationships with the farms. We only use coffee that comes from an approved, reputable source. We are concerned with clean water, deforestation, fair wages and education in the origin countries. Coffee is so manual and requires a lot of back breaking skill to gather even a small amount of cherries. We are constantly tasting new coffees. We embrace all forms of coffee, but we are partial to natural process coffees; they have such a deep, unique flavor from the fruit.

There’s a lot of discusssion in the coffee world about the best brewing methods. What are your thoughts there?

Coffee has become very competitive and very scientific. I appreciate the steps of analysis and the consideration it requires, but what trumps all of that is flavor. Every coffee wants to be made a different way. It all depends on how you roast it and when it was harvested. I can’t say what the best method for brewing is—- but I can give you our favorite. We will always love espresso.

What’s your essential or favorite tool to use at the cafe?

We would lose focus and consistency without a digital gram scale. It allows us to make sure the machines are calibrated, our dose is on point and ultimately that our coffee tastes right.

That said, I have to mention the surge of joy I get when I see a dense, syrupy shot of espresso in our café. We have a La Marzocco GB/5— it’s well built and easy on the eyes.

What inspires you right now?

I’m inspired by my wife, Melissa. She’s given me three beautiful sons in 6 years. Raising three kids, caring for two dogs and keeping an eye on me is no easy task. She’s my source of encouragement and my gut check. She doesn’t get awards, but she should.

Any suggestions for restaurants or cafes we should check out in Philly?

There’s a lot of great coffee shops in Philly right now— Elixr, Bodhi, Ox, ReAnimator, Ultimo, Shot Tower etc but my current fave is Menagerie in Old City. They are using great coffee from Dogwood, Ceremony and George Howell. They also have the friendliest staff.

For restaurants, I can’t stop eating at Fitler Dining Room and High Street on Market. Vernick Food + Drink is another ridiculously solid option.

Matthew Jennings – Owner Chef, Farmstead

We had the privilege of catching up with Chef Matthew Jennings in Providence recently to talk about how he got into cooking, why he loves egg yolks and the importance of humility.

Can you tell us a little about where you grew up?

I’m from Boston, Massachusetts. Ya know…home of the World Series Champions, The Boston Red Sox?! I spent time growing up both in the city and in the country, in and around Boston.

How did you get into cooking initially?

My first job when I was 14 was in a grocery store, as a stock boy. I’d stock the soft drinks and instant ramen, fold the newspapers and steal Playboys on Sunday mornings when my shift was over. The owner of the grocery store also owned a little café that was next door. I’d hang outside the back door of the café and watch the cooks, dancing around a prep table, with their modified uniforms- cut off pants, brightly colored clogs, piercings and tattoos. I’d watch them spin with fish in their hand, throw a bag of flour over their shoulder. They were so cool. And I wanted to get in there. Bad.

A few more months passed and I asked my boss if I could get some hours in the café. He said “Dish and prep only”. And so I started to get my first hours prepping in the thimble sized, screaming hot cubicle kitchen- fighting through the tears as I chopped onions in a corner, on a fish tub lid for a cutting board, while the cooks threw smoking hot pans into a sink full of soapy water, right near me. I got splashed on, burnt, cut and generally abused a lot. And I loved every minute of it. I was hooked.

What do you like most about New England Cuisine?  

The anticipation of the seasons. We have a very short growing season, so as cooks, we dream a lot. We appreciate seasonal ingredients so much more. By the time spring comes around we have menus planned, and every one of us is scrambling for the first wild onions, radishes, nettles, English peas and artichokes. It’s awesome. As cooks in New England I feel like we have a greater obligation to master the ingredients. To learn how not to fuck things up, because once our season is over, that’s it. No more morels. No more tomatoes. Gone. Until next year. So we have a dedication to the product that is special and intense. It’s like that summer fling you had in high school. As May approaches you are already thinking about seeing that person again, then it is ON for three or four months until you fade back into fall and winter and you wait again until next year. But while it is on, it is intense and fiery….


Is there an ingredient that you are excited about working with right now?

I love everything, but I’ve certainly been on an egg yolk kick lately. It’s just so damn sexy. I love eggs so much and don’t understand people that don’t like them. I love making sauces with them, cooking them slowly, creating custards, pate fruits, curing them, frothing them, folding them raw into salads and noodles. They are so versatile. I’m working on an ‘egg yolk muk’ right now- egg yolks cooked with vinegar, nut oil, fish sauce, methylcellulose and some homemade, sesame based miso. I’m not usually into the molecular shit, but this stuff is amazing. I can’t stop eating it. So rich, but so delicate.

What is the most important thing you can teach a young chef?

Humility. No matter how successful you become, there is always someone more successful, so don’t take your own worth too seriously, or become arrogant in its revelation. I still believe that we are the best cooks when we are still learning. I certainly still am. I learn from my own cooks, from others I work with. That’s what this game is about- learning something every day. I’m humbled everyday by how much I don’t know. It inspires me to learn more and to work harder.


You have a pretty prolific Japanese knife collection.  Can you tell us about how you got introduced?

I think I picked up my first Japanese knife- a deba- at a friend’s restaurant probably 15 or so years ago. It intrigued me. It was so alien. So unfamiliar. I was used to such traditional western styles. It felt so awkward in my hand. Fast forward 20 years and I’ve got over a dozen unique Japanese styles, designs, weights, and constructions. I am in love with the notion of ‘right tool for the right job’, and how the Japanese have a much better focus on creating task-specific blades. For me, that is the biggest allure of the Eastern style knife. It hones your focus on an individual task, and teaches you how to master a tool designed specifically for that task. That’s crazy. So cool. I think my favorite right now is my Nakiri. I’m still trying to master that knife. It’s intimidating and yet detailed vegetable work is so inspiring. I look forward to becoming proficient with it. Practice makes perfect I suppose.

Other essential kitchen tools?

A great spoon. Proper sharpening stones. Another perennial favorite is a little flat spatula that came from my grandmother’s silver collection. The thing is amazing. It is hyper flexible and strong, and makes turning scallops in a pan, or rotating vegetables for roasting, or even picking up delicate items, such a breeze. I couldn’t live without it.

Farmstead’s cheese program is pretty serious; can you introduce a few of your favorites that most of us haven’t heard of?

The world of cheese is so vast. We are coming up now on some seasonal cheeses that only come out this time of year, in order to be available for the holidays. I would keep an eye out for cheeses like “Rush Creek Reserve”: a bloomy rinded, soft ripened cheese that is decadent, rich and spreadable. Also cheeses like “Twig Farm Washed” , blow me away. The depth that cheesemakers can coax from the milk is really incredible. American cheeses are undergoing an all-time renaissance right now. People should be inspired to drive out in the country, find a cheesemaker and see what they are doing. Just about every state has talented cheesesmakers these days. It is quite the time to be an aficionado of handmade, American foods.

Favorite places to eat in Providence?  Elsewhere?  

Well, Farmstead of course. Also, I love my friend’s bistro, New Rivers. Super quaint and so New England. Great vibe and awesome food. Some new spots like Birch and North and doing a nice job. Also, I love sausages, so Wurst Kitchen is a favorite. Out of town, I’d hit Tallulah’s Taco Shack in Jamestown in the summer. It’s dope. And Matunuk Oyster Bar. That’s a great spot. Otherwise, I’ll be at home this winter, braising, smoking meat, baking bread, canning pickles and potted meats for friends. So, come on over. I’ll have a pint waiting.

Paul Liebrandt – Executive Chef at The Elm, New York City

We had the honor of sitting down with Chef Paul Liebrandt recently to talk about his culinary background, philosophy and his new restaurant project The Elm.

How did u get into cooking initially?
I suppose I stumbled into cooking. It wasn’t like a lot of chefs they have a lineage of a family or….mine didn’t have anything to do with food. I don’t know really. It wasn’t one thing that I was going to go and cook.  I just liked food, ingredients. Not one particular thing, definitely not.

Who were your mentors early on?
When I was a younger man, Marco Pierre White, Pierre Gagnaire, Raymond Blanc, people who I had worked for were a huge influence on me in various ways. In some ways for their rigor, their mentality, their focus of how to be a chef from a chef’s point of view. Some for the creative aspect, for purely culinary, purely just the food. And their approach and the way they think about food.

How would you describe your culinary style?
I would describe my culinary style at present to be modern European, contemporary French if you’d like a little more specificity there. I wouldn’t say that it’s too boxed in with being French. There is a lot of influence there from Japanese ingredients and technique to Southeast  Asia, as I think there are probably in most modern chefs these days. There are a lot of world influences because the world is obviously a much different place than it was quite a while ago.


What were the steps that led you to where you are now, from Atlas to Gilt to Corton?
Gilt was seven years ago and I was seven years younger. I think any chef when they’re young, every five years is the future. In terms of technology, in terms of in general, most people, that’s the way they look at the future. So, that was the future.

My cooking now is more of an amalgamation of what I was doing at Atlas and French. At Atlas, we were some of the first people to do molecular gastronomy in this country, before Alinea, before any of that. It was more El Bulli-esque kinds of things mixed with that Gagnaire-esque French technique. And, it was very great food. I’ve evolved since then, because I’ve seen the way the food world as a whole around the globe is moving and I like to reinvent my cuisine to a point and keep it fresh and motivated. Some things don’t change, the standards, the rigor, the way that we think about food. The combinations, that doesn’t change; however, because we are seven years on, the techniques and the focus is different.

What inspired you to start work on The Elm, which is a more casual concept than Corton?
I am doing this project because I was approached by my partners there and it was a very good opportunity to have a presence in an area of New York City that is only expanding and is growing in every possible way. And, I think that is a very good way to look at restaurants. I am going to be doing something there that is more affordable than Corton. There will be no white tablecloths, there will be music in the dining room and the dining room has a completely different feel of dining experience. The same PL style on the food; it’s devoid of all the bells and whistles that you have in fine dining, canapés, amuse bouche etc. It will be French style with my interpretation of classical French food with classical French flavors and technique done in a subtle way. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, I’m not trying to do a French brasserie, but we have a good grasp on what we want to do there, which I looked at the market and there is not anything out there like that.


Is it the same foundation?
I mean it’s always the same foundation. We cook a piece of fish and we cook a piece of fish. At Corton, we may be using turbot or shima aji. At the Elm, we may be using skate. But, we still approach it in the same manner. It doesn’t change. When you’re talking about casual food, you’re talking about accessibility. You’re not talking about how accessible on the plate it is. Price is what makes it exclusive or not. If Per Se was $50 per head, it would be thought of very differently because it would be much less exclusive. So, it really does come down to the price of the dining experience. So, obviously the Elm is priced in a more sensitive manner to a bigger, wider audience. So, that makes it more ‘casual’. Although, that’s a difficult word to use because I’m doing a restaurant not a bistro or brasserie. I would prefer to call it affordable luxury. Very good ingredients, cooked very nicely in a really great feel dining room, with a great atmosphere at a price point that most people can afford and can come back every week. And, I feel that is where the future of dining is going. Corton is obviously the 0.1% in this country. In Asia, fine dining is very much there still.

What qualities do you look for in the people you hire?
It’s not necessarily how much experience they have. If a young person comes to me, I’m looking at their will. I’m looking at their drive. If they have an open mind and when they’re shown something if they listen and pay attention and they have that focus. And they have the will to succeed. I give them the tools necessary to succeed but they have to have the will to want to do it. And that is really what I’m looking for when I have a young person come here. And then once I’ve given them those tools, it’s a question of monitoring every day. It’s up to them to make sure and if they decide it’s not for them, then it’s not for them. But, generally it’s the person; we spend so many hours together that I want to enjoy the person’s company that I’m working with. And, do they fit well within a team? Are they a team player rather than an individual? It’s just basic rules of working together.

How about culinary school? Do you recommend it?
No, not necessarily because everybody is different. I didn’t go to the CIA, I didn’t do all that, but that’s me. It doesn’t mean that it was right or wrong. It’s the same as anybody in any career. There’s the way we all think life should go and then there’s the way it does go. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, it’s subjective.


At the moment, are there any ingredients or techniques that are particularly exciting to you?
Because it’s spring, garlic is all over the place right now. We’re doing fresh garlic in all kinds of ways, which is a lot of fun. Not the same as most wild ingredients, but it’s got a lot of character to it. Technique-wise, I’m not one of those chefs who says ‘I’ve invented this new technique’. I’m not like that. I just do what I do; I’ve never been showy about the food. A lot of the European chefs, they are like that, but that’s not me. I think of myself as not just playing with the food, but I’m orchestrating the show every night. I want to move more now to being more of a restaurateur than just a straight chef.
What’s your favorite kitchen tool?
Realistically, it’s my hands, my palette, my eyes, my senses. If I’m honest, because that’s the biggest tool. Without that, it’s all done. If we’re talking about an actual piece of equipment, a good spoon is always good to have. A good quality Japanese knife, absolutely. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it.

What are your favorite places to eat?
En Brasserie. It’s simple, it’s clean, it’s an everyday kind of place. Bar Masa is great; it’s fun and delicious. If I go for sushi, I’m not going at 7, I’m going at 11. So, Blue Ribbon sushi is open then, and it’s really consistent and really, really good. But for me, that is sort of it. If I could eat just Japanese food everyday I would.

You recently spent a week in Japan. How would you compare the food there to what people encounter here in the U.S. or in Europe?
It’s amazing. It’s night and day, it’s oil and water, it’s light and dark. The reverence for the product, the reverence for the technique of just cooking, is far beyond anything in this country. The discipline and the bushido and the craftsmanship, your focus of doing something because that’s what you were born to do, you don’t see that in the U.S. And, I’m not that old but I’m old enough to have touched on a time when that classical French generation was very similar to that. But it’s changed now. Everyone’s got ADD. No one can focus on anything for too long, because they want everything instantly and they don’t want to work for it. It’s a simple thing. The cooks will cook in a particular part of the kitchen for a couple months and then expect to move. To become really masterful and do something until it becomes muscle memory, to do that you have to have patience and understand the longer picture. So, for me, I think it’s very important that remains and I see that in Japan. And, it’s something which is lost here. It’s my home here (U.S.) and I shouldn’t say that, but it’s the truth. And the truth is very simple. It’s worldwide. Its’ not what it was. In Japan, I love that mentality and that approach. It’s ‘Welcome to my home’ and it’s reverence for every single little thing and I love it. I think that is the way life should be. Life would be better if everything was like that and people were dedicated and people were focused.

Do you have any advice for young cooks starting out?
This is not a 100 meters, this is a marathon this business. It’s very hard to tell young people that. They want to jump on it and they want to run and that’s important. It’s good to have that. But you need to obviously be balanced and understand it doesn’t happen all in one day. You do have to be patient. You have to work at it and you have to keep up that ambition. You have to keep up that focus and that drive. When I say to them, I can tell you something, I can show you the door but you have to walk through that door.

Photo credit: Evan Sung

Andy Ricker – Owner Chef, Pok Pok

What is your earliest food memory?
My mom baking bread. She made really great crusty whole wheat bread in coffee cans.

What led you to become passionate about Thailand and northern Thai food?
Traveling in Northern Thailand back in the 80’s and 90’s. I can’t recommend travel enough for anyone who wants to learn more about another culture. And I’m not talking about going on a party tour or htting twenty locations in a week. Go there, stay in one place, be curious, let it unfold.

How would you describe your cooking style?
It’s an amalgamation of very traditional Thai technique (lots of mortar and pestle), line cook trickery and Western finessing of traditional Thai cooking technique (where many Thais would boil the shit out of some pork ribs, I will instead simmer…simple as that).

Who are some of your mentors, both in and out of the kitchen?
David Thompson, who made it seem possible for a farang (foreigner) like me to get some kind of grip on Thai cooking; Chris Israel (former boss and chef at Zefiro restaurant in Portland, a seminal eatery that pre-dated most of the current Portland scene, and current chef at Gruner in Portland) who really showed me how to use my palate.  Sunny Chailert, my friend and mentor from Chiang Mai who has had tremendous influence on my taste and vocabulary. Willy Vlautin (author of several novels, one of which is currently a major motion picture: “Motel Life”) who said to me once “just tell your story”.
What inspired you to open Pok Pok and what were some of the challenges with the initial opening?
I didn’t know what else to do. I’d been a housepainter for nine years, did not want to work for anyone ever again and did not want to be a painter anymore. That left opening a restaurant.

How did the experience of opening in New York differ from opening in Portland?
Well, it was much fucking harder.

What are the main differences between diners in these two cities?
New York City diners tend to be more open to the more esoteric dishes on the menu, but both cities have embraced Pok Pok equally.

Are there any Thai (or non-Thai) ingredients that you are especially excited about at the moment?
Just picked up a kilo of naam phrik made in Mae Hong Son that has toasted ground thua nao khaep (thin fermented/dried soybean cakes), ground dried fish, salt and chiles, used for making certain dishes in the Tai Yai canon; looking forward to making Koh Phak Kuut (Tai Yai salad of fiddlehead ferns, tomatoes, shallots and this naam phrik, mixed with raw sesame oil and seeds) in the spring.
What kitchen tools do you consider essential?
Mortar and pestle. Since we are on knives here, I love Japanese knives…but I can afford them. Every recipe in the Pok Pok cookbook was made for the beauty shots in Thailand, in a Thai kitchen using cheap Kiwi knives, so no need to have the fancy knives to make this food…but it sure makes it easier.

Favorite places to eat in Thailand, the U.S. and beyond?
I love eating all over Thailand. I can’t really give a favorite spot, but Northern Thai is my first love, followed by Isaan and central Thailand….I love Southern Thai food too but know the least about it. I’d fly to London just to have breakfast at St. John Bread and Wine….and I don’t even like wine.

Photo credits: Evan Sung and David Reamer