My name is Rhys Amber and I am a cook. I’ve been involved in the hospitality scene in Vancouver for over a decade. I cut my teeth behind the lines and in front of the stoves of many kitchens in this city. My days of working in a restaurant are done, but hanging up my apron does not mean that my love of the craft is done as well. This Scout series is an opportunity to explore the restaurant experience from a whole new vantage point: as a writer. Today, I speak with Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson of Published on Main.
The juxtaposition of personality in many high-level practitioners of cookery is often extreme: clean whites, artful expression and surgically precise technique are what we see on the surface, while beneath the veneer of perfectionism is often quite the opposite.
Some of the best meals I’ve ever had have been by the hand of Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson – but this is a hand I know to be more likely to be holding a can of Wildcat than a glass of natural wine. He’s a cat dad, a nature boy and a lover of the vinyl cafe. He’s lived a life in and out of the kitchen. He’s amassed an impressive assortment of skills and has a legit connection to the land (he grew up on a farm), but to those that know him, he’s also a bit of a rebel. Having spent his formative years in the debaucherous streets and kitchens of Winnipeg, he’s no stranger to hooliganism.
Gus has seamlessly woven the authenticity of a swashbuckling pan jockey with the progressive ideals of a modern chef. His kitchen represents that same dichotomy. The team works hard, plays hard and is committed to embracing change. I’m sure things aren’t easy at Published, but I’m happy to hear that he’s committed to leaving things a lot more sustainable than he found them. We’ve been good friends for many moons now, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to talk a bit about the side unseen as well as the crusade for a better tomorrow in the industry.
Get to know a little more about both sides of Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson below…
Explain to us what a “hot move” is and give us an example of one that you use regularly.
A “hot move” is something that I often say fondly of a technique that might be a “secret”. Like, “Oh man, did you see how he charred that cabbage right on the french top and then glazed it? Turbo flavour – that’s a hot move.” It also could refer to a skookum bit of setup, like commenting on a different and more efficient way to get mise en place done, or get something cooked during service: “I like the way you were cooking XXXXX tonight – that’s a hot move.” However, I think I’ve shifted away from using the term so much. Things that I appreciate now are all “turbo”.
What are some aspects of kitchen culture that you were exposed to in your formative years that you refuse to allow in your own space? Are there any that you’ve retained?
I’ve definitely worked in kitchens where a certain amount of intimidation has been used to generate results. Fear-based leadership is something that I don’t agree with. But on the flip side, one thing that has always been important to me is maintaining and respecting the standard. I think I can be very direct in my language when something is not good enough. It’s never malicious or personal, though. I try to help someone understand what they can do to fix the mistake and turn it into a learning experience, so it’s not all negative. It’s a delicate thing, using language that doesn’t attack someone but also makes them aware of their shortcomings.
How are you committed to creating a more sustainable culture for future generations of cooks?
Starting with Published, and carrying through our new restaurants, we are trying to make a big change in our programs. We work very long days in order to make the food we make, for the service and volume in which we operate. It’s been the standard for me my whole career. But just because it’s what so many of us came up doing, doesn’t mean it’s the right way. I really like to promote a sense of responsibility, ownership and accountability for my station chefs here, and with that comes a big workday. We tried to push to a later start time, separate prep and service, but it just doesn’t work. Our new model is going toward a four-day workweek and having prep staff that take a bit of the load off the chef de parties. For us, a shorter day seems unattainable, so a three-day weekend makes a huge difference.
What are some realities of this line of work that you think are unlikely to change?
The long hours required, especially at the level we operate at. Come in at 10am or 11am, do your mise en place, set up your station, work service, last hot food leaves at 10:30pm, clean down for at least an hour, and go over your list for the next day. All that easily adds up to 12-14 hours. When I spent time at Noma, we started at 6am, and did not go home till after midnight. At Favorite in Mainz, 7am to 1am was the standard day, 5-6 days a week. So when I refer back to those days, a 12-hour day seems normal, and an 8-hour day seems like a half-day. When we were just doing take-out during pandemic closures, most days we worked eight hours. It felt like cheating to me, but it was also nice to have more work-life balance. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
Biographical information about you often focuses on your upbringing on a farm, but as friends, I also know that you had a few rebellious years – in kitchens and on the streets of Winnipeg. Clearly, much of your respect for food comes from your farm experience, but what part of the rebellious years could someone see (if they were looking close enough)?
Well, the honey dill, for sure. Spending time on the farm was definitely instrumental in a lot of my appreciation for quality ingredients, and doing things the right way. Anything less is just not good enough.
I think the biggest takeaways from my time in the big grind kitchens I started in are the moves. Making shit happen. Bourdain talked about “System D”. At the OSF [Old Spaghetti Factory], we would easily do 600-700 covers on a weekend night, with a team of bedwetters and miscreants – some real fringe types – and by the time I was 16 or 17 I had gotten a whole team of my high school buds hired on. Every service was going into battle – throwing together a batch of sauce on the fly, or blanching 40lbs of pasta mid-service because the prep guy stitched you up… Those were the moves we made to make it through the night. It made me resilient, and gave me kind of a no-excuse mentality, the idea of “if the product is in the building, there is no reason we should ever 86 it.”
How do you reconcile that part of yourself with the rigidity and structure typical of your profession?
I like to have things be organized and squared away in the kitchen, and I want everything to be “just so.” I spend most of my free time out in the forest, picking mushrooms, or whatever wild thing. I like being out of cell service, not having to answer any questions, where the only decision I have to make is where to find the next flush. I think we operate at such a high frequency here, under so much tension and pressure, that I try to find the complete opposite whenever I am able.
Tell us about your favourite spoon.
My favourite spoon. The one I’ve been using for over a decade is an all purpose tasting, basting, plating and jar opener – I can’t start service without it.
What’s a fond memory you have now of a kitchen incident that was a complete catastrophe at the time.
RAW:Churchill immediately springs to mind. Picture building a temporary restaurant structure at the bottom corner of the Hudson Bay, in a 300-year-old fort, at almost 60 North. Temperatures were reaching -50 degrees Celsius – even -60 degrees with the wind chill. We are three hours out from when we’re supposed to be welcoming guests, but with the cold, the screw guns can only manage 5-6 screws before their batteries die. The structure comes together barely in time, and even though we have four propane heaters blasting, as the first guests arrive for their nine-course tasting menu the water in their glasses is freezing at the tables, and our first-course snacks are freezing onto the plates. Everyone is dining in parkas and toques. It’s a disaster. But the guests are enjoying themselves, between the wine and whiskey, and everyone is having a great time. By the next night it’s better, and we are able to wear t-shirts in the space. The following three days of service continue to improve, and it turns into one of the most incredible and magical cooking experiences I’ve ever gotten to experience…Then a blizzard rips into town, dropping 80cm of snow in less than 24 hours and trapping us in a house. It’s a fine line to walk, I guess, between hope and despair. There are so many disaster stories, but nothing has ever really gone super wrong, and we’re still here and doing it, day after day.