“I don't consider myself old in any way, but I'm old school now. Even Dee (Nguyen), Mike (Rossi) . . .we're old.”
One of the best things about interviewing a well-connected baker is the exchange of information. Dean reminds us that the community of chefs is full of friends and customers. Can you believe he's been serving the county for the last 20 years? Our interview continues with more anecdotes. And Dean, we look forward to that bakery tour (and your election to city council)!
And now, on to Part Two . . . .
What's your take on old school versus younger chefs?
The younger generation has great ideas, but sometimes I don't think they want to work for it. That's the problem. If you look at a lot of the great chefs, the frontrunners for years and years, they're simplifying things. Opening up hamburger joints, and Scott Brandon and his hot dog joint.
One food you can't live without:
Pigs feet. There's a place in either Hacienda or Rowland Heights that does fried pigs feet, and I remember for my birthday, my wife got me a whole chafing dish full of it. It has star anise in it, and it's super good. I was in bed with a bottle of cream soda, finishing the whole thing. My wife thought it was the most disgusting thing she'd ever seen.
What is your ethnic background?
I was raised by a Swedish father and a Korean mother, so I've lived the Asian world, and I've lived the “white kid” apple pie and ice cream. Til this day, even at Thanksgiving, a lot of my family thinks I work for J.J. Bakery.
I took my Asian brother-in-law, who eats rice and kimchee all the time, to The Golden Truffle. We ordered wine and the tasting menu. He liked it, but he doused everything with Tabasco sauce. Alan Greeley (of The Golden Truffle) is one chef who makes me laugh. His (potty) mouth is worse than mine.
Wait– where were you born and raised?
I was born in Glendale, raised in the Hollywood Hills, and then relocated to Berkeley for school. Home is now Orange. Although in the bottom of my heart, I hope I can go back to the Bay Area some day.
Favorite meal growing up.
Japanese curry rice. There's a ramen place nearby that does great curry.
Describe a normal breakfast.
Super runny eggs, some kind of pork, like bacon. I don't drink coffee that much. My wife is Taiwanese, so she got me to drink a lot of tea.
So you used to chew tobacco?
I was smoking a lot of cigars, but I couldn't smoke in production, so I started putting plug in my mouth. I had plug in my mouth half the time. Christian Rassinoux (with Ritz Carlton at the time) made me stop. I was delivering at Ritz Carlton, and I felt this slap on my back. It was Christian, and I swallowed my plug. He asked how I was doing, and I told him, “Good, good.” I got in my car, drove around the corner and threw up all over the loading dock. I stopped chewing plug after that day.
Was that the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?
I think a lot of people think bone marrow is disgusting [Editor's Note: We don't!]. I went to Cosmopolitan (Las Vegas). You know how they give you bone marrow (at the buffet)? I was thinking, “Can I get more?” That's all I wanted. Charlie Palmer's does a really good bone marrow.
A lot of the higher/upper end culinary places do a lot of weird things, but to me, I think every time I have a terrific meal I feel great. But I also feel a little guilty because there's a lot of people in the world who will never experience something like this. I'm a freaking baker eating a terrific meal where the chef is cooking for us. That's a privilege. The first time I had sea urchin risotto, I thought, “Man, that's the best thing in the world!”
Earliest food memory.
I remember as a kid, one of my uncles tried to give me uni. I stayed away from it, because it looked like a petrified tongue to me. One day, he told me I couldn't leave until I had one bite. I took a bite and loved it. He really taught me something. I know adults say this to their children all the time, but always try it before you say no. Now he tells me my tastes are too expensive.
I was never into cheeses, but my stepfather was really into stinky cheeses. My parents were a big influence on me in culinary. If I had $100 in my hand in high school, and I bought two t-shirts, they would've hated it. But if I told them, “I spent $100 on lunch.“, they would think that's fine, because food is like education. It's good to know good food. That's their philosophy growing up. I got to eat at a lot of good restaurants in LA. My parents encouraged that.
What's your Whole Foods story?
I was at the original Whole Foods doing a bread demonstration. At that time, two couples owned the company. They told me how they planned on having these grocery stores all over. I thought, “Who the hell is going to pay these prices for organic food? There's no way.” I declined the offer to be their head baker.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?):
I have two. (The chef at) Rendezvous asked me to infuse coconut and Indian curry in a bread. Til this day, that was the biggest (insert explicative here) bread I ever made in my life. I still get flack from it from customers saying, “Of all the breads you make, I love them all, but that was horrible. I don't know what you were thinking.“
My second one is Karl Strauss. Louie (Francis) Jocson was the corporate chef there before he did Red Table. He asked me to infuse their used hops into a bread. I didn't know anything about beer. I knew it was almost the same process as sourdough, so it couldn't be that hard to use. He gave me a bucket of it; (it) smelled like puke. I wondered how we were going to mix this to get that smell out. There was no way. Just mixing it made you want to gag. We tried putting molasses in it. Nothing. Let's put honey in it. No. I did, literally 50 to 60 variations of that stuff infused in bread, and the smell would not go away. And then I gave it to Louis, and he said, “Oh my gosh. This stuff stinks!”
What kind of hours do you work?
I don't even want to talk about it. I think my wife is working out how much money I make per hour, with all the hours I put in. Like any chef will tell you, you have to have a passion. I could work all the time. I could sleep here, live here. I'd be fine with it, because I love the business. I really do. I love going back there, and (although my guys hate it, because I'm nit picky all the time) looking at bread.
Sometimes I'll take the guys to a restaurant where they wouldn't usually go, and I tell them, “Before you eat anything, look around. All these people are eating your bread. Don't you feel a little bit of pride? As a baker, look how they display the bread and serve the bread. How would you change it to make it better?”
What's owning your own business like?
Now, baking as an owner of a bakery, I take everything a little bit more personally. That's why every morning I'm here checking the bread before it leaves; making sure I hear the crunch. I have to say we're doing some of the best bread we've done in a long time. When we set up the bakery, we set it up our way. And it's good that we did because we're getting really good and consistent product. Nothing is easy in culinary.
One more story!
When I was working at Breads 'n Spreads, I was washing the dishes at the sink one day. All the people would come in, wanting to work for us. I told Antelmo, my head baker, “I'm sick of talking. YOU talk to them. You're gonna be dealing with them, so you go and give them the whole layout of the bakery. Show them the starters. Tell them why we bake the way we bake.” “No problem” he said.
So I was doing the dishes, and a kid from culinary comes up with a file in his hand. He's leaning up against the wall, and I say, “Hi. How are you doing?” He just looked at me. I'm almost done with my dishes, and I say, “So are you here for the baking apprentice position?” He goes, “Yeah, I won't be doing any of that type of work (gesturing to the sink).” I finished doing the dishes, and went up to Antelmo while he was giving the tour and told him, “Bring up the kid to my office. Call me two minutes before you come in. Okay?“
He calls me. The kid comes in, sees me sitting at my desk and I have my apron on, still full of water and dirt. Antelmo goes, “This is Dean. He's the executive baker and owner.” The kid kind of turned red, and then white. I said, “You know I'm not gonna (inappropriate word) hire you. I'm gonna give you a word of advice. [Editor's Note: This is the advice he gives to every culinary student.] I don't care if you work at McDonald's, Denny's, Ritz Carlton, Montage, St. Regis. I don't care where you work. With that type of arrogance, your chef is gonna eat you alive. In my experience, you have to work up the ranks to get where you are. When I first started, I had to peel 3,000 pounds of potatoes in a day. So don't tell me you don't have to do dishes.”
I remember seeing him later on in the kitchen at Surf and Sand (Resort), and I was telling the chef that I remember this kid, but I couldn't place him. Chef knew it was bothering me, and he goes, “He's been around. He's been here for six months.” When we went through the menu, it clicked. I told the chef, and he goes, “Go talk to him.” So I went up to him, and I noticed that every time he saw me, he kept looking down at the ground. He would not give me eye contact the whole time. I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “Good.” I asked, “Are you the executive chef yet?” He said, “No” And I just walked away.