Innovation Award: Spur's Brian McCracken and Dana Tough

Ten years ago, it seemed as if almost all young cooks worth their whites had listed on their resumes some time spent in the Napa Valley kitchen of Thomas Keller's French Laundry. Keller was the rock star, the wild-eyed rebel, the man who was going to single-handedly save the American culinary scene from stagnation and hippie pretension. So if you were an up-and-coming sous with something to prove, you absolutely had to make the pilgrimage to the Laundry, do your time, and come out the other side a changed person. Today, things are a generation removed. The point people of the American avant-garde are now running kitchens of their own, and the new breed all must draw a straight line of inspiration from themselves to one of the latest culinary modernists: Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adrià—the grand master—at El Bulli. Which is why this year's Innovation Award winners are so unusual. Sure, Brian McCracken and Dana Tough can name-drop with the best of them. They can quote from the El Bulli cookbooks and talk about Achatz's wild presentations and how Keller was an inspiration to them both. But the kitchens they came up in? They're just about as far removed from the worlds of molecular gastronomy and culinary modernism as one can get without updating the passport, booking plane tickets, and flying off to some little town in Italy where no one has even heard of a fluid gel, let alone eaten one. Before opening Belltown's Spur Gastropub in July 2008, Tough worked on the line for Maria Hines at Tilth in Wallingford—one of the restaurants at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement. He'd done time at Tulio, opened the Waterfront Seafood Grill, and worked the hot side at Earth & Ocean in the W Hotel, which was where he'd met Hines (he left with her to open Tilth years back). Earth & Ocean was also the kitchen where Tough first ran into his future partner, McCracken. For his part, McCracken had worked at Mona's in Greenlake. He'd run a catering company after leaving Earth & Ocean, and stood stage at a bunch of different houses around the East Coast (in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.). Neither man really had anything in his background which would've led them in the direction of foams, fluids, and dusts. Well, except for one thing. "Brian and I, when we were at the W, we played with a lot of the ingredients we use now," Tough explains. "In that kitchen, certain cooks were responsible for doing the amuse-bouches every day." And it was there, working on that most throwaway of courses, that Tough and McCracken first started playing with the tools and techniques of molecular gastronomy. For Tough, play seems to be the operative word in all his descriptions of how he found himself half in command of one of Seattle's most cutting-edge kitchens—playing with food, with ingredients, with the way diners experience flavor, texture, and dinner as a whole. "Delicious, focused, and playful" is how he describes the menu at Spur. "Playing with ingredients" is how he describes what he does all day. McCracken approaches the plate a bit differently. He speaks like a scientist, talks of research and study, trial and error, and the fine-tuning of the palate. For him, the urge toward a new modernity in American cuisine ought to be entered with an eye on best practices. If a piece of meat tastes best grilled, then grill it, by all means. But if there's a compelling reason to break out the thermal circulator or the chemistry set? He isn't going to hesitate. "We have a simple burger on our menu," he explains. "And it's just...a burger." Because through all the history of culinary innovation, no one has yet come up with a better way to handle a hunk of ground beef than to slap it on a smoky grill, flip it once, and present it between bread. But then Tough starts talking about a pasta carbonara he liked from one of Spur's past menus—tagliatelle tossed with smoked oyster mushrooms that mimic the flavor of pork, topped with shaved parmesan and parmesan foam, then mounted with a sous vide duck's egg which, when broken at the table, creates the sauce for the pasta. McCracken loved a chocolate consommé that he and Tough made for a s'mores dessert—gelatinized, frozen, and clarified essence of chocolate, perfectly clear but with a flavor like the best hot chocolate ever, presented with a marshmallow sorbet and graham-cracker soil. Tough recalls a short rib done with fluid gels, McCracken a flight of whimsical pastries. Once they get talking, the two chefs just roll. And that's another innovation of the Spur kitchen: It can operate with two chefs without one of them ending up in jail for shanking the other in an argument over garlic. Where most kitchens, by necessity, are dictatorships, Spur's is a two-man democracy. "It works for us somehow," explains McCracken, this balancing of two passions, two minds, two inspirations coming from two very different places. "We fight just enough to make everything better."

 
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