The chef at Belltown's Tavolàta is nearly 6'7", but his rise up the Ethan Stowell food chain has been a relatively short trip. Brandon Kirksey, 26, came to Seattle from San Francisco a little more than three years ago, and quickly landed a job at Stowell's Union restaurant just two days after dropping off his resume. He's young, but he knows how to hold his own with grace and professionalism in the kitchen. He's also humble, crediting his kitchen staff for his success: "It seems like I've constantly had a good crew since I started working here."
Photo by Geoffrey Smith
In part one of this week's three-part Grillaxin series, Kirksey dishes on what it's really like working for Stowell and the pitfalls of being so damn tall in the kitchen.
SW: How did you get the job at Union?
Kirksey: I actually came to Seattle with a job lined-up at the Greek spot in Maple Leaf, Divine [which is now COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria]. The guy who was the chef there was a friend of mine from San Francisco, and he was looking for a sous chef. When I met with him in person, he told me he was moving to Utah or somewhere and wanted me to take the chef position instead. I started training there for about a week, and it just wasn't for me. It wasn't a good fit. So I ended up backing out.
I staged at Tilth and Maria [Hines] suggested I go talk to Ethan at Union because of my background in fine dining. So I went down there and asked one of the cooks if I could talk to the chef. I walked into the office and Ethan was sitting there with [his wife] Angela and his business partner, and they all looked up at me, and I was just like, "Hey, I'm here to drop off a resume." I gave him my resume and he asked me to come back the next day to train. I did. He offered me the job and I started pretty much immediately. On Halloween.
You were raised in Grass Valley, Calif. What brought you to San Francisco?
I moved there when I was 18 to go to culinary school. Pretty much right away, I got a job at the Grand Cafe in Hotel Monaco. It was really intense for having just started culinary school. For 15 months, I went to culinary school at night and worked the lunch shift at Grand Cafe five days a week. It was exhausting. Once I started working in the restaurant, I realized I was learning way more there than I was in culinary school, so I kind of paid more attention to the restaurant than school.
My first job when I was about 15 was at a mom-and-pop sandwich shop. After that, I went to work at a paint store and mixed paint and cut window glass and stuff like that. When I turned 18, my girlfriend at the time was talking about going off to college. I was going to junior college, but hadn't really thought about leaving Grass Valley. She just got into my head and got me thinking that I should make a move and do something. She actually brought up the idea of going to culinary school. I hadn't even though of it, but as soon as she mentioned it, everything fell into place within about six months.
Did you come to Tavolàta after Union closed?
No. I actually moved through the company. I worked at Union for about six months, maybe a little less, and then moved to How to Cook a Wolf. Union was getting full of people; Ethan hired a lot of people at the same time. So I was moved up to How to Cook a Wolf, and I cooked up there under Ryan Weed. While I was working there, Anchovies & Olives was opening, so I went back and forth between the two restaurants for about a month. Then Ethan came to me and said he was changing up the kitchen at Tavolàta and wanted me to be the sous chef.
When did you get promoted to chef?
It was before Staple & Fancy. What happened was Morgan Medlock (Tavolàta's former chef) decided he wanted to do something else and he left. When he left, I think Ethan sort of had the mind-set of maybe hiring a new chef, so I expressed to him how I wanted to take over and that I could totally run the kitchen. Ethan filled in as chef for a good two months or so with me as his sous chef, and I guess I proved I could do the job and I got promoted. The rest is history.
Ethan's great. He's an honestly good person. He really cares about the people working for him and he really takes care of them. He's very realistic. If you have something to talk about, he's down to talk to you about it and will be very straight with you about stuff. I couldn't ask for a better person to work with.
Any disadvantages to being your height in the kitchen?
In this kitchen there really isn't. The only thing is sometimes cutting boards are too short. I worked in a kitchen in San Francisco where the hood was right at my forehead. And at the time I had a big mohawk, so every time I lowered my head it would fan the hood.
How do you not get completely burned out on the job?
Lots and lots of Jagermeister. Nah, I keep from getting burned out by being inspired by the people I work with. Like it or not, you definitely get burned out at times in this business, but you expect it and ride it out.
What's the best part about working at Tavolàta?
The freedom. Ethan is a great boss, he's not too demanding, and he's very good about allowing his chefs to be creative and really do their own thing. Besides the fact that we're all serious about what we're doing, everyone's very cool and laid-back. It's not too intense. It's fun.
Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin with Brandon Kirksey.