Before Ben Johnson earned a gig at Spur Gastropub, he started his cooking career as a weekend cook for some lucky Tri-Deltas at Washington State University. Raised on a beef farm in eastern Washington, Johnson learned to cook from his parents and where they grew what they ate, and went on to spend a summer on a commercial salmon fishing boat in Alaska. He booked kitchen hours at the Whitehouse Crawford in Walla Walla, and spent a short time at Spinasse and Frank's Oyster House, before landing a trail at Spur that led to a job as Garde Manger (the preparation of cold dishes). Now, as Spur's sous chef, Johnson explains his views on modernist techniques, and his love for Kraft cheese--not what you think--and frozen pizza--is what you think.
Johnson: It is really difficult to just pick one technique or dish. Everything I've learned about modern techniques has been during my time at Spur. Though I can't necessarily pick a favorite, some of the most rewarding have been ones that were the most difficult to perfect. These include truly stable fluid gels; they don't exhibit syneresis (the expulsion of a fluid from a gel). "Melting Cheese", as we call it at Spur, very closely resembles Kraft singles in flavor and texture and goes on our burger. Another fun one we did was a fried terrine that held its structure under heat and didn't break down in the fryer.
What is a modern technique that you think home cooks can more easily adopt at home?
Some of the things we do at Spur require somewhat expensive equipment that would be impractical for the everyday home cook. However, a lot of the techniques we use could very easily be adapted to the home cook's repertoire with little to no modifications. One that is relatively new to me, and particularly fun. We use a product called carrageenan that's available online, to make a quick setting custard that can be poured tableside and sets up about a minute. At that point, the mold can be removed and you can finish plating the rest of the dish
The desserts at Spur are far from boring. There is a stigma out there that chefs don't like to make desserts. Do you share this sentiment?
No. I think a well-rounded chef needs to be able to do it all. When I was in Walla Walla, I worked part time at a place called the Colville Street Patisserie. During my time there, I learned a lot of the basics of pastries. I particularly enjoy making frozen desserts. Also the desserts we do at Spur are some of the most playful and progressive dishes on the menu. Much of the prep is done by Garde Manger, so it's a good place for young new chefs to learn and hone new skills.
I heard that you enjoy mushroom hunting. What have you found and where do you go to find them?
I have gone mushroom hunting a few times, though, only once or twice on this side of the Cascades. I have found morel and chanterelle mushrooms. A majority of the mushroom hunting I've done has been in the Blue Mountains. Also, I did a little in the area where I grew up. We used to eat the morels we found on our farm.
Was it an odd or difficult transaction growing up with farm fresh, rustic cooking and transitioning to modern techniques?
Good question. Some people view the modern techniques we use as a new form or way to cook. Still, others view it as not cooking at all. The truth is, we still know how to perform all or at least most of the classic techniques as well. For me, it just seemed like the natural progression of things. I don't really view it as a trend, but rather something that will eventually make its way into many home cooks' repertoire. Most of these techniques were developed out of necessity by the commercial food industry and then later adapted by chefs for use in their own kitchens.
So what do you like to cook when you're at home?
Honestly, I don't cook all that often at home. When I do, it's usually something easy like ramen or sandwiches; sometimes even frozen pizza.