John Culver Executive Chef Blasted Barley Beer Co. 404 S. Mill Ave., Tempe www.BlastedBarley.com
Walk into Tempe's new Mill Avenue brewery, Blasted Barley, and you'll notice the large patio, the kegs of beer sitting on a loft above the bar, and a selection of games -- including cornhole and skee-ball -- in the back of the restaurant. It's a fun looking place for sure, but perhaps not a place where you'd expect to find interesting, quality food.
Chef John Culver knows that. He also wants to prove you wrong.
"I don't want to go totally off the wall," he says. "But I want to bring it up a notch."
And this guy's obviously equipped to do it. Not only is he a culinary school grad (actually, he attended not one, but two different culinary schools, the Arizona Culinary Institute and the Art Institute of Seattle), he's also spent time in some of the Valley's top kitchens.
After finishing school in 2008 he landed a job at Cafe Bink in Cave Creek, where he stayed for about seven months before summer layoffs hit. His next gig came when he got a job at Quiessence in the fall, working for a period of time under then-chefs Greg LaPrad and Tony Andiario. He went on to work at J&G Steakhouse at the Phoencian, and then at Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden, which was under the direction of chef Stephen Eldridge (Eldridge is now heading up the kitchen at Pink Pony).
Most recently, Culver worked at Bitter & Twisted with chef Bob Tam, and it's those last two chefs that Culver says have influenced his cooking at Blasted Barley the most. He's got plenty of experience in fine dining, but Culver says he's happiest letting his creative juices flow freely in a more casual setting.
"I can do things here that people would be afraid to do other places," Culver says. "And I like this a lot more. It's having fun cooking. I never thought cooking should be so uptight."
If you had to pick one person who's influenced you the most in the kitchen, who would that be?
Ah, just one? I would say Tony [Andiario formerly of Quiessence], because, well, he took me as a rookie and pretty much molded me. He didn't ever let me get away with anything. It was like, I left the potato in the ice, and it was either get that potato out of the ice with my teeth, or be fired. It was just little stuff like that. Not labeling one thing would get you kicked out of the kitchen. Just being really strict in the beginning is really what helped me get into all these kitchens later on. So he took straight out, like my first year, and really, pretty much molded me.
But that was more work ethic, and it's pretty much between Bob [Tam of Bitter & Twisted] and Steve [Eldridge of Pink Pony] that made me, that helped me to see the creative side. One's work ethic, and the others are creativity. So I couldn't pinpoint just the one person, to tell you the truth. Steve showed me, he really opened my horizons to see different kinds of food and the way it's made, and serving it in a fun way. Bob showed me to be even more creative with it, but in a more limited spectrum, I guess you would say. I don't know. Between those three I couldn't really say which one [was more influential].
Would you recommend people go do fine dining right out of culinary school?
I recommend that if you want to do barbecue, go do barbecue. If you want to do fine dining, go do fine dining. I don't recommend anything for anybody because it's all different. You know, I have a passion for breakfast and smoked meats, and I'm not going to say I don't care about fine dining any more - but I really don't. It's just, I don't care about foie gras torchon. I just don't. I've had enough foie gras. I just don't want it anymore, to tell you the truth.
I didn't know there was a point in your life when you could ever have enough foie gras.
Right? But I don't know, I used to really look up to people like Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. I liked Thomas Keller because, I don't know . . . he's really classical, I think, in a way. And Charlie Trotter is vibrant and more modern. You look at his food and it's bright orange and green and black. It's just these bright colors that makes the food look really good.
Now that you're not in fine dining, who are you looking up to?
Uh, I've been reading more about smoking and barbecuing and stuff like that. And I've been looking at a lot of Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] stuff. I'm just going through everybody right now, everything that I have. I'm pretty much going through and reading books and saying, "Ok, how could I use that recipe? I can't." Flip the page. "Can I use that recipe? Yeah, I could use that recipe."
Do you have a favorite go-to cookbook?
The Professional Chef Book. I mean, I always fall back on that one just because it's foolproof basic stuff. Well, and the Art Institute of Seattle book -- I forget the name -- those are my two. It's basically my roots so I go back to them and I flip through them and I remember making stuff in school. You know, I remember how it came out and I can do my own thing with it now.
What's your favorite item on the brunch menu right now?
The apple fritter sandwich. It's just, I mean, it's too much but you can't get enough of it, you know? You got this huge apple fritter -- and it's the best apple fritter you can get. It's just super delicious with the ham, the cheese, bacon syrup, butter, sugar . . . and it's like, three up eggs so the yolk makes it even richer. I would say that's my signature, as well as the chicken and waffles. The mustard, creamy demi-glace with sweet potato waffles and buttermilk brined chicken and maple syrup and cilantro. It's doesn't sound like it goes together, but it blends perfectly.
What food trend are you super over?
Steakhouses. I cooked steaks for four years and at the end -- well, I can't even hold tongs anymore. My hand's just burned. But just cooking steaks in general, because when you're doing like three or four hundred a night, it's like you're on a conveyor belt of meat. I'm totally over steakhouses. I don't want any part of it.
What do you want to be the next big food thing?
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Creativity like what I'm doing and what Bob's doing. I want to see more chefs not afraid to put on the menu what's on their minds. The crazy stuff. A peanut butter and jelly ramen burger like we had at Bitter & Twisted with Kahlua whipped cream. I want to see chefs not afraid to do that because, yeah, all food is recreated from something somebody else created. You know, lasagna's been around for how long? Spaghetti? You throw some new ingredients in there, but you're still making spaghetti. You're still cooking steak if you put crab and Bearnaise on it. So what? I don't care. To me, yeah, you're using great ingredients and, yeah, it's good prime filet mignon. But then at the same time, I think being in this industry is all about being creative and expressing yourself. And if you're not, it's just like, what are you doing?
Being a chef has a lot to do with being creative because that's how all these things came along in the first place. You know, you didn't see Escoffier sitting around and making flat bread. He made Hollandaise and bechamel and this other stuff. I'm not going to say I want to be the modern-day Escoffier, but, you know, I want to be adventurous like him and make some new things. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to reinvent the wheel, I know that. But at the same time, it's the whole no-fear thing.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Harold Marmulstein -- Salty Sow Casey Hopkins-Johnson -- Welcome Chicken + Donuts Robert Nixon -- Geordie's Steak Chris Schlattman -- The Upton Joey Bruneau -- Nabers Cory Oppold and Juan Zamora -- Atlas Bistro Natalie Morris Luis Milan -- Sol Diablo Cantina