A Chat With Philip Speer, Uchi and Uchiko's Director of Culinary Operations
Philip Speer is just your regular neighborhood genius chef. The friendly pastry chef focuses on the savory side of sweet, and has received national recognition from places like Bon Appetit and Cooks Illustrated as well as local awards from places like the Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman. At 17 he started working in scratch bakeries (in-store bakeries that prepare products from scratch) before making the transition to pastry chef in restaurants like Jean-Luc’s Bistro and Starlite. But you probably recognize him most for his scrumptious desserts like fried milk at Uchiko and jizake crème caramel at Uchi, as well as his active role in all of the restaurants’ events. When we sat down with Speer recently to talk baking and the construction on Uchi Dallas (which is slated to open in fall 2014), he hinted at a new restaurant concept in Austin too.
Zagat: I heard that you baked as a teenager. Have you always been interested in baking and pastry?
Philip Speer: Absolutely. I knew at a really young age that I wanted to be a pastry chef. I was told by this old-school, Welsh pastry chef that all European pastry chefs start in bakeries. That’s really where you learn the foundation of pastry and how butter, flours, eggs, yeast, all the different chemicals and compounds work.
And I was also told that I should learn how to cook a little as well. So I worked in restaurants and had a couple of line cook positions in restaurants at the same time for about five years.
Zagat: What was it about pastry that intrigued you?
PS: We had family friends that I thought were amazing. I wanted to do what my friend’s father did and have his life, and he was a pastry chef. They were rich and beautiful and awesome. This was in Chicago. It was this fairy tale of a story. It turned out that as I got older, I learned a lot of things that weren’t so fairy tale. But that’s how I started my career.
It was something that was always interesting to me. I didn’t grow up with a chef-driven background. I was cooking in the kitchen as a kid, but out of necessity.
Zagat: Are you a sweets person?
PS: Not really. I’m much more of a savory person. It comes through in my food. I love baking savory things, like breads, laminate doughs, croissants. There are a few sweet things I like. I really like a certain kind of brownie and Callie’s [Speer, his wife and pastry chef at Swift’s Attic] chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven. I like ice cream. And that’s about it.
Zagat: Tell me about mixing sweet and savory.
PS: It just makes sense in my brain. The pastry chefs that I looked up to as I was coming up, I was definitely inspired by them, like Sam Mason, who really did the sweet-savory combinations. I was always more of a savory person. I liked to bake and I liked the magic of pastry. But even before it started getting modern and magical, I always liked the combination of sweet and savory. Some of my favorite desserts were really on the savory side, surprisingly salty. When we opened Jean-Luc’s Bistro in 1999, I’d already been a pastry chef for the restaurants and a baker. When we started talking about food there, the chef really wanted to push the savory.
It started off with using savory spices with sweeter things. Using coriander and cumin with something that might be as typical as an apple crisp. I started pushing the herbs and then that turned into ingredients that were more savory, like tomatoes and goat cheese. Like, if we’re going to do a carrot cake dessert, let’s focus on the carrots more than the cream cheese. Let’s play on the spice more than the nuts. I mean, I don’t want to eat frosting out of the can.
Zagat: Where does your inspiration come from now?
PS: Everywhere. All sides of the kitchen. Anywhere from having conversations with my cooks and chefs to eating out at restaurants to traveling to staying in touch with chefs around the country to Twitter to Instagram to blogs. There’s inspiration everywhere you look. Before technology, inspiration came from flavors, smells, nostalgia. The peanut butter semifreddo at Uchi was inspired by my daughter’s sack lunch. I was kind of in a stump and I was making lunch and we had the chips, the peanut butter sandwich, the raisins, the apple, and it all came together.
Zagat: What are some of the ingredients you’re excited about using now?
PS: Kale has been hot for a few years. If you fry it, it gets this bitterness that goes really well with chocolate. We’ve done some chocolate-kale desserts that have been a lot of fun.
As a culinary director, I think a lot more on the savory side. I’m in charge of finalizing, approving and tasting the dishes. I get really excited about savory combinations, which always bleeds into the pastry. I don’t limit myself to a favorite ingredient. Whatever’s fresh and delicious. Berries are great right now and corn is delicious right now, but I’ve always been in love with corn. There are so many varieties of carrots. I think carrots are coming back in a really big way right now.
Zagat: Seasonality is such a big deal too. How does that work at Uchi and Uchiko, where you’re flying in a lot of the fish and other ingredients?
PS: Seasonality should be a big deal with every restaurant all of the time. Natural pairings are natural because of seasonality. Some of the most classic things go together because they’re grown together.
We have our daily changing menu, and it’s always so seasonal. You look at our core menu, and it may not always be seasonal, but it’s products that we know will be good throughout the year. I might have a tomato on a core dish that I’m serving in December, but we’re still getting great tomatoes from somewhere where it’s warm.
We spare no expense in getting the best product. We’re still supporting farms, but the farm might be in Spain.
Zagat: You mentioned some of jobs you do at Uchi and Uchiko, which are far more than just pastry chef. What are all of the different roles you play?
PS: My title is not pastry chef anymore. It’s culinary director. Basically, I’m Tyson’s right-hand everything. I’m the only one - I taste all the food, I make sure it’s consistent, that the combinations make sense and that they are going to make sense to Tyson’s palate and vision, because I’ve trained myself to have his palate and vision. I might eat a dish that I don’t like or where I want to change something, but I know that Tyson’s going to want it that way, and it will be that way. Also, maintaining normal consistency on the line. I’m in the kitchen every day, and I work six or seven days a week. Having one-on-ones with the chefs, hiring people, training people, following up with purveyors and checking on orders. Following up on the administrative stuff and the numbers. And we’re also in the process of opening up new restaurants. I just left the architect’s office where we’re finishing up kitchen plans for one of our restaurants, starting kitchen plans for another restaurant, starting the equipment-buying schedule, contacting purveyors in different cities to get in touch with our chefs so we can get the best product.
I also do most of the events. If Tyson can’t be there, I’m the face of what’s going on with the restaurants and events and different cities. I go to Houston every other week to do tastings and to make sure everything’s consistent in that kitchen. I spend about eight days a month at Uchi Houston. Once Dallas opens it’s going to be that as well. I don’t really stop. Ever. I’m also the liaison between the owners and the restaurant, so if the staff that we have of over 200 needs to talk about what’s going on in the broad picture, they’ll usually come to me. I know everybody’s name. I’m the link for what’s going on at the restaurants. I’m answering emails at 7 AM every day. Getting phone calls from my chefs after service at 1:30 AM about what happened. I’m also getting calls at 7 AM from the owner asking about things. It never turns off, ever. But I love it.
Zagat: And you still have time for CrossFit.
PS: That’s really early in the morning [laughs]. I do some 6:00 classes, depending on my schedule.
Zagat: You mentioned Uchi Dallas. When is that slated to open?
PS: We’re hoping 14 to 18 months from today. We want to be open by fall 2014. We have a spot and a building, and we’re planning kitchen design right now.
Zagat: You also mentioned plans for another restaurant too.
PS: No I didn’t [winks]. People know that we have a spot that we’re working on in town as well. There’s not a lot to say about it at this point, except that we are working on another concept. But Dallas will be open first.
Zagat: Now that you’re opening a third Uchi location, how do you keep it from being a chain?
PS: That’s something that we work really hard on, not coming off as a chain. We’re not a chain. Each restaurant has its own identity and has its own chef and manager that leads its people. We make sure that we hire passionate people and that they’re not there to work a job but to be part of the culture of the restaurant. Hopefully the culture is what divides us from a chain restaurant. Our daily menus never match. Our core menus may be similar, but our chefs and cooks are creating these daily menus for their area. All the restaurant openings that we’ve done, we want to remain that neighborhood, casual place.
PS: Well, I feel like we’re casual. We’re not cheap. But I feel like we’re casual. We’re hospitable and hopefully you feel good and at home when you’re here.