To be a chef is to blend science and art into one perfectly plated experimental masterpiece. While artists traditionally appeal to 1-2 senses such as sight, sound or touch, chefs have the unique challenge of appealing to all five senses; a virtually impossible task given the subjectivity of most guests’ tastes and preferences. Few professions require so much dedication and are so physically, emotionally and mentally challenging. As a chef, you wake up early, prep, plan, train, cook, clean, and interact with the guests as much as possible; all while working 16 hours a day in kitchens of all shapes and sizes. You work holidays, stand on your feet all day, subject yourself to a crazy, fast-paced lifestyle, and try to make time for friends and family if you’re lucky. To be a chef is to be head-over-heels in love with what you do.
I know such a person: Chef Pierce Buckman. In fact, I have known Pierce for 20 years and have seen his talents evolve into a finely crafted mastery of flavor and culinary techniques. I sat down with Chef Buckman recently to get his perspective on cooking, being a chef, and to get a glimpse into what makes him tick. I hope you enjoy reading Chef Buckman’s perspectives as much as I enjoyed writing them.
Tell me about yourself. Who are you, where do you work, and where have you worked in the past?
My name is Pierce Buckman and I’m the Executive Chef of Eleven Eleven, a restaurant in the west loop of Chicago. I’ve worked at a variety of Michelin starred restaurants that include Charlie Trotter’s, Roister, Eleven Madison Park, Marea, EL Ideas and Blackbird.
How did you first get into cooking and when did you first know you wanted to be a chef?
When I was eleven I started cooking at home, learning from my parents; both of whom were excellent cooks. I was really fascinated by cooking and the versatility it provided as a creative outlet. When I was thirteen, being intrigued by Food Network and the great (but now gone) TV show Great Chefs of America, I knew I wanted to be a chef. I was fortunate to meet Charlie Trotter when I was fourteen and he took me on as an apprentice and had me work part-time in his restaurant and Trotter’s To Go gourmet shop. I spent ten years throughout junior high, high school and college working for him. In fact, Charlie encouraged me to pursue a degree at University of Kansas rather than going to culinary school; he told me it was a path that served him well. When I graduated college I began working at Trotter’s full time in a variety of positions, traveling the world attending different culinary events, learning under his guidance.
How would you describe your style, philosophy and genre of food?
My style and philosophy uses a balance of flavors as the main driver for creating dishes. It is very important to use a diverse spectrum of flavors where no culinary stone remains unturned to explore new flavor profiles and possibilities. I love pairing seemingly opposing flavors to create something new or novel. We all love sweet and savory but there are so much more nuanced subtleties when you open your palate to flavors and spices from other cultures. Philosophically speaking, my food is often visually simple but contains many layered flavors and textures. I believe food should appeal to all five senses and, when done right, evokes an emotional response for the guest. Anyone can cook a dish or put together a meal but creating an experience is the highest form of culinary perfection.
Where do you derive your inspiration for new dishes?
Everywhere. Some inspiration obviously comes from dishes I’ve learned from previous chefs but I always try to riff on the dish so as to copy. I do believe imitation is the best form of flattery (when appropriate credit is given), but there is a fine line between “paying tribute to a master” and claiming someone else’s technique, dish or combination of flavors as your own. An example of this is a smoked pepper oil I am using on a pasta dish. Originally it was a Szechuan tea oil used on a sweet and sour lobster dish that I have tweaked utilizing some of the same ingredients and techniques. The idea is similar but my application has a more Italian flavor profile than Asian. It’s OK to learn, imitate and innovate but not copy without the proper citations; cooking is similar to writing in that regard.
Inspiration can also come from a wide variety of experiences and interactions ranging from people sharing their own culinary traditions, visiting museums, travelling, and randomly browsing Wikipedia. And yes, Wikipedia is one of my favorite sources for ideas.
Who are your biggest influences in the chef world?
I owe a great deal to my mentor and friend, the late Charlie Trotter; he was an incredible source of inspiration, education, opportunity and guidance to me from such an early age. Working at Charlie Trotter’s was amazing because it was not only the best place to learn cutting edge techniques, it was also a culinary incubator for world-class chefs who have gone onto their own successful projects. Make a list of the great restaurants in Chicago and chances are the chefs behind them put in their time at Charlie Trotter’s. I also really enjoyed my time at Roister working under Chef Andrew Brochu who helped me confidently serve food that is aggressively seasoned and thoughtfully, but also simply, plated. I also love what the team at Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, California is doing; they are at the forefront of fermentation and pickling (a passion close to my heart).
What are the traits you look for when hiring new cooks?
I always look for a strong sense of urgency (moving with a purpose), adaptability and a desire to learn. I am far more willing to hire an inexperienced cook who is moves fast, asks practical questions and is focused versus someone who claims he/she knows it all and his stuck in his/her ways. One of my current cooks has limited experience but is an active serviceman in the Marines and is extremely disciplined, focused and consistent. I couldn’t ask for a better set of traits and it comes through in his cooking. While some chefs shy away from hiring cooks without a formulaic set of experiences, I would much rather hire someone based on potential and passion and teach them what they need to know. Heck, it worked with me and Charlie; why not pay it forward?
What is the future of restaurants? What does the next generation want?
I’m hoping that guests palates will evolve and grow allowing chefs to further play with flavors and textures. Technique has been such a big aspect of the evolution of cuisine in the last ten years that it seems using different flavors and textures in a variety of ways could be the next “big thing.” Sous vide rocked our world but there is so much more: picked, dried, preserved, pressed…the possibilities are endless and I love exploring new techniques for preparing delicious food.
Restaurants are going to need to adapt to climate change as well since that will have major effects on food supplies and finding ways to do seasonal food when there is little to work with. I do not believe we, as an industry, have fully thought through the impacts of climate change on food consumption but the time is coming quickly where we – and every other industry – will have to deal with this impending reality.
Will fine dining always exist or will it evolve to something different?
I believe it will always exist but will continue to evolve as the costs are so high and the target market for “buttoned up formal meals” continues to shrink. Fine dining will always be a part of dining but there is definitely a shift to allowing the guests more comfort in loosening dress codes, showing more personality in service and throwing in the occasional low brow esoteric dish that shows the chef is “approachable.”
What are your favorite ingredients right now?
I love miso, it is in a majority of my food; it adds so much depth and structure in flavor. I also love kombu, much for the same reason as miso, it adds structure to sauces and stocks. I’ve also been messing around with sarsaparilla in pastry; it’s a flavor often associated with root beer and adds beautiful spice notes in ice creams, cakes and sauces.
What ingredients do you tend to avoid?
I am not going to say I am “anti luxury” ingredients but I tend to shy away from relying on exclusively expensive ingredients as the central component of dishes. I want food to be approachable to a wide audience and guests often have strong preconceived notions about these types of ingredients and can distract from creating new experiences. I also try not to lean too heavily on overly fatty ingredients such as butter, creams, and lard. I would not say I make “healthy” food but I want my flavors to be balanced and clean.
What’s the one dish you love to make?
Okonomiyaki for sure. It is a Japanese omelette that can be made with anything (the name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “how you like” or “what you like”, and yaki meaning “cooked”) and can be eaten anytime of the day. It is often accessorized with kewpie mayo, a sweet and sour umami brown sauce and bonito flakes (cured and dried fish). I will make it at home for friends and at work for staff meal.
What is the most underrated and overrated ingredients today?
- Dried fruits
- Sunflower seeds
- Annatto seeds
- Iceberg lettuce
- Pig tails
- Mint (in savory food)
- Foie gras
- Avocado (I like it, but seriously, let’s put something else on toast)
Describe your perfect meal.
That’s a hard one! If I had to describe it, it would be: a bowl of sushi rice, yakitori salmon, smoked trout roe, maybe some soft scrambled eggs, furikake (rice seasoning), pickles (all the pickles) and a light herb salad. Yep, that’ll do.
You stroll up to a bar; what’s your drink of choice?
A shot and a beer most of the time. My general requirement is Miller High Life and if it is above 40 degrees a shot of blanco tequila and if it is under 40 degrees a shot of bourbon. If I know the bartender and I’m feeling adventurous, I will often be a guinea pig for them to try out new cocktails. I love being a guinea pig.
What are your favorite restaurants in Chicago right now?
A few of my current favorites are: Cafe Marie Jeanne, Daisies, Smyth and The Loyalist, and Dancen. But it really depends on the week and my mood; this list can vary dramatically on any given week, or any given day.
What’s on your playlist right now?
If I need pick me up I go the pop music route (Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Madonna) or classical for my more contemplative and relaxed moments (Beethoven, Bach, Mozart). If I need some energizing I go the metal/heavy rock route (Misfits, Danzig, Black Sabbath, Disturbed or anything Punk) or 80s alternative (Blondie, The Cure, The Smiths, Depeche Mode). I also have a special Saturday night closing mix that consists of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Barry White and The Delfonics.
Like my cooking, my playlists are eclectic, mood-appropriate, and (when looked at as a whole) balanced.
What do you do on your days off?
Let’s see…sleep, long showers, playing with my golden retriever Dexter, and researching new recipes. When the weather gets nice, I love exploring new areas on foot in Chicago.