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Chef Peter Brave prepares to make a 200-mile hike for charity 

click to enlarge HIKING CHEF: Brave will walk for Potluck Rescue.
  • HIKING CHEF: Brave will walk for Potluck Rescue.

From April 3-17, Brave New Restaurant's Peter Brave will attempt a solo hike on the 223-mile Ouachita Trail to raise awareness and money for Potluck Food Rescue of Arkansas (donate via potluckrescue.org). On a recent sunny afternoon, I met Chef Brave at his Riverdale restaurant to talk about trail food, chef pants and how families can cook well on a tight budget.

Tell me about training for the Ouachita Trail.

I'm actually more in rehab mode now than anything else. August is when I started training. This is a through hike. That's what they call it, when you start at one end and end up at the other end. There's no stopping. That's versus section hiking, which is what I've been doing in the training — you go out and do a section at a time. I've realized that, you know, with my joints and the weight I was carrying — it's a fine line when you're 50 years old to be in shape or overused and out of shape.

What gave you the idea to do this?

I used to do a lot of backpacking when I was a kid and through my high school days and before I moved off and started doing the chef-y thing. And I think some of it is just me chasing my youth, you know. A little bit of a mid-life crisis.

With a through-hike, the word "fun" would probably not be one of the top words to describe. It's more about a sense of accomplishment, you know, challenging yourself. And I've gotten my weight and my times down to where it is enjoyable.

Are you going to cook on the trail?

A lot of the hardcore guys that do this through-hiking stuff don't cook at all. I'm going to cook because my stove weighs 15 grams — I use little fuel tablets. So I've got oatmeal, coffee and reconstituted dinner. My whole pack of food weighs 13 and a half pounds!

But are you going to do real cooking, or just eat reconstituted dinner?

If I go out for three or four days I'll take gourmet food, a steak or a lobster tail. But for this particular thing you've got to do the calories versus the weight, it's a real ratio that you've got to be conscious of.

They've made such advancements in dehydrated food, freeze-dried food — the power bars are better than they used to be.

How're you able to take off for two weeks?

Janice, my sous chef has been with me for something like 13 years. One of my waiters for 18 years. My manager for 11 years. I've got two or three managers that've been here for 8 or 9 years.

They give me stability and consistency in what we do around here, and what Brave New Restaurant's identity is. Early on, the hours were long. But over the years, as I've moved forward, I made it to where I slowly but surely could delegate work. The challenge for me was delegating what I can, that doesn't need my literal or metaphorical signature on it, and not to delegate the things that I enjoy doing. I don't want to delegate chopping up vegetables and mindlessly filleting fish and things like that that I feel like I've got a gift for and that I enjoy doing. And some of the stuff is my ego. Can Janice after 13 years do everything that I do? Hell yeah, she can do everything that I do just a well if not better because she's younger and more nimble than me.

What will you crave when you come back?

Cheeseburgers and beer. Your body craves those carbs. You're thirsty so of course you get a bit of a beer buzz. It tastes different — you can almost feel the nutrition in the beer, if that makes any sense. It's not like having a beer at the ball game. Instead, your body's going "carbohydrates!"

I notice that you're not wearing chef pants but shorts. I guess technically they're chef shorts? And in camo?

ChefWear. They are chef shorts.

Are you going to be hiking in those things?

Noooooo. In the woods, everything is synthetic. No cotton, whatsoever. You need the wicking.

These are essential to your kitchen, though?

For me, yes. Growing up I did work in the toque hat — the tall eraserhead — chef's jacket, long pants, houndstooth, all the way down. I could always wear my Burks, they didn't dictate that.

So you're like kind of a punk in the chef world.

Yeah, but not anymore. It's mainstream as hell.

I always taste wine and butter in your food. Are those essential ingredients?

Wine and butter are pretty good memories to have in a dining experience. We do use a lot of wine and a lot of butter. What I do is a lot of variations on classical cooking. A vast majority of that is Italian and French. Or to be more accurate, French and Mediterranean.

Where are some more French and Italian influences?

French influences are in sauces and some of the techniques of searing. Any time you get into sauces, which we do a lot of around here, you take advantage of a lot of the mother sauces.

The venison I ran the other night was a true demi-glace, which starts off with six gallons of venison stock and bones and vegetables, reduced down to about a quart and a half. That's real old school, but you just can't beat it. That's a real classic French influence. The beurre blancs that we're famous for around here if I could be so bold as to say so are obviously a French influence. We've put a little tweak on ours; instead of just a classic beurre blancs we use sundried fruits in them, like a sun-dried blueberry beurre blancs, or a sun-dried cranberry buerre blanc. We'll do other variations, like a Grand Marnier beurre blancs that might have some fresh herbs in it, whatever might be seasonal.

Mediterranean influences would be seasonal produce stuff. Mediterranean influence would be more in the local fresh aspect of the menu. Right now, I've got the fresh spring mix that's local, the shitakes are local, here in another week or two the strawberries, the blueberries, then it gets into the tomatoes and the squashes, and that point, you know, my life gets easier; all the fresh ingredients stand on their own.

I've got good relationships with farmers, and it merits their effort to go ahead and come here instead of going down to the farmers' market and hang out all day long, they can bring me a hundred pounds of stuff and I pay them a fair amount, which is more than I'll pay for the California junk, but I happily do it.

What's the trick to cooking seafood so well?

Starting off with the best fish in the world. Don't screw it up. Don't overcook it is the biggest thing. There's no magic in cooking it. The magic is getting that beautiful piece of halibut, that wonderful piece of walleye, the scallops out Massachusetts. After I procure and purvey the freshest ingredients that I can depending on what time of the year it is, then it's my job and philosophy to not gussy a dish up by making it look like an engineering marvel or gussy it by having all the flavors convoluted or covered up by spices and too much going. Otherwise, what's the point? You might as well have frozen vegetables or a frozen piece of fish.

It doesn't seem like your menu changes a whole lot.

Yes and no, and that's an interesting conundrum if you will because we're called Brave New Restaurant. The very first lesson I had in that was when I opened up 20 years ago. This was pre-kids, more creativity, more vitality, all of those things. I opened up, was wildly successful. Three or four months later I got my menu and just to flex my creative chef-y muscles I trashed it and did a whole new menu.

Were people angry?

They freaked out! It's a fine line between wanting to be able to show off your creativity and creating a business model that has people coming back. But I tweak the menu seasonally.

Do you ever get bored by your menu?

Yes. Absolutely. But I get over it because there's that businessman-artist balance. Like take food shows, where people are a bit more creative. Getting employees in here with that perspective, you get these prima donnas in here that want to do trout eyeball ice cream because they saw it on a chef competition, and you say, "Dude, look, first of all, you're stealing from someone on TV, and second of all, you're in Little Rock, Arkansas, and even in some of the more extreme locations on the globe, that stuff doesn't fly."

What kind of food did you eat growing up?

I'm kind of a Yankee — my family's all from Chicago. I moved here with my family when I was three but I didn't grow up traditional Southern. My folks love to tell the story of when I was very young we were off camping with a bunch of families and they were having biscuits and gravy, and I said I liked the gravy, asked for some more and said, "I love that sauce that goes on the rolls."

Any advice on eating well on a tight budget?

Through Potluck Food Rescue, I've done some cooking classes at Our House. I went to Kroger with 25 bucks to theoretically shop for a family of four. You buy the whole chicken, Kroger brand rices and pastas, you go to the freezer section and buy frozen vegetables, you go to the canned vegetables section and you get the three for one bargain deal.

With the chicken, I broke it down. I took the breasts off it. I took the thighs off it. So I've got four different pieces of meat, with the white meat and the dark meat. You put the bones in a pot full of water and make a stock. You've got this incredible amount of flavor and moisture — all the things that are otherwise not going to be taken advantage of. Real old school, the way grandma used to do it.

So there's your stock. Now, with the other pieces of meat, you flour the breasts and pan saute them or whatever. With the thighs and drumsticks, you've got a different approach. Put them in braises, put them in rice and some of the chicken stock that you've made. For a family of four that's at least two meals. The chef-y skills and the efficiency you have to run a kitchen with are very applicable translated into a family scale.

Are you still raising shrimp?

No, it took me four years to figure out that it costs more to grow it than to sell it. It was probably a bad business model. I failed miserably, and I’m sort of embarrassed by it or frustrated by it, sadly enough.

I thought it was a failure of the market.

Well, and here's a quick story on that. Loved it — superior product. Great technique, rather unique. I could go on and on. I felt so strongly about it that I tried unsuccessfully for four years to make the thing float. When we first did it, the science behind it was intriguing to me, but the product itself was what sold me. Beautiful saltwater shrimp grown in freshwater — comes out better tasting. We figured out the science behind it, and we were able successfully get a per-acre yield that in the industry standards was considered phenomenal, versus the farms in Vietnam, which is where most of the farm-raised product is in the world. My partner was Jackson Curry, who is a catfish farmer in Southeast Arkansas and was the aquaculture connection to it.

Long story short, what we ended up finding out was that no matter how superior the product was, if people aren’t willing to pay two dollars a pound more for it then its not sustainable farming. Whole Foods, which is supposed to be the Mecca, the flagship for all things sustainable and organic — we had negotiations with them that were very promising and it took months, their South Pacific seafood buyer loved us, loved our Southern accents, loved the story, loved our product, and after sending product out there and negotiating and jumping through thousands of hoops, he flat out told me, "Look, I can get a product that's very similar for two dollars a pound cheaper from Vietnam."

I can show you article after article that'll show you the known carcinogens they use to put in the antibiotics because they stock their shrimp so densely, I can show you how much environmental damage is done over there, and everything that Whole Foods is supposed to be defending — and when I found that out a couple years into the project it was a huge letdown. Their assessment of the market is dictated by what the public's deal is. It was terrible to hear. It was my first realization that I don't think I’m going get a Cadillac with a shrimp hood ornament on it.

Would it have worked out better if you were in a different state?

Yeah. Our biggest sales were in California. One of our biggest problems was that we spent a whole lot of money to go to an organic trade show two years into the project in Anaheim, California. There were 60,000 people there. I believe it's one of the biggest trade shows in the organic industry in the world, certainly in the United States. We went away from there thinking we were guaranteed to have that Cadillac with a shrimp hood ornament.

But what we realize now is that we had such an unnatural cross-section of society. These were people from around the world with the same philosophies. It made us feel great but it wasn't accurate. So that was another two years of me losing money before I figured it out. I did learned many lessons from life's failures, not the least of which was don’t fall in love with your own ideas. I loved that idea.

What do you have coming up on your menu?

The walleye is coming back in season. Strawberries are right around the corner. Local asparagus, and then after that — the local bounty is phenomenal. I've got three or four different local farmers that deliver — the squash, the heirloom tomatoes.

Ever been to round mountain orchards in Conway? They've got 30 varieties of peaches up there, they’re different colors, different sizes, different shapes, and the vast variety allows peaches to be there from early to late.

When they say it opens at 7 o'clock, you think you're going to get there at seven because you’re a real go-getter. Well, you'll be 30th in line behind a bunch of old ladies that will knock you down on the way to the peach orchard. Those old ladies are serious. My favorite day is 6:30 a.m. at the peach orchard, before the old ladies, with my thermos of coffee and whatever my current favorite book is. Wait for a half hour-coffee, book — perfect. The old ladies line up behind you and kind of glare at you. I go up there two or three times a week. It's the most peaceful time of my day. I've got it down to an art — they know the weight of my fish boxes — I take my fish boxes into the field lined with towels, one layer of peaches only so I don’t bruise them.

How do you cook the peaches?

It's kind of like the halibut — when you've got a beautiful product, my job is to not screw it up. My favorite thing with the peaches is to take the stone out of it, dip it in a little butter, put it on the grill for about 20 seconds. The butter is going to drip there, it's going to flame up and leave a light smoky flavor and its going to heat the peach up just a little bit, then I put a little sugar on it like a brulee and caramelize it with a blow torch so you've got a little crust on it, then serve it on ice cream, a little creme anglaise, raspberry puree or fresh raspberries or blueberries when they’re in season. You can’t beat eating a peach that was picked that morning.

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