"How could you not smile eating a piece of this cake?" she asks. The rainbow-colored interior and dusting of glitter turn the cake into an edible carnival — a reminder to Barden and her guests that this whole food thing is supposed to be fun. Today, she shares just why she might be having more fun in the kitchen than in any other time in her career. Yesterday, Barden shared that restaurant ownership just skipped two generations in her family. And Monday, she talks about the Christmas cookies that Succotash is making this holiday season.
What are your culinary inspirations? I think about things differently than most people. I think very laterally. I think about texture and flavor and smell. I may be handicapped in that I never went to culinary school, because I never learned proper technique. But I'm also not hampered by proper technique. I never had somebody tell me I wouldn't amount to anything in a kitchen because I'm a woman. I never had somebody tell me not to mix two things. If it makes sense to me, then I'm pretty sure it will work.
The art of correction is what saved me. I have a strong enough palate to tell if something is not right and if it can be evolved into something else. Failure is where it gets fun. I know I have wildly insufficient knowledge, but I also think I have an inherent understanding of food that you can't teach. We're all working with a certain set of skills and deficits.
What’s your favorite ingredient? It depends on the time of year and day. I don't have one thing I'm nuts about. At the moment, I'm kind of obsessed with savory sweets. I'm working with rosemary shortbread and brown-butter brownies. I've been messing around with a huge amount of vegan stuff. I'm really excited about gluten-free things. I never went to pastry school so I've been doing a lot of pastry lately. I'm excited about the precision and math-y-ness of it.
What was your best recent food find? I've always gone to ethnic markets and just kind of buy things. I'll go over to the Chinese market down by City Market and just pick something up. It's got eyeballs? Oh, well, it must be a protein. I've been doing everything free-balling for so long, that I'm excited to begin to learn more precise techniques. I'm reading more and learning proper butchering. I want to have it in my arsenal, so if I get something lovely, I'm not hacking it to death. I want to have the best skill set possible to be as respectful to the product as I can.
Why are you looking at your technique now?
I always say that I've had a restaurant for this long and I'm still as broke as when I started, that this continues to be a lifelong education that I don't have to pay for. I hired a woman out of culinary school, Summer Zinert. She's changed my worldview because we're wired very similarly. She loves food, loves to cook and is almost pathologically organized, whereas everything is in my head. By nature, I'm grossly disorganized. She's very methodical. In large part, people coming out of school are put in positions where they are underpaid and underutilized. And this is the point in their careers where they're most happy to give and learn. My biggest lesson was to step back and trust somebody. It became apparent that she was highly capable and interested. That's allowed me to continue my education, which has been really terrific.
What’s your favorite local ingredient? John Goode’s heirloom tomatoes — they're mind-numbing. Those, and morel mushrooms.
What’s one food you hate? Raw oysters. I like oysters, just not raw. It's like eating a cat's spleen, some kind of organ in a jar on a shelf. Eating a shell of snot is not an aphrodisiac.
What’s one food you love? I love cheese, just love cheese. Cheese or a good, crunchy baguette. If I had to give up everything but one thing, I'd hold on to beautiful bread. I have a body made by carbohydrates.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Hmmm ... what do I eat that appalls people? I eat very simply. I like boxed macaroni and cheese with a can of tuna in it. I like horribly processed cheese. I'll eat a grilled cheese in its most horrifying form.
What’s always in your kitchen? An absolutely absurd amount of condiments and beverages and nothing else. I have fish sauce and am currently in love with smoked sea salt. Trader Joe's has a flower pepper that is so yummy. I also have an absurd amount of cereal. I like Special K with berries. I make homemade granola, and I'll eat any kind of biscuit that looks like something you would lay Barbie on and send her down the river. I never had milk, so now I have almond milk, soy milk and coconut milk. I shop very European. I shop for the meal.
Besides your own place, where do you like to eat out? I love El Pulgarcito. The mixed pupusa is a stroke of genius. I love looking back in the kitchen and just seeing three women throw it down. I go out very rarely. I love Le Fou Frog and their happy hour on Fridays. I also love Pernod and anisette and fennel. They have wonderful steak, one of the best in the city.
I like my food the way I like my people. I'm not so interested in who you are, but more whether or not your belief system is truthful. I have wildly diverse friends and food interests. If I go into a place where there's an Irish guy making Mexican food, I'm fine with that as long as that guy really loves Mexican food and has an interest in honoring it. I don't think things have to be what you expect them to be. I don't like posers in my food or living room.
How do you think people see Succotash? I think the perception of me is very different than the place that we are. People like to write us off as a hipster joint and say we have a laissez-faire attitude. I think the kids here may be different, but they're not hipsters. They're not putting on airs. They're just quirky by nature. I've been quirky my whole life, and I suffered terribly for it as a teenager and adolescent. But it never made me want to change who I was ...
Who’s got the best barbecue in town, and what are you ordering? L.C.'s burnt ends. I eat the sides, but I don't care about them.
A chef is only as good as … his fucking attitude. Honestly, because the second you think you’re too big for your britches, you’re done. The second you think you're a celebrity, it becomes about something other than the food. I don't like chefs that are interested in cheating their customers. I don't like the monetary aspects of the business. That's probably why I'm not successful in the ways that other people measure success. I get it, though. I'm all for commerce and making a living. I like nice things. It's just not why I get up in the morning. I believe that every day is an opportunity to do it better and easier than the day before.