Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chef Max Watson was born to be in the restaurant business

Chef Max Watson was born to be in the restaurant business.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 28, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Chef Watson is finding a home at Remedy.
  • Chef Watson is finding a home at Remedy.
Max Watson was running food long before he was eating it.

"My mom was running food up and down stairs while she was pregnant with me," Watson says of his mother, Leslie, who had no choice but to take him to work with her at Annie's Santa Fe on the Plaza. "She said I got her so many tips. I've been in the business since before I was born."

Twenty-six years later, Watson is back running food - his food. Watson, the executive chef at Remedy Food + Drink, leans back from a table in the Waldo dining room and watches plates leave his kitchen on a recent Thursday. He can't help but begin his story with his mother's kitchen.

"My mom had every intention of being a chef," Watson says. "She attended the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] but didn't graduate for financial reasons. So when I was growing up, we would spend an entire Sunday morning making pâte à choux. She set the groundwork that it was OK to cook."

As a boy, Watson imagined coming home from a long day of work as a Navy SEAL or a firefighter to make dinner.
"I was 12 years old and I knew I didn't want to be a chef," Watson says. "I didn't think I'd want to go to work and cook and then have to come home and cook. I didn't want to lose how much fun I was having."

After graduating high school in 2004, Watson went to work for his uncle building homes in Kansas City. Then the recession hit, and work dried up. Mike McGonigle, a family friend, hired Watson to deliver meat to the local grocer's restaurant clients.

Watson realized that his 12-year-old self might have been wrong after seeing what the chefs did with his deliveries. So he called the number of the first restaurant he remembered.

"I grew up by the old Room 39, and it was one of my mother's favorite restaurants," Watson says. "I called them up and told them I have no experience, that I'd never worked in a restaurant in my life. I said that I just wanted a job and I wanted to work there."

Five years later, Watson can still rattle off Room 39's phone number from memory. He also remembers why chef and owner Ted Habiger hired him.

"Ted told me I was a little ball of clay, that I had no bad habits and just wanted to learn the right way it's done," Watson says.

But before things went right, they went very wrong. Watson burned an entire pot of soup his first week.
"I quickly learned the cost of ingredients," Watson says. "And also the cost of profits, based on what the soup sold for."

Surrounded by budding and ambitious young chefs - Howard Hanna, Craig Howard and Patrick Ryan, among others - Watson excelled after his soup mishap. Within a year, he was working the grill line and calling out tickets. And his kitchen mates were pursuing their own culinary paths.

"Some people want to work on the line, and that's fine," Watson says. "I discovered there that I wanted to have my own place."

In 2010, Watson left Room 39 to help launch Port Fonda with Ryan in a classic Airstream trailer in need of a serious overhaul.

"I spent my days building out the trailer and my nights working at the Rieger," Watson says.

The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange - opened by fellow Room 39 alumnus Hanna - was the prep kitchen for Port Fonda, the Mexican restaurant parked in the Rieger's Crossroads District parking lot on weekends. It was there that Watson became friendly with Andrew Heimberger, one of the Rieger's prep cooks, who stayed afternoons to help him roll sausage for Port Fonda.

"As an owner, I learned that you have a constant level of stress and worry," Watson says. "I demanded perfection of myself and also saw what it was like to catch lightning in a bottle."

When Port Fonda became a brick-and-mortar restaurant this year, Watson decided that it was time to move on. In April, he became the executive chef of Kennedy's. The bar and grill became Remedy in June, and Watson was free to design the menu. He added Heimberger as his chef de cuisine.

"I wanted a small menu of things you couldn't get anywhere else," Watson says. "Andrew and I really enjoy reinventing things we love from our past. We do what we like and then use our knowledge to do it at the highest level we can."

Remedy's stock is family-made - Watson's cousin is a dishwasher and prep cook - in a kitchen where he hopes to grow his family. And now he's the one bringing his mom to work.

"Cream puffs were her dessert," Watson says. "And now they're on our menu."

Tomorrow, we'll run part two of our interview with Watson, where he discusses his favorite ingredients and inspiration.

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