Chef Brian Poe was born in the town of Macon (GA) and grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Poe went to school at Auburn University (AL) where he soon found himself in the kitchen, working his way up the back-of-house ranks at the Auburn University Hotel & Conference Center. From there, he was promoted to sous chef at the Northeast Atlanta Hilton – during the Olympics. Next Poe relocated to Scottsdale (AZ) as chef at Steamers Oyster Grill in Phoenix and then executive chef at the American Grill.
Over time, Poe moved to Massachusetts, currently living in Danvers, and eventually manned Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake Bar & Grill. It was there that Chef Poe became business partners with Gordon Wilcox of the Wilcox Hospitality Group. Together, in 2012, they opened The Tip Tap Room in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Then, in 2015, they joined forces for the Bukowski Tavern. Their collaboration continued, and in 2018, Chef Poe became a partner in Parish Café, a Boston institution. In addition, Chef Poe is an active board member of the American Institute for Food & Wine and a board member of several local and national charities.
(Check out my Introduction to the Culinary Creativity series.)
Now onto the interview--
How important is culinary creativity to you? Why is it important?
Creativity is truly one of the most important aspects of cooking and hospitality. One should constantly be creatively thinking how and why can I do this better for the guests, for the flavor, for speed of service, and for highest quality taste and experience.
What are your most significant inspirations for your culinary creativity? What makes those matters so inspiring?
I read everything I can get my hands on old and new- I think there's close to 1,000 cookbooks in the office at Tip Tap and probably another four or five hundred at home. There's a few books at a time always on my desks or a table near me. I watch everything I can from the Masterclass Series of Thomas Keller or Alice Waters to the excellent Eat the World series on Amazon. When I feel in a slight rut, I'll re-watch Charlie Trotter’s The Evolution of Creativity on Amazon followed by something more modern (Ugly Delicious) or pull from the file cabinets to tap into old dishes that can be revisited and revised and then move on to watching or reading something modern to inspire new ideas. I also believe in management books like Creativity Inc. I've read it a few times and mentally sub out the word "movie" or "pixar" to restaurant- and it helps to remind me that creativity is a key player in all walks of life. Two other lifetime reference books that I turn to are Becoming a Chef & Culinary Artistry by Dosenberg & Page. I'll often pick those up to remind me of when I was a 20 year old cook- to balance back to what I love about creativity and cooking.
I also look around me everywhere I go. One of my favorite creative moments was at a beach bar, having a couple of beers and oysters in Nahant- a woman came up with the thickest New England accent, cigarette hanging out of her mouth, sunburnt, frizzed beach hair, holding her kids hands- and yelled "You guys serve Lime Rickey’s here?!?!?" Ding ding! A Cranberry & Angelica Lime Rickey Vinaigrette was born!
Where do you get your ideas for new recipes/dishes?
Reading, writing, traveling, eating, gardening, farmers, chefs and weather are top influencers.
What is your process of creating a new recipe or dish?
The night before I'll jot down ideas I didn't have time to get to today - before I leave the office. The next morning at the house, I go into the garden to see what's looking the best, then back at the restaurants - into the refrigerators to see what fits the weather outside, what came in fresh, what is at its peak. Then at the cutting boards in the basement kitchen at the Tip Tap Room it all begins to come together. So many of the specials that go on to the other restaurants are either inspired by what I cook at home or the Tip Tap. The Tip Tap Chalkboard Special dishes often become menu items at the other locations.
Do other members of your staff assist with creating ideas for new recipes/dishes?
I love cooking with the chefs at each restaurant. There's often moments where I'll stop them and say "Pretend I'm not the chef or owner today and pretend that we're just a couple of guys hanging out cooking"- and then there is a specific moment that you can feel the edge drop and we just start cranking out fun ideas- these moments carry on much further than just today’s special- the moment of just being cooks transcends into the vibe of the restaurants for weeks to come. I have so much fun doing this with all the guys and girls at Tip Tap, Parish, Lower Depths and Bukowski Cambridge. We all get to learn together and it builds a very special bond and energy between cooks.
How do you test new recipes/dishes?
First round is typically inspired by cooking/creating with the crew. The next round I try to remember everything we did. Then we write the recipe and have one of our lead people test the recipe to see if we missed anything (there is literally a moment in creativity where I "go blind" in having so much fun that we have to have another person test to see if we left something out) Then if all of that works- we take it to another restaurant or another cook to see if our writing of the recipe translates correctly. If it does- we put it on.
What is the most difficult part of culinary creativity?
Keeping the creative juices flowing. Some days after a tough run with the grown up side of the business (cooks calling out, equipment failures, snow storms or 100 degree days when the heat/air decides not to work, leases, licensing, plus an unexpected string of extra-long days) can stifle the creative juices. Creativity is often my medicine for stress.
Do you ever experience “writer’s block,” an inability to be creative, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Writers block does occur. That's when I go down to the farmers market and just stroll- or read something else nonfood related- to find my way back. I'm lucky to be at an age where I have recipes that I can pull to get us through a jam- but I most love creating new flavor experiences. Sometimes pulling from a fun time period in my career can help me reset and get going again. I'm also in a very interesting/lucky part of my career where I could feel like I'm not contributing a lot of creativity today at one restaurant but 30 minutes later I'm at another restaurant and I have an idea that then creates/inspires four new dishes at each restaurant.
Relate an unusual or interesting anecdote about the creation of one of your dishes.
Partnering into the Parish Cafe was one of the more unusual and interesting moments of my career. Here's an entire side of the menu that was created by the most talented chefs in the city. The other side of the menu has been staples of the restaurant for 25 plus years. Ultimately, it was the first time I've been in a restaurant that I didn't create every dish on the menu for probably 20. How can one politely create without offending the guests or former partners while still providing fun new dishes to help support and represent all of the culinary talent in the city? That has reinforced my philosophy that creativity in cooking should happen, and always do so respectfully.
One last addition to creativity comes from Chef Chris Bianco in Phoenix Arizona- "The hardest thing to learn in cooking is restraint." My early days of creativity (my twenties) I went a little too far in trying to make it cool- learning to back off by an ingredient or two in an effort to make it delicious also requires its own sort of creativity. And some dishes may just need to be the classic that they are- so you have to creatively explain to a young energetic cook- that this dish is a classic and maybe we should just respect that- while somehow creatively building upon that great energy they bring to the table.