It was day two of a recent KEN Mode tour across Canada on which I was acting as designated merch slinger and person-who-tries-to-make-sure-nothing-gets-lost-or-forgotten-because-he-doesn’t-drink. After piling into the van that afternoon, bassist Andrew LaCour whipped out a bag of tuna cuts that he and his father had smoked a couple days previously. For the next half-hour, the KEN Mode mobile was dripping not just with the scent of deliciously cooked seafood, but of five dudes cracking off with exclamations of “this rules!,” “this is awesome!” and the combo classic “this is fucking awesome and fucking rules!” As the tour wound along, LaCour made his talent in the kitchen obvious after rustling up two nights of killer meals for everyone at [drummer] Shane and [guitarist/vocalist] Jesse Matthewson’s parents’ place during a couple days off in the band’s hometown of Winnipeg. So, considering most everyone else is going to ask about song writing, bass gear and tones, as well as all the accounting questions that naturally follow KEN Mode around (let’s not forget the ‘no texting’ thing that’s had the knickers of the extreme music world and wireless providers around the world in a twist), I figured why not conduct an interview on a different topic, one we can all relate to? Everyone’s gotta eat; some people are way more into and knowledgeable of the process and results than others. Here’s one of ‘em. When did your love affair with food begin? Since I was young, my dad always stressed the idea that you can’t be an adult unless you can cook for yourself. That’s a huge part of it. Also, both of my parents have a passion for cooking, so it was always around me and they not only stressed that in order to take care of yourself you should be able to make your own food, but also that you can also save money and probably make better meals than going out and spending money on bullshit.
Did they teach you how to cook growing up in a similar way to how you would take music lessons? It was always around me, so I watched it happen. There were definitely times when my dad would be like, “Hey, this is what I’m doing here. I’m clarifying butter so I can cook this fish at a higher temperature,” and so on and so forth. But as far as learning, I spent more time learning by working in restaurants, taking side notes and supplementing that with the stuff my parents taught me, but it was never like “I’m going to show you how to do this,” unless I showed a particular interest and asked them.
What’s your restaurant employment history like and what steps did you take in order to improve; to go from single-A ball to triple-A, as it were? I’ve worked in burrito places and stuff like that and I did work in a pretty high-volume restaurant in Orlando and that kind of kick started the love to want to do it more. It was more like working in restaurants helped with developing the fundamental skills and after that it became more of something I was passionate about and I’d do it at home more as a therapeutic method when I wasn’t playing music or working out or something. Why not put some effort into the food you have to make every day of your life anyway? I’d say that challenging myself with new recipes and things I wanted to learn how to make was how I learned most of my stuff and, like you said, that’s how I went from single-A to triple-A.
So you don’t have any formal training? Nope. Zero.
Is there a disadvantage to that when you go for a job in a restaurant? It depends on who’s running the restaurant. A lot of the time, you’ll find chefs that worked from the ground up without those skills and they don’t really have a lot of respect for the people who did go to school for it and spent money trying to develop the skills they spent years honing in the kitchen themselves. It depends on who you’re working for, really. Of course, if you’re going to go to some upscale place, they’re going to want to see credentials. A lot of times when you go to work somewhere they’re going to be more interested in watching you make the food and if you don’t pull it off, it doesn’t matter what your credentials are.
Realise that I’m one of the few people in the free world who’s never worked in a restaurant. So, excuse my ignorance and next-to-nothing knowledge about the ins-and-outs of the business. What’s the learning curve like in a kitchen? How quickly do they throw you into making dishes that are on the menu and do you ever get any leeway to do a little of your own thing here and there? Hmm. Well, in a corporate restaurant, you don’t really get to do your own thing at all, but as far as working your way up, they’re going to put you on grunt work and make you cut things until someone finally trains you how to grill such-and-such and so forth and the longer you’re there, you kind of learn each station. So, you might learn a cold station first and how to marinate meats and make salads. The next thing you might learn might be the grill station and whatever. A lot of that also has to do with the volume of the restaurant because if it’s a crazy busy place, it takes a long time to move up to where you’re grilling 15 steaks and making 10 burgers at a time. I’ve had times where I’ve been thrown right into the mix doing something brand new and there have been other times where I was cutting onions for weeks before I got to learn how to do anything else. And if you’re working with anyone reputable, they’re going to make you work on fundamentals for longer than if you’re working somewhere more laid back.
For you personally, what’s your favourite stuff to make and create? Lately, it’s been brining and smoking stuff with my dad. It’s a completely different process from anything in the kitchen and there are so many different little details that can change the entire flavour of what you’re doing, like different types of wood, different times of brine for different types of meat. Then, there are time and temperature differences. It could be anything like smoking tuna for an hour-and-a-half to smoking brisket for 13 hours. It’s just a delicate process.
How expensive does that get? Do you usually find yourself with something edible at the end or do you end up screwing up a lot and having to throw out a lot of food? There have been some missteps for sure, but both he and I have had knowledge of that stuff for awhile so it hasn’t been overly detrimental where it’s been like “Oh man, we cooked $90 worth of something and ruined it.” In general, whatever we’ve done has come out edible. There have been evolutions in brining things. At first, we didn’t too much brining and brining is kinda what preps the meat for the smoke, so there have been times where we smoked a chicken and it tasted too much like wood or something.
In doing your own experimenting, what has been the most surprising discovery? Smoking tuna, for sure! My dad caught a tuna last year that was something like 168 pounds, so he had an excess of tuna. Tuna is normally anywhere from $20-30 a pound if you buy it in the store. So, in general, you’re rarely going to find smoked tuna; you’ll generally take cheaper cuts of meat and smoke them for a long time so they’re tender, like a more expensive cut would be. So, smoking tuna would be like taking a really delicate expensive meat and putting it through a cheaper process, I guess you could say. So, we brined and marinated tuna in teriyaki sauce and then smoked it. It was pretty crazy. In general, because it’s more expensive, you’re going to find it seared or grilled or prepared in more elegant ways. So, no, it’s not common at all; you’re hardly ever going to find people smoking tuna because in general, when you smoke something, you’re going to smoke a large quantity of it and if you were to buy the amount of tuna we had, it would have been a ton of money.
Anything else? I think pretty much any kind of Cajun food done with a twist on it has always been incredible, but that’s also my dad’s background, so I’ve always loved eating that kind of stuff. For instance, I’ve always been into trying different types of gumbo. I’ve tried some with rabbit meat in it and alligator meat in it and it can be difficult and challenging to make.
Actually, what do you think is probably the most difficult dish to make? Probably grilling a perfect steak; to actually get it perfect. So many people either don’t cook it long enough or cook it too long or choose shitty cuts of meat and combine that with either messing with it or cutting it wide open and not letting it rest right after they finish cooking it…I could go on. In general, being able to be patient and cook a perfect steak is pretty difficult.
How do you tell when a steak is perfect? Well, the way I learned from working in restaurants is actually by touching it; poking the meat, literally. It sounds so ridiculous, but you can get to the point where you’ve cooked it so many times that you can poke it and be like, “All right, that’s still rare,” or “That’s medium rare.” But in general, you can always go by certain time and temperature standards. You can be like, “Ok, this piece is two inches thick and at medium-high heat, it takes three minutes per inch, per side to become medium rare.” You can actually stick to that and by touching it, you can feel tell how tense it is because the longer it cooks it’ll be tense and won’t have a give when you touch it.
What’s your opinion on popularity of self-proclaimed foodies, their food blogs, designer food presentation, the massive number of food shows on the tube and all that? Here’s how I feel about it: I think it’s really cool any time a trend becomes really popular because people start developing new ways to attack it. So, you get all these crazy fusions and weird ideas that are super-interesting and, in this case, delicious. But, at the same time, when it gets overdone like that, just like anything, the fun gets lost. There’s no fun in just saying, “I’m going set up the grill out back on a Saturday afternoon, enjoy myself and have a beer,” because it gets to the point where people are constantly critiquing things and taking the fun out of it.
That’s what I was getting at. Do you find that even if you’re just cooking for the hell of it, people are all over you, saying stuff like, “Hold on there Chef Boyardee! You’re not doing so-and-so like I saw on the Food Network”? Yeah, man. Exactly! It’s like, “Shut up, man. I don’t even care about that right now. I just want to enjoy myself right now.” I think it can get to the point where people are sucking all the life out of it. But, y’know, the other side of it is that there are tons of crazy cool things happening with food because of the popularity of this stuff and that’s also cool.
I remember on tour, you mentioned a couple times about wanting to open a barbeque restaurant with your dad. Is this a pipe dream for you and the distant future? I’m not even going to call it a pipe dream. I’m going to say it’s an absolute reality and that no one can stop me [laughter]. My sister is working on a business degree, so at some point we can all open it together as a family with her doing the business side of it, me working on the menu, having friends work with us and my dad can have it as a fun thing to do during his retirement. But he’s already saying, “I’m probably not going to spend too much damn time, all right?” [laughs]
I recently read a stat about the city of Toronto having one restaurant for every three residents. Is there anything close to that amount of restaurant saturation in Charlottesville, VA [where he lives when not on tour]? Nah, we would have way less competition and it would also be us working toward spreading the name to the point where people would want to travel to come eat there anyway. Charlottesville is slightly central to Richmond and D.C., but you could definitely say that in Richmond there’s some of that explosive trend, but it’s certainly nothing close to Toronto because Toronto is so multi-cultural which means there’s tons of everything for all the different cultures there. When it comes to Charlottesville, specifically, even though there’s a lot of cool stuff happening here, it just doesn’t have the population for it. It’s also a college town, so you have an influx of people coming in and out and the people who live here are constantly changing. It’s a different environment altogether.
All right, you’ve been touring pretty heavily for the past couple years. What have been your top two or three places to eat? Mekong in Richmond. Cask & Larder in Orlando. That place is like a microbrewry/lardery where they cook tons of different types of pork dishes. Paesano’s in Philadelphia, which is like an off-shoot of one of the top Italian restaurants in Philly that’s like a little sandwich shop where they make the craziest fucking pork sandwiches.
Anything you want to end off with? I want to say that I think it’s important that every single person should learn to make a couple of cornerstone dishes because it will make your life of food a lot more awesome and enjoyable.
What would be those cornerstone dishes? Like how to make a whole roast chicken, because you can eat on that shit for a week. Or how to make a beef boulonnaise, or a proper omelette for somebody who’s eating breakfast at your house. All that shit you should know how to do, real simple shit to be accommodating to your guests and to know how to take care of yourself.
KEN Mode just started a six-week tour providing direct support to Russian Circles three days ago. Come on out. Take ‘em to dinner somewhere nice.
also with Inter Arma: 02/06/14 Little Rock, AR – Vino’s *NO RUSSIAN CIRCLES* 02/07/14 Austin, TX – Red 7 02/08/14 Dallas, TX – Club Dada 02/0/14 Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s Upstairs 02/10/14 New Orleans, LA – The Parish – House of Blues 02/11/14 Tallahassee, FL – Rehab 02/12/14 Orlando, FL – Will’s Pub 02/13/14 Tampa, FL – The Orpheum 02/14/14 Birmingham, AL – WorkPlay Theatre 02/15/14 Atlanta, GA – The Earl 02/17/14 Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle 02/18/14 Washington DC – The Rock and Roll Hotel 02/19/14 Philadelphia, PA – Underground Arts 02/20/14 New York, NY – Bowery Ballroom 02/21/14 Cambridge, MA – The Middle East Downstairs 02/22/14 Brooklyn, NY – Saint Vitus 02/23/14 Pittsburgh, PA – Altar Bar 02/24/14 Cleveland Heights, OH – Grog Shop 02/25/14 Ann Arbor, MI – Blind Pig 02/27/14 Minneapolis, MN – Triple Rock Social Club 02/28/14 Omaha, NE – The Waiting Room 03/01/14 Englewood, CO – Gothic Theatre 03/02/14 Salt Lake City, UT – Urban Lounge 03/03/14 Boise, ID – Neurolux
and also with Helms Alee: 03/04/14 Seattle, WA – Neumo’s 03/05/14 Portland, OR – Wonder Ballroom 03/07/14 San Francisco, CA – Great American Music Hall 03/09/14 San Diego, CA – The Casbah 03/10/14 Los Angeles, CA – El Rey Theatre 03/12/14 Phoenix, AZ – The Crescent Ballroom 03/13/14 Albuquerque, NM – Launchpad 03/14/14 Oklahoma City, OK – The Conservatory 03/15/14 Kansas City, MO – The Record Bar 03/16/14 Chicago, IL – Metro