Table Talk is a column where I sit down with the men and women of the food industry and talk shop: The sweet and sour, the salt and bitter. This month I met with the multi-faceted Torrence O’Haire at the Downtown Market.
Let’s see if I can nail down O’Haire. He’s the culinary coordinator at the Downtown Market, runs Grand Rapids’ only underground restaurant: The Full Moon Supper Club, heads the TheStarvingArtistGR.com. Oh, and he’s also the founder and president of the Grand Rapids Bartender’s Guild.
Here’s what he said to Revue about his time in the kitchen.
Are you self-taught or did you go to culinary school?
My culinary education is about half from my family and half trial-by-fire from working in restaurants. I’ve always had that personality where I’ll say I know how to do something and then really quickly learn how to do it.
From my family I just got such a passion for understanding how to cook. Ever since I could read, I would leave the library with 15 cookbooks. Even if it just started with looking at pictures, it was that familiarization. So now I’m the culinary encyclopedia where I could give you anything at the drop of a hat.
Who were you reading?
Julia Child is my homegirl. French cuisine is my background. I love the idea of the self-made chef in the sense that all it really takes is a love of good food and the desire to get better at it. But I always laugh because I’ve had friends and colleagues who went to culinary school and got top marks at fantastic, international culinary schools and I can cook circles around them. They can do food like you do science — they can give you correct temperatures on everything. I will fully admit that their knife skills are better than mine, but all of my food tastes better than theirs.
Is food an art or a science?
It’s absolutely both. It makes it trite to think of it as either or. You can know all of the science but if your food has no soul to it? It doesn’t matter how technical your food is, if people don’t want to eat it, then what are you really doing? Similarly, if all you’re doing is conceptualizing things and you have no ability to reproduce things or manifest your ideas, you’re lost as well.
So what would you like to see more of in Grand Rapids?
Cocktails. We need a better drinking culture across the board in Grand Rapids. A lot of that is based on this social mentality where people don’t like to be challenged. They don’t like to try new things.
But it seems like the trend is to appreciate the artisanship that goes into great food and drink. Do you think the food scene here is moving forward?
Grand Rapids is headed in the right direction. I think it’s in its teenage years, where it likes a lot of ideas but doesn’t know what they mean. And there are some that are doing incredibly well, which is great.
How would you describe the local industry?
We’ve bred a service industry and not a hospitality industry. My definition of that is: Client has money. Business has something the client wants. So business does whatever it takes to get the client’s money. It becomes completely transactional. It becomes that Yelp experience.
What’s the upside to a hospitality state of mind?
In the hospitality industry, it becomes much more based on trusting the host’s ability to take care of you. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Riat Severin, “To be a host is to be in charge of your guests’ happiness the entire time they are under your roof.” I’m not interested in what you want. You are here because you know that I’m going to take care of you. Therefore the onus is on me to take care of you in an obscenely well way. The restaurant becomes so much more about the relationship and the communication.
That sounds like what you’re trying to achieve with the Full Moon Supper Club.
Sure. Well, [November] was actually our five-year anniversary. Basically, we do these social dinners on the last Sunday of every month. Nothing’s done for profit, it’s all just a social experiment where everybody chips in to cover the cost of the evening and it turns into a dinner party of strangers. You meet new people and everybody sits around the dinner table eating and drinking.