Evan Hanczor landed in New York with many passions but no plan.
He was a voracious reader and poet. He enjoyed academic research and was preparing to apply for a Fulbright. And he'd discovered, almost by accident, a talent for cooking.
Hanczor had decided to explore food as a career but his first New York cooking job didn't work out. "There was little interest in where the food was coming from," he said. "The foundation of the restaurant was not something I really connected to."
And then good fortune hatched in the form of Egg, the "acclaimed and perpetually packed" farm-to-table breakfast spot in Brooklyn.
Hanczor applied for a job as a line cook and immediately hit it off with Egg's founder George Weld. They shared a love for "the balance of cooking that’s so appealing," Hanczor said. "There is the physical labor, the craft, the tactile element where you're making something with your hands. But in addition, it's intellectual, mental, creative, academic engagement that a lot of food industry work lacks."
Five years later, Hanczor has found success precisely by merging his work as a chef with his interests in writing and policy. The literary-themed feasts he helmed have won accolades and next month he'll publish his first cookbook, an ode to breakfast co-authored with Weld. He's also involved with an array of food-focused nonprofit and activism groups, which won him an industry Rising Star award for his sustainability work.
In a Q&A with The Huffington Post, Hanczor shared details about how he works and how he learns, his intellectual influences, his morning routine, and his predictions for the next big trends in food.
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You started at Tulane University in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina. What was that like?
I arrived for my freshman year two days before Katrina hit. We evacuated immediately, went away for one semester, then returned to New Orleans in January or February. It was a crazy college experience, a crazy orientation.
The day before we were about to leave, we went out to a restaurant called Clancy’s for dinner. It's an old-school New Orleans Creole sort of restaurant. It's been around for a long time.
It was packed that night. Everyone was about to leave the city. It was like eating on the deck of the Titanic as it was going down. People were ordering the best bottles of wine, partying, laughing, drinking, ordering expensive food. It was a spirit of joyful resignation.
Clancy's restaurant in New Orleans.
At the time I didn’t think of it in the context of people’s relationship to food. But now I've seen experiences in the restaurant where people come after someone in their family has died, or after a big storm or before a big storm. There is a special comfort and a restorative power that comes with being together with people and having a nice meal.
How do you approach work-life balance? That's a challenge for many chefs, and particularly in your case when you were helping to lead two restaurants that covered breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
When you’re beginning a creative business or undertaking, you've got to understand that your life may be what we consider out of balance for a while. On the outside it can look kind of crazy. When I talk to friends about working 100 hours a week, they say, “What are you doing? That's insane. You need to find more balance in your life.”
Which is true to some degree. But there's something to be said for not looking at balance day-to-day, but instead over a spectrum. When you're starting something new, you may need to envelop yourself in that for a period of time. It can be worth it for all the things you might get out of that period of intense dedication, and likely there is a more reasonable schedule down the road.
There is a book called “On Balance” by a British child psychologist and philosopher and writer named Adam Phillips. He talks a lot about this conception of balance that people strive for and talk about in very hopeful terms. But he also discusses whether balance is necessarily something to aspire to, at least in a continual sense.
If you were to say your life is fully balanced, it might also be kind of boring. There aren't the peaks and valleys that give it richness. If you're embracing something and putting an intense amount of effort into it, I think that can be a good thing in the long run.
How did you learn to cook? And what would you recommend for someone who isn’t interested in cooking professionally but wants to learn to be a better chef at home?
Much of my education in cooking was working at restaurants. That's an amazing way to learn, obviously, if it’s something you might want to do professionally. You learn from someone who knows what they're doing, and you're able to get your hands on something, develop muscle memory, develop the physical element of those cooking skills -- what to look for, what to smell for, what to listen for, how to cook with all your senses, what a good piece of meat looks like, what a bad piece of meat looks like, what a good vegetable looks like, the signifiers of quality and readiness.
But I also read voraciously, as many cookbooks as I could get my hands on. Even if I never made a recipe from a cookbook, just going through and reading the headnotes to every recipe, reading the ingredients, learning the ingredients' names, reading the introductions and little stories about the inspiration for dishes, seeing what things look like on a plate, seeing pictures of animals or scenes from the kitchen -- all those things can contribute a lot even if you don't apply that recipe in your kitchen.
They make you feel more confident and more familiar when you actually do come upon something that you haven't cooked before. You’ll remember reading about it. Maybe I don't know how to cook this polenta, but I remember the description of it when it was finished. You have a leg-up when you actually put something in a pan and get it on the stove.
Which books were most influential?
One important book, “The Gift” by Lewis Hyde, was less about food and more about the creative economy, but it gave me some thoughts about food systems. Later on, I read Pollan’s “In Defense of Food,” and I started reading Wendell Berry. I had already read Berry’s poetry. He's a poet and a farmer and sort of a prophet of the food world. He has a number of books. One is called “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community”; there's a book called “The Unsettling of America,” and one about the origin of food called “Bringing It to the Table.”
And then I read lots and lots of cookbooks. A book like “The River Cottage” cookbook was probably as influential to me in thinking about a sustainable food operation as the more academic ones. I could make recipes from that book and taste the results of them in addition to reading about properly raising animals.
So those were my formative food texts.
How do you organize your thoughts and memories? Do you keep a journal or log of some sort?
I have a number of rotating notebooks. When I start them, I think, this one's going to be for recipes and restaurant stuff, this one's going to be more personal, and this one's going to be future projects or whatever. But they end up all blending together, which I actually think is great. When I'm flipping through one, revisiting old things, you have these interesting juxtapositions that you might never have intended that can spark an interesting thought.
An example of that crossover is a dinner series we do. It’s called “Table of Contents.” At each of those dinners, we cook a meal inspired by a book. We started with Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” We did a meal based off of passages from that book, five or six courses. Sometimes the ingredients are mentioned in the book, sometimes the dish is trying to evoke a feeling from a certain passage. It’s an amazing cross-pollination of my past life and my current life.
There is a part of me that likes the disarray, likes things a little bit unstructured. In hindsight, not being completely tied to a particular system or path has been the reason that I ended up doing some of things that I'm doing. Maybe I'm just building onto that, hoping that'll continue.
What’s your morning routine?
It varies a bit, but it certainly involves coffee and music. Those are special. I try to get some thoughts written down first thing in the morning, when I'm still a little bit unclear -- maybe something about a dream or an idea that's popped into my head, something that doesn't really have any shape or direction, but feels like I should write it down. I love leisurely mornings. I'll try to hang onto that as long as possible.
Then at work, the morning is kind of set for me. I've been doing it for a while, and I like the process of it. I like putting grits on the stove and cooking potatoes and making biscuits. The rhythms of those are all very familiar. When I'm in that rhythm there’s a Zen state to it, where I'm engaged with what I'm doing but also letting my mind wander.
What has distinguished the periods in your career that were most fulfilling?
I didn't know much about food as an industry and a system when I started working at The Dressing Room in Connecticut. It was a very different restaurant than the one I had worked at in New Orleans, which was a po’ boy place. There was no incoming story with the food. You'd take a steak, cut it out of a plastic bag, cook it. It was an item. You’d never consider it as formerly an animal.
At The Dressing Room, there was a farmers' market in the parking lot. You'd meet the farmers and you'd see the story behind their ingredients. We'd bring in whole animals -- cows, pigs, and so on. You'd learn the story behind the piece of steak you were putting on the grill, both the origin story -- where it came from, what it was raised on, what kind of farming system was in place -- and the physical craft story, where the cut comes from.
Later on, in New York, I came to understand that this was something I was really interested in, and that I needed to remain engaged in the technical craft side of cooking.
George [Weld], the founder of Egg, and I talk a lot about the balance of cooking that’s so appealing. There is the physical labor, the craft, the tactile element where you're making something with your hands. You're making a physical product that you can see and share with someone. But in addition, it's intellectual, mental, creative, academic engagement of the mind that a lot of food industry work lacks.
Is there anything that your parents did that perhaps many parents don't do that had a lasting impact on your life or career?
Something as basic as an appreciation for good food -- cooking at home and having dinner together as a family, which can be a hassle when you have four kids -- set an appreciation in me for the importance of food and gatherings and what can come out of being at a table together with people.
Also, an appreciation for the tactile pleasure of cooking; the smells I was exposed to from the food we cooked, and observing the rhythms of the kitchen. I'm sure I didn't consciously think about them when I was young, but maybe I internalized them in some way.
And then, a general support of exploring interests. Cooking is not something I had any predilection towards. I thought, if I was going to college, I wanted to write and maybe work in publishing. When I started working in a restaurant after college and found that it ignited something in me, I didn't feel any pushback in the direction of, “Well, this is not what you have been working on,” or any sort of legitimacy questions about pursuing one thing or another.
That kind of trust in my decision-making and support of things that felt important to me is a very strong support net to have.
You studied literature and writing in college but haven’t ended up pursuing those professionally. Given what you know now, would you have approached your education any differently than you did?
I don't know if there's all that much that I would do differently. When I was in New Orleans, I graduated a year early, which I think is what freed me up, at least mentally, to give myself a year or two to pursue different plans. I didn’t feel the press of a traditional schedule, because I had freed up a year that I hadn't expected to have.
I did waste some time in school; in particular there was one semester in college I look back on, like, man, I just totally fucked around. I don’t think it had any long-term effects that I'm frustrated by now, but the feeling of not fully taking advantage of an opportunity to just study and pursue things that you're interested in without further responsibilities -- I wish I had had the presence of mind to be aware of it at that point.
I certainly haven't given up on writing. It's still something that I really enjoy doing. And my experiences with writing and philosophy and that creative process and the thoughtfulness of those fields has influenced the way I work with food and my interest in food and why I ended up sticking with it as a field.
When I was drawn to food, it wasn't just cooking and making fancy dishes. I was also interested in the food system as a whole. Having an academic background, as opposed to a culinary school background, helped prepare me to engage with all of the outside-of-the-kitchen issues that interest me. So it feels like a good path, even though it was an unexpected one.
You are very involved in food-related social justice groups. What are some organizations that you feel are doing exceptional work?
At Egg, we work with a bunch of organizations, mainly in New York. Wellness In The Schools is one of them, it’s a great program that tries to improve the quality of food in the schools, raise awareness among kids about food, healthfulness, fitness. They work with chefs around the city.
We work with an organization called Just Food. They are an excellent food justice organization focused on increasing food access, particularly in areas -- sometimes called “food deserts” -- that are underserved by traditional food channels.
Wholesome Wave is a super successful, very innovative and important food justice and access group. They have a program called the Double Value Coupon Program, where they double the value of food stamps at farmers' markets. Instead of having a dollar that you can spend at a convenience store on chips and candy or even carrots, you can spend that dollar and get two dollars worth of produce at a farmers' market. That program has had a lot of success, and their work has grown from local to regional to the national level.
I also work closely with an institute called Glynwood, which is located in the Hudson Valley in New York. They focus on making sure that farming thrives in the Hudson Valley, which is traditionally this amazingly lush, productive agricultural area. Development has made it difficult to maintain and grow that agricultural significance. Glynwood works with young farmers to get access to capital, land, training, etc. They're a little bit quieter than some other organizations, but the work that they do is very significant.
On the global level, I've worked with Oxfam recently on a number of campaigns. They have been leaders in an effort to get chefs more involved in food issues and to harness the expertise and marketability of chefs on food issues. They work a lot with this group called Chef Action Network, which organizes chefs around the country on issues from school food to international food aid policy to hunger to climate change. That group helped get me much more focused on advocacy and policy work.
What are some emerging food trends that those of us who aren't professional chefs may not be aware of?
Trends are always hard to predict, and often frustrating when they arrive. One exciting thing that I've been hearing a lot about is an emerging awareness of the importance and diversity of grains.
The pin-up vegetable phase has come -- tomatoes are deified, and pasture-raised beef and heritage pork is all around, and that's all awesome. But I think grains are primed for the next turn in the limelight, everything from bakers, pasta makers and pizza restaurants, and fresh grains in-house.
People are being exposed to the intensity of flavor that comes from freshly milled and heirloom grains. It’s a revitalization of the way we think about breads and flour. It’s not just this stuff that sits in your cupboard for a year, and you use it every once in a while; it’s like the way coffee has changed from something you'll buy pre-ground and use for months to now people wanting fresh beans, grinding them five minutes before they make their cup of coffee, and celebrating the variety of qualities that come out of different coffee beans and coffee-growing regions. I think the same sort of thing where we can tap in with grains.
Savory oatmeal from Egg. Photo by George Weld.
I think potatoes have also been passed over to a degree by the foodie movement. Fingerling potatoes were exciting for a little while. But again, like grains, there's this huge diversity of potatoes, different varieties and qualities, particularly here in New York, which used to be I believe the leading potato-growing region in the country. We've talked with people at Cornell University’s Ag Extension Program, and up at our farm, growing different sorts of potatoes that thrive in New York soils. I think these will have more of a presence on menus and more of an appreciation from chefs, instead of something you just mash or roast or put under a piece of meat.
More generally, there's a great book about Mark Twain and his love for food, “Twain’s Feast,” that highlights his delight with regionalized ingredients that were so prized for what they were. Someone wrote about shad; it wasn't shad in general, it was Connecticut River shad. These days, we think of Virginia or Kentucky country hams. Wheat that's grown in the Northwest is amazing, potatoes that are grown in New York, or peppers that are grown in New Mexico -- this idea of prizing the qualities and quality of regional ingredients will come back into the mainstream a bit more.
As people better understand how food is grown, where it's grown and the conditions of it, and how those conditions affect that final product, I think new appreciation for those regional specialties will arise. It exists to some degree now, but I think it'll become more encompassing than just smoked salmon from the Pacific Northwest, but of things that are grown all over the place.