The man you see above has a passion for pigs, pasta and pickles. From playing in a rock band and opening for Meatloaf, Chef Bruce Kalman rocks in and out of the kitchen. His accolades include a James Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef and wins on Food Network’s Chopped and Esquire Network’s Knife Fight.
In 2009, after opening The Misfit in Santa Monica, he continued the art of handcrafted cuisine at The Churchill in West Hollywood. He’s now co-owner and executive chef of the field-to-table-oriented Union in Pasadena.
We caught up with him recently at The Taste to talk about his new restaurant, best dishes and favorite fall ingredients. Also: pickles.
“I created the recipes to mimic a plate of food. When you eat it, it hits every corner of your palate and the flavor keeps developing in your mouth. It’s not just a one-note kind of salty pickle.”
Congratulations on winning Chopped! What was the hardest part of the competition?
The hardest part was walking in and not really knowing what you’re up against with ingredients or your competitors, all in a new kitchen setting with only five minutes to look it all over. I’ve talked to a lot of the judges and chefs that have done that show and other shows and they agree that Chopped is, hands down, the hardest competition on TV. My philosophy was “what do I need to do first?” not “what am I going to make?” If I have Arctic Char, I’m going to start butchering my fish and think about what I’m going to make with the rest of the ingredients.
What has been the greatest challenge and reward with opening your new restaurant Union in Pasadena?
The greatest challenge would be our space. It’s really small. We tried to do lunch service, and even though we were busy, we couldn’t keep up with everything being handcrafted, farm-to-table and made in-house. So we had to make a hard decision to just cut lunch altogether and focus on dinner. The greatest reward is being on the floor every night and seeing the look on people’s faces when they eat our food. The second greatest reward is seeing the staff be really, truly excited and vested in what we’re doing.
What’s your favorite dish to make and eat?
The porchetta that we make at Union. We start with a whole pig and butcher it down. We respect the ingredient while we’re working with it. To take a whole pig and break it down into all these parts… and to have a belly, a loin, season it, roll it, tie it and let it sit, then roast it. Every time we cut into it, everybody goes, “Oh yeah.” When you cut into it… it just looks really sexy. It’s a soulful kind of cooking with a lot of passion.
OK, Bruce, we see what you mean about the porchetta…
You started a pickle line last year and make pickles for Union. Where did your love for them come from?
The pickle thing, it’s handcrafted food. It takes a lot of time… you can’t just throw a bunch of ingredients together and make a good pickle. You have to be really in-tune with what you’re doing, coupled with the fact that I grew up in Jersey, where there are pickles everywhere. You go to a diner and there’s a bowl of pickles on the table. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing.
How long does it take to make a pickle?
It varies, depending on the pickle. Some are good to go the next day, but when I’m making ones with garlic, horseradish, dill and cucumbers… in a week they’re really good, in a month, they’re awesome. You could eat them the next day, but it takes time for all the flavors to marry together. I created the recipes to mimic eating a plate of food. When you eat it, it hits every corner of your palate and the flavor keeps developing in your mouth. It’s not just a one-note kind of salty pickle.
When did you decide you wanted a culinary career?
I got a job when I was 13 at my dad’s friend’s pizzeria in Jersey. I instantly fell in love with the heartbeat of a kitchen and the vibe and energy. The feeling that you get when you’re in a kitchen, you either love it or hate it and I loved it. After that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I played some gigs with a band. I messed around with other jobs at a crêpe place, a pub and then a hotel. That’s when I really started seeing things and decided I wanted to go to culinary school… and the rest is kind of history.
So, when you moved from the east to the west coast, is there any one place that stands out to you along the way?
Chicago. The food scene is really great in Chicago—so many restaurants with soulful food. They just “get it.” They really know what people want. That’s one thing I learned there and it’s what I do now. I cook food not so much for myself, but for other people because I want to make them happy.
Great! Any favorite fall ingredients you look forward to working with?
I was just telling my cooks today that fall to winter is my favorite time of the year to cook. I love braising… doing a braised short rib and winter squashes that are coming in. It’s just a really cool marriage of ingredients. It’s kind of the end of corn, the end of figs, going into winter squash and collard greens…things like that. It’s really awesome.
Lead photo: Kiana Laing