Five Crowns Executive Chef Dennis Brask is one of the few chefs who has participated in the Taste of Newport every year since the event’s inception more than 20 years ago (for more on the Taste of Newport, see page 14). He arrived at Five Crowns in 1983, and now oversees both the original restaurant and the new Side Door Gastropub attached to Five Crowns. Among his many awards: 2009-2010 “Chef of the Year” from the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association. And in case you’re wondering, Chef Brask will again be serving the signature prime rib sandwiches at Taste of Newport. He was interviewed by Christopher Trela.
1. Has Five Crowns or its menu changed much over the last 30 years?
It’s always about change. We are one of Lawry’s restaurants, so prime rib is a signature dish. At one time, that’s all they served, but we‘ve expanded over the years to offer lobster and fish and vegetarian options. But since 1965, the prime rib and a couple of the entrée selections are still here: traditional duckling, rack of lamb, beefsteak Neptune. We’ll never be accused of being cutting edge, but we’re certainly responsive to culinary trends. Even things like signature dishes have evolved, but we’ve always had the highest of standards. There is no cutting quality. We always search for the best ingredients.
2. How involved are you in Side Door, and how did that concept come about?
I am the chef for Five Crowns, which is the building, and now we have two restaurant operations, Side Door and fine dining, under the same roof. I am responsible for the entire building. The easiest way to explain how Side Door came about is that for years we talked about how we could draw a younger crowd, and how our very loyal guests could visit us more often. About 10 years ago, there was a movement in Great Britain where young chefs were coming into old pubs and pouring on a coat of paint, opening the shutters and letting light in, researching smaller local breweries to offer artisanal beers, getting more creative with the food offerings and bringing in a whole new world of cuisine. It’s not just about English food in these gastropubs, it’s about exciting stuff in a more casual atmosphere. That movement caught on a little bit in this country. We’re certainly not the first gastropub, we’re certainly not the largest, but we’re probably the most authentic because we were already an English pub.
3. You’ll be serving between 3,000 and 4,000 roast beef sandwiches at Taste of Newport. How do you go about planning it?
You have to start thinking about it well in advance. For example, the beef has to have at least 30 days of age on it, so I need to order that up front and tell my purveyors that I’ll be needing that much beef. I’m in the final planning stages right now. I am on the phone with people who will be manning the booth. It comes down to the last minute, to loading the truck. It’s all in the planning.
4. Have you seen any particular restaurant trends that have come and gone, or any that are coming this way that you find interesting?
Definitely. There are things you can see coming, and if it doesn’t make sense, it won’t be around for long, like nouvelle cuisine—teeny portions as part of a fine dining experience. That was one that did not pass the smell test. We are seeing a resurgence of the small plate, but not the old two slices of zucchini and a single scallop. There are also more trends for natural local sustainable cuisine, and the validity of local produce that is out of the commodity cycle. You can get peaches that have been on the tree until they were ripe instead of peaches that were picked early so they would ship well and be good two weeks later in the market. There is a big difference in quality level.
5. How much do you adhere to a seasonal menu?
From the day I started, we were into seasonal menus, but back then it was more of a rigid format. We had two summer menus, two winter menus—it changed eight times a year. The menus were like cogs in a wheel. They were significant changes. In those days you had to take your menu to the printer. Today the seasonality is more of an evolutionary process. I’m not always looking for things that are in season for six weeks. If I find something that has a short peak availability, maybe only two or three weeks, I can add it. I can do a single purchase and put it on the menu for a week. It keeps evolving because we can print our menu much more often now. At Side Door we print the menu every day.
6. Do you have a favorite dish on the Five Crowns menu?
I like it all – doesn’t it show? There isn’t anything on the menu I don’t like.
7. Is there a celebrity guest that you have enjoyed meeting at the restaurant?
Chuck Jones, the animator. He lived right up the street. When he came in I always talked to him at the table. He brought his Oscar in and I have photos of me holding his Oscar. He was an incredible man. He used to do napkin drawings. If he saw a little girl having a birthday, he’d take a napkin and do a caricature with Bugs Bunny. I have a Chuck Jones room in my house. My favorite Chuck Jones drawing is a tablecloth with au jus stain on it. For Chuck, the stain became a cigar, and I ended up with a Chuck Jones original caricature of Grouch Marx.
8. What is your favorite canned food?
If I were to go to my pantry, where I have myriad exotic canned goods and condiments (I am a big mustard freak), my favorite canned food would be solid albacore tuna. That is one of those staples I have on my shelf at home. It’s a must-have and a go-to.
9. Do you watch the Food Network? Do you have a favorite show?
The one show I got addicted to was the early Iron Chef, the Japanese version. They were absolutely entertaining. I used to make it a point to catch that.
10. What did you have for breakfast today?
A smoothie: banana, organic apricots, homegrown peaches from my yard, organic navel oranges, some figs, fresh spinach, hemp protein powder, flax seed, Greek yogurt, soy milk. I have one of the most powerful blenders that money can buy. It’s the only blender that can pulverize an avocado pit. Why I would want to do that I don’t know, but that was a selling point.