Food & Drink
INTERVIEW: Chef Solomon Johnson of Clean Cut Catering & Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco
by Powell Bernhardt
I was able to chop it up with up-and-coming chef, Solomon Johnson of Clean Cut Catering. Recently, he packed up his knives leaving Jones Restaurant in Philadelphia to start his own company. Originally from the DC area, Solomon headed West to San Francisco to become the private chef of a starving music artist. He is also a line cook at Bluestem Brasserie.
Tell me about how you became interested in the culinary arts?
I became interested in the culinary arts about 8 or 9 years ago. I remember watching Iron Chef when I was in high school. It was the Iron Chef series with Chinese sub-titles then. I could not believe how much amazing food the chefs would prepare in the allotted time. I also come from a family of cooks so I’ve always had a knack for food. But, I knew at 16 that food would be a part of my life.
You were lucky to discover your passion at such as early age. Many people spend their entire life searching. I heard you played ball in HS and college. How did that help with seeing your dreams come to life?
The success I saw from basketball helped my career path in so many ways. Basketball was my only source of discipline for many years. It made me a ferocious competitor and helped me tune my focus in everything I do in life.
Although it sounds like you’re a natural, where did you develop and refine your culinary skill set?
I developed my skill set at The Art Institute of Philadelphia (AI). Before going to school, I was that friend cooking for everyone. None of my friends were strong cooks at all but I digress. The culinary arts program at AI has a concentration in world cuisine. So, I’ve worked with a little bit of everything.
Where was your first job out of culinary school?
I was as a line cook working sauté at Jones. Jones is a Steven Starr American comfort food restaurant in Philadelphia on 7th and Chestnut. Known for their brunch menu and fried chicken and mac & cheese. I worked sauté Friday through Tuesday. On, Saturday and Sunday, I worked during brunch and was responsible for making all of the eggs (e.g, french style omelets, scrambled).
Was the kitchen at Jones like Hell’s Kitchen with Gordon Ramsey yelling at you for not properly dicing an onion?
Jones’ Kitchen was something like Hells Kitchen. Andrew Wagner, who runs the show at Jones, is one helluva chef. He’s a no nonsense guy when it comes to consistency, quality, and the characteristics of the food that gets put in the window. I’ve never had a Gordon Ramsey moment in the kitchen at Jones but I’ve definitely had arguments with chefs in the heat of the moment. Jones has an extremely high turnout rate so it happens from time to time.
How did that experience change your drive?
Working at Stephen Starr changed my drive because it made me realize that I wanted a restaurant of my own. As much as I love being a line cook, the hours are grueling and the work is just as bad. Some days are better then others and I’m no stranger to hard work. But, I still want to be physically capable of walking when its all said and done.
Ultimately what led to you starting your own company?
I’ve always wanted a company to call my own shots but the factor that ultimately led to that decision was not being able to find a job in Philadelphia. I needed money so I started selling plates of food in my dorm. Word spread and the money came rolling in. I figured I’d make it a official and start handing out business cards and promoting online. I got my tax ID, LLC, and the rest is history.
What type of food do you cook for your catering clients?
I offer my clients a range of international dishes, tapas, and appetizers: Hispanic carne purr, Caribbean jerks, and Indian curries. My customers call the shots and I see it through.
What is your vision for Triple C Food?
I want to use Clean Cut Catering as a launch pad to showcase my food to the world. Everyone that tries my food will taste the love and time I put into every meal. I want to open a few restaurants and food trucks to help solidify my spot in the food game and Triple C’s is my way of seeing that through.
What made you leave Philly/DC for San Francisco?
I left DC originally because I wanted to start my cooking career. I felt stagnant at home. Approaching 21 years of age, I felt as though it was time to step up the game and make something happen. After four years in Philadelphia and my private chef business struggling because of my availability, I made the decision to move back to MD before bringing my skill set and business ideas to the west coast.
What’s the difference between restaurants on the West Coast versus the East Coast?
The difference between restaurants on the East Coast and the West Coast is the food itself. Food on the West Coast tastes better because the weather is better for the produce. However, as far as themes and ambiance go, the East Coast has some breath-taking establishments.
What are your three favorite spots in Philly?
My favorite places to eat in Philly are Ishkabibbles, Marrakesh, and Del Fresco’s.
Being from DC, tell me your three favorite restaurants in the metro area?
My 3 favorite restaurants in the DC metro area are Alero, Jaleo, and a tie between Ben’s Chili Bowl and Horace & Dickies.
Lucky for you that Ben’s is adding a new location on H Street so you’ll be able to kill two birds with one stone the next time your home. What are your favorite foods to cook?
I love cooking stews, curries, and puréed soups. Anything that I can make in one pot and let cook slow and in stages is where I thrive the most. I love to let flavors develop and slow cooking processes are the best way to do that.
Who is your idol in the food industry?
My food idol is Bobby Flay. His Tex-Mex style of cooking is inspiring. His flavor profiles are bold, complex, and crowd-pleasing but his approach to food is simple. I try to come up with new, fun cooking techniques and flavor profiles daily because of Bobby Flay. With Chefs like him in the game, I gotta stay sharp.
How is the personal chef game treating you so far?
The personal chef game is cool, man. Most of my clients are friends that are in the music industry. I feel very privileged to be a part of the moments they hire me. I just met some fantastic people who are also going to be clients here in San Francisco and L.A. Although I’ve been building my business for some time, I’m just getting started.
What types of food do you cook for music artists?
The food that I make for a music artist really depends on the artist and what kind of person they are. I’ve made food as simple as fried chicken and as sophisticated as a rack of lamb in a blackberry merlot reduction. It all depends on their mood. I try my best not to turn down any request.
If you had a theme song, past or present, what would it be?
The song that represents me best is Jay-Z’s “Can I Live” from ‘Reasonable Doubt’
The intro is so hard. “We invite you to something epic, you know? Well, we hustle out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation; through that desperation, we become addicted sort of like the fiends we accustomed to serving. But we feel we have nothing to lose, so we offer you, well we offer our lives, right. What do you bring to the table?”
What do you bring to the table after a long night at work?
I like to come home and eat sandwiches with lots of lettuce, tomato, and onion (fresh of course) and stone ground mustard.
Speaking of tables, what’s in your refrigerator right now?
I have a lot of steak and eggs in my fridge. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. So, I keep steak and eggs all the time.
It’s my favorite meal too. Unfortunately, so many restaurants can’t seem to get it right. Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule and best of luck in the future. Godspeed.
All photographs are courtesy of Solomon Johnson of Clean Cut Catering