Amanda Wurzbach: The culinary community still considers you to be a young chef. To you, how much of cooking is instinct and how much is experience?
John Manion: Well, I'm not that young. I feel completely comfortable with my ability to cook what I believe people want to eat. I come to this attitude through an anthropological approach. I travel and read a lot. The result always has to be the best food that you can produce for your customers. I don't want to fool anyone with what I am doing in the kitchen.
As far as the difference between instinct and experience goes, I believe that it is a combination of both. It's like reading e.e. cummings in high school. It is really the worst thing to read when you're that young because e.e. cummings doesn't follow any of the rules that you are supposed to follow, and you're too young to understand that he actually knows the rules so well, that he is allowed to break them. The kitchen is the same way. Experience certainly facilitates instinct, but a combination of the two is what makes a chef good.
AW: What are your food philosophies and how have they changed since you started cooking? How do you see them changing as we speak? What effect do you believe that it has on the cuisine at Mas in the future?
JM: I don't believe that I have any hard and true philosophies about food other than the fact that I believe that people should gather together in a place, enjoy each other's company and enjoy a good meal. They should savor the entire experience. That is what I want to happen at Mas. It's a neighborhood restaurant, where people can get together and have good food and fun.
I also believe that it is important to avoid 180 degree turns when it comes to food. If you are creating a fine dining experience, then make it refined from start to finish. If you are creating authentic food, then make it truly authentic - but remember that what defines cuisine is what is readily available. That is why we call our food at Mas, nuevo Latino cuisine. It is based on a traditional and authentic premise, but it would be impossible to make this food authentic in Chicago - so we tailored it for Chicago - we set some rules for us to follow, and we stick to them.
AW: You are experiencing a great deal of success at a relatively young age. Where do you see yourself going and how do you push yourself to get there? What are the goals?
JM: A vacation! I am only kidding. Really, I am going to have to cross that bridge when I come to it. The truth is that I feel extraordinarily lucky to be where I am right now. I am doing exactly what I have wanted to do for so long... and very few people get to be that lucky. Sure, someday I would love to revisit southern food or focus more on American regional cuisine. I want to travel more, and learn more about everything. I think that what I am doing right now at Mas is good, but in truth I could go a lot farther with it if I continue to study, I am really only scratching the surface. That is always my drive.
AW: I think that you will agree that American Culinaria is on the cusp of something greater than a "trend" with nuevo Latino cuisine. This is a viable cuisine that has the opportunity to become a "category" in the scheme of culinary definitions of the future. What kind of future do you envision for nuevo Latino cuisine? Moreover, do you feel that you will be a part of its growth pattern? Do you see yourself as a lifetime proponent of nuevo Latino cuisine?
JM: You're right. This cuisine is a greater extension of Latin cultures and it has staying power. Supermarkets now have yucca and plantains available, and that is more than a trend, I don't see that ever changing. Right now there is more of a Latin influence in our American culture - period. In general nuevo Latino is a trend right now, but it will not fade away, it will get more widespread and focused.
As far as whether or not I will always be doing it, who's to say? I know that co-owners Hubie Greenwald, Mike Farley and I set out to create something that will last, and that is still our goal. What I like about this cuisine so much is that there is no need to stick a plantain in everything in order to make it "Latin." People are often surprised at how focused the flavors are and that they aren't simply a mish mosh of tastes. There is a lot to do with this style. There are no perimeters and a lot of room for refinement. There will be some attempts to exploit it, but that is to be expected. What is most important to me is that people try nuevo Latino and let it inspire them to learn something more about the culture. Even though what I am doing is not authentic, every dish has roots in tradition and culture. It's like the first time I ever ate sushi. A whole new world was opened for me. It was like, here's this Eastern culture - I want to learn more.
AW: Could you explain what you set out to accomplish every evening when you step onto the line? What do you think are the most important components in the dining experience?
JM: On the line, all that you want to accomplish is perfection - to execute flawlessly. That said, service is actually the least stressful part of the day. If you have properly prepared, cooking is just about execution, and that is not hard. What is hard is spending the first part of the day eliminating all of the variables of disorganization.
AW: What is your reputation in the kitchen? What do you want your staff to learn from you? How do you facilitate that learning process? What is the most important thing that you learned from your mentors that you try to pass along?
JM: My reputation is all about being fair. If you are doing your job well, you won't have a problem. I like to make people perform at a level that they didn't know they were capable of. In other words, I like my staff to experience a feeling of accomplishment without feeling as if I am constantly giving them a hard time. But, that said, it is hot, it is intense, and every once in a while you have to put your foot down.
I have worked for yellers and disciplinarians and I have worked for more relaxed chefs too. You can't change your personality to perform a job - the way you conduct a kitchen is a manifestation of who you are - and I am pretty mellow most of the time. The trick is having a kitchen staff who understands why you are all there every night, and who have a sense of humility. I have a huge sense of humility and a goal to learn more, but also truly understand as much of what I learn as possible. It is vital to learn, but even more critical to understand. I feel that my staff is on the same page as I am in that respect - and because of that I am very proud of what we do every night. I think that people who come to Mas are encountering something a little different made by people who care. And that has been a huge part of our success.
Interview was conducted by Amanda Wurzbach for StarChefs.