Style Profiles. In honor of our twice-a-year Men’s Shop Catalog dropping this month, we decided to profile 6 real men of style and substance. Here, cool-under-pressure chef Shaun McCrain.
Every man should know his way around the kitchen: how to take over the tongs at a friend’s barbecue, pull off your grandma’s family-secret marinara, whip up a chivalrous morning-after omelette…you know—the basics.
Professional chefs like Shaun McCrain, on the other hand, can turn the simple act of eating food into a mind-altering experience. Visit McCrain’s Seattle restaurant, Book Bindery, and although the humble maestro insists his MO is simplicity, the five-way flavor combinations in his modern twists on comfort food are enough to induce a quadruple take—and general feelings of astonished well-being.
We spoke to chef McCrain about paying dues in Paris and New York, design principles as applied to plating, and real-life kitchen tips that every man can use.
FARM TO TABLE. “I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. We lived on a small farm, raised our own meat, had a lot of vegetables. I was always around food without realizing it. My dad doesn’t cook. He was like, ‘I’ll just let Shaun do it, and if he messes up, we have more we can go pick.'”
TRIAL & ERROR. “Book smarts help you understand what you’re doing. Street smarts get your hands and body moving in the right direction. It’s hard to be able to physically do what you’ve read. You’ve gotta burn some things before you figure out how to cook them right.”
AMERICAN IN PARIS. “I sent my résumé to what I thought were the top 20 restaurants in Paris and got four responses. Three of them being, ‘Sorry, we don’t have room,’ and one being, ‘Sure, show up, work for free.’ That was my foot in the door.”
LIVE AND LEARN. “I left Seattle thinking I knew everything. I was 19 or 20 years old. I went to a bigger city, a nicer restaurant, and realized how much I didn’t know. It was very humbling…but I decided that if I really want to progress and learn, that I need to constantly be humbled—so I can learn from the best.”
FIRST IMPRESSIONS. “Plating and presentation are important, because they’re the first thing a person sees. I like to do bright colors, clean lines, something that’s very appealing to the eye. And then, when you do take that first bite—it should taste even better than it looks.”
CONTRAST AND COMPLEMENT. “I think items should complement each other. It’s a lot about textures, so if you have one thing that’s soft, then I want something else that’s gonna bring some crunch…a little burst of pickled onion, or a crispy crouton.”
WHY I LOVE MY JOB. “The craziness of it. Every day is different. You don’t know if the truck carrying your lamb up from Oregon broke down, and you’re scrambling to find a replacement, or your dishwasher breaks, or you have a high-profile guest coming in who you know likes to eat certain things. So it sparks that fuel, that drive of always keeping busy, always trying to stay on top. It’s easy to fall behind in the kitchen unless you have that ‘stay on top of it’ kind of attitude.”
THE BEST THING I EVER ATE. “It was at a Japanese restaurant in New York, called Masa. Simple sushi rice, rolled in shaved Italian white truffle, with just a pinch of fresh-grated yuzu and a little salt. Just simplicity at its best, but the ingredients were prepared perfectly.”
MY MORNING ROUTINE. “A cup of coffee…and maybe a Pop-Tart. Strawberry. Frosted. I spend all day walking around tasting things; it kind of curbs your appetite. [The staff and I] don’t sit down and eat a family meal until about 4:00. So in the morning, I just need to put something in me, whether it’s sugar or coffee or whatnot.”
WHAT TO PACK FOR LUNCH. “When I think of lunch, I always think of sandwiches. They don’t need to be boring. Go to the store, and buy some great charcuterie and good bread. Most of the time, those items are sold in portions that are more than one sandwich worth, so you’ll have enough for a couple days—or a very large sandwich.”
THE SECRET TO A GOOD SANDWICH. “The bread. The crust…whether it’s more of a rustic style with pieces of grain, or if it’s just a nice, crisp baguette that kind of snaps in your mouth when you eat it.”
HOW TO IMPRESS A DINNER DATE. “First, find out what they like. Nowadays, there are so many dietary restrictions, food allergies. Subtly figure out. Ask questions. Have an idea, rather than going in like, ‘Hey, I like steak, so I’m gonna cook steak’—and then finding out she’s pescatarian. That’s a date that’s not gonna end well.”
AND IF YOU BLOW IT… “Part of learning and growing with someone is making those mistakes. It could be the best meal they’ve ever had, or it could be terrible—but the whole experience of going through the process of doing something for someone is what it should be about.”
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[Food photos courtesy of bookbinderyrestaurant.com.]