We don’t cover a lot of food or dining news here on Flavorwire, but when we do, it’s because of a personality or story that really inspires us. Enter chef Adam C. Banks, Woodford Reserve, and Dinner Lab.
We teamed up with Woodford Reserve to host 16 different pop-up Dinner Lab feasts, all inspired by (and paired with) custom Woodford bourbon cocktails. As we planned this nationwide series, we learned that one of the participating cooks was Adam C. Banks, an Astoria chef you might recognize from his time alongside Roblé Ali on Bravo’s Chef Roblé & Co. Much more than an engaging reality star, we were inspired by Adam’s passion, dedication, and devotion to the art of the kitchen. Read on to learn more about his culinary past, his Dinner Lab menu, and just what the hell “soigné” means.
Flavorwire: Both your parents are chefs. Was there an expectation or encouragement when you were younger for you to become a chef?
Adam C. Banks: They never directly said they wanted me to go into the food business, but they kind of secretly did. They’d give me these subtle hints to try and drive me towards the dark side. When I was young, 7 or 8, my dad got me a whole chef kit for children — a full cooking set with knives, a chef coat, one of those poufy chef’s hats that no one wears anymore except for in movies when the action star’s running through the kitchen as the staff is trying to like, gut fish or something… So at a young age, you could say that my parents gave me knives and encouraged me to play with fire.
FW: Why do you do what you do? What is it that you are so passionate about that you’ll follow that vision, avoid shortcuts, and be true to who you are?
BANKS: I do what I do because it’s impossible for me to not think about food and cooking. I’ve tried. I went through traditional college first, and it only steered me towards cooking. After intentionally failing a class, my professor pulled me aside, trying to get more insight behind what happened. She asked me, “What’s on your mind? What do you think about?” I responded simply, “Food…” She rolled her eyes, told me that I was just bored and had to repeat the class.
But I’m passionate about food and cooking because it’s not only my creative outlet, but my way of connecting with people. You know, a creative outlet should spark energy and be invigorating to a person. Following through on those creative urges whole-heartedly feeds a craving and leaves a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Half-assing it just leaves me feeling unsatisfied — like after eating a ton of bad fried food. I’m a bit of an introvert, so food and cooking is my way of communicating and connecting with people. I don’t do well with small talk about sports or politics. In my case, food and cooking is a great way for me to get to know people. and vice versa.
FW: How’d you get involved with Dinner Lab?
BANKS: I would credit that to my girlfriend Megan. She was the one who really encouraged me to look into it. “I think this would be good for you.”
FW: How is preparing for a Dinner Lab meal different from prepping for a private event or working in a restaurant?
BANKS: Just in general, people don’t really understand the huge differences between having a meal in a restaurant and having a meal at an external site. It’s two different worlds. You could have the best line cooks in New York City, who are just flawless at what they do in their restaurant, but you put them in a private event, it’ll be a completely different story. It’s a different animal. It’s very rough and tumble, because you have to deal with the elements… There’s a lot of planning and logistics that go along with a catered event. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. To be able to bring it to you is a premium service.
FW: What’s something you hope diners get from your food? Do you have a particular ethos or a spirit that carries you through every meal?
BANKS: Well, first of all, I want people to enjoy it. I mean, if people don’t like the food, then I take it personally. Like, even if I know it’s good, and people don’t like it, it still feels like a punch in the face. It stings a little bit, because you’ve put all this work into it, and you want people to like it!
And I want it to be a memorable experience. “We had this dinner from this chef, and yeah, it was really good.” I want that meal to be worth bringing up in conversation with their friends or colleagues or strangers at cocktail parties. Because people eat every single day. You’re having one, two, or three meals a day — it’s just something that happens. So to be able to stand out, to be able to think back to all those different foods and meals that you’ve eaten. To be a little bit of a highlight in someone’s mind — that’s pretty cool.
FW: Take us through your Dinner Lab menu. It’s a Mediterranean theme. Any other inspiration points besides the obvious — the Mediterranean and of course, Woodford Reserve?
I also like introducing people to different kinds of food. Because sometimes people have “ah-ha” moments when they’re like, “Wow, I would never think to eat that. But it’s so good!” It opens people’s experiences to something that they wouldn’t usually try out.
Octopus has been pretty trendy for a while… It’s kind of common now, but it’s very influential in my kind of cooking. Especially being out here in Astoria, we’ve got all the Greek octopus. Or things like the shawarma. A lot of people have never had shawarma — they might have had like, lamb cart or something, but real shawarma in New York, it’s a little more specific.
FW: What’s the difference between street meat shawarma and actual shawarma?
BANKS: Well, shawarma (like lamb or chicken), is meat that is skewered and layered onto a stick and it rotates vertically with the fire behind it, and it’s slow-cooked…
A lot of the lamb cart stuff is almost like, meat bologna, lamb and meat bologna, that gets chopped up and seared on the flat top, served with white sauce and bad pita — that’s your street meat, halal cart kind of thing that you’re used to. But if you go to a real shawarma shop, and it’s there rotating, they’ll slice it to order, you’ll get higher quality bread, aromatic rice, all the fixings and salad, the spice blend is there. It’s a completely different experience. And it’s one of my favorite things to eat. Of course, all that being said, I do like to lamb cart sometimes, too.
FW: The recently unveiled Instagram chef Jacques La Merde brought the cooking/restaurant term “soigné” to the masses. Can you explain “soigné” (“swan-yay”) for the layman?
BANKS: [Soigné] is like, an all-encompassing element of perfection that you’re delivering to the guest. It’s almost like a swagger, too. It’s in the way you present yourself and the way you finesse things — either food or service. You’re giving them something that is very elegant and flawless, but you’re doing it without making it look hard… It takes a lot of technique, but they don’t see the hard part. You’re giving above and beyond with all these little techniques and little touches that just add to the experience without anyone realizing that it’s happening.
FW: What’s a food trend that you love, and one that you’d like to see die?
BANKS: I really like this trend of getting people involved in their food community — understanding where their food comes from, being aware of locality and seasonality, or whether or not something is farm-raised. The fact that they’re even thinking about it or questioning it… that takes people from just consuming calories to thinking about what they’re putting in their bodies and enjoying new experiences with food and cooking — I think that’s great.
Something I’d like to see die: The pretentiousness of some people in regards to local, seasonal, organic, and responsibly raised foods. It should be celebrated, enjoyed, and shared with others — not served in a judgmental, elitist and snotty manner. That attitude has to go.
FW: Are you familiar with the concept of the 6-word memoir? What 6 words would you use to describe what you do and who you are?