Through Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), we’ve been introduced to a lot of great chefs over the past few months. After getting to know Café Katja‘s Executive Chef, Swainson Brown, we are eager to visit the Lower East Side establishment!
FP: How did you get your start with cooking?
SB: When I was seven years old, I was tall enough to see over the top of the stove in the kitchen of our house in Kingston, Jamaica. My mother encouraged my sister and I to cook. For our first experiment, we made egg pancakes. We mixed one egg with a half cup of water and whipped the mixture to a very fluffy consistency. We then dropped the mixture onto an oiled skillet and from just one egg we were able to make over 20 pancakes. I was amazed at the result of our experiment. From that day on, I became curious and interested in food and ingredients.
FP: When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
SB: My family moved to Brooklyn when I was a teenager. I enrolled in the culinary arts class at George W. Wingate High School. My teacher Barbara Joseph said, “Why don’t you pay more attention in class instead of being in the back of the room with the girls. There is a scholarship program that I can get you involved with that can pay your way to culinary school.”
She introduced me to C-CAP and mentored me to help secure the spot in the C-CAP New York Cooking Competition for Scholarships. That’s when I was ready to display my incredible skills and techniques in the kitchen and to show off my newfound love of food.
The year that I competed in the final competition, the two-course French meal included a savory recipe of Poached Guinea Hen with Turned Carrots, Potatoes, and Zucchini, and a dessert recipe of Dessert Crêpes with Pastry Crème and Chocolate Sauce. While I was creating my crêpes, Chef Marcus Samuelsson was observing my technique, and asked about tasting one of the crêpes. I presented the crêpe to him for tasting, stopped creating the rest for the competition, and prepared one for each judge. The judges laughed about the fact that I stopped to make crêpes for them, and that I thought I had enough time to finish my presentation for judging. I did complete the dishes in time for the judging.
FP: Way to make an impression!
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
SB: I enjoy a combination of things. I really enjoy cooking. I find that I feel like I am at home in the kitchen. That’s my happy place. I have a creative nature and I get to explore lots of possibilities every day. I like to share my love and passion for cooking and my culinary knowledge with my team.
I worked with Doug Psaltis at Country restaurant. He was my mentor and to this day I follow his advice that it’s important for each person in the kitchen to learn everything, share information, and to help each other to be a good team where everyone is watching out for each other.
I was very lucky to fulfill my externship from culinary school at The Mark Hotel. I was hired after my externship by David Paulstich and then worked there with Andrew Chase for several years. Together we explored flavors, cuisines, and developed our working relationship and friendship. Andrew called on me to help him open Café Katja, and now I am working with him again as Executive Chef. I have found the perfect setting to apply my techniques for infusing spices in my homemade sausages and bratwurst.
FP: Share with us your involvement with C-CAP.
SB: I am proud to be able to mentor C-CAP students by hiring and training them for jobs in my restaurants. C-CAP and C-CAP Founder Richard Grausman have taught me to try to give back and help others when possible. I have been very fortunate to work with chefs and restaurateurs who support my interest in educating and nurturing the next generation of chefs. I will be working with C-CAP President Susan Robbins to encourage alumni to get more involved with C-CAP and to mentor our students.
FP: That’s great that you find time to give back!
When you’re not working at Café Katja, what are some of your favorite meals to cook for yourself ?
SB: I really enjoy making savory dishes and my favorite go-to for dinner for one is Hot Curried Chicken with Rice, Peas, and Broccoli. I ask my friend who is a pastry chef to bring over the desserts.
FP: What are some of your guilty pleasures? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name.
SB: I enjoy tasting the new drinks from my mixology friends, and food wise, I am a really big fan of Buttermilk Fried Chicken.
FP: Mmm…buttermilk fried chicken! We’ll take two please!
If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing? Any non-cooking hobbies?
FP: I thought of becoming a lawyer. I like to argue and win and stand up for those who need to be defended. My non-cooking hobbies include deep-water fishing on the ocean.
FP: We hope you get to enjoy the ocean very soon! Thank you again for your time. We will make sure to stop Café Katja in the very near future.
If anyone is interested in joining us to taste some of Chef Swainson’s cooking at Café Katja this summer, let us know!