Friday, May 29

Alumnus reflects on past experiences to cook up his own restaurant

After graduating from UCLA in 2003 with an economics degree, alumnus Brian Huskey decided to switch plans and go to culinary school in San Francisco. Now Huskey oversees a staff of approximately 15 cooks and chefs at his own restaurant Tackle Box, which he opened in 2015 with the help of Ed Lee, the co-founder of Wahoo’s Fish Taco. (Hannah Burnett/Assistant Photo editor)

Brian Huskey began his culinary career at the age of 19, flipping burgers at The Grove to pay the bills in his Midvale Avenue apartment.

A few years later, Huskey graduated from UCLA in 2003 with an economics degree and summer internships at Merrill Lynch under his belt, but decided against going to graduate school or working in finance to study the culinary arts instead.

“(Finance) is I guess what I’m supposed to do, but it’s not what I want to do,” he said. “I was more satisfied walking into a kitchen every day.”

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In 2003, Huskey moved to San Francisco to pursue cooking at the California Culinary Academy, a choice he said his mother initially thought he was foolish for making.

But over the next 10 years, he worked in San Francisco, Los Angeles and the Caribbean, eventually leading kitchens as a sous-chef and head chef. Huskey said the lessons and experience he gained from his early cooking career have helped him run his own restaurant, Tackle Box, which opened in 2015 on the shoreline of Corona del Mar, California.

“In order to be a craftsman, you have to put in over 50,000, 100,000 hours, to be a master at anything,” he said.

After culinary school, Huskey moved to Saint John, the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, to work at a five-star resort. He would swim with sea turtles during the day and cook jerk chicken at night, he said. Huskey added island life provided many eye-opening experiences, some of which changed the way he communicated with people.

Huskey said he was surprised while speaking to a Caribbean co-worker because they expected him to greet them before asking for something. The experience helped him learn the value of respect in the workplace, he said.

“It’s more about life and acknowledging people,” he said. “Yeah, you’re in a work environment, but you still can have a personal relationship.”

One year later, Huskey decided to return to Los Angeles to refine his skills, eventually cooking alongside mentor Ricardo Zarate for four years during which he said he learned how to run a restaurant.

Huskey was interviewed and hired as the sous-chef of Zarate’s restaurant, Picca, in 2011 before he helped Zarate open other establishments in the Los Angeles area. In addition to cooking Peruvian cuisine at Picca, Huskey also learned about the logistical aspects of restaurants such as food, labor costs and menu construction, said Zarate.

“In the end, the big difference in the job we (restaurant owners) do is we are running a business,” Zarate said.

Huskey said he learned to be flexible about unexpected changes and new ideas from his earlier jobs. Before meeting Zarate, Huskey worked at Eva, a contemporary restaurant in Los Angeles. The remodeling of the restaurant minimized the space available for cooking appliances, and the loss of a stove-top oven meant that some pasta dishes could not be sauteed, Huskey said. As a result, the menu had to quickly be rearranged.

Huskey said he has also adapted to unpredictable circumstances in his own restaurant, Tackle Box. As a small business owner, Huskey has carried out electrical and plumbing work since smaller restaurants don’t have the budget or resources that larger establishments, such as hotels, have, he said.

“You’ve got to have multiple hats on. You’re not just a chef anymore, you’re not just an owner,” he said. “You’re the janitor, you’re the dishwasher, you’re the PR.”

Before opening his restaurant, Huskey collaborated with Ed Lee, the co-founder of Wahoo’s Fish Taco, to discuss his vision for the shack and the food it should serve.

Lee said he thinks while it is important to watch the cost of a business, it is also important not to compromise the quality of the food. Huskey was able to maintain the creativity of his dishes using substituted ingredients, such as his Buffalo cauliflower, a take on Buffalo wings which are made from more expensive chicken, said Lee.

Huskey said when Tackle Box first opened, he spent some nights sleeping over at the restaurant to prepare ingredients early the next day. And in the first few months, the restaurant was operated by only two people – Huskey in the kitchen, and his brother at the cash register.

Now overlooking a kitchen staff of approximately 15 employees, Huskey said he tries to encourage his young cooks and chefs to take ownership of their food and collaborate on new specials on a weekly basis.

“That’s all part of giving back and the whole life cycle of ‘I was in a position where I was super hungry and wanted to learn,’ and that’s what it was all about,” he said.

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