The Art and Science of Tater Tots

Plus, the road back from California cuisine: Q&A with Josh Kemper of Smokey J's Q House.

Downtown Berkeley got a taste of populist luxury last month with the opening of Phil’s Sliders, Hugh Groman’s storefront cafe devoted to the mini burger. And while there’s no denying that the Marin Sun Farms beef patties and Valrhona chocolate in the shakes sets Phil’s apart from your basic Nation’s, there’s something else on the short, sweet menu here that’ll make you put your slider down: tater tots. (For legal reasons, Groman calls them “potato tots.”)

The humble tot has become an object of kitschy nostalgia for Gen Y bar crawlers (at San Francisco’s Bullitt bar, the hammered can try to get sober with something called Totchos, tater tots cheesed up like nachos). But Phil’s treats America’s version of the potato croquette with nothing but respect.

David Going, chef of Phil’s Sliders (as well as Groman’s other businesses, Hugh Groman Catering and Greenleaf Platters) feeds organic russets into a special peeling machine, then boils the potatoes to a precise internal temperature. An industrial-grade food processor grates the cooked spuds into shreds, which are packed into sheet pans and baked till they dry out a bit. The mass is cut into rectangular tots, then deep-fried to order in canola oil.

What emerges are tots with the perfect mix of tender, chewy, and crisp-skinned, with stray wisps of grated potato as satisfying as the edges of hash browns. As for ketchup, go ahead and dunk if you feel the need, but believe it: The last thing these tots need is a companion.

From Mumbai to Memphis

After my first visit to Smokey J’s Q House in South Berkeley — subject of this week’s restaurant review — I was left with a smoldering question. One wall of Smokey J’s offers a mosaic of framed photos of owner Josh Kemper’s previous press, back when he was cooking in India and Thailand. How does a guy go from cooking international resort food to setting up as pitmaster at a small, neighborhood barbecue house? In a telephone interview after I’d wrapped up my last review meal, Kemper explained.

WTF: So, obviously you’ve been cooking in places where American barbecue is pretty much unknown. How did you make the leap from there to here?

Kemper: I’ve been gone now — working abroad — for nearly ten years, but I grew up in Berkeley and Oakland (I went to Berkeley High School), and just finally decided I wanted to come home and open my own restaurant.

WTF: You were cooking in resorts, right?

Kemper: Yeah, in Mumbai and Thailand and Australia. I was working for the Meridien hotel chain — they’re one of the biggest five-star hotel chains in the world — and I got the job helping them open different hotels in the southeast Asian countries.

I started in Thailand, then I went to Japan for six months, and then India — Mumbai, India — but at that point I left the Meridien and worked at the Taj Hotel. I helped to run the first organic restaurant in the country, in the Taj, opened by celebrity chef Michel Nischan [Pure, in the Taj Land End Hotel]. I ran that for two years, but after the terrorist attack on our sister hotel [the 2008 bombings at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower], I figured it was time to leave the country. I backpacked around Australia and worked at a few restaurants there.

WTF: And the whole time you were cooking food that was very different from the barbecue you’re doing now, right?

Kemper: I was doing California fusion. Believe it or not, California fusion cuisine is considered very cutting-edge in Asia!

WTF: Did you cook barbecue at all, as an off-night hobby or something?

Kemper: Barbecue? Well, I can definitely say that when you live abroad you develop this affinity for anything American — you develop this strong American identity that you probably didn’t even know that you had before.

My bosses were always European, always giving me a hard time. They’d say stuff like, “What can you cook that’s American, hot dogs and hamburgers?” I felt I was always defending myself, so one day I put barbecue on the menu just to spite them.

WTF: Really? Out of spite?

Kemper: Well, I also wanted to get out of finer dining, get back to my roots, cook simple food again. I was tired of all the hypocrisy of fine dining.

WTF: So when you came back, you jumped into barbecue. Did you learn from books, talking to people?

Kemper: Definitely research. I got some from books, and I drove across the country and ate at all the top barbecue restaurants I could find. I’ve been cooking for a long time, and I have a decent palate, so when I eat something I generally know what’s in it, like, “Oh, they put XYZ in their barbecue sauce.” It’s been a bit of research and a bit of trial and error.

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