Q&A: Governor’s Brad McDonald on Creative Freedom, Modern American Cuisine, and ’80s Sitcoms


When Fork in the Road was a few minutes late to call chef Brad McDonald, we explained that our phone’s recorder was a bit faulty. “You have an app that records on your phone? I bet that many an embittered wife is using it for other reasons.” So goes the whimsically creative thought process of the chef. McDonald, formerly of Noma and Per Se, brings classic techniques to the inventive food at DUMBO’s Governor, which is also his first venture as an owner. With both reserved passion and a candid sense of humor, the chef shared his goals for this new spot, his points of reference, and why Governor’s diners — sometimes — just have to take a leap of faith.

See More Interviews:
Food Network’s Alex Guarnaschelli Talks Pumpkin

James Beard President Susan Ungaro on Gender and Lack of Women in the Culinary World

Governor is still a pretty new restaurant, but you been making the review rounds.
For me, Govenor was meant to be first restaurant that I owned and where I was the chef. It’s the first restaurant where I have creative freedom to do whatever. The freedom doesn’t really have any limitations. We’re trying to cook with what’s available to us, both seasonally and locally, but we wouldn’t shy away from farmed products, either if we’re attracted to them. We’re really just inspired by technique, all the way around, whether that technique is from Mexico or Europe or anywhere in the world that we find something cool. That’s actually where it becomes difficult for us to nail down what kind of food we’re doing here. We’re pulling from all of our experiences and travels and then filtering it down onto the plate. I call it modern American cuisine because I feel like it’s exactly what the culture in America is, a blend of all these foreign cultures into one. Not all of our cuts are straight sharp corners — we’re mostly just concerned with deliciousness. It’s a little bit ADD because it’s not hyper defined, but it does draw from very serious food cultures across the world.

I’ve read descriptions of Governor that describe it as both “familiar and progressive.” I say this positively: The restaurant sounds like the culinary equivalent of an ’80s sitcom rerun.
I think that’s really cool — there were a lot of good TV shows in the ’80s. We try to use a reference point [when creating a dish] and usually where we land is a little more unfamiliar. We want to challenge the dining public in a way that feels somewhat gauged — not completely gung ho. We want to create a menu that at least makes some sense. We have to have a certain level of comfort with a dish before we put it on the menu, and we want each dish to have an anchor. Then there are some [dishes] that are just super far out that people have to be willing to say “I’ll try that.”

Like what?
Our brown butter ice cream with caviar and sunchoke crumble. I don’t really know why that makes sense, but it does. It’s like starting your meal with an ice cream sundae. It’s really uplifting and refreshing. A dish like that opens your mind up to the whole rest of the meal. We don’t know why we put it together — there’s a story behind it — but at the end of the day, it’s just three ingredients listed on the menu, and you have to just take that leap of faith.

What about dishes that you’ve really wanted to work but just couldn’t make it on the menu?
Well, yes. But it’s something that we’ve come back to just now. In the first menu, there was a beef tongue dish that was braised for a day and a half. [We served] it like a piece of steak. It was probably a dish that I shouldn’t have put on the menu, but I forced it on there because I love technique. After a couple of weeks, even a friend or two told me “You should take that off the menu and revisit it at a later date.” So we did. It’s a completely different experience now, and I’m really looking forward to getting it back on the menu soon.

Perennial Plate organized a dinner at Governor tonight, and you’ll be cooking alongside James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock. Can you tell us anything about the menu?
This is the first event dinner that we’re doing at Governor, and I’m super excited about it. I’m looking forward to hanging out with Sean because I hear he’s such a riot in the kitchen. And these events are meant to be about having fun. I’ll say that Governor is doing the snacks and the dessert and then Sean is doing two courses and Daniel [Klein of Perennial Plate] is doing two courses. Beyond that, I’ll just let if be a surprise. I think that’s part of it — to show up and have [the experience] just be complete submission.

Check back in tomorrow to read part two, when chef McDonald talks about his favorite New York restaurants and which Southern writers influence and affect his food.