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Chef Tony Reed Interview

Here at Spiceology, we have a culinary North Star we all look to: Chef Tony Reed. Not only is he the longest-standing employee at the company, seemingly always texting back and forth with an infinite number of chefs and keenly aware of people’s palates, he’s also the mastermind and formulator of some of our most beloved blends and flavors.

While some creatives strive to make an impact through sight or sound, Tony works in flavor - a discipline so discerning that it’s not an overstatement to say that few can do what Tony does. And this rare talent of taking an idea and inventing a sensory experience you can literally taste with never-before-tasted flavor combinations - it’s a special thing.

We caught up with our very own Chef Tony for our Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a chef’s creative side, approach to menus, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know Tony below:

When did you first find a love of cooking?

“I was a latchkey kid, and at seven years old my Mom was working so I learned how to cook things. I started with simple stuff like Top Ramen and cereal, but I had this interest in making those easy things more exciting. Then I discovered cayenne in Cup Noodles…

But I figured out that cooking was what I should do when I was 19. I was dropping in and out of college - and when I wasn’t in school I’d always go back to restaurants every time. There was a point while working at Gordy’s Sichuan Cafe in Spokane that he thought I had the chops to succeed as a chef and convinced me to go to culinary school.

Plus, my wife Emily added push to pursue this, along with my Dad who was very encouraging. In fact, my Dad was going to give me $5,000 so I could move to Paris to figure it out, but I couldn't get a work visa because France wasn’t accepting any visas at that time. So I stayed local and kept to it.”

Talk to me about some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career.

“My biggest challenge was becoming the leader in a kitchen at just 24 years old. I was given a chef job right out of school and I was the general manager. At the time, I thought I was making bank (laughs). But if I wanted to learn different cuisines and recipes and work at a different restaurant, I’d have to be a line cook and basically start over again, which meant I wouldn’t have been able to maintain my lifestyle. So coming out of culinary school, I was immediately given a role that most 24 year-olds aren't ready for and that most cooks take years to get to - and it’s happening even more these days.

The result was that I was capped at my learning early on. Once I started working at Spiceology in 2015, I got to travel and talk to chefs about their cuisines and dishes, and I credit most of my culinary learning outside of school and work to that experience. Some restaurants are hiring people just because they showed up. Labor is really intense right now - and skilled labor is even harder to find.”

People around you, music, books, travel - where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“Nowadays I find inspiration from chefs who are Spiceology customers, and from our Collabs, like Alvin (Cailan) giving me tidbits and tricks on cooking a cheeseburger to learning from Chad White about the power of vinegars and salts and citrus.

I also listen to a lot of music, mostly hip hop. We wouldn’t have Spiceology’s Buffalo Lemon Pepper blend without that inspiration. I mean, if it wasn't for Rick Ross where would Spiceology be?

Also, when people are dining on a show, I try to understand what they're eating. Like on Game of Thrones - what are the Lanisters eating? What does that say about them? Those kinds of fantasy worlds inspire me.”

How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?

“I’m terrible at it. I never worked in fine dining. And when I look at mid- or high-level restaurants and see how they present their food I’m always somewhat jealous (laughs). I worked with family-style Asian food, and we didn't have a need for that kind of presentation. Don’t get me wrong, the food was beautiful, but plating wasn't something I ever latched onto; I think if it tastes good it really shouldn't matter what it looks like. But maybe I say that because I never had the opportunity to be innovative with my plating.”

Why were you drawn to Asian cuisine?

“Gordy’s was the best Asian restaurant - and one of the best restaurants - in Spokane, and we ate there regularly as a family. It was literally right around the corner from my house. Asian cooking always fascinated me. Long ago, Teenager Tony thought he’d be working in international business, and I took Japanese courses for four straight years and immersed myself in Japanese culture. I was fascinated with anime, the food, how they ate it - so my love for Asian cuisine started back then. Then, Gordy’s gave me the chance to dive into Sichuan cooking.

With my wife being Latina, I've tried to learn more Central and South American foods, but Sichuan cuisine is still my favorite to eat. And because of Spiceology and my job, I’m forced to dig into other cuisines, like recently I've been diving into various regional Indian dishes.”

What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?

“Always be a student even after you graduate. You don't have to go to school to be a cook, but I think students need to remind themselves that just because you learn it in culinary school - it might not always apply at work. Maintain yourself as a humble person, and have patience and vulnerability.”

How do you approach formulating a new blend for Spiceology? What’s your process?

“I start with the cuisines - maybe it’s American BBQ, Jamaican or Indian. Then I learn the regions of that cuisine and those styles and really dive into regionalities. I dial into a flavor profile based on a region, look at the sauces of those areas, then get the granulated versions of those ingredients.

I think about our customers and what cuisines and flavor profiles they’d be interested in, but can’t necessarily get access to. I’m looking for ways to force flavor into a dish and onto a plate and then giving the cook the ability for dry applications.”

What are some of your favorite Spiceology blends to use?

“I’m using Greek Freak five nights a week. Then Black & Bleu at least once a week to make mac and cheese for lunch or dinner for my daughter. But Korean BBQ will always and forever be my first love child.

As far as raw ingredients, we have amazing Cumin. I will die on the hill saying we have the best cumin out there. Also our Domestic Garlic Granules are just superior.”

What’s an ingredient you consider under-valued?

White pepper. At home you’re always using Black Pepper, but in a professional kitchen you’re using White Pepper way more. You just don't see White Pepper on people’s kitchen counters. I like to make sauces and you want to make the sauce look as pure as possible - so no black specs. White Pepper blends in and takes on the color of whatever it’s added to.

White Pepper is also more pungent and not as floral as Black Pepper; our White Pepper powder is washed with water and you can almost taste the mustiness there. It’s more gentle and earthier than Black Pepper, which brings a floral spice that can be overpowering.”

What do you think a chef’s role is in their local community?

“In your local community, I think it’s important to maintain as much sustainability as possible and try to use your local vendors, whether they’re a small farm, a cattleman, etc. But it’s also about telling a story behind your food. As a chef, you create a story with your menu that people can relate to in simple ways. Give your guests an opportunity to learn and gain something while they’re at your restaurant.

It’s also important that local chefs work together. In bigger cities - there’s a lot of competition, and I think chefs can do a better job at encouraging each other to innovate and learn from each other. If you’re inspired by another chef’s dish it's usually flattering to them - it’s not about one-upping or copying that dish. Sometimes chefs get in their own way and it makes them look like jerks.”

Favorite dish to cook for yourself?

“Biscuits and gravy.”

Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?

“Biscuits and gravy. If you ask anyone that I’ve spent a significant amount of time with - it’s what I do.”

What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Spokane?

“For breakfast we’re going to Chaps because it’s great, but if you want something more casual go to Frank’s Diner. I also love that dive bar breakfast at Morty’s Tap and Grille.

Lunch is going to be at either Wiley’sThe High Nooner or TT’s Old Iron Brewery & BBQ.

Dinner is at Wooden City, and we are ordering the Blistered Hungarian Peppers, or head to Francaise or Luna.”