Spending a few years in Gainesville when he was growing up, and most every summer at his grandparents home on Lake Lanier after moving away, Brian Young remembers having to make sure his shirt was tucked in, his elbows weren’t on the table and he wasn’t chewing with his mouth open while gathered with family for meals. It was just the Southern way.
That Southern way drew him to cooking. Those memories and others of cooking with his grandmother, Barbara Young, were the genesis of his career. Young is competing on season 16 of "Top Chef," a competition cooking show on Bravo, hoping to beat out the rest of the contestants to win a $125,000 prize.
“When I was a kid, like really young in first or second grade, I was always messing around with food,” said Young, who spent part of his elementary years at Centennial Arts Academy in Gainesville. “I would take this bread and put it in the toaster oven and make weird concoctions, like different kinds of bread pizzas and things like that.”
When other kids were asking for bikes or video games for Christmas and birthdays, Young was asking for things that were quite different.
“I think in like the third grade I asked my parents for an egg poacher for Christmas,” Young said. “I was just always kind of weirdly into food and trying to figure it out. Maybe it’s because I like eating so much.”
Whatever the reason, his knack for food and cooking led to him becoming a chef, well-known enough for executives at NBC Universal and Bravo to reach out to him and ask him to apply for the show.
‘You’re going to be on the show’
The first restaurant job he had was at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Nashville, where he worked as a food runner.
“It was loud and smoky and I learned how to carry a tray of plates of barbecue way over my head, and push through crowds without spilling foods,” Young said. “That's what made me want to get into the kitchen, because the cooks looked like they were having a good time, and I was not having a good time. I was like, ‘I want to do that job.’”
He enrolled in the culinary arts program at New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, and hasn’t ventured far from New England since. He said he’s “only left New England a couple of times.”
Young went out to Sierra Mar, a fine-dining restaurant in Big Sur, California, but came back and eventually worked at Harvest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with chef Mary Dumont, who became Young’s mentor and who opened Cultivar in Boston, Massachusetts, the restaurant Young just left to go on as executive chef at a new restaurant he’s helping to open, The Emory, in Boston.
That kind of resume may seem like it all but solidified his spot on the show, but Young said it wasn’t so easy. He said it took about a week to finish the application — which required him to record himself making a meal — but after he finished, he got a call back to cook for those TV executives so they could taste the food. Then he went out to Los Angeles for an interview.
Originally, they told him it wasn’t his year, but they definitely wanted him on season 17.
“I was kind of bummed out,” Young said. “It was probably about three days later they called me back and were like, ‘We changed our minds, you’re going to be on the show if you still want to be.’ And I was like, ‘Heck yeah.’”
No interest in competition
Young said one of the largest influences that led him to become a chef is his grandmother, who he calls nana.
“She was always cooking big, Southern meals,” Young said. “Fish and crab cakes and all kinds of stuff … but she hates red-eye gravy. She doesn't even want to talk about it.”
Even though she might not have taught him how to make red-eye gravy, Young said that’s where his curiosity for cooking and his first exposure to it came from.
He said his family wasn’t really into TV and he didn’t watch much himself, especially cooking competition shows, while growing up. He does remember watching American Idol every now and then.
Since he wasn’t really aware of competition cooking shows, Young never had his sights set on being on one. Once he got a little older, though, he became interested and wanted to be on a show like "Top Chef" or “Iron Chef.”
Being on the show, Young learned quite a bit. He learned new techniques, was challenged with food in ways he hadn’t imagined and gained the knowledge and confidence to go out on his own to help open a restaurant.
But above everything, he said he got to know chefs he never would have had the opportunity to otherwise.
“The biggest takeaway from being on the show was that we formed these amazing relationships with each other,” Young said.
"Top Chef" was one of the only competition cooking shows he was interested in being on. Others didn’t interest him because they didn’t seem like shows that were set up for “chefs who cook like chefs.”
“I thought ‘Top Chef’ is the only show where chefs are really showcasing who they are and you kind of get to know their style,” Young said.
Italian cooking with Southern beginnings
He describes his own style of cooking as fine-dining Italian. Throughout his years in culinary school, Young said he had those “high French techniques beaten into my mind.” So after culinary school, he wanted to give things his own style and take over using his own approach.
“I do hyper-regional sort of rustic-Italian cooking,” Young said. “I pride myself on being really authentic and not Americanizing Italian food and trying to turn it into something that it's not. Just having a great respect for the tradition of the region and the tradition of the type of food that I’m preparing.”
In the new restaurant he’ll be at, Young said there will be plenty of Italian fine dining, but everything will be “protein forward.”
“I’m also a butcher, so it will be like big steaks, lots of different kinds of pork and beef,” Young said. “Definitely the food focus is going to be meat-forward with lots of wonderful handmade pastas.”
Even with that Italian influence and type of cooking, Young can trace everything back to his Southern beginnings in the kitchen with his grandmother and around the table with family.
“I think being around a big, Southern table growing up, so many of our best memories as people who grew up in the South come from around the table,” Young said.