Hi, my name is David Van Tassel and I am the Executive Chef of Corner Kitchen!
EVERYONE HAS A STORY. TELL US HOW YOU KNEW YOU WANTED TO BECOME A CHEF.
Food has always been an important aspect of my life, but it wasn’t until I attended college and started grocery shopping that I realized what I was missing. My mom is a good cook and dad makes sure to always have a garden, so I’ve been doing my own as well. We saved the last 2 quarts of home canned green beans for Christmas dinner. I still haven’t found a tomatillo salsa as good as home made / grown. The kitchen was the gathering place for extended family gatherings, and its ability to be more than just sustenance. Growing up, I had the fortunate chances to get to dine out at nicer places, and was always the adventurous kid to order the ‘weird,’ grown-up food. When I worked at Terra, in Columbia, SC, I was a bit in over my head. It was a great ‘gateway’ food place for me. First grinding meat, duck confit, foie gras, great cheese, local produce / meat, exposure place. Chef driven, but really Executive Chef / Owner Mike Davis being driven by the seasons And I was hooked. Culinary school bound me back to my hometown.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SAVORY DISH?
When I was a kid (now I’m just a big kid), I always wanted country fried steak with mashed potatoes for my Birthday meal. I just had to have a classic tomato sandwich when the first heirlooms arrived, and a tomato pie wasn’t far behind. I get cravings for certain foods, and just act on them. Charcuterie and cheeses are 2 of my big food loves. I always enjoy the interplay of sweet and salty, like our grilled peaches right now. Or some nice cured ham with some melon and berries. And, I always have chicken pot pies in my freezer at home.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DESSERT?
One of the bonuses of being at Corner Kitchen is we make souffles! I average eating 2 souffles a week, but I do share! Sometimes just a scoop of ice-cream or sorbet can brighten any moment, or give a nice pause to regain some focus in a chaotic kitchen atmosphere. A pilfered berry from someone’s mise en place (French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” It refers to the set up required before cooking) as a quick snack will just bring a smile to my face. Its always one of the things I enjoy about eating with my parents, is that dad will want dessert, and mom will want just a bite or two! Their dog has his own ice-cream bowl, I’m just saying… At home, I will typically end my day with a bowl of cereal, or some little debbies, because why eat just one?
CHEF WHOSE STYLE OF COOKING YOU REALLY DIG?
The first Chef written book I bought was Frank Stitt’s Southern Table. I’ve been inspired by a number of items in that book. I have a lot of cook books that I’ll grab randomly depending on what food puzzle I’m thinking about. I don’t watch any food shows, because I don’t find it relaxing or inspiring at all! Too much drama. I find the first ‘coming in’ of something to be much more mesmerizing, like the first whispers of softshell crab season, or the first frost making the collards sweeter. Jacque Pepin is a badass that can just do everything effortlessly and without flaw.
WHAT IS THE MOST REWARDING THING ABOUT YOUR PROFESSION?
There are so many rewards from this profession, but number one is the people you work with. I learn from those who want to learn. We are imperfect people trying to produce a perfect product, and figuring out the ins and outs is a daily puzzle. But when we nail it, what a rush! The same with having an open kitchen, the number of guests who stop by and tell us thanks, and their meal was awesome. It’s a career whose payment is more than monetary, its interaction value is high. As cooks, we constantly juggle supply and demand, and it’s a gut feeling at times. But at the end of the shift, when we’ve satisfied every patron, you walk out that door with a sense of pride and accomplishment. There is just something very real and visceral about it.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE CONSIDERING A SIMILAR CAREER PATH?
Work in a restaurant! Make sure its something you really want to do! Especially before you go to culinary school. Its not for everyone. Get used to working fast and organized. I’m not naturally super organized, so I’ve had to create systems and structure around work. And I’ve learned to compartmentalize, to switch gears then switch back. Its more than just manipulating food molecules and pretty plates, there are logistical considerations, sourcing dilemmas, and staffing. We are all just humans, and nothing will ever be perfect, but close is achievable. Remember that good intentions and effort will effect your final product, just as much as bad attitude and lack luster performance.
NAME ONE DISH THAT REALLY MADE AN IMPRESSION ON YOU?
I don’t think I can narrow it down. I’ll be reminded of something similar I’ve had before, or the occasion that was the pretext to the meal. I simply do not get the opportunity to go out to eat super often. Shrimp boil with family at Edisto beach is a yearly meal to look forward to.
WHAT CELEBRITY WOULD YOU LIKE TO PREPARE A SPECIAL MEAL FOR? AND WHAT WOULD IT BE?
A few years ago, one of my good friends gave me the Salvador Dali: Les diners de Gala cookbook, and its wild! As I don’t have any celebrity crushes, and believe that famous people are still just people, it’d be great fun to have a menagerie of famous folks sitting at a big table with some crazy themed banquet menu. Playful food, with nods to certain songs, movies, sports, or political actions. For instance, I did a Dr. Seuss themed dinner at the Junction years ago, that I would have done for the good doctor himself if he was available.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
For me, everyday is a next. When is local corn coming, when are the free stone peaches finally going to be here, I want some fresh figs. Why do I have to pre-order this awesome cheese? It has been a work in progress, but part of finding my zen has been working on my patience. Career wise, I feel I’ve only just started at Corner Kitchen. Its been fun so far, its keeping the momentum moving forward and not staying stagnant. The great thing about a seasonally driven restaurant is that it is always evolving, so there is always a tomorrow, a next week, an environmental inspiration right around the corner.
LASTLY, WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN RELAXING?
Whats that? Haha. With a house and yard full of animals and projects, there is never a dull moment. I find it refreshes my spirit to spend time outside. Last week I went on a hike, and got rained on coming down the mountain, and that made it spectacular! I may be one of the only people who looks forward to mowing. Sitting back and looking at a nicely striped lawn, with a cold glass of something nice, on my back porch is pretty great. In the cooler months, I like to spend time with my records in my listening room. I also enjoy football and basketball, and have been know to play some frisbee golf from time to time.
Humans of Corner Kitchen is a continuing blog piece we run each month about a staff member in our restaurant.