RICKY ODBERT + SIX TEST KITCHEN
Growing up we use to skateboard on the curb across the street from my parents house, then one summer my dad build a six foot half pipe in our back yard. As legendary as that was it didn't last long, due to complaining neighbors and what not. Anyways, about the time I moved to LA, Ricky graduated and moved to SF. We ran into each other from time to time, but most recently in SLO while I was up there doing a shoot/interview with our mutual friend Cassandra. We grabbed dinner at this newish spot in downtown SLO, I was impressed by Ricky's knowledge of the carte du jour and ingredients. Months later I was back in the area, and got a chance to catch up. Ricky has been hard at work with his concept Six Test Kitchen in Arroyo Grande. My wife and I met up with him at his kitchen then took a rainy hike near his house in search of fresh ingredients. We were schooled in the techniques of forging for mushrooms and the dangers of consuming the wrong ones... I'm talking like death or best case ending up in the hospital. The kid really knows his stuff. Beyond that we discussed: pairing, the fourteen courses he offers, his favorite chefs in the world, the origin of the name Six Test Kitchen along with opinions of lawn flamingos and big foot. If you have a moment check out my interview below, it's an educational and entertaining read. Cheers.
JOSH: Who you are, Where you’re from? RICKY: My name is Ricky Odbert, I am from Arroyo Grande, California.
You’ve been up in San Francisco for a decade, talk to me about your culinary experiences and how it has influenced what you do now? I moved the city when I was 18, from a very small agricultural town on the Central Coast. I think the cultural melting pot of the bay area has really played a huge roll in what I do at Six Test Kitchen. We use a lot of Asian techniques; Fermentation, Pickling, Aging, Drying, Salting, Smoking, which definitely help to create depth within ingredients that is otherwise not there.
What is the significance of the name Six Test Kitchen? Naming a restaurant is a really difficult task. Does it sound pretentious? Will people be able to pronounce it? Will it get people interested? We settled, and I don’t mean “gave up”, on “Six Test Kitchen” after about two months of throwing names away. Originally I wanted something that gave an organic feel to the place, something that represented the surrounding nature or a sense of place, but I kept coming back to the name “Six” which was my mom’s suggestion. We seat six people a night, and the concept by nature is meant to be a way for me to feel the demographic of this area, so “restaurant” wasn’t fitting, however, “test kitchen” sort of gave it a more descriptive feel. We aren’t a restaurant; we are a kitchen testing out what we can get away with in an area where fine dining literally means there is a white table cloth on the table. So, Six Test Kitchen.
If you could sous-chef for three chefs who would it be?
Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken in Jarpen, Sweden
David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, California
Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Australia
If you could have dinner anywhere Friday night, where and what would you order? It depends, Pizzetta 211 in San Francisco is one of my favorite restaurants. It’s a tiny, 16 or so seat restaurant in the Outer Richmond district, nothing fancy, just the best pizza I have ever had and they continue to amaze me when I eat there. But if we are talking fine dining, I would say Fäviken.
Which way does your scale tip (if at all) on presentation versus taste? Taste is first, if it doesn’t taste good, the what is the point? It also has to look beautiful. Both are important to me, I will never put an ugly dish on my menu, but if it tastes like shit then the is no point in serving it.
Talk me thru prep for your standard 14 course dinner? I start at 9 am the day before the dinner. I try to go to farmer’s markets whenever possible, so that usually is a part of my prep day. My cook comes in at noon, we do all the large projects the day before: both our chicken and lasagna courses take 24 hours because we press them under weights to keep them flat and uniform, so that’s an overnight project. We make butter and yogurt and ice creams, as well as ironing linens the day before. That’s about an 8-10 hour day for me and 4-6 hours for Matt, my cook. The day of the dinner, I start at 10 am , Matt starts at 11 am, our prep list is about 80 items long, which includes foraging for some of our small garnishes as well as tending our small herb/flower garden. At 4:00, we eat and scrub the entire kitchen, top to bottom, then change pace into dinner service mode which means starting bread and making sauces. Dinner starts at 6:30, so from start to finish, it takes two of us about 17-20 hours to prep a meal. The days following the first dinner of the week are much easier.
Why do you prefer the rural central coast (Arroyo Grande specifically) to a large metropolitan area? Over saturation. In big cities, everyone is doing the same thing one way or another, I guess the same is true in small areas, but we have the advantage of being the only exclusive tasting menu place on the central coast. We also have great relationships with our farmers, which is hard to do in a city.
What else outside the culinary world influences your creations? Nature, I do a lot of foraging, so when it rains, I am out wandering around the woods looking for mushrooms and edible plants. The silence of being out in nature really helps center my focus on what I want to do.
Talk me thru the nervousness/hesitation (if any) in investing in your own kitchen/restaurant experience? I mean the place is dope, you dropped some coinage for sure. Was that an easy decision? It was much easier (financially) than the $750k I would need to open a restaurant. So, for me, the decision to start small and grow when I needed to was an easy one to make. The only anxiety I had in the beginning was having to become a more social person in a setting where I usually am quiet and focused.
Do you still skateboard? As often as I can. Which is pretty often haha
What annoys you the most? How much time do you have? Laziness, which I associate with stupidity. People that don’t have the ability to figure something out on their own, or the drive to do something on their own.
What’s your least favorite chore? Ironing linen, I hate it.
What did you do before you do what you do now? Listen to death metal and skateboard, so, the same thing I do now.
What was the worst/unusual job you ever had? Those are two separate questions. Worst job, I was 19 and helping open a restaurant in San Francisco, there were 3 of us, an Executive Chef, a Sous Chef and me. I worked 6 days a week for 16 hours a day. We were a 44 seat restaurant that did 140 covers a night with 3 cooks. At the end of that lovely shit show of a service I got to take the trashcans, which weighed about as much as I did at the time, down a greasy staircase into the basement and up the service elevator to dump them into the bin, all because they didn’t want to keep the dishwasher later than 11 pm. Most unusual? The one I currently have.
Would you still do this if you weren’t getting paid? I’m not getting paid hahaha, so yes. As a cook, you get used to, and at times, disillusioned towards the whole “work for 14 hours and get paid for 8 of them” thing. So, yea money is not a thing I am accustomed to making.
Do you collect anything? I would love to say something morbid like human fingernails, but silver spoons is the right answer to this question.
You have a sous-chef working for you now, how’s that been? Sous chef isn’t the proper term, he is a chef de partie. Which basically means he is responsible for his day to day, his station mise en place. Matt is new, he worked in Mexico City at some really rad places for the past 3 months, for free might I add. He’s the young impressionable mind I need to keep growing as a chef.
Why do you forage? What are the dangers of foraging? I forage to see first-hand what nature is doing right now. What are the seasons like? What is happening now. Not knowing what you are picking, people die from picking the wrong mushroom or wrong plant. Amanita Ocreata, or death angel looks a lot like the spring time amanita, don’t get them mixed up. One will kill you, and if you’re lucky enough to get to the hospital to get your stomach pumped, you have a very likely chance of a relapse of toxins.
Talk to me about your ingredients. I use as many local ingredients as possible. We use chickens from a small,10 acre, farm about an hour north. I know the farmer, he and his wife slaughter and process all their chickens by hand. The result is a very delicious bird, raised and killed in a humane way by people who actually care about their wellbeing. Good ingredients make good food.
Talk me thru your menu. How many courses? How did you come up it? We started out with 9 courses and slowly increased to 14 over time. It starts with small canapés or one bite courses. Then we pull the bread out of the oven, served with house made butter, there is no specific timing for the bread, its served when it is ready. Our menu is very vegetable based, Roasted yams with mole and caramelized white chocolate, chicken liver with quince, onion marmalade and wild fennel, squid marinated in lime juice and smoked chili oil served with 8 month old cured pork fat and spicy pork broth. We do a lot of different things with aging and fermentation. We make yogurt and cultured cream, kimchi, vinegar, miso and soy sauce. Our food is pretty light with a lot of probiotics to help you feel better the next day. There is nothing worse than eating a bunch of heavy food and feeling like shit the next day.
How often do you change you menu? Why? We change our menu when ingredients are no longer as good as they were earlier in the season. The entire menu will never change at one time. We are currently doing a dish with persimmons that have been aging for a year, once those are gone, something new will replace it.
Talk to me about education, yours as well as teaching your guests about what you do. I went to culinary school at the California Culinary Academy, it was useful but not necessary. Most of what I know is from working and experimenting on my own. As for the guests, I explain the dishes and the steps taking to produce them, so in that way it is educational.
What do you think of lawn flamingos? They’re actually super chill.
Worst meal you’ve ever had? How much time do we have? There are tons of shitty restaurants out there. Stop making shitty food people!
What did you have for breakfast? This isn’t a lie: 400g of milk, 100g peanut butter, 120g of banana and 30g of honey. “g” is short for “grams, Josh. Its 1100 calories, as a man approaching 30, I shouldn’t weigh 132 pounds. And I hate people saying “never trust a skinny chef” the skinny ones are the ones working, trust them.
What do you do on your days off? Think about you.
Who do you follow on twitter that is the most entertaining? I only follow the president because I think it’s important for our president to be on twitter.
Do you believe in big foot? I actually, really do.
If you were to get rid of one state which one and why? Florida, have you been there?
What do you think about self driving cars? I think we are too lazy to have cars that drive, we are slowly perpetuating laziness.
When did you realize Santa wasn’t real? I read all these questions before answering them, so in the past 20 minutes I’ve become a skeptic.
What do you think the most challenging ingredient to work with is? Eggplant. I hate eggplant.
Favorite wine? Sweet berry wine!
If you were in prison, what would your last meal be? I don’t want to talk about it.
Craziest thing that has ever happened to you. One time, I was really high on marijuana which wasn’t legal at the time but now it is, and I was driving and thinking “what if I hit a deer right now” and immediately after that though processed, a deer jumped out at my car, and jumped back into the darkness, never to be seen again, I didn’t hit it but I think I shit myself.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be? Flying, dude.
For what in your life do you feel most grateful? Having parents that are super supportive and take interest in what I do. Sadly, I think that might be rare.
What do you value most in a friendship? Understanding. I am a bit reclusive at times.
What was your favorite meal your mom made for you as a kid growing up? Fried chicken
What’s going to be the next big thing in the food world? Mexico, I think they are doing some really cool things down there.
Any advice for someone looking to do what you do? Do it because you love it, don’t let people persuade from doing exactly what you want to do, unless what you want to do sucks. Don’t make shitty food.
Good hangs dude. Looking forward to the next one.
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all photographs and interview questions by joshua caine