How La Brioche’s chef found his way into the kitchen

Brendan McKinaly focuses on technique

It was along the border between North Korea and South Korea when Brendan McKinaly, head chef of La Brioche in Madison, noticed what food could do. He was in the United States Army at the time, barely 18, and a long way from home.

Every Sunday during that time, McKinaly was invited over to his French-born sergeant’s apartment, where he shared modest meals of banana beignets and salad. As McKinaly recalls, it was simple, but there was technique. “Watching him cook was a lot of fun. I saw the power of food. Some of the worst times I had in the service were quieted by food,” he says. Meals shared with his fellow soldiers blanketed the noise and confusion just outside the barracks in Iraq. “We were able to sit down with people who were technically our enemies, eat a meal, and it was peaceful.”

McKinaly, a Madison native, didn’t go to school to learn how to be a chef. He says, “Food makes sense to me. I’m not classically trained. It just sticks in my head. I’ve read textbooks from The CIA [The Culinary Institute of America], [Auguste] Escoffier, all on technique, which gave me a base of knowledge. I get it. I understand how to build a flavor.” He has worked for culinary giants including Daniel Boulud at his West Palm Beach restaurant; Michelle Bernstein, a James Beard Award-winning chef/owner of the famed but now shuttered Michy’s in Miami, Florida; and Juan Mari Arzak of Restaurante Arzak in Spain. Now, McKinaly says, he’s committed to sharing his talent and passion with Madison and at La Brioche in particular, while being an advocate for fellow war veterans.

Recently, I sat down with him at La Brioche and tasted his food. Other cooks in town had been telling me how skilled he is at building flavors, and sitting down with him now, he says it’s the building of flavors that makes the most sense to him. I asked him to describe the dish in front of me–the vegetable dashi. He tells me that the delicately stacked seasonal vegetables–including turnips, watermelon radish, heirloom carrots, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, broccolini, scallion curls, black Spanish radish and watermelon radish–come from Scott Williams of Garden to Be in Mount Horeb.

But this isn’t just a crudite plate. The vegetables wade in a dark, savory broth–dashi–which entails a couple steps. “We take three different types of seaweed and steep them at different times, at different temperatures for different variations of time,” McKinaly says. “We never boil it, because [that would] releases the impurities in the seaweed itself, and it ends up not tasting right.”

After that, McKinaly adds mushroom bases from varying foraged mushrooms to the broth, as well as fermented turnips, Korean chili flake, soy sauce and sesame oil. He then sautees everything, deglazes it and adds a brunoise (finely diced vegetables cooked in butter) of leek, ginger and lemon grass. “We char all of that, then we hit it with dashi broth let that reduce and then we add butter to it,” he says.

The involved process of this seemingly simple dish speaks to McKinaly’s ability to create a harmony of complex flavors. The vibrant dish is a reflection of La Brioche’s eclectic vibe, and McKinaly says that’s deliberate.

How La Brioche’s chef found his way into the kitchen

As I dig into a second dish in front of me–the mushroom risotto–McKinaly continues with his food story. Here’s an edited Q&A of the rest of our conversation:

Tell me more about this dish, your mushroom risotto–it looks like a woodland scene. I’m hoping to find fairies among the curls of green onion and feathery fennel fronds.
I want my dishes to tell a story, take our guests on a journey to some other place. This dish is exactly like a walk through the woods this time of year. With petrified mushrooms that you would find on the ground and the curls of grasses poking through the snow. I want my dishes to be a punch, but delicate, where you can taste each component.

Consistency is what I hold [to a high standard] in my kitchen. It’s such a small kitchen here that we have to work as a team. If my cooks leave here and surpass me, then that’s my legacy. We don’t rush. I’d rather our dishes go out perfectly.

The main focus here is to make people happy. To use my platform to talk about things that are important to me–[like] being a veteran.

Can you tell me a little about that?
I’ve struggled in my own way. I joined [the Army] when I was 17–my parents signed me away. I went to Korea and then the rest of the time of my service is kind of a blur. I went to combat. I don’t necessarily understand what happened there.

I think because of the trauma that was suffered, I’ve blocked a lot of things out. And when I got out I had some serious addiction. I was horribly addicted to opioids and overdosed eight years ago. My father and my wife saved my life.

It’s been a struggle, but I’m finally at a point almost a decade later [where] I want to help and bring awareness [to addiction]. Veterans are near and dear to my heart because I feel it’s a shame that we sacrifice and then come home and we’re treated one way–told to just figure it out. There’s this mentality in the service that mental health is not a thing. You have to be strong, you have to be tough and bottle that [stuff] and push it down. It’s what they train. I’m not that kind of person.

How did you get to work with Daniel Boulud?
I got a book called “Letters to a Young Chef” by Daniel Boulud, and in the course of a year, I read it 10 times. I got in my car [and] drove to Florida. Daniel has a restaurant in West Palm Beach [Cafe Boulud]. I showed up there, walked in, there were like 20 cooks sitting in suits, and I walked in in a pair of cut-off jean shorts, muddy boots and a flannel. And Daniel is sitting at the bar having a drink and I just passed everybody, walked up to him and said, “Mr. Boulud, I’ve read your book 10 times over the last year–I need to work for you, I need to learn from you.”

And he said, “Are you in school?” I said “No.” And he said, “We can’t hire you. Right now we are only able to take interns.” And I said, “What if I show up?” And he said, “Don’t do that.” So I showed up the next morning, put on a jacket and pants, and just hid in the kitchen–went up to random cooks and asked them if they needed help and worked over a course of a couple of months. I wasn’t paid. It was enough just to be in that kitchen. And I ended up being seen at one point.

When did he see you?
His chef de cuisine saw me and said, “Who are you?” And I said, “I’m Brendan, and I just need to learn from you guys.” He did not like that, so he gave me a list of like 10 ingredients and told me to go find them in the kitchen and that I had an hour to cook three courses for him.

What were the ingredients?
Three different types of potato, a piece of fish, sunchokes and a couple of other things. I cooked the piece of fish upside down, the skin was soggy and kind of gross, I made a three potato soup that was curdled. The only thing I did well was season the food and they said that that’s something they couldn’t teach. “We can teach you how to cook, the techniques, but we can’t teach you how to season,” [they said]. So I worked and learned from them for a while.

And Spain. What was your experience like working at the three Michelin-starred Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastián?
I sent emails [to award-winning owner/chef Juan Mari Arzak] basically begging for an opportunity to work with him. That’s when my life with cooking changed. I went out into the woods [to forage] with him and his sous chef. He asked me what my goals were and I told him I wanted to change the thought process of food back where I’m from. Everything I’d done was to come back here [to Madison].

Arzak told me two things out in the woods that changed everything. He told me you must always view food as a child sees the world–with wonder and no pre-conceived notions. That’s where the idea of conceptualizing a dish comes from. Work with what you have. [The second thing he told me is that] no matter how much you do and how much you study and no matter how far you travel, you’re never going to know everything. Food is endless.

Your Madison resume includes L’Etoile, A Pig in a Fur Coat and Lucille. Why La Brioche, and why now?
This is the place where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been clean and sober for eight years. Owners David [Yankovich, one of the founders of Madison’s legendary Ovens of Brittany] and Jackie [Patricia], accept me for me. They have given me an opportunity that I won’t squander. I will make this restaurant the best in the city. I will get a James Beard Award here. I have goals that I set from the day I got out of the service and I’ve achieved them all so far.

You’ve been at La Brioche for seven months now. What is your philosophy behind the menu?
Morning here is a lot different than dinner. A year from now we want the dinner service here to be mainly vegetables–maybe a couple of proteins here and there. Our menu kind of goes all over the place–there’s a Korean stew, the vegetable dashi, but the way it all holds together is through technique. We try to use whatever we have locally and turn it into something that transports somebody somewhere.

What’s your approach to coming up with a new dish?
Normally I dream about it. I have a book next to my bed that I write down ideas in the middle of the night when I wake up thinking about something. And then I’ll work through it for a few days in my head. And then I’ll come in and try it and see what happens.

Otherwise I have a standing deal with some farmers that if they’re out in the field and they’re picking things and they taste something that is just remarkable, I have them send me two cases. I’ll figure out what to do. That’s why the menu has changed 40 times since I started here. It’s because our seasons change. Even though every restaurant [in Madison] kind of has to pick from the same produce, I tell farmers to send me things other people aren’t getting or don’t really want.

Right now I’m happy with the menu and am proud of it, but not content.

Your wife, Nel Bailey, also works here.
She runs front of the house and handles the wine list. We have lesser-known varietals that compare well to the standards. She’s working on a three-cocktail menu, and then a big focus going into the winter is preservation. I make all my own vinegars, all my own pickles. We do every kind of fermentation here. We’re working on shrubs and we’re going to do a non-alcoholic cocktail menu.

I think there’s a need for that. We aren’t all able to drink all the time. Some of us have to drive home.
That is one of the biggest beefs I have right now with Madison and our scene because we have taken food and drink and just mashed them together, so you can’t have one without the other. I don’t like that. I don’t drink. I either cry or try to fight people when I get drunk.

What is it like to be a father for the first time and a chef?
Everything I do is for my daughter. She’ll be 2 in February. As a new dad I’m constantly feeling torn, basically having to decide between building a future for my daughter and living in the present with my daughter. And to me, when she’s older I’ll be able to explain to her all of this and why, and that gives me comfort.