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Generous Helping

Jul 15, 2016

“What we do is who we are. Cooking, serving… it’s our oxygen and our religion. I want to say, ‘I made this. I did this.’ I’ll never not cook.”

— John Brand, Culinary Director, Hotel Emma
Executive Chef, Supper

Chef John Brand’s innate gentlemanliness and old-fashioned courtesy may stem from an upbringing that seems more 19th century than 20th. He grew up on the Nebraska prairie sharing farm chores with his brothers and sisters. They split wood for the stove that heated the house, worked in the garden, fed the animals and took turns cooking the family’s supper. John attended a one-room schoolhouse from kindergarten to 8th grade and earned spending money from local farmers by “walking beans” (chopping weeds in soybean fields.)

“We appreciated what we grew… always had a garden, pigs, chickens. Mom made our bread from sourdough starter she kept on the back of the stove. I still do that… I make bread at home every weekend.”

Man holding two small boxes of produce

John’s background and Hotel Emma’s history influence the food on the table at Supper. He considers historical parallels to food — his spaetzel, venison meatballs and quail dishes would have been familiar to Otto Koehler, while local flavors like melon with chile and lime infuse the menu with hometown authenticity. He does his best to source locally, buying seasonal fruit, vegetables and herbs from area farmers, beef and lamb from Peeler Ranch south of San Antonio, and milk and cream from Mill King Dairy near Waco.

Bowl of homemade ricotta cheese

Gallons of that milk go into Supper’s house-made ricotta, which John says, “ …is traded like currency in the kitchen.” The make-from-scratch philosophy carries over to the kitchen’s jams, jellies, catsup, and mustards — good examples of the chef’s focus on honest, un-manipulated flavors, cliché-free menus, and thoughtful sourcing that isn’t preachy.

Prepared meal on the table

Over the years, John’s cooking has evolved and he credits guest feedback and his wife Amy’s influence. She’s a nutritionist and an excellent cook in her own right. John says, “I’m cooking cleaner now, using less butter and flour, and making dishes that are more vegetable-driven.”

“I need to hear what our guests think. I love feedback and comments. We work in an open kitchen and that’s a form of communication with the guest. There is no barrier between who’s cooking and who’s eating.”

Woman and man serving food from cafeteria trays

That barrier-breaking spirit extends to everyone who works at Hotel Emma. It takes the form of Family Meal for the entire staff. The kitchen prepares three, sometimes four, full meals for 150 to 170 staff members daily. “It’s a huge part of our culture. It makes us a family, breaks down barriers, and makes everyone welcome. Everybody eats and no one is going home hungry. It creates a generous place to work and a sense of generosity that spills over into our interactions with guests.”

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