Bruce Frankel was a chef with an idea. Tired of long hours and not great financial success at a Boston nouvelle cuisine (remember?) fine dining place in the 1980s, he decided to do something entrepreneurial. He looked at molecular gastronomy and cooking for men and chose the latter, and that led him to Spitjack in Easthampton, MA. (It’s well worth a detour if you’re in the area, but you can also buy everything online at spitjack.com.)
Spitjack (the name describes the doohickey that holds the spit when you are cooking on an open fire) is on the second floor of Eastworks, one of those grand 19th Century mills that has been converted to residential and commercial use. You have to know where you are going—through the broad lobby, past the RMV, through the set of double doors, up the stairs—but once you get there it’s like a candy store for guys who love to cook.
Bruce’s principle is to offer gear for the guy who wants better than the frou-frou instruments sold in the basement at Macy’s. Need a spatula? Here’s a sturdy but plain one, like you’d find in a restaurant supply. Do you like cole slaw? Then you need a giant cabbage grater, which looks like a mandoline scaled for Shrek. He has also invented a couple of items: an electric spit assembly that expands to maybe six feet in length, intended for cooking a whole animal. And a line of sturdy fire gloves lined with aluminum and quality felt; these got dinged in a Cook’s Illustrated test because they weren’t flexible enough but he points out they’re not meant for holding a measuring spoon but grabbing a burning log.
Why cooking for men? Because of the changing dynamic of the American family. Up until the 70’s or 80’s most men didn’t feel it was appropriate to cook, and their wives wouldn’t let them in the kitchen anyway. The cookbooks were all written by women, for a woman’s point of view. But fewer and fewer women cook today (because they’re in the workforce and because they can buy quality prepared foods, maybe), leaving a void and an opportunity.
Men, of course, were always allowed an exception for back-door cooking on the patio—and smoke and fire cooking is what Spitjack specializes in. There’s something primal about roasting over an open fire. (Which reminds me to thank Paula Marcoux for pointing me toward Bruce.) It’s a symbol of a man’s joy and responsibility: bag an animal, roast it, feed the family. Man, food and fire and all the primal urges are satisfied. In addition, fire/smoke cooking tends to be a matter of instinct. No long ingredient lists, no frilly packets of this and that, no cutting off the crusts of your tea party sandwiches. You just have to know when it is right. No questions, no hiding.
(From this we seque into a side conversation about what it means to be a chef. Is it an art or a craft? Both. You can just be a line cook or short order cook and turn out “product”. Or you can get satisfaction in pleasing your customer through surprising and memorable presentations.
His observation reminded me of something I’d read in Lucky Peach, and with a bit of searching I found it quoted on the battermilk blog. It’s from from Joe Morin, chef and co/owner at Joe Beef in Montreal.
“I think chefs get drawn into the lifestyles of our customers, sometimes forgetting that we make $40,000 a year. We get to think we are a part of the elite. But we’re not. I think the thing that’s changed the profession is that kind of crossover.
“The nature of the beast is not going on the stage, fucking chopping little egg yolks with a fork in front of 500 people just ‘cause they wanna hear you say “fuck.” Dave Chang is a food personality and we are becoming food personalities, but restaurant management is a trade.”
Bruce’s trouble with being a chef was that [unlike Joe Morin] he didn’t understand the lifestyles of his clientele. He didn’t live the lives they did; as a single guy in an apartment he didn’t understand why business was always better on the weekend and loyal diners stopped coming when they had kids. Now he’s married with a 7-year old daughter and gets it. End of seque.)
But there’s a problem selling to men, which is they are men. The man says, “I don’t want anything too fancy. Why? Because I’m a guy.” But he also says “I want the biggest and the best. Why? Because I’m a guy.” So how do we find the sweet spot in this nexus of inconsistency? Bruce knows a guy with money who buys and discards gadgets at a frustrating rate. (Make his own cole slaw? That’s something you pick up at the corner deli.) Another guy, with less money or time, just might not bother. Which is why I’m the only visitor in this magnificent emporium on a Thursday afternoon.
Bruce has excellent margins and a good business selling the spit roaster and the gloves; most of his other products are now sold as an associate on Amazon, which yields easy sales but small profits. He knows he should expand his internet presence and has some good ideas for blog posts, like “5 mistakes men make when grilling meat”. (Maybe I’ll borrow that one and give him credit.) We could talk all night, and are tempted to, but I am on my way to Cambridge where two hours later I will have a truly awful “barbecue” sandwich sourced at Whole Foods.
Before I leave, Bruce Frankel hands me a pair of fire gloves and exacts the promise that I will return in the springtime and rent a spit from him and cook an entire animal along with several of my male friends, because it is inevitable that something changes in you when you do that. I can’t wait.