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Our Neighbor The Cook: Joe Pavey of Pixels

April 27, 20191706Views

Our Neighbor The Cook is an in-conversation article series featuring interviews with local kitchen managers across Hampton Roads, VA. This conversation is with Joe Pavey, kitchen manager at the new Pixels - Pints & Bites restaurant at the former New Belmont location, 2117 Colonial Ave in Norfolk, VA. Joe has also worked and/or managed at 80/20, Little Bar Bistro, and Empire. This interview was conducted by Gabriel Perry on Sunday, April 14th 2019.

Gabriel - Okay, so I guess we'll start at the beginning. What got you started in this career path? Was it accidental, or did you wake up and say "I want to live in a kitchen forever", or was it...

Joe Pavey - Nope! It was solely financial. I kind of, growing up super lower-middle class, I started in restaurants at 13 1/2 washing dishes, because that was the only way I could get any super money. And then the mobility of it, moving to FL and can go anywhere if you have cooking skills, you can get a job anywhere in the world. It stuck with me. I found a true passion about it.

G -To follow up, what keeps you going?

JP - Honestly, it's very strange to me. I simply do love to cook. I really honestly do. It literally brings me pure pleasure, and oddly enough, prepping is Zen for me. I love the adrenaline of cooking on a line. Also, it's very strange to me, I have a hard time with the general public, I'm very much a people person when I'm one on one. So this is my way to be everybody's grandma. I bartended for a number of years and got very, very jaded really quick. So going back into the kitchen and just really, truly trying to up my craft a lot, it just allows me to feed people and I love it.

G -It's like magic to me, cooking on a line.

JP - It's wonderful.

G -Tell me your worst kitchen nightmare experience, or horror story that comes to mind as the worst.

JP - I don't know, I mean I've been pretty fortunate to have sporadic things, but nothing so shocking. I would say, though, working summers at Chick's Oyster Bar [VB] it wasn't so much a horror as it was an unrelenting volume. It was the [laughs] the whitest people you can imagine, the most pretentious types, they behave like they're the only one in the room even though the place is packed with 300...

That will thicken your skin in the kitchen. At that point it was an open kitchen, so...

G -There's no hiding.

JP - Yeah, we had to wait on the people, we couldn't hide our frustrations. Literally, we'd call it the Fucking Walk-In, 'cause we'd go back there and scream "Fuck!" and just. But I mean, I don't really have any specific things. I mean equipment goes down, I had one stretch where I worked 24 straight days at 12 hours a day, I was not getting any help from the owners and that was...

That was my initial burnout moment. I ended up going to the fire department for a while before coming back to line work.

I can only think of...and this was on me, I spent about 4 days once doing a triple duck-stock that I was very proud of. My last strain, I don't know where my head was, but I strained the whole thing into the mop sink with nothing in the sink to catch it.

G -[Laughs and groans]

JP - So anytime anyone messes up in my kitchen, I'm really adamant, I harp on 'em, but I tell 'em, this was what I did, and I was already 15 years in the business already, it wasn't like it was my 2nd year and I knew better, so...

My sous-chef at the time said "you didn't just fuckin' do what I think you just did...?" And I go "yeah, sure did..."

That was the one specific thing, we worked so hard, 4 days, had all this stuff planned.

G -Everyone gets a pass, at least once.

JP - I think the kicker for that was, in addition of it being 4 days, a triple stock, triple boil-down, I was at the last stage that day, I literally, put an entire bottle of brandy in it.

G -[laughs] So on top of the food cost was the brandy cost...

JP - [laughs] yeah, oh yeah.

G -This is a nerd question. Some guys are content using the knife on the wall, some people only use Global, or Shun, do you have a specific brand...

JP - I love Shun. I used to use Messermesiter, and I started out on Henckles, which I still like, the difference I like for me, where I went into the Shun and went into it was...

Whereas the Europeans, they fold their steel as if they're making cleavers or axes, Shun being Japanese they fold it as they're making swords, so there's a much's a much more vulnerable blade, but the precision you get on it, it just, to me no one's coming close on the market right now.

But a close second are the Messermeister, but I'm addicted to Shuns. Their utility and pairing knife is perfect, their boning knife is effortless..

G -We've got Shuns in the kitchen here [Norfolk Taphouse] and they're perfect for prep. Absolutely perfect.

I think this was probably because I was a Dj in my early 20's, way before I ever walked into a kitchen so I think this way, but...

You're in the kitchen, it's Friday, it's going to suck soon. What would be your soundtrack to push through?

JP - Stevie Wonder

G -[laughs] Stevie Wonder?

JP - Stevie Wonder. It's got enough going on, it's great music. But. I mean, I've worked in kitchens where we had a lot of aggro music, kitchens with classic rock, there's just something about Stevie Wonder which...

It can kind of, maybe not deflate what's going wrong or the intensity of it, but it just quells enough, people still stay in a groove, so I mean. Motown can get emotional, but Stevie Wonder has always been my go-to for when we're getting crushed. If you don't like Stevie Wonder, you probably don't like music.

G -[laughs]

JP - You don't have to be a fan, but at least appreciate his musicianship. His tunes and melodies, his sounds are very just, copacetic for a kitchen environment.

G -You've got 30 tickets and there's like two of you on the line...

JP - [laughs] Exactly.

G -You don't need Ministry playing, but.

JP - [laughs] Right. Me prepping, oddly enough, as much as it's being Zen, I like shit like System Of A Down and when I'm prepping. I mean I can listen to anything, but, it's weird, I get in my own head when I prep, but I like more aggressive music for prep. I try to teach people, when I explain that to 'em, about the music choice for when we're busy "we don't need to amp up, it's already amped up. We're gonna stay on this train and not derail it"

G -And then it's auto-mode.

JP - Stuart, the sous-chef, the one I dumped all that duck stock on, he's the one that taught me that uh...

I didn't get angry, but I pushed too hard in absolute crunch time. He taught me "just slow down, man, just be a robot." Just, methodical. We'd have 90 tickets, it was tapas, small plates, just the two of us, no dishwasher, and he's like "hey did you see this thing on tv" and I'm like "why the fuck are you talking about the news?!" and he's like "we got this, man! This is like breathing to us."

He was the first one to be like "it's okay man, we're professionals", and I just changed my attitude right then. He's the one that brought the idea to not have the classic crazy, aggressive music. He always wanted something more melodical and upbeat, and I got it. His mentality, just head-down, divet, just 6 hours, just do it.

G -I'm doing that when I come in next time. My playlist is obnoxious.

JP - [laughs] Yeah, and I still feel my adrenaline going up, and I'm like [sigh] "hey, it's gonna end at some point, everybody. It's gonna end. Just get through it"

G -Even if you fuck something up, it's...the building isn't burning down. You can re-make it. It will be fine.

JP - And also this has been a hard lesson, I've told people, independent to what's going on, when you're getting crushed, absolutely nobody should be disciplined during that time. You never ruin someone before a shift, and definitely not in the middle of it. You can, afterwards, take them out back and say what you got to say, but I cannot stand...

I've worked with chefs, I've worked with people that just berate mid-service, which is the stupidest thing you can do. Not only that the fact that the person you've disciplined is now wrecked, people have witnessed it and are wondering "what's the schedule going to be like, now? are they going to be suspended?" It's an absolute pet peeve. Never discipline during service.

G -And it also creates a disrespect situation where a newer guy like me is gonna say "well fuck that, I'll go somewhere else"

JP - If you see that's how it's gonna be, one mistake causes that, it's always...

Someone doing that, from an authoratative standpoint, you're not handling the situation the way you should. Also if you're doing that to the same person over and over, you should probably let them go or not put them on busy shifts anymore.

G -They can dice tomatoes now.

JP - [laughs]

G -When I got here in 2000, living on 13th bay in Ocean View, absolutely sketchy neighborhood with gunshots at night and the local food was just shit on top of it. Just, shit. The mediocrity to me was very apparent, for a long time. Real lazy, you know?

A few years later, 2007, 2008? I started noticing a shift. Local food started to seem to improve.

How do you feel now about food versus 20 years ago?

JP - I grew up in VB, and I started working in Norfolk around 2009, 2010 starting at the original Cracker's, then moved to Empire.


JP - [laughs] No kidding! And then, everything was getting better, becoming creative and cutting edge, everyone seemed to simply care about their product. There were also a lot less restaurants.

I can't really speak for the VB, but I think Hampton's doing a lot better with food. I think Chesapeake is, well, Chesapeake.

G -[laughs, a lot]

JP - I mean it's just corporate central, but I think Norfolk is...

It scares me a little bit, because again we've again gotten accustomed to mediocrity from being oversaturated with restaurants, it's literally I feel like it's an election night when we're trying to figure out where to go that sucks that least.

I'm not saying everywhere, obviously. This [Norfolk Taphouse] is a cornerstone, people feel very comfortable here.

The other restaurants that are really trying to truly push food, they're taking a lot of shortcuts and are doing what feels like dipping, to me. It always was, especially in Ghent, that's what kind of garnered people to want to come here.

I'm not saying it's all gone, and there are a fill of people here doing things the right way, but it's not as prevalent as it was in '09, 2010, 2011. It was a fun, competitive rivalry then. You just tried to do better than other spots. There also doesn't seem to be a lot of inner-restaurant camaraderie like there used to be. That seems to have gone away.

I feel like it's starting to uptick back up, we're getting our culture back and our character back that is unique to Ghent, here in Norfolk, in general.

When I came here, from VB, I like that I came to Norfolk, I was happy that there was every shade of people, every style of people I felt like that's where I wanted to be. Being in the food business and finding out what they were doing, it was like a huge wind in my sails. It felt like "Hell yeah, this is great, this is where I want to be, these people really care".

I don't know, I went away for 3 years and came back, and I felt like there was a big change right before I opened up 80/20. I was like "wow, this place is kind of, no one seems to be caring, they only care about the bottom line, they're not trying to do something cool." If you do something cool and consistent and put out a great product, you're absolutely going to make money in this town.

In Ghent, we are...

G -We'll pick the phone up and be like "Yo, 80/20 is killing it"

JP - [laughs] Absolutely. I think the word "haunt" was named after Ghent, we go to the same places and are specific to the places we go. I think there's a fun uptick again.

I mean, hell, with Adelaide and Parker taking over here [Norfolk Taphouse] and Joe killing it in the kitchen, those are two things I'm glad to see in the hands of people who care about doing things the right way and having more music come in, I love it. I was really nervous when the whole rumor that Leif wanted to sell, I really didn't want it to go away. It seems to be the George Washington of Ghent.

G -I've been here on and off since 2012, minus some time in Vegas and Los Angeles. I was nervous, too [laughs].

I recently re-read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and that was a good motivator to go back into food. He harps on, and that's an old book now, 15 years old or something. He's harping on celebrity chefs. And I agree with his sentiments.

Do you feel that a food-conscious public helps, or hurts
A - the business in general, and
B - the way you approach writing a menu and training your line people?

JP - I think, writing menus and training people, it helps, but in a very odd way. The celebrity format, or just the craziness of Food Network, things like that; we're starting to see people empowered by food. People are cooking at home, and that's great. But they're not that good at it.

G -[laughs]

JP - They think they're a home chef now, but...

I mean, there's a delivery service called home chef.

[both laugh] That's not...

G -Right.

JP - So, I think that that's......I feel like people are going out to eat a whole lot less. I feel like you need to be a lot more innovative. I told the people at Pixels when I came on, "that's what you have to move towards. You have to give people things to do" That's why this place [Norfolk Taphouse] is going to keep doing well, because of live music.

People are more kinetic when they go somewhere. The static, stationary, sitting at a bar or at a table, I'm not saying it's gone, but it's not where it is anymore. Definitively not for anyone under 40, that's not where they want to be.

But as far as the access, or at least the education level, that's always going to be a plus. When you're trying to push food and present menus, and not necessarily be crazy avant garde, or haute cuisine and push them a little bit, it was hard 15 years ago. People either went to super fine-dining places, or they went to McDonald's. It was really hard to find the middle where we could say "we're really good at this, we just don't want to charge you 90 bucks for a damn entree"

But I think the base-level increase in education of the populous is a positive. I think it is. It's easier for us, now, to put odder-named things or different ingredients in things.
I still can't believe that parsnips aren't a big thing in the United States.

G -[laughs]

JP - I don't know why we still hate them. They're white carrots, for Christ's sake!

G -[laughs] They're delicious. Stop it, man!

JP - I mean I got fennel tattooed on my calf because I'm still amazed that people say "I hate fennel", and I'm like "No you don't, you just never had it prepared right". Stop it! Just because you had licorice that made you sick once, doesn't mean you hate fennel.

G -[laughs] On a related note, stuff like Postmates, Grubhub, all that shit, do you feel like that's helped or hurt, in relation to what you were saying about people staying home?

JP - I think it's hurt it, but if that's justified or not, I don't know. They have every right to make that choice. I mean, there's a move now as that ease of everything at our fingertips and being online, all that.

I mean, it's changing us.

Brick and mortar spots are closing because of things like Amazon, and I think that at some point those things are gonna burst their own bubble and people are going to want go back out. We are still primal, social creatures who like to talk and be in these kind of [restaurant and/or bar] environments. Whether we realize it or not, it feeds our humanity. I think that it definitely recharges our social batteries. I don't know if people recognize that, but I think people will start going back out.

G -Since it's getting loud in here, I'll ask this last question.

Without going into novel mode, tell me about how you got involved with Pixels from the beginning, your culinary goals, and how do you feel about it's sudden success so far?

JP - Bob Gallagher, the GM, he's an old friend; I brought him onto Little Bar Bistro and he was the GM at Torch. He opened up Pixels and they'd hired an exec chef who didn't work out, so they threw my name out. I know Shane, one of the owners, from Empire, and that's how I came on.

Right now I've been super proud. We're only a month in, truly being open, a month and a half with the soft open. It's crazy. It's been a big buzz and people are digging it. I think it's more than what they expected. They were hoping for this, and it's panned out really well. Esepcially on Friday and Saturdays, people geeking out on arcade machines.

As far as the kitchen, I'm very, very happy and proud of what we've done in a short amount of time. A lot of the crew didn't even know each other, and we've gelled real quick.

G -Super important.

JP - Absolutely. We've had a super high rate of people really liking our food. We have of course tweaked some things, but it's...I've had more comments on how good the system is working so we're just going to try and grow upon that. Right now I couldn't imagine anything better. We've had no blow-ups, no crazy nights, just some tweaks, nothing crazy. The reception overall has been overwhelmingly positive. Right now we're just letting it go, it's a moving train going downhill.

G -Hopefully there's not a hill.

JP - [laughs] Right. There's no turn coming up, so.

Yeah, I'm very proud of what we're doing over there. I think the owners have expressed that quite a bit.

-- end transmission --

Words by Gabriel Perry. Photo by Jeff Hewitt