Super Nova

Photo of chef Kevin Adey

Weekly Newsletter
Issue #289

Super Nova

Kevin Adey is Chef Owner of Faro in Brooklyn, New York. During his over 20-year career he has won four Bib Gourmand awards and earned three Michelin Stars for his bustling and critically acclaimed restaurant.

Located in the once desolate but now swarming hive of North Bushwick, Faro is situated in a renovated warehouse off Jefferson Street. Walking through its doors, one is greeted with the smell of a woodfired oven and herbs, as well as, by the warm smile of co-owner and front of house manager, Deb Adey… unless you’re super late… she really hates that.

Once seated, if dining correctly, one is treated to a four-course meal chosen from the restaurant’s ever-changing menu. Beginning with delicately plated meats, fish, and seasonal ruffage, the meal continues with pastas in esoteric shapes boasting complex flavor profiles, and then a rich protein course that often straddles the line between old world tradition and new world chemistry, and finally a dessert course that submits to our most decadent desires with rich dark chocolates, heaping cheeses, and ripe fruits. A Google search of Faro will conjure a description of “rustic Italian,” but that doesn’t capture the innovation and play at work by Chef Owner, Kevin Adey.

I met Kevin at a coffee shop around the corner from Faro. He had just come from organizing the restaurant’s walk-in, despite it being his day off. He wore a tie-died Grateful Dead T-shirt and baseball cap. It was a 70-degree day in November and the sun shone through the browning leaves yet to fall, while their cousins scuttled across the streets. It was idyllic—despite the implications for the climate.

As I had guessed, Kevin’s career in cooking started in kitchens rather than traditional culinary school. “I went to [college],” he said. “I had no interest in being there…. It didn’t last very long.” This initial departure from education is somewhat of a badge for Kevin, who will occasionally and proudly refer to himself as “a college dropout with a drinking problem.” After leaving school he returned to his childhood love of cooking, by taking a “shitty job at a nice restaurant” in Florida. “Most people’s first job is at a fast-food place or a bar, but mine was at a four-star restaurant. I worked for four dollars an hour. They had to keep me around, they needed someone they didn’t have to pay, and I was their guy.”

He immediately took to the culture and on-the-ground curriculum—adapting to the hard work and mentorship-style learning with ease. The first 10 years of his career were a “chess game” of finding employment at the best restaurant he could get and learning as much as he could until he was able to move to an even better establishment. An early mentor, Todd Sheffield, imparted some advice that followed him during this period: “the minute I [or someone else] stops teaching you something, quit.”

To Kevin, at age 21, Todd was the pinnacle of wisdom. “He sold drugs and he walked with a limp,” he said of Todd fondly.

“You weren’t like, ‘this guy is a crazy pirate?’” I asked

“Oh no! I was like, ‘this guy’s got his shit together!” he said laughing.

“You’ve got to be generous with your knowledge, and he was, and so am I to this day.”

It was also during this period of knowledge seeking and restaurant hopping that he met his wife and current business partner, Deb. A tale as old as line-cook-wet-dream: they were both in their early 20s, he was the sous chef, she was the hostess. “The minute I laid eyes on her, I was like, ‘I’m going to marry this girl,’” he said, looking off in that romantic way he tends to whenever Deb’s name is mentioned. “Man, she f*$#ing hated me.”

Despite her initial distaste for him, his feelings for her only grew. As she’d yell at him for not giving her fries in a timely manner, he’d be blushing behind the expo line. No matter her wrath, he always found his internal monologue nervously chanting, “I can’t believe she’s talking to me!” His lovesick fantasy finally came true, when one night after service, while the staff was out at a bar together, she looked up over her drink with a little less disdain in her eyes and said, “you know, you’re not an asshole.” A truly beautiful moment in any young man’s life.

After climbing the ranks of the illustrious North Florida restaurant scene, Kevin decided to check out other cities. “I went to Chicago with Deb,” he said. “I realized; I didn’t know what good was.” It was a humbling experience for Kevin, who had thought of himself as one of the best around, unaware of the larger world and scope of possibilities in the universe. “I didn’t [even] know what a Michelin Star was for the first five years of working in kitchens. Someone said it, and I was like, ‘I’m going to look that up.’ I did, and I’m very goal-oriented, so I said, ‘Whoa! There’s an award. A major award.’” Humbling experience begot humbling experience as he began challenging himself in ways he didn’t realize were possible. “I came to New York to work at a three [Michelin] Star, and it was immediate that I realized I didn’t know enough to be there. Over my head. ‘Work hard. Work hard. Everyday.’” A Star becoming his ultimate goal, he obsessed over it, tuning his skills and biding his time. “It became one of those things, ‘I can do this.’”

While he did feel his dream of the Michelin was possible, New York, because of its scale and enormity, wasn’t where he saw this dream coming true. “I never believed I could open a restaurant in New York City,” he said. “I thought I could get a year out of the city. Maybe two if I was lucky. I thought I was going to end up in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. I don’t come from money.”

“You wanted to be a big fish in a small pond?” I asked.

“Well, small enough of a pond to get somebody to give me money,” he said.

New York saw something in him he couldn’t, yet. “I kept getting jobs I liked,” he recalled. He started working at Northeast Kingdom, one of the first destination restaurants to open east of Williamsburg. Quickly, he and Deb took over the day-to-day operations for the absentee owner; growing the establishment and bringing in acclaim the restaurant hadn’t dreamed of before his arrival. An early but notable change Kevin instituted was to reinvent the restaurant’s signature burger. It was soon voted the best burger in the city and business poured in from every borough. “It got to the point where I could say anything to [the owner] and all he heard was, ‘money, money, more money.’ I made a lot of changes, and we ended up getting a Michelin award; a Bib Gourmand.” A Bib Gourmand is basically a Michelin Star for places an average person can afford to eat. “It was completely out of the blue.” This accomplishment drove him to work even harder, but his goal of a Star was still out of his reach, as the owner refused any changes that weren’t likely to provide immediate profit. No sacrifice for artistry, no fiduciary hits for prized ingredients, no new cutlery. Kevin realized, “If I’m going to get a Michelin Star, I have to open my own place.”

If I’m gOiNg tO gEt a MiChElIn StAr, I hAvE tO oPeN mY oWn pLaCe.

This epiphany plus a happenstance meeting at a bar one night ended in kismet. After work, Kevin staggered into Cobra Club—a still-standing metal bar in Bushwick famous for its loud music and dirt-cheap alcohol; always packed with pierced and chain-wrapped revelers. Used to being the oldest and squarest drunk in the place, Kevin immediately noticed an even older and squarer gentleman sitting alone at the bar. He sat down and started drinking and struck up a conversation with the man whom he learned was in the neighborhood to try and find the chef of Northeast Kingdom. “I’ve been staking out the restaurant, but they’re always so busy, he never comes out of the kitchen,” the man had said. Apprehensive of any nerd who was desperate enough to drown his sorrows in this particular dive, Kevin decided not to immediately identify himself. “He could’ve been a f*#$@in’ hit man,” he said, laughing. After discerning that the guy was a restaurant investor, Kevin laid his business card on the bar.

“He put it in my head that it’s possible,” Kevin said. He went on to say that what he really needed at that moment, almost more than money, was “someone who knew enough to talk me into jumping out of the airplane.” Two years later, after working with this gentleman, Faro opened in 2015.

Despite the financial hurdles, Faro was an instant critical sensation. “When we opened, I had $150 in my bank account,” Kevin said, shaking his head. Within the first 6 months they received a Bib Gourmand. Not pausing to celebrate, Kevin kept his eye on getting his Star. “I was like, ‘we have got to do better.’ I was there from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day. I hung this piece of paper with a Michelin Star on it on the wall. It was there for 459 days before we got our first one in the mail. It was amazing and exactly what I always wanted.”

Something that was hard for me to see in these stories—through his fondness for times past and nostalgia and all-consuming love for Deb—is that this “college dropout with a drinking problem,” really had a problem. His obsessions with success and the culinary arts were basted and soaked and drenched in his other obsession: alcohol. It’s no secret that alcoholism plagues the industry. I mean, I’ve worked at a lot of restaurants, and this boisterous debauchery is cathartic, bonding, and f@!#ing fun! Both front of house and back of house are, much of the time, young and love to party. The work is hard, and alcohol can become an easy painkiller for both the physical and emotional stress of the job. Nevertheless, alcoholism is what took away Kevin’s all-consuming dream. Alcoholism is what eventually lost Faro its Michelin Star… but not in the way you’d think.

“There’s two parts to losing it,” Kevin said, looking down at his now empty ice coffee. “I do feel a sense of shame in losing it, but I lost it because I was getting sober, and I couldn’t be in the kitchen every night. The sous chef was running the line and I was doing all the prep, but it’s hard to work around a full bar when you just quit drinking. I was trying to get healthy. I got sober, had lost a lot of weight. I was making this huge effort for myself and then we lost the Star. They didn’t even bother calling, we found out when everyone else found out. I was getting dressed to go to the [annual] Michelin Party.”

I dO fEeL a sEnSe oF sHaMe iN lOsInG iT, bUt I lOsT iT bEcAuSe I wAs gEtTiNg sObEr, aNd I cOuLdN’t bE iN tHe kItChEn eVeRy nIgHt.

A tremendous blow. However, this blow came with a silver lining. “I didn’t lose this because I have a drinking problem and didn’t want to go to work anymore, I lost this because I couldn’t be at work.” Obviously, alcohol itself, is not necessary to achieve culinary greatness, but in his struggle to end his personal dependency, he had to focus on himself instead of Faro. He had known that in his temporary absence the restaurant couldn’t perform at its optimal level, but he hadn’t realized his dream could be taken away from him so easily. “I was so mad when we lost it, because [I thought they’d reach out to let us know if we were slipping]. But that wasn’t the case.”

For a time, Kevin, in true Kevin form, was invigorated by the loss. He decided to jump back in the captain’s seat and steer the ship back into Michelin waters. Then the pandemic hit, and everything changed. “We were doing to-go [orders] for Christ’s sake,” he said, chuckling to himself. From there, an intense series of real-life misfortunes struck Kevin’s world, including Deb, the center of his universe, being diagnosed with cancer. Along with his sobriety, these personal tragedies, and the collective tragedy his industry and the whole world went through, profoundly altered his orbit and worldview.

“Not drinking allowed me to pay attention to things I didn’t give a shit about before, like my own health,” he said. “Being a chef is so myopic. Everything is on the cutting board.” All this combined to force Kevin’s head up from the cutting board to see the rest of the world around him.

NoT dRiNkInG aLlOwEd mE tO pAy aTtEnTiOn tO tHiNgS I dIdN’t gIvE a sHiT aBoUt bEfOrE, lIkE mY oWn hEaLtH. BeInG a cHeF iS sO mYoPiC. EvErYtHiNg iS oN tHe cUtTiNg bOaRd.

Early in his kitchen days, back in Florida, Kevin worked for a guy named Jerry Alajajian, whom he loved. He picked up as many shifts as he could, he’d come in on days off, just wanting to absorb all he could from this guy. One lunch shift, while Kevin was staging the line on his day off, Jerry came over and put his arm on Kevin’s shoulder. “Time to go, bud,” Jerry said. “It’s called life, not called work.” Along with his recipes and notes and technique diagrams and math, Kevin put this piece of advice in his notebook, but didn’t take it in himself. “I’ve given every kid that works for me that advice,” he said. “But I never took it. I knew how precious life is, but I didn’t give a shit.”

“Do you still want the Star back?” I asked.

“No, I don’t want it back,” he said. “People still come in like, ‘Wow! This is the best! Michelin! Way to go!’ They don’t know we lost it. I just kinda look at them. It’s hard, I don’t know what to do. But I’ve come to grips with it, I’m a man and this doesn’t define me. I don’t have it in me anymore. I’ve lived long enough to know that I’ve achieved my goal. What I did was, I willed that shit out of the f@#$ing universe. I played every magical note I could play, and the universe opened up for me and gave me this amazing gift. I understand what it would take to get it back, and I could do that—working from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed, even if you’re getting hammered…. But it [would] kill me a little bit. I didn’t care about anything that wasn’t related to seasonal vegetables and meats… and that’s sad. I cared more for this metal plaque than anything else. Let’s be honest; it’s a tire company that has a roadmap for restaurants. It’s not the end-all-be-all for greatness. But it was fun while it lasted. I do not have the desire to trade my life for an object anymore. The pandemic, Deb getting cancer, people getting sick. F#@k that shit.”

Despite being “a tire company with a road map of restaurants,” the Michelin Star, nonetheless, floats in the center of every aspiring chef’s solar system. Its gravitational pull, greater than James Beard or any trivial Food Network credit, pulls them up from bed at 7 a.m. to prep vegetables and forces them back into bed at 3 a.m. as they go over their recipe notes. This Star is like any other star, it grows and shrinks and burns atomic hot, sucking all the oxygen out of the universe. For Kevin, his Star eventually exploded, sending chaotic particles out into the cosmos, and leaving in its place a solar vacuum.

New particles, particles of love and life and health, have traveled through the vast nothing to form a new star. I felt it as I sat down at Faro; the warm hearth of the oven, the basil notes in his grandmother’s bucatini, the ginger in the nonalcoholic cocktails…

Unfortunately, selfishly, this portion of the solar system is also shaking loose. After our interview, Kevin and Deb decided, after eight years, to close Faro. Was it the cosmic trembles of a distant Star, reverberating out and dismantling orbiting planets with unforeseen consequences? I’m not sure, but I’m sure Kevin’s new focus on love is behind the decision. It seems to permeate all he touches. You see it when he looks at Deb, who’s now healthy. You see it when he talks to his friends and staff. You taste it in his food. As Kevin said, when asked about his new lease on life, “Not everything is hearts and roses and shit, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

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