An Interview with the Rapper Turned Chef (featuring an exclusive Best Of Whatzisface mixtape)
*This article was originally published on May 10, 2016, on Gonzombies.com.
*This re-publishing is dedicated to the late, great Andreis Costa, aka YME. Legends Never Die.
Just ask Mano: before there was Action Bronson, there was Whatzisface, at least outside of Queens. “Me and Nigel Holt always said how nice he was as a rapper but his culinary skills took him to the next level,” the former Kanye tour DJ instagrammed the other day.
Yes, the rapper-chef now going by his government, Brian Halladay, was once the best emcee I’d ever heard, but today he represents even more: what it really means to be a man. #WeHateYouFace!
In this exclusive interview, I talk to the Professional Dirtbag-turned-number-one dad about choosing the knife over the mic; why we have yet to see his masterful plates on Top Chef or Chopped; touring with The Cool Kids, recording with Harry Fraud, and causing ‘a riot’ with Lil B; what he misses most about music, and much more.
For the Face fans who’ve been feigning, HipHopGame has premiered the Best of Whatzisface mixtape — a 25-track collection I curated featuring favorite, new and unreleased records, which immediately soared to number-six on Audiomack’s trending Hip Hop list. And for those who aren’t in on the food porn phenomenon, I’ve got your introduction and the only source you’ll ever need. Brian plates his dishes like he delivered his punchlines: with impeccable technique and colorful creativity. Plate Game Proper.
1. Was there one specific moment you can look back on at which point you decided you were done with rap music forever?
It was less wanting to be done and more my culinary career taking off a lot quicker than expected. Once that happened, I was spending 80 to 100 hours a week in the kitchen and just didn’t have any time.
2. Prior to that, how long had you maintained two careers, so to speak, as a chef and rapper/producer?
Roughly eight years on a professional level.
3. Was there a period during which you planned, or expected, to do music full time? How close did you come? And what were the main reasons you started to reconsider?
2006–2008 was the beginning, when I left Chicago and moved in with you and the homie Dave (congrats to him on just having his baby girl, Raven). We all tried to take it as serious as possible, putting together the Sub-Way mixtape. I think we had just started to figure some things out and were working day and night to try and make shit pop.
When Dave moved in with his girl, and then the crib got bed bugs, we all had to move out. That’s when I moved in with GuessWho? in Chinatown. At that point my old college roommate Chuck Inglish and his group The Cool Kids had just popped, my close friends and mentors (still my two favorite rappers and producer, to this day) BLESTeNATION were on the brink, and a ton of opportunities were presented to me.
My rhyme partner and best Friend GuessWho?, my longtime friend Harry Fraud and I decided to take all our money and build our own studio, The Sweat Shop, in Chinatown. It was an incredible moment in time. I met and recorded with a ton of great people, made a ton of money and was wilding on a whole other level. We had all the connects and a great location.
We started traveling and performing but found how short rap money is, especially when you have multiple people involved, as it gets chopped up quick. Plus, we were fucking maniacs. We would go to SXSW and go fucking nuts. During CMJ, one year, we started a fucking riot with Lil B and The Pack, just having ultra fun, blowing more money than a bunch of kids should have.
At the time, I had a management deal, was working on a publishing deal, and was traveling and performing, but I still had a job back in New York City and they were fed up with me calling out and taking off for weeks at a time, so they let me go. It was then that I decided, all right, I have no other choice.
I spent about six months jobless and going 24 hrs a day with music but it was extremely difficult to make enough money just to keep up the studio and the lifestyle. GuessWho? was taking on the brunt of the financial responsibility and it was a ton of pressure on him. He, Fraud and I were making great music and putting so much groundwork in but we weren’t humble enough and just blew through our reserves — and all of us were resorting to hustling heavy in so many directions that there was friction financially. Then the bomb went off.
One night at like 11, our building — where we lived and had our studio — was raided by the Feds. It turned out they had the largest bootlegging ring in New York City in the basement, and everyone in the building was kicked out on the spot.
Literally the next day we moved The Sweat Shop to DUMBO, and we moved to Bed Stuy. I was making $3000 a month off music but owed about $6000 a month in bills, and Guess’s pops (God rest his soul) had gotten sick, forcing Guess to take over his pops’s business. It was then that I decided to get back in the kitchen.
4. When and why did you start cooking, another really competitive, high-pressure career? How did you get your training? What were some past culinary positions you held?
I really started cooking at a young age, growing up in a divorced home with five brothers and sisters. My mom was working and going back to college at the same time and was never home. I had to step up and make sure we ate so it kind of came naturally. We moved from Boston to Connecticut when I was 13, in the summer of ’94, and I had no friends and was bored as fuck. So I got a job at a local pizzeria and loved it.
I worked there for three years after school, on the weekends and in the summer. At that time, my life-long family friend Theresa Greenfeld’s mother opened an Italian restaurant, Biscotti, which was an absolute hit — and I wanted in. Theresa introduced me to her mom, and she gave me a shot as a prep cook. It was there I learned the foundation of what I know now, for sure. I knew at that point that this was something I could do, and I found it easy even though the work is grueling.
I went on to work at Spiaggia in Chicago; Bellavitae, Lupa Osteria Romana, Whym and DV in NYC; The Bissell House in Connecticut; and The Acela Club at Citi Field with Myriad Restaurant Group. And then I was asked to become the personal chef of the Mets ownership.
5. That’s amazing. Where are you working now? What is your position?
I work for Restaurant Associates in Manhattan and White Plains, NY, as the Executive Dining Room Executive Chef.
6. Where do you live? And with whom?
I recently moved to Danbury, Conn., with my wife Gabrielle and two youngins Brady and Ayden.
7. When did you move from New York City, and why?
Six months ago. We are in the works of buying property in New York, and we wanted to be closer to my wife’s family but still have a decent commute to work in the interim.
8. What do you miss most about the rapper lifestyle? What’s the craziest memory that still pops up in your head from time to time?
Honestly, I don’t miss too much. I did it so hard so young that it’s great to have a clear head. I have a great little setup at home so I can make music when I feel it and not worry about shit… I do miss waking up, burning cheeba at like 7 AM and just getting at it with Guess and Fraud — we had so much fun.
As for a craziest memory… I would have to say one of my top five moments was when The Cool Kids were in town and they, HXLT and Mano were crashing at the studio, and we went fucking mental. French [Montana] came by with Chinx (RIP). Kid Cudi, DJ Buffalo, Josama, Eddie B, the DXA kids, Tennille, Various, Tone Tank, Sean Price and Shucky, Stretch Armstrong, the LA Leakerz cats… too many people… we just went crazy, throwing shit out the windows at traffic on Canal Street, recording like 50 songs, and just vibing. It was a live moment.
9. Damn, I don’t know how I missed that one. I know you and I don’t see each other much anymore, with family and business taking priority now. But do you still hang with any of our old rap friends? Do you still follow Hip Hop news or listen to new music that drops?
Guess and I will always be best friends, period. Fraud and I talk a lot and just check in, or I’ll pop up in the studio and kick it with Red Walrus in Brooklyn. Fafu [formerly of BLESTeNATION]and I chat from time to time. Chuck hits me every time he’s in NYC, and we kick it. I am in LA quite a bit so I get to see the Blended Babies when I’m out there. Me and ATG are still tight, Sebez is still my man, me and Mano stay up on Instagram… I haven’t spoken to Various [BLESTeNATION] in a minute, but Werdplay [BLESTeNATION] is my favorite Facebook personality. I love reading his posts — and I wish he would rap again. You and I just reconnected…
And, yeah, I still listen. Action Bronson is the homie. We worked at Citi Field together, and I love his shit. Fraud puts me on to a lot of stuff. I am obsessed with Schoolboy Q. I keep track, but I am really into that old shit. I still pump Heltah Skeltah Knocturnal like it came out yesterday.
10. Do you ever write or record anymore?
I don’t write as much but I still make beats daily, even if it’s just a stem or fucking around. I still do commercial work, and recently did some beats for Comedy Central. ATG and I recorded an amazing collection of songs called The Great Unknown a couple years back, and last year I did a bunch of shit with Blended Babies.
11. Do you miss it? The shows, the studio, the groupies? Seeing your name in lights?
I want to say ‘yes’ but, as advice to any up-and-comers, it’s extremely stressful. Hell yeah, never trade it in, best time of my life, but everything is one and done. Performing is always fun but once it’s done you’ve got to do it again and again, and it becomes work: no sleep, traveling long distances, drama every which way. I’d rather be with my wife now than any groupie, and fame is tough: once you get a taste it’s an addiction and you end up spending all your time trying to be in that same place, never experiencing all the other great things life has to offer because you’re so caught up in that image you want to project. If I had to name what I miss the most, it would be the studio, having the speakers on blast all day, and hanging with great people being creative.
12. What are the main differences between being an executive chef and being a solo emcee or lead singer? What are the main similarities?
I would say the biggest difference is the physical aspect. An emcee has a lot of thinking to do and, to be a really good emcee you need to live and experience. Being a chef is quite the opposite. If you want to be really good, say goodbye to any personal life. It’s physical labor. You might see a really nice dish but have no clue it took four hours to peel and cut and create just one vegetable in a recipe with several. Writing can take place anywhere, doing anything, and can happen while just living.
I do think they have more similarities, which is why I am so drawn to it. Each dish is like a song. First, you construct the backdrop of the flavor profile like you would a beat. Then you begin to marry the ingredients to create the recipe, like lyrics. And of course the plate up is the full composition, like the mix and master. Your menu is like the album, with flowing feelings and thoughts that tell the story of the shit you’re on at that time and place. And once you nail it you only have a short window to exploit it, and then its back to the drawing board.
Just like the music business, trends come into play, and people expect those hits that feel generic and gimmicky. The classics can always be relied on, but the true genius is in the radical thinking and willingness to mesh ideas together to create something new and exciting.
13. Dope! Back to rap, what are your favorite songs/videos you ever made?
I would say my favorite work of art would still be the White Chocolate and The Soul Berries tape. It’s cohesive and comes from a good time in my life. I had the most fun making the Got Game? mixtape with Guess, Fraud and DJ Buffalo, literally burning and playing every Nintendo game ever made until 5 am for almost a year, taking breaks to go bombing, and then coming back to get at it. That album had 22 songs, but we made over 60 and had some crazy features. The Sub-Way Stiles mixtape was a really good experience, learning how to put a project together from start to finish, and I would say I learned how to mix from that one for sure. My favorite video would be for “Double Dragons”, working with Rich Browd and Jesse Cohen and just wilding out and having a blast. And my top-five songs would have to be “Okey Dokey”, “On the Radio” (featuring Cerose, Ransom, St. Laz & Remo; produced by Harry Fraud), “Professional Dirtbag”, “Tongan” (produced by Blended Babies), and “The Great Unknown” (prod. by ATG).
14. Interesting. Very different from what I would have expected. Any regrets?
All in all, I am extremely appreciative of the time I had. Now, being older and wiser, it’s interesting to look back at how much fun it was. I do wish that I had focused less on “keeping it real Hip Hop” and more on just doing me and what felt good. That ultra-elitist Hip Hop shit is corny, and most of those people that are super judgmental make garbage music. I always wanted to impress other rappers and found that that is the wrong mentality because those dudes don’t listen to your music. It’s all about fans, and people who appreciate creativity and promote thinking and good music.
15. Yeah. I tell interviewers all the time how you taught me how to rap, but I do think your ‘this is not Hip Hop’ critiques of my earlier efforts may have been a bit limiting. Looking back, it’s cool to see that we both ended up at the same place regarding what this music can be. And on that note, the genre-bending rap band BLESTeNATION that we used to open for shared the news with me that they will be releasing a Lost Tapes mixtape. Is there a Whatzisface Lost Tapes somewhere for which the fans can keep their hopes up?
Chuck has been trying to get me to put one out for too long, but we’ll just have to see.
*Editor’s Note: I didn’t want to wait.
16. When we lived together in Brooklyn, life was late nights in the lab, and late wake-ups the next day. I know a lot has changed for me; what is your day-to-day life like now as a full-time chef?
I’m up at 4 AM. I hit the gym, head to the city kitchen to make sure everything is up-and-running and double check the menus and the specials for the day. At 7 — when the AM sous chef arrives — I’ll head out to the White Plains kitchen and do the same. I’ll work on the menus, ordering and whatnot, and then start composing ideas in the kitchen for the next weeks’ menus. At 11 AM, we do pre-meal, during which I critique everybody and try to ensure smooth service.
I just got a Durango Citadel V8, and I love this thing, so getting in the car and commuting is my favorite part of the day. I just listen to music and cruise.
When I get home, I feed the fam, mess around on Logic or Reason for a couple hours, put the kids out, kiss the wife, and hit the hay by 11. Wake up. Repeat.
My off time is not spent rolling up and making beats, or playing GTA V. The wife and I like to throw the kids in this ill stroller that’s like the SUV of strollers and go for walks in different places and cities. We love to travel.
And I am always in research mode with food, reading every book, staying up on trends and, of course, cooking my way through life.
17. So you traded in one crazy lifestyle for another that’s possibly even crazier. Are the hours the hardest thing? What else makes you question your sanity? And, what do you like most about being a chef?
Yes, the hardest part would be the hours, which can be a bitch. You never sit down and breaks are unheard of. And managing staff is also tough. Some people show up for a check and have little to no passion, and some are arrogant and feel they should be in your shoes. Also, being a seasonal chef really requires a lot of attention to availability and sustainability — not just for better food practices but also for cost — and it will drive you mad in the middle of January when everything becomes redundant…
But, as a chef, I love that I have freedom to be myself and take risks. If they work, great — throw it in the repertoire; if they fail, learn from it and continually evolve. Each day wipes clean, on to the next, with room to adjust and improve. There’s constant critique, and it helps you improve not only as a chef but as a person.
18. And everyone benefits from that… What are your favorite things to cook? Will you share a couple personal recipes with us?
My current favorite is sous vide short rib pastrami. Short rib is fatty and delicious, and much better than brisket, which is typically used. It is a pain: nine days in a brine, eight hours in a smoker, two days in an immersion circulator. But it’s fucking Heaven.
My short rib pastrami has pickled mustard seeds, caramelized fennel, a red cabbage puree, and crisped kale. It’s unstoppable. It’s cookery’s version of Liquid Swords: everything on it is amazing by itself, but it’s a classic when put together.
Editor’s Note: Brian does share personal recipes on his website.
19. Sounds amazing. So, what are the top-five most important things for home cooks to keep in mind when cooking for their families?
- Put on Frank Sinatra.
- Drink Wine.
- Have fun and don’t over think it. (Use a recipe, but only as a guideline because those measurements are never correct.)
- Don’t eat shit not in season — it’s more expensive and will never be good.
20. Love it. What’s your advice for aspiring chefs who want to take it further than the home kitchen? And, what would you tell an aspiring rapper?
- Go get a job with a great chef who you like and respect, not some asshole who mistreats people.
- Accept the fact that you’re going to be broke for a long time.
- Put the work in, shut your mouth and learn everything that comes your way.
- Be more willing than every other chef, no matter what the task, take pride in the little shit and die by upholding those methods.
- Be original by being yourself. Go ahead and use a popular style of beat and keep it current, but don’t try and rap like everyone you’ve ever heard. You should be proud to sound different.
1. Favorite Rapper: Sean Price
2. Favorite Producer: DJ Premier
3. Favorite Movie or TV Show: Anchorman or Groundhog Day
4. Favorite Book: The Alchemist or Eleven Madison Park: The Cook Book
5. Favorite Food: Pizza… easy
6. Favorite Chef: Daniel Humm
7. Favorite Place to Live: NYC
8. Favorite Place to Visit: Thailand
9. Quote to Live By: “You need an entire life just to know about tomatoes” –Ferran Adria
10. Thing You Have to Do Before You Die: Skeet shooting with a rocket launcher at expensive foreign cars
THE BEST OF WHATZISFACE
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