The first 20 years of my professional life were fueled by caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. I started the day with coffee to counteract the effects of the previous night’s booze-fest. By noon, I was ready for my first cigarette and would suck down a half pack before dinner service. By the time my shift was over, I was a tightly wound, twitchy mess requiring alcohol or some weed to calm my nervous system and prepare me for sleep. As far as diet was concerned, bread and butter were my mainstays. At about 3 PM I would become ravenously hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I would tear into the fresh bread delivery, gorging myself until I was full. If I felt suddenly tired afterwards, I just poured myself a couple more cups of coffee and powered through. Living like this for years at a time doesn’t really add up to vibrant health, but it took me a long time to figure this out.
Being a manic chef ended up making me physically ill. I was stressed, overweight, depressed, and I felt like shit all the time.
In the meantime, I was blowing a gasket on a daily basis as I tried to execute my vision of how a “perfect” restaurant should operate. I was a maniacal control freak who paid no attention to anybody’s feelings—especially my own. I was unabashedly ambitious. I wanted to work in kitchens, open my own restaurants, and be a chef in New York City. I was willing to do anything to get there. I bought into the kitchen culture 100 percent and worked 80-hour weeks without a second thought. Nothing else mattered. You can do that in your 20s and 30s, and it served me well then. But as I got older, being a manic chef and living that kitchen lifestyle ended up making me physically ill. I was stressed, overweight, depressed, and I felt like shit all the time. I thought, I can’t do this anymore—and that’s when I had to take a moment and think, What gives?
It took a while but I finally got up the nerve and went to see a nutritionist. He ran some tests and all kinds of things came up. He told me that I had gout, crazy–high cholesterol, crazy–high blood sugar levels, and the beginnings of insulin resistance. I was scared shitless, but it was the push I needed to begin learning and reading about what health and wellness was all about, and how I could make those things a part of my life.
As I started to make health more of a priority, I found myself drinking a lot of broth, without a spoon and simply straight from a bowl. Not only was it delicious and great to sip on, but it also felt really healing. It filled me up and gave me energy without the jitters or crash that I got from caffeine. I really think of broth as the world’s original comfort food. It has been around for ages. It’s tasty and warming. It reminds me of being a kid, eating bowls of broth with Ronzoni pastina and parmesan cheese. Italian broth-based soups (escarole, stracciatella, tortellini en brodo) were a big part of upbringing and my definition of comfort.
In spite of my enthusiasm, it took me awhile to figure out that broth was something I needed to share with the masses. I have had Hearth, a restaurant in the East Village, for more than ten years now, and all those years I’ve had a pastry door looking onto 1st Avenue. Utilizing that door has always been something I’ve obsessed over, but none of my previous ideas ever panned out because I kept telling myself I was too busy dealing with what I already had on my plate. Then, in recent months I just had this nagging feeling that I needed to do something with that door.
My current focus on health—I have a new cookbook called A Good Food Day coming out in December, and I’m always drinking broth—gave me what I thought was a great idea: I could sell broth in a coffee cup with a sip lid! Not only that, I could have varieties of broth, and I could come up with healthy add-ins for the broth so people can customize things. So, that’s how I ended up opening Brodo.
I don’t want a meat product that’s shelf-stable at room temperature. That scares the shit out of me.
As common as broth is in a lot of different cultures, it is really hard to find a good source these days. Some key differences between good broths and bad broths are the umami, the ratio of water to bones, and the proper level of seasoning. There are also certain animals and certain bones from those animals I like to use. My favorite broth that I grew up with was made with turkey, chicken, and cow. Those meats, with the addition of mirepoix and canned tomatoes, come together to create an incredibly rich and complex broth. For the organic chickens, I use the whole carcasses, so there’s necks, backs, and everything else. For beef broth, I like to use meaty neck bones, leg bones (AKA marrow bones), and knuckles.
It’s very important to know that not all broths are created equal. The vast majority of broth you buy at grocery stores is shelf-stable at room temperature. Personally, I don’t want a meat product that’s shelf-stable at room temperature. That scares the shit out of me and I don’t want to eat that. I also don’t want to eat a broth that’s made with a base. A lot of cheap restaurants use bouillon cubes, so I think it’s important to ask where your broth is coming from. Considering that I wasn’t always concerned with what I was eating and putting inside my body, I’ve really become frustrated with the notion that food just needs to taste good. It’s misguided because food needs to do more than just taste good. Doritos taste good, but that doesn’t mean you should be eating them all the time.
The amazing thing about drinking a good broth on a regular basis is that, in addition to being absolutely delicious and satisfying, it has a long list of health benefits. Before I got on this health kick, I had some gut issues, and I think that drinking broth now helps me maintain a healthy gut, which I believe has helped me manage my tendencies towards depression. When I was a bloated, inflamed, neurotic mess, I was always depressed. I would have outbursts all the time and I would be that screaming crazy guy. I would yell at people and then go home where it would all sit badly with me. I’d be kicking myself because I didn’t handle a particular situation well. Then, the next day I would end up blowing up again because the core issues hadn’t changed: I was burnt out and stressed out and didn’t have the perspective to deal with my anger when it erupted.
Living a healthier life, eating the right foods, and caring about your body creates an awareness that permeates every aspect of your life—I really believe that. And yes, broth is historically known to be curative and restorative, but you know what? What I’m most excited about with Brodo is that you can push all that aside. Broth could have zero benefits tomorrow and people will still want it because it’s fucking delicious. I don’t know how anyone can be skeptical of broth.
As told to Tae Yoon