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Brennan Johnson ’16 lays out seven steps to culinary success

Brennan Johnson
Photos courtesy Brennan Johnson

According to Planting Roots: A Culinary Guide to Embracing Walla Walla's Terroir—an unusual senior thesis by Brennan Johnson '16—there are seven guiding principles to cook by:

  • Experiment—Try new ideas, take risks and see what suits your own palate.
  • Taste—Always taste what you're creating.
  • Salt, salt, salt—Season your ingredients with salt before, during and after you cook them.
  • Explore—Explore within the kitchen and outside of it. Cooking can't exist in a vacuum.
  • Get outside—If you're going to root your cuisine in a place, you had better get to know that area's terroir.
  • Slow down—Cook with care, notice all the little details of texture and flavor and color.
  • Share—Cooking always has and always will bring people together.

Planting Roots, an illustrated cookbook featuring recipes inspired by Walla Walla Valley ingredients, was Johnson's senior thesis in environmental humanities.

"It was a most unusual project," said Senior Lecturer of Environmental Humanities Don Snow, Johnson's primary adviser at Whitman.
Squash and salmonJohnson's cookbook is 67 pages long, yet it only includes six recipes. The rest of the book features photography and essays exploring the connection between food and the geology, biology and culture of the Walla Walla region. At the heart of Johnson's project is the idea that people have lost their connection to the foods that grow around them and to the rhythms of food preparation.

"Perhaps foraged goods, hand-picked items, and more have become appealing trends at restaurants precisely because they attempt to tap into the rhythms we've lost," Johnson writes.

Assistant Professor of Art Nicole Pietrantoni helped Johnson sharpen his photography skills and develop his project into a physical book. Following Pietrantoni's suggestion, the student-chef photographed ingredients using a scanner.

"It was a really nice merge of content and form," she said. "In art, the form something lives in is so essential. He was a student who really got that."

The brilliantly colored photographs of salmon (pictured above), rose petals and dandelion heads, offset against a pure black background, are certainly eye-catching.

"If you glance at this—if you don't actually read the essay—this looks like a study in culinary opulence," said Snow. "But what you discover is that Brennan is quite conflicted about this world of nouveau cuisine."

GaletteHere's where the conflict comes in: Johnson's book explores the Walla Walla Valley through the concept of terroir—the theory being that each region has a distinct taste based on its geological, biological and cultural attributes. In the final chapter on cultural terroir, Johnson recounts the history of white colonization of native lands in Walla Walla, and asks: What signifies "authentic" Walla Walla? Native recipes comprised of foraged food, or Westernized agriculture systems?

"The ‘authentic' can be expanded to embrace the diverse and vibrant array of heritage that all contribute to this place," he writes. "But this area's roots should never be overlooked."

After graduating last May, Johnson moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he works on the pastry team at Rhubarb, a restaurant serving high-end Southern cuisine. Rhubarb's executive pastry chef Kailey Laird hired Johnson back in 2015 to work at Aveline restaurant in San Francisco, where she was then based.

"He responded to a job posting and I hired him with no experience," said Laird. "He doesn't have any culinary education, but he doesn't need it. He's a very ambitious guy. He spends a lot of time reading."

"In San Francisco and still here to an extent, I was sort of the laughing stock of the restaurant crew," Johnson said. "I would just do silly, stupid things, and try to use equipment in weird ways."

But, according to Laird, Johnson's unique approach is indispensable. He occasionally develops recipes for the restaurant's Sunday Suppers, which feature one-time menus of local food served at community tables. Last month, Johnson created a plum galette with almond-crusted candied beets and a goat cheese mousse (pictured above).

During Johnson's freshman year of high school, a trip to Europe piqued his interest in food and culinary culture. When his pastor father received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to investigate European communal bread ovens in 2009, Johnson went along, accompanying his dad to small towns in Spain, Italy and France. Discovering that these ovens are now mostly defunct, Johnson's father returned home and worked with the bread ovens that he had built on the church campus and in the family's backyard.

Brennan Johnson '16"It was sort of my dad's thing then, but it became more of my thing over time. I've grown to love it," Johnson said.

He now balances the routine of bread baking with the creativity of designing new recipes for tasting menus.

"Bread is the thing I always come back to. You give in to the bread's rhythm. With the tasting menus, you have no constrictions. I need the bread at times, when I'm busy and I need to be a little more centered. Then I need that creative expression when I feel a little more complacent."

Johnson loves his work at Rhubarb, but it might not be his permanent home. Although he isn't sure what his future holds, he knows that he will continue to examine the intersection of art, culture and food.

"If I had it my way, I would live out in the mountains and write and put on tasting menus again in the evenings."

Snow has complete faith in his former student: "He's like Anthony Bourdain: He's not just a chef—he's a writer-chef."

Snow paused. "I'll qualify that. He's an artist-writer-chef. He brings an intellectual capacity to the kitchen, wherever the kitchen is."

Published on Oct 17, 2016
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