What Your Sausage Won't Tell: Q + A With Cracker Barrel Line Cook Dan Keller
To some folks, news reports on the latest tensions in Lebanon simply means a customer didn't particularly care for that salty country ham biscuit (clearly one of those crazy Californians) at Cracker Barrel, arguably the mightiest of all chain diners. The now 600+ strong corporate chain began as a humble diner/gas station in Lebanon, Tennessee. If you've ever been to a Cracker Barrel, well, you already know you'll be leaving with a jar of apple butter or cranberry sauce, from the awfully cute country store by the cash register. Corporate sales tactics at its holiday finest.
Which brings us to our happenstance meeting with Dan Keller. The 60-something retired preacher and former school teacher in East Tennessee recently went to culinary school and now works as a fry cook at his local Cracker Barrel. And he's a great guy to boot. Yes, this is the kind of random meeting that could only happen on Twitter (NewCookDan).
We wondered, what sort of edibles might a retired preacher-turned-chef be Tweeting about? Southern-style dishes like his own avocado relish or a Creole pecan bar recipe he found online. Nigella Lawson. Hey, preachers are allowed to like sexy food personalities, too. Turn the page for more, including why kitchen manners really do matter, and check back for Dan's homegrown meatloaf recipe.
Squid Ink: You Tweet a lot.
Dan Keller: It's been a rough morning. Actually, me not working much and then everyone cutting hours back, getting on Twitter is interacting these days.
SI: Yeah, guess so. So you were a pastor?
DK: I was a pastor for 20-some odd years, and felt like I would do better helping with the young people by being a teacher. So I did. Went to get my teaching degree. Then the economy got so bad they just started laying teachers off. At my age, they're not going to hire you back. I had to do something.
SI: Culinary School.
DK: I like cooking. So I said, well, I'll get a culinary arts diploma.
SI: Why not. So you wanted to be a chef?
DK: No, I don't care about that chef stuff. I think it's just my upbringing. People think of "gourmet" as that rich food, food cooked with things you can't pronounce, like a little double spoonful of something and they charge you $50 for it. They don't have anything like that around here anyway. Well, I could go over Harrah's Casino to cook that sort of thing, but Paula Deen just bought that out, and I got a feeling they'd better get some butter ready when she comes to town. [Squid Ink Note: Paula Deen has branded her name on the Harrah's buffets, a.k.a. the Paula Deen Buffet, not bought the casino, but we agree, that's pretty much the same thing.]
But really, the only thing in this town is Subway. And Cracker Barrel. They started in Lebanon, Tennessee, which is only about a 2/12 hour drive from here. They have something like 640 stores now. It's good ole Southern comfort foods, but they're doing a complete changeover [at Cracker Barrel] right now. Not the menu -- they're not gonna ever change the menu. That menu has been like it is for over 45 years, and they won't touch it.
SI: So what's changing?
DK: Seat To Eat is the new program. From the time from when a customer takes a seat to when they eat is supposed to be no more than fifteen minutes, so there's lot of pressure on the kitchen now. It used to be the waitresses did the stuff like the breads, the sides, but now everything is going to fall into the kitchen's lap.
SI: Your lap.
DK: All the waitresses do is waitress. It's going to be difficult. So that's the reason they're hiring more cooks like me. Though only the [kitchen] trainer has a culinary degree. I'm the only other one with a degree.
SI: Do you feel like that was still a good idea, going to culinary school?
DK: Culinary school is like basic training, and so when you go further, each restaurant has it's own way of doing thing. I don't care if you work for Hilton or for Cracker Barrel, they both have their own ways of doing things. Having a culinary degree gives me more confidence. I'm not worried about my cooking skills, it's my memory skills that bother me these days.
SI: You're at a diner, so you must have a lot of young line cooks running around.
DK: I'm by far the oldest person in the store. I just go in every day and do what I can. It's a pretty good thing. Everyone works together as a team there. But even still, just the other day, the waitress said, "You know, you're the only cook who doesn't yell at us through the window." And I tell them, "What good would that do? Just makes you mad, no point." The quarterback may get mad at the running back, but they still have to work as a team. Everybody makes a mistake. I don't want this to be Hell's Kitchen.
Check back tomorrow for more with Dan, including his no B.S. meatloaf recipe.
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