To say that Ben Gatchell, chef-owner of Dog Bar Jim, is a chef might be a bit of leap for some people; he runs a coffee shop, a very good coffee shop, with very good coffee. But a chef? Taste his London Fog Scones with Earl Grey and vanilla or the Café Bon Bon with whipped coconut condensed milk, and your mind may start to change. The Kentucky black BBQ in his breakfast burrito is lovingly crafted, as is the Filipino bacon, the Ukrainian honey cake, Chinese sweet buns with tahini crème patisserie—the list goes on. Gathcell is the mad genius behind some very interesting food behind served daily in a tiny coffee shop in Brunswick, where episodes of “Seinfeld” play silently and the who’s who of Brunswick from police officers and college students to chefs, artists, farmers and professors come and go, meet and talk and kibitz. Dog Bar Jim has become Brunswick’s salon.
Clockwise from top left:
Pecan sticky buns.
Chef-Owner Ben Gatchell.
Ali Waks Adams: How did you come up with the name
Dog Bar Jim?
Ben Gatchell: It’s the nickname of my father-in-law’s car mechanic in the foothills of California. I’ve never met him.
Which item was the most difficult for you to get right? And how did you get there?
Homemade halvah. I still haven’t figured out this Middle Eastern sorcery. Send help.
What’s the best compliment someone can give you about
Dog Bar Jim?
The best compliment I can receive is becoming a habit. Joining the community. Learning names. Learning lives. There’s always a conversation. There's always an opinion. There seem to be limitless connections. It’s not what’s said. Repetition makes it self-evident.
Who inspires you? Do you have a mentor?
I would say the inspiration I’m aware of would be my interpretation of Kenny Shopsin. Never met the man. I ate his food, but he never cooked for me. In I Like Killing Flies (documentary film) and Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin (cookbook), I found my spirit human. Finding happiness and catharsis in routine. Limitation can be inspirational and freeing. Bucking trends and authority without losing sight of their importance. The correlation between creating a social gauntlet for a customer to feel a part of something special, whilst working hard to be and fervidly desiring to make a connection with them. Authenticity is paramount. I see him as the NYC shop-keep archetype. A relic of an era gone.
As far as a mentor, my former employer from Lost Weekend Video (R.I.P.) in San Francisco, Christy Colcord. She and her co-owners, Dave Hawkins and Adam Pfahler, created a workplace that allowed ME to be a representative of THEIR business (which would have been hard sometimes. Seriously). I was allowed to have a valued opinion and be a conveyor of solution. All the while she just came in and did all the same work as all of us, plus more. She treated me as an adult and offered me autonomy in a workplace like I had never known. These practices inform me daily as I build my business and a staff.
Where are you from? How long have you been in the food biz?
I grew up here in Brunswick, Maine. Started in the service industry at 15. Counter work at Dunkin’ Donuts, a classic New England origin story. Entered the BOH (back-of-house): dishwasher, prep, cook. I didn’t have focus for the kitchen and I drifted back out front. It’s what I loved about barista/bartending work. It was a marriage of the two. I prepared and schmoozed. I feel odd discussing myself as a culinarian. I’m not a chef. Hell, I always say at the shop, I’m not even a baker, I just bake. I enjoy the act of creation and I suppose the limits of my techniques keep me focused on elevating what I can do. I am genetically predisposed to finding peace in the volatility of the kitchen. If you ever shared a kitchen with my bubbe or my mother, you’d understand. I hope it doesn't come off as too generic or pretentious, but this shop is truly and authentically an amalgamation of my life experiences, both culturally and culinary. My substantially less impressive brick-and-mortar manifestation of Tom Waits’ “Nighthawks at the Diner.”
What is it that you love about running a coffee shop?
I get to prove or disprove all the notions I’ve had all my life in my collective workplaces. Confidence boosts and humbling moments. It’s really perspective-warping. I love the feeling of being corrected by experience. Small-business ownership is not for the faint of heart. It’s beautiful, sweet, fulfilling, butcherous masochism.
If you had to choose a second career, what would it be?
General manager of a professional or semi-pro sports team. Soccer, basketball, baseball. In that order.
You have a Sunday off, you’re at home and longing for spring. What do you cook?
Since Sunday has been my only day off for going on two years, I tend to get takeout. Since that is a cop-out, I’ll lie: My favorite dish combo to make is biang biang noodles and my father's chicken adobo recipe he brought home from a deployment in Iwo Jima. Eye-watering acidity and salt from the chicken, mouth-numbing spice from the noodles that makes the white rice and steamed greens a refreshing spring of respite.
What is your best kitchen prank, either one you’ve played or that has been played on you?
Not a prank, but it might as have well been. My first kitchen job. I hadn’t even been told what I was hired for, just to come in at 5am. I arrived
and I was greeted with my first chore while waiting for my manager. Breaking down cardboard boxes. This was a corrugated wall about
10 feet tall outside in the alley that was sopping wet and aromatic. I had barely dented it when my trainer arrived. It was the morning after his 21st birthday and all five of my senses confirmed this. In one hand he had a six-pack of beer, in the other a menu. He handed me a menu for the grill. Told me that was my job and if I needed him that he would be passed out on the break room couch. It wasn’t my best day, but I swam.
Is there a word or a phrase you find yourself using all the time?
If you’ve ever been in the shop, you know I don’t stop talking.
Name three dishes you’ve eaten that have changed the way you think about food, good or bad.
My best friend growing up was half Laotian. The first time I ate a meal there was the foundation of every food exploration that was to come.
I was a very picky eater at the time and tried it out of respect. I couldn’t tell you what it was, other than it was spicy (for me then) and that it was important enough that I remember it now.
The #1 on a bialy at OhNo Cafe in Portland. It was the first time I had had a traditionally “American” item that loudly married sweet, savory and spicy. It was something I’d had in Asian food, Indian food, but for whatever reason 15 years ago, not in western cuisine. A trivial moment with a breakfast sandwich I ate almost every day for next two years.
San Francisco. Take your pick. Come by the shop sometime and ask for a suggestion. I’ll send you somewhere, but I can’t guarantee it’s still open anymore.
What song gets you going before a big day?
I’m an ex-record-store clerk and an album guy. The circus in my head and in my shop are pretty cacophonous, so I keep it calm. I’m not concise.
Top 10 in no particular order:
- Artist: Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions. Album: Any album
- Artist: Beach House. Album: Depression Cherry
- Artist: John Foxx and Harold Budd. Album: Translucence + Drift Music
- Artist: The Cure. Album: Disintegration
- Artist: Nico. Albums: Desertshore and Chelsea Girl
- Artist: The Cocteau Twins. Album: Heaven or Las Vegas
- Artist: Neil Young. Album: Dead Man (film score)
- Artist: Patsy Cline. Album: Any album
- Artist: Willie Nelson. Album: Always On My Mind
- Artist: Nat King Cole. Albums: A Mis Amigos, Cole Español and More Cole Español
Is there a technique, dish or a cuisine that you have yet to master but have always wanted to?
What would your last meal be? Who would you choose to eat
Chicken sandwich from Paseo in Seattle. I ate it regularly from 2001 to ’03. Thought about it regularly from ’04 to ’15. Was over the moon to eat it after building it up for 12 years. It didn’t disappoint. EVERY element. Crunchy baguette. Ludicrously marinated grilled chicken, cilantro, jalapeños and romaine lettuce. Oh yeah, the onions. The Caribbean can work their way around an onion. As good as the Polish and that’s saying something. This sandwich is the messiest I’ve ever eaten and by far the best.
There is only one person I would share my last meal with and she wears my ring. She’s the only ingredient on the planet that could make that sandwich taste better.
Dog Bar Jim
90 Union St.