As the front man of rock band Modest Mouse, Isaac Brock makes music that is simultaneously caustic and elastic. Anyone who has witnessed his aggressive string bending and general instrument strangulation onstage may be surprised by the delicate touch he applies to food preparation. Brock loses himself in food, the act of cooking providing a temporary respite from the noise of his chosen career.
Tonight Brock is preparing tilapia, a fish native to Africa but now grown mostly in South America. This particular cut was raised hormone-free in Ecuador and purchased from Whole Foods. Brock simmers the fish in coconut sauce. The main course is complemented by cumin-spiced black beans, cumin-coconut rice, and a dish of his own creation he calls “cabbage crunch.” His fiancée, Naheed Simjee, has mixed a robust guacamole for predinner snacking. For dessert, I have brought along homemade chocolate chip cookies. Since there was no butter to be found in my refrigerator, I made a substitution of applesauce.
While the meal simmered, Brock offered this disclaimer: “Try to remember this… my cooking is all based on a series of fuckups.”
—Brian J. Barr
I. “I HAVE ALL THESE MUSHROOMS, RIGHT? WHAT AM I GOING TO COOK THEM IN?”
THE BELIEVER: How long has cooking been a passion?
ISAAC BROCK: Since I was in sixth grade.
BLVR: What was it that got you interested?
IB: I remember making this dessert called “Floating Islands” or something. It was kind of a weird, runny, custard-type thing with meringue floating around in it. I remember it being really good, but really gross at the same time—kind of goopy.
BLVR: What was the reason for making it?
IB: No reason. I was just making it for the hell of it. I was going through a cookbook at that point and it just seemed like an interesting one to try.
BLVR: Do you get most of your recipes from cookbooks?
IB: Not anymore. Usually I just steal people’s ideas from restaurants. I’ll go somewhere and eat something and I’ll try and figure out what was in it. Or I’ll try and engineer shit. Buy a bunch of ingredients. I’m really scattered when I shop at the grocery store, so I’ll just be grabbing stuff at random, trying to figure out how it’ll all come together. Like, I have all these mushrooms, right? What am I going to cook them in? I’ll cook them in, say, orange juice concentrate and Bragg’s Liquid Amino Acids.
BLVR: Are you against following recipes?
IB: Sometimes you have to follow recipes. When it comes to baking things, you can’t ad lib how much baking soda or baking powder you need. All those elements are truly scientific and you can’t fuck with them. Anything outside of that, you make on your own.
You know, most of the ingredients I’m cooking with today are going bad—not going bad, but getting old. That makes me think; how rad would it be to start a compost restaurant? You’d just get health food stores to give you stuff that they pull just as it’s starting to go bad. It’d be a recycle restaurant. That’s a good fucking idea! People would feel good about themselves and… what was the question?
BLVR: Are you against following recipes?
IB: No. But take soup, for instance. Soup doesn’t need recipes. One: soup is not that complicated, and two: it’s all about what you want to put into it. If you want to put yams in the soup, put yams in the soup. I’m not against recipes, though. If someone makes something and you’ve had it a couple times and you decide you want to make it too, well, that’s a good time to have a recipe.
BLVR: I’ve also read that in order to successfully create a new recipe, you have to first decide what flavors you want to represent, then you decide what ingredients you need to help you achieve those flavors. Would you say you follow a similar pattern?
IB: That was one person saying that. That was one person with one fucking opinion. Cooking doesn’t work like that.
BLVR: Why not?
IB: Because all kinds of flavors can make an entirely different flavor, so there’s no reason you have to fucking focus on the fact that you put rosemary in a dish and have that be the whole reason that the dish makes sense. Say you make rosemary lemon caper mash potatoes, right? Are you making sure that rosemary is the main flavor, or that lemon is the flavor, or capers? I mean, of course everything should work together in some way. Obviously, you’re not going to make chocolate raisin salmon pudding or something. Then again, who knows? Maybe that works out real well for you.
II. “I’M GOING TO APOLOGIZE TO YOU THE WHOLE TIME YOU’RE EATING.”
BLVR: Did you grow up in a house where people cooked a lot?
IB: Yeah, both my mom and my dad were really good cooks and I learned a lot from both of them. My mom was the head chef at a restaurant and I worked there as a line cook, you know, working on prep and making all the desserts and shit.
BLVR: What’s your heritage?
IB: Irish and Scottish.
BLVR: Were there a lot of handed-down recipes?
IB: I remember this one called “Apple Pan-Dowdy” that the people who owned the restaurant stole and claimed to be their family recipe. They had my mom make the menu and she used one of our family recipes and so they were like, “It’s our family recipe!” That was shitty.
BLVR: Do you think being a good cook is a gift you’re born with or one you develop over time?
IB: I think it’s something you develop over time. I actually still really want to go to culinary school and learn all those neat little tricks. I want to learn some shit from Naheed’s mom. I talked to her about it and she showed me some stuff, but she has all these recipes in her head. She goes through them really fast. I have the attention span of a two-year-old puppy.
NAHEED SIMJEE: [slicing red onions for guacamole] A two-year-old puppy?
IB: Wait, a two-month-old puppy. I forgot… dogs… age… differently!
BLVR: Well, while you’re cooking here, your attention seems pretty intact.
IB: I’m just showing off.
BLVR: Naheed, you’ve said Isaac’s ultracritical of himself when he cooks.
IB: I’m going to apologize the whole time you’re eating. It really kills the experience. Trust me.
NS: Sometimes he makes a really good dish and you’re about to take the first bite and he just takes the whole plate away from you.
BLVR: Do you have any favorite restaurants?
IB: Yeah, Olive Garden. Sizzler’s. Red Lobster.
BLVR: How do you handle eating on the road?
IB: Dude, what’s the point in even talking about eating on the road? You’re lucky to be eating whatever’s at a truck stop.
BLVR: You find yourself eating from truck stops a lot?
IB: I find myself skipping eating a lot, or eating whatever’s on the deli tray backstage, nibbling on fake meat and various vegetables dipped in ranch dressing.
BLVR: What do you think of the Slow Food movement’s philosophy about how what we eat has an effect on our surroundings, especially the rural landscape? Do you take these things into consideration when you’re preparing food?
IB: What do you mean?
BLVR: Well, people who eat when they’re in a hurry usually end up eating from fast food joints or truck stops. But if we were to really stop and think consciously about what we’re eating, we’d see that food comes from actual farms. Farms, of course, have an effect on our rural landscape.
IB: There’s actually a fast food chain here in Portland that uses all local organic ingredients.
IB: Yeah, Burgerville. It’s like fucking McDonald’s, but they use local organic stuff. That being the case, you’re not going to allow something completely nasty around you if you’re seeing it. I mean, people aren’t psyched when there are shitty fucking cattle farms in their area that are always gross.
BLVR: I know that you feel very strongly about urban sprawl, particularly for the area outside of Seattle where you were raised. I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about buying rural acreage and maybe just starting a farm?
IB: I don’t know. It’s hard for small farms to compete with factory farming. The idea of having my own restaurant where I have my own farm and grow my own shit seems nice. But that’s hard to do. It takes so much energy to grow your own fresh fruit or vegetables in a way that’s decent, and then you have to sell them for even twice as much as what the factory farms are selling them for.
[Brock heats coconut milk in a saucepan, folding dried coconut into the mix with a spatula. He then sprinkles dashes of cumin and Old Bay Seasoning before gently laying the tilapia into the shallow pool of sauce for simmering. In a deeper pan, he pours more coconut milk, again simmering it, but this time adding jasmine rice and cumin. Slicing two red cabbages in half with a butcher knife, he removes the cores and tosses the leaves into a Cuisinart, along with roasted almonds, green onion, garlic, Bragg’s Amino Acids, and Sri Racha chili sauce. He opens two cans of organic black beans and empties them into another saucepan, showering them in cumin and cilantro. We finish off a couple bottles each of a Belgian white ale called Hoegaarden, waiting for the food to cook through. Once it is finished, he spoons even portions of beans, rice, cabbage crunch and tilapia onto our plates, decorating them with artful slices of banana, green onion, and cilantro for presentation. It is close to midnight as we step outside onto the back deck to eat.]
III. “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, YOU’RE WRONG!”
BLVR: [Takes first bite] This is really good. [Takes another bite] Since you’re your own worst critic, what do you think is wrong with this? Because I’m not finding anything.
IB: [Chews, pleased] Nothing is wrong with this, actually. I overcooked the rice, that’s it. And it could be a little spicier.
BLVR: There are a lot of good spices in the cabbage crunch.
IB: Mmm-hmm. Boy, is that banana slice good! [Bolts upright] Does anyone want more banana?
BLVR: No, I’m good. Let’s talk about this pipe dream of yours. You want to open a restaurant/store here in Portland?
IB: It’s more of a miscellaneous junk shop that carries all of the things I like. Whether it’s Swedish Fish, or something like that, or…
NS: Greek yogurt…
IB: Yeah, Greek yogurt with honey. Or you could find a specific type of doorknob, or something. I’d maybe carry some records. Like, maybe thirty records that come with a guarantee: if you don’t like it, you can bring it back! There’ll be none of this “I’ve got a business. I’ve got to carry a variety of whatever’s coming out.” None of this, “Someone’s coming in looking for Terence Trent D’Arby and I’ve got to have more customers coming in and more money, money, money!” No. This will be shit that I will fucking guarantee.
BLVR: So, not necessarily things that you like, but things other people are guaranteed to like?
IB: No, they might not. But it’s guaranteed I’ll like it. [Laughs riotously] If you don’t like it, you’re wrong! And I want to have a bar that seats about six people, like a little wooden bar. And there’s only room enough for that many people. The junk shop would just have random shit. Just shit that I particularly like. If there’s a book I like, I’ll carry five copies of it. If there’s a certain tea I like, I’ll carry it. If I find a piece of old wood that looks usable, I’ll sell that.
BLVR: A piece of wood?
IB: If I found a fucking rock that I thought was really interesting, I’d sell it. Or, you know, maybe a copy of a Berenstain Bears book that someone had written a bunch of funny shit in. I’d sell that. If it were a type of ginger ale that you could only find in North Carolina, I’d sell that. It would have a kind of general store feel to it. It’d be a two-story, saltbox-looking building, like from the early 1900s, like the buildings around Portland, the ones with the square storefronts. Actually, I wouldn’t mind it being three stories. One story I could turn into an apartment, one story to have as a studio/practice space, then the bottom floor would be the junk shop and bar. And a restaurant where the only two choices are vegetarian and not.
BLVR: Does the store have a name?
IB: I have to name it? Nah, I won’t name it.
III. “IF SOMETHING IS NOT RIGHT IN THE HOUSE, IF IT FEELS EMPTY OR COLD OR AWKWARD, I’LL JUST COOK ONIONS.”
BLVR: You recently had your kitchen remodeled. Can you explain some of the features you added?
IB: No better than you can. There’s a prettier floor, a nicer pantry, an apothecary cabinet… nothing I can really explain. It’s fucking all decorative mostly.
BLVR: Does this come close to your idea of a dream kitchen?
IB: No. Dream kitchen for me would have about four more feet-lengths so I could have an island. The thing is, I want to have a house I can live in. The kitchen is the most important thing for me. I do want an old O’Keefe & Merritt stove because I like those things and they cook really evenly.
BLVR: O’Keefe & Merritt?
IB: Yeah, they made a lot of the big, old stoves, you know? They’re just really well built, old gas stoves. You can get those motherfuckers that are like sixty-four inches long and have a couple broilers, eight burners. You can get ones with just tea burners. They’re beautiful.
BLVR: If we were to hypothesize an Isaac Brock cookbook, do you think you could fill it with enough of your own recipes and thoughts on cooking?
IB: Given enough time I could, but given enough time I could also write my own dictionary and make up words. It’s all possible. But yeah, I’d probably feel best borrowing heavily from family recipes first and then going off on my own shit. I’m not saying I ever will, but I could. But I always cook for the moment, you know, “What are we having tonight?” “What do they have at the store?” I really like cooking with fish.
BLVR: More than anything else?
IB: Yeah. ’Cause I like fish.
BLVR: Is it a Pacific Northwest thing?
IB: It’s a sea thing. I like the sea, I like fish. I like all things nautical. And the sea is delicious. There’s something really clean about the sea, you know? I mean, maybe it’s not as clean as I like to think, but it’s fascinating to me. I wish I had gills.
BLVR: It seems to me that you’re moving toward a more domestic lifestyle.
IB: Yeah, I’m trying. I just want to be at peace. I just want a situation where everything feels warm. If something is not right in the house, if it feels empty or cold or awkward, I’ll just cook onions.
IB: Yeah, onions make the house smell better, makes it feel like people live there and are doing shit. My mom always used to cook onions. When my dad was coming home from work and she didn’t have anything made, she’d always put onions on the burner. It made everything feel better.
BLVR: Bread sort of has the same effect.
IB: Bread’s great. It’s just not easy to do last-minute.
ISAAC BROCK’S TILAPIA
TILAPIA SIMMERED IN COCONUT CUMIN SAUCE
In a shallow saucepan, cook a handful of garlic cloves in olive oil over low heat until soft. Pour in 1 can whole coconut milk, stir and let simmer. As the coconut oils separate, add approx. 1 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut. Cook for 10–15 minutes, stirring often until sauce thickens. Add salt to taste.
Gently lay tilapia filets into the pool of sauce, add a dash of cumin and let simmer for 15–20 minutes. (Due to the flaky consistency of tilapia, halibut cheeks—which are firmer in texture and therefore hold together—may be substituted.)
In a shallow pan, roast 2 cups whole almonds in 2 Tbsp. sesame oil over low-medium heat.
Add red cabbage, garlic, green onion, Sri Racha chili sauce and Bragg’s Amino Acids to taste in large Cuisinart.
Once almonds are through roasting, remove from heat and add to Cuisinart.
CUMIN BLACK BEANS
Add 2 cans organic black beans with juices to medium saucepan, cook over low-medium heat.
Add approx. 2 Tbsp. cumin, a dash of Old Bay Seasoning, and a handful of diced, fresh cilantro.
Cook for 15–20 minutes, stirring consistently.
COCONUT CUMIN RICE
Add 1 can whole coconut milk to 1 cup white rice, stir.
As rice absorbs coconut milk, add 1 Tbsp. cumin.
Once all components are prepared, dish even portions onto plates, serve hot.