New York: Payson Cushman '05

Ok, so I’m cheating right now. After three months of interviews on the road, by the time I arrived home in New York I needed a little bit of good old-fashioned summer vacation. I needed to sit for a little while and do a lot of…nothing. And then maybe spend some time collecting my thoughts on what this summer has meant to me. But until I can get those thoughts together, here’s an interview that I did back in April with Payson Cushman ’05—a chef and good friend of mine.  He kindly obliged to be one of my practice interviews, and for that I’m very grateful. I probably asked him way too many questions, fidgeted often with my audio recording equipment and made him pose for an unnecessary number of pictures at The Greenmarket. But he survived. I survived. And we had fun. (I think.)

Payson has a job that I can safely say from months of informal research, many of us covet: he’s a chef. He was a chef in New York earlier this spring, but at the start of the summer, he left his fancy gig at Momofuku Ssäm for another fancy gig at the much-renowned Primo, in Rockport, Maine. That seems to be the life of a young chef—a stint here, a stint there. For example, Payson’s career as a chef has taken him to Paris, San Francisco, Williamstown, New York, and now Maine. “You may have to work insane hours” he admitted, “but you are free to move to whichever city you want, whenever you want”.

Gastronomy isn’t exactly the most popular field pursued by Williams students. (Though last time I checked, getting into Darra Goldstein’s Winter Study Russian Cooking class was a competitive sport.) So, I was curious to hear when Payson’s interest in cooking surfaced and when he knew he wanted to try it professionally. He traced his interest back to middle school, when his mom was working late and he had some free time after school. He began experimenting in the kitchen and then taking pride in his dinnertime creations. I think of myself as a food-oriented person, but then I think back to my signature dish at the age of twelve – the most unnaturally orange macaroni and cheese you’d ever seen – and compare it to what Payson was making – ile flotante, and am… humbled. I can recognize talent when I see it/taste it.

But then what happened? Payson studied Political Science at Williams and loved it. Then he had a kind of ‘second’ light-bulb moment during his junior year. What made him decide to go back to cooking? George Bush. That’s right, Dubya. When Bush was elected, Payson was, well, upset, and generally speaking, just kind of jaded. He didn’t want to have anything to do with politics (professionally) from then on. So, he re-focused on cooking, spent some time working at Mezze, and so the story goes…

Photo credits: Charlotte Strode, 2010