In the kitchen with Shawn McCoy: For Brown Dog Cafe owner, pursuit of perfection began with pancakes

BLUE ASH, Ohio - We invite you to dig into our column spotlighting different chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. WCPO Contributor Grace Yek takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.

Shawn McCoy, Brown Dog Cafe

The dining room at Brown Dog Cafe.

At age five, Shawn McCoy cooked his own pancakes because they had to be perfect. He made them all the same size and kept the griddle at just the right temperature, so they would cook to a perfect golden brown. 

"Then I stacked them, all perfectly lined up, just like Frisch's," McCoy said.

It was that kind of meticulousness that led him to a culinary career. McCoy is, today, the chef and owner of Brown Dog Cafe in Blue Ash. Born in Middletown, his family moved to Cincinnati when he was a second grader. 

He learned to cook from his mom, and soon jumped in the kitchen to cook for the family.  

"My mom and dad went to work, and us five kids were on our own," he said. "I think my mom was happy and proud I cooked for everybody."

As a teenager, McCoy mowed grass for $2 a lawn. He decided he would do better working in a kitchen. 

"I already had a good understanding of how to cook. I just had to get in the door," he recalled.  At 16, he landed his first restaurant job--as a dishwasher. In just 3 months, he worked his way up to become the line cook.

McCoy took a different path in college. 

“I went to Northern Kentucky University to study property management,” he said. “My best friend was in real estate.”

He gave college a shot, but it just wasn’t his cup of tea. 

"It was so boring. I was working my way through college, and I was having more fun in the kitchen," he McCoy said.  He had a presidential scholarship, and could have gone to college for free. 

“But I dropped out.”

McCoy’s ascent in the kitchen was swift. He took the reins as executive chef in various restaurants in the area, including the Marriott in Sharonville. At Academy Restaurant in Hamilton, McCoy took charge of the kitchen and the restaurant operations. It was there that he met his wife, Saundra.

When he turned 40, the pair struck out on their own: They started their own catering business at the Wildwood Pub in Fairfield. 

"We supplied food to the pub five nights a week, and catered out of the pub," McCoy said. The couple opened a second location – a deli and breakfast place - in Longworth Hall on Pete Rose Way. Business was good... and them came a rocky 2001.

"We lost two thirds of our revenue overnight," McCoy said.

McCoy closed his downtown location and continued his catering business from Wildwood Pub.  In 2003, McCoy bought Brown Dog Cafe. 

It suits him just fine to be his own boss. He sets his bar high when it comes to good character and work ethic. 

"I can't stand working for someone else. I don't want to have to cover for them when they have issues."

Food and cooking philosophy

“I like to be simple. Some people try to do too much. Nobody's going to notice the umpteenth ingredient you stick in there. It just becomes convoluted. If you can make food impressive with less, the whole thing becomes clearer.”

McCoy is bound by neither cooking style nor trend. 

"I look at what's good. I don't call the style anything. New American, old American.... I'm a 55-year-old American chef who cooks whatever strikes my fancy, within the parameters set by my customers."

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It's important to McCoy to get the basics right. 

"Make sure food is cooked correctly: hot foods hot, and cold foods, cold.  You can make food as complicated as you want, but if you cannot cook it correctly, the customers are going to send it back," he said. 

Brown Dog Cafe's Venison Arepa.

McCoy gave the example of overcooked steak. "You have all this nice veal demi you made, and all these other ingredients like morel mushrooms. Well, you overcooked the steak, what is the point?" 

While McCoy is passionate about food and expressing his creativity, his focus has evolved over the years. He listens to what his customers want.  

"My focus has gone strictly to what the customer says coming in the door."

Essential ingredients & tools

McCoy regards himself as a simple man, who does not require much to cook good food.

"You could put me in the cave and I'd manage to make a meal," he said.

McCoy's kitchen must-haves include:

  • Wüsthof 10" chef knife
  • Meat grinder. McCoy grinds his own burger meat, blending game meats like boar and venison with lamb.
  • 6-quart Kitchen Aid mixer, for making bread.
  • Flat griddle, for grilling buns.
  • Fresh roasted garlic. McCoy purees the garlic and uses it to punch up the flavor.  He drops a dollop of pureed roasted garlic instead of butter or cream for healthier meals. 
  • Fresh mint and parsley. "Parsley should be in everything. It's the secret ingredient," McCoy said. As for mint, he likes freshening up relishes, salads and sauces with it. McCoy makes minted chimichurri that goes on fish tacos.
  • Fresh basil, oregano and dill. He grows some fresh herbs in planters at the front of the restaurant.
  • Sustainably caught fish from Hawaii. McCoy personally visited with the Honolulu family who supplies fish for his restaurant. He saw for himself what the boat brought in at four in the morning. "This stuff is as fresh as it gets."
  • An honest staff. McCoy feels fortunate he has staff members who have been with him for 10 years or more. This longevity has helped to build an uncommon level of trust in one another.

Inspirations

A cheese plate at Brown Dog Cafe.

McCoy's strongest inspiration comes from his customers. 

"When a customer says, 'that's the best thing I've ever had,' that inspires me," he said. 

McCoy’s kids inspire him, too. He has named dishes after his first four children: Chicken Benjamin, Veal Amberley, Pork Loin Joshua Robert, and Jacob's Ladder. In fact, two of his children work with him. Jake (Jacob) works on banquets, and Joshua Robert works the restaurant floor.

In the early years, McCoy worked for Dave Saxton, the chef at Windjammer Restaurant at the Marriott in Sharonville. 

"He inspired me because he showed me how much effort had to go into something to make it good," McCoy said. "I'd always want to impress him, but he could not be impressed." 

McCoy learned never to be content, a habit he carries with him today.

"When you're content, you slow down," he added.

McCoy finds inspiration in the simple things. He was having a Mac & Cheezburger at Quaker Steak and Lube when it sparked his new burger creation: The brat burger. 

"I'm a visual person, and I'm inspired by what I see," he said. McCoy described his brat burger as: handmade burger topped with sautéed bratwurst crumbles, dressed with sauerkraut, and finished with German soft cheese.

Favorite homecooked meal: Brie Quesadilla with Caramelized Fennel, Red Onion Marmalade & Mango Salsa

McCoy loves to cook at home and doesn't eat out unless he's traveling or on vacation. 

Ingredients

  • 2-10 inch spinach tortillas
  • 1 small wheel of brie
  • 1 bulb fennel-trimmed, split, shaved
  • 1 large red onion-peeled, split, shaved
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1 ripe mango -diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper-diced
  • 3 pc scallions cut crosswise
  • ½ red bell pepper-diced
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper for seasoning

Instructions

  1. Combine mango, peppers, scallions, cilantro, lemon juice and a pinch of salt, mix well and hold.
  2. Heat 1 tbsp oil in heavy skillet over medium heat. Add fennel , season with salt and pepper and cook until soft and brown, about 30 minutes.
  3. Cool. Repeat this process with red onion, or use two skillets and do at same time as fennel.  Keep the onion and fennel separate.
  4. Cut brie in half and slice ¼ inch thick.
  5. Lay brie pieces on tortillas in semi circle on half of the tortilla, divide fennel in half and arrange over brie, repeat with onion.
  6. Fold over tortilla to form the quesadilla.
  7. Spray a large heavy skillet on place on high heat.
  8. Cook quesadilla till brown on both sides, about 1 minute per side.  Repeat with the other quesadilla. 
  9. Cut in half, serve with mango salsa.

(Photos by Grace Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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