In the Kitchen with Split Rail Tavern’s Brian Hampton

A view behind the scenes at West Chester’s dining destinations, and a chat with the people who run them.

photos ERIK WEBER @westchesterviews
story JESSE PIERSOL @jessepiersol

On a frigid Tuesday evening in December, the upstairs at Split Rail Tavern is aglow with twinkle lights and the warm conversation of alums and faculty of West Chester University’s Department of Communication and Media as they celebrate their graduating seniors. Purple and gold beaded necklaces are strewn on tables, mingled with glossy “Ram Nation” networking flyers and flickering tea candles. Opposite the bar is a long table with a pair of silver chafing dishes offering up mini crab cakes and crunchy arancini with house-made marinara sauce. At the other end of the table are bowls heaped with creamy baba ganoush, succulent eggplant caponata, and roasted red peppers with pine nuts, all flanked by platters of crunchy pita slices and crostini. Several other trays display cheeses and Italian meats, including rolls of paper-thin prosciutto so tender that they practically dissolve on the tongue — a feast for the senses.

Amidst the people and the platters, the merriment and the chatter, wends a figure dressed in black who periodically materializes by the food table, casting a furtive glance to see what is on everyone’s plates and gauging their reaction to what they’re eating. This is Brian Hampton, Chef at Split Rail and the architect of tonight’s festive spread. Although the effort that went into preparing the evening’s offerings is invisible to the guests, it is significant. We got to sneak a peek behind the scenes of that effort, in the kitchen with Brian and his crew.

About the Work…

On a very different Tuesday afternoon, I’m squirreled away in a corner of the kitchen at Split Rail. My laptop is perched on the top tier of a wheeled serving cart, as I type notes on my makeshift desk while watching the proceedings and just generally trying to stay out of the way.

Unlike the spacious yet cozy dining and bar areas that define Split Rail’s space, the kitchen is tiny and efficient, with a central prep area in the center of the room, bordered on all sides by ovens, ranges, sinks, and appliances. Three line cooks hustle throughout the narrow space on this day, too. A paper towel dispenser near the doorway is adorned with stickers, and when I ask about their origins, Brian tells me that they recently got a new dispenser and had to start building the sticker collection all over again.

When the music playing in the background drops out, only the sounds of the exhaust fan droning, the nonstop tapping of footsteps and the clanging of pots remain, a situation Brian remedies immediately. “Nineties hip hop is always a good choice when you’re struggling for what to listen to in the kitchen,” he says over his shoulder. “But it depends on the mood.”

Wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, all of which are black, and a youthful mop of brown hair, Brian’s laid-back dress and demeanor belie the speed at which he moves. Right now, he’s slicing delicata squash, skin on, into four-inch pieces, uniformly half an inch thick, which he tosses into a large stainless steel roasting pan. “The squash gets coated with apple cider vinegar and roasted for a sweet, tangy flavor,” he said, explaining the step prior to it becoming a part of Split Rail’s pork belly tacos. “We cure our pork belly, press it, and then deep fry it so it gets crispy.” The combination is then served on corn tortillas with pickled red onions.

As he’s prepping the large dishes at lightning speed while patiently entertaining my barrage of questions, he takes a beat to sprinkle cheese over a wing special that just popped up on the line. “Today, our wing special has a honey sambal glaze, which is a little sweet, a little spicy. We use scallion cream cheese along with the ‘everything’ bagel spice from the bagel shop down the street.” Server Liz whizzes in to grab the plate and Brian returns to his myriad other tasks.

Next up is dealing with what looks like a small mountain of fresh cauliflower. He tackles it head by head, with half of it destined to be roasted, pureed, and simmered with milk, cream, and butter before being pureed with even more butter to become the sauce for today’s flatbread. Topping the flatbread will be a mixture made from the other half of the cauliflower, along with caramelized onion, a balsamic reduction, and mozzarella cheese. “We change up our flatbreads all the time,” he tells me.

Topping the flatbread will be a mixture made from the other half of the cauliflower, along with caramelized onion, a balsamic reduction, and mozzarella cheese.

Retrieving a giant four-gallon kettle, he moves on to prepping a Split Rail staple: their tomato basil soup. Top-quality canned tomatoes form the base, followed by bunches of fresh basil, and then a generous amount of butter. He often uses what he affectionately terms “an aggressive amount of butter — one recipe took four pounds.”

After pureeing, everything goes onto the stove to simmer. Rustic style, the soup will cook for about an hour over low heat. Split Rail customers will often pair it with a grilled cheese for a popular lunch special.
It’s easy to get caught up in the food while you’re sitting in a kitchen watching a chef work, but there’s much more to the man than the task at hand.

About the Chef…

Brian started with Split Rail the month after they opened their doors in July of 2015, but it was a circuitous path that ultimately led him to this kitchen. He studied journalism for a bit at Temple University but wasn’t quite feeling it, so he started washing dishes at a steakhouse near his parents’ place. He loved the quick pace of the restaurant industry and worked his way up the ranks, eventually cooking for three years at Harvest Seasonal Grill — that is until one of the sous chefs there mentioned a new spot opening in West Chester. “I was ready for a change of scenery,” he recalls.
Now 31, he’s a bit philosophical about the implications of his career. “Working in the restaurant industry ages you faster,” he observes. “I was surprised that things start to hurt at this age already.”

He notes that the days of a chef are either really chaotic or really smooth. “That’s what I like about it. There is always something that will have to be solved. Coming into the busy season, once it gets rolling at dinner time, it just kind of goes.” In the midst of the holiday stretch, his present duties also include crafting the food for events in the busy popup-style kitchen upstairs.

When he gets home from work he tends to listen to some psychedelic music to unwind. He’ll enjoy a shot of Jameson — a favorite of the Split Rail staff — and a couple of beers. “On my first day off after a stretch, I don’t even leave the house until three in the afternoon if I can help it. It’s a lot of sleep and movies until then.” Eventually, he’ll ease back into doing laundry, maybe painting, or watching TV. “Really, I’m just a regular guy,” he says. “I just work different hours.”

At home, he enjoys cooking with Asian flavor profiles, favoring ingredients such as soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, scallions and sesame oil. “I love balancing sweet and sour, or sweet and spicy.”

“A big spoon is key for everything I do,
from plating food to spooning sauces.”

Brian Hampton

The right tools are critical to success in a commercial kitchen, and Brian cites three of particular significance to him. “A really nice knife,” he says as he flashes the blade of his big chef’s knife. “This one was a gift. I’ve been using it for almost two weeks and haven’t sharpened it once yet. You don’t want something flashy that’s going to get damaged in a couple days.”

Another essential tool is surprisingly simple. “A big spoon is key for everything I do, from plating food to spooning sauces.”

And the third item isn’t really a tool at all — it’s footwear. “Really good shoes,” he says. “I wear Dansko clogs all the time. And compression socks are something I’m going to look into down the road as well.”

Along with the items he can’t live without in the kitchen, he has a list of triggers that he can’t live with, and that includes clutter. “When there are half-empty containers of the same thing next to each other in the fridge, it drives me insane. Like three partially empty half-and-half cartons.”

What does success on the job look like to him? “It’s a good shift when we didn’t run out of anything,” he reflects. “And when we had good ticket times, so people weren’t waiting long for their meals — when everything went out right the first time.”

About the Inspiration…

One aspect of cooking that fuels Brian’s interest in the craft is how things work. He cites Harold McGee’s book On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen, first published in 1984, as a notable influence on his style. “If you want to make a vinaigrette, read his chapter on emulsions to see how it works,” he advises.

While research is crucial to his process, Brian also likes to experiment. “I’ll try something first and just get into it when I have an idea. I see if it’ll work, and if it doesn’t, I’ll look it up and try something different next time.”

Feedback is key, and he gets plenty of it from the servers at Split Rail. “Lots of servers come here on their off days to eat,” he says. “I give them specials to try, and they give me feedback.”

A Split Rail staple: their tomato basil soup.
Top-quality canned tomatoes form the base, followed by bunches of fresh basil, and then a generous amount of butter.

Sometimes ingredients themselves are the inspiration for new ideas. “I love the versatility of the potato. It’s such a humble vegetable,” he tells me. “It’s never the star of a plate, but if the potatoes aren’t good, it’s a little thing, but it can change the entire meal.”

Other times, he takes pride in borrowing and then enhancing concepts from other chefs. “I might take part of their idea and then add my own twist on it,” he explains. “Look, there’s not much actual new stuff left at this point. We’re always riffing on existing ideas. For example, our pumpkin spice bread is based on zucchini bread. In some cases, the hard part is already done, and it’s just about combining different things and seeing what works.”

His Split Rail colleagues inspire him as well. “Chef Justin puts a little pinch of cayenne in sweet stuff. You don’t even notice it, but it makes the sweetness sing.” Brian notes that it’s the same with vinegar. “A little bit of vinegar makes everybody talk louder. It brightens all the ingredients.”
He is a fan of whimsical contrasts, too. Sitting on the counter in the kitchen at Split Rail is a giant box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, one of the first things I noticed upon entering. Brian laughs. “We’re making desserts again. That’s for our Cinnamon Toast Crunch Panna Cotta. Sometimes we experiment by using ‘junk food’ on top of our dishes.”

Endurance. A penchant for experimentation. The ability to multitask. Are there any other qualities essential to being a good chef? “I’ll borrow something from another chef to answer that,” Brian responds. “Anthony Bourdain said, ‘Show up on time. You can teach someone to cook, but you can’t teach character.’ And I think that’s pretty true.”

And finally, don’t be intimidated. “Everyone can be a good cook — it just depends on how much you value it. My family didn’t cook, and when I started, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Now I’m here, so it’s obvious that something clicked along the way.”