Alumnus cooks with food rather than polymers

By: Kathy Hovis,  Ezra Update
February 5, 2016

Tony Brown's deep understanding of the scientific method has served him well as he's pursued careers in chemistry, consulting and cooking.

Brown '86, executive chef and proprietor of Macon Bistro and Larder in northwest Washington, D.C., said he's used the following method in everything from recipe creation to parenting.

"The idea of making a hypothesis and then testing one variable at a time to see what does and doesn't work turns out to be effective in many things," says Brown, who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences with a chemistry degree. "Bread making, for example, is very much like chemistry. It's about how you add the ingredients, when you add them and how you mix them together as you're adding them. All of those things make a big difference."

After graduating from Cornell, Brown worked in technical sales for Union Carbide, where he enjoyed the entrepreneurial aspects of working with early-stage technology in water-soluble polymers. Those chemicals had applications ranging from moisturizing strips on razors to flavor enhancers in chewing gum.

Longing for a break from corporate life, he started working nights and weekends with a friend at the Union Square Café in Manhattan, doing kitchen prep like peeling potatoes and cleaning fish. "It was invigorating, and it lit a fire in me to see the fruits of your labor going out every night, creating wonderful food and happy people," he says.

He decided to quit his Union Carbide job so he could work full time at the restaurant and attend an immersive 12-week cooking school, where he fell most passionately in love with breads and pastries (the part of the kitchen where he says you'll most likely find him these days).

He moved to San Francisco for a short stint, immersed himself in the flavors of "real Mexican food," and then followed his wife, Kimberly Brown '90, to law school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, he founded what would become a string of burrito stores, named Burro -- the same name he had used for a hypothetical restaurant he created for a Johnson School entrepreneurship class for undergrads.

The couple moved together to Washington, D.C., where Kimberly had a clerkship, and he opened three more Burro locations and attended business school at Georgetown University. He then sold his restaurants and started a government consulting practice, which he continues to this day, along with running Macon Bistro.

"For the last 10 years, I had been driving around my neighborhood looking for a location, knowing that it needed more restaurant options," Brown says. "This great location became available a couple of years ago, only about a mile from where I live."

Now he enjoys a busy life with both businesses, which he says challenge different parts of his brain.

"I feel lucky to have both because they keep me firing on all cylinders," he says. "While one is intellectual and strategic, the other is real and dealing with the immediacy of making people happy with good food and beverages."

The bistro melds influences from Brown's childhood in Macon, Georgia, with international flavors from his family's travels.

"We do try to impress people on the plate," he explains, "but it's not about showing something off. It's about meeting people where they are and letting the experience unfold. People come here for different reasons, so you can get a good burger and a beer, but you can also have a super nice dinner meant to impress someone."

From fried chicken to pan-seared sea scallops to authentic French Raclette and chicken pâté, the bistro is described as "Macon, Georgia, meets Macon, France … southern garden party meets bistro luxe."

Brown said his varied careers are a carry-over from interests he had while growing up and at Cornell.

"Having different careers at different times has been quite a journey," Brown says. "I took a lot of chemistry at Cornell, but I also enjoyed the humanities. I took a class on Asian instruments and sang in the Glee Club.

"There were so many things that Cornell offered, from picking apples to swimming in Beebe Lake, that for me it was like living in this sort of paradise."

This article originally appeared in Ezra Update, Cornell's monthly newsletter for alumni and friends.

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