Sam Monsour (left) and Mark O'Leary, plus scenes and dishes from their last big The Future of Junk Food event in Boston (for now), which took place at La Brasa in early August. [Photos: Rach"> clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

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Sam Monsour and Mark O'Leary on the Future of The Future of Junk Food

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<span class="credit">Sam Monsour (left) and Mark O'Leary, plus scenes and dishes from their last big The Future of Junk Food event in Boston (for now), which took place at La Brasa in early August. [Photos: <a href="">Rach
Sam Monsour (left) and Mark O'Leary, plus scenes and dishes from their last big The Future of Junk Food event in Boston (for now), which took place at La Brasa in early August. [Photos: Rach

Sam Monsour (left) and Mark O'Leary, plus scenes and dishes from their last big The Future of Junk Food event in Boston (for now), which took place at La Brasa in early August. [Photos: Rachel Leah Blumenthal]

Fall is coming, but jm Curley alum Sam Monsour has just departed for warmer climes, ditching the impending frost for a new life in sunny Los Angeles. Since leaving Curley at the end of 2013, Monsour has been working on a lot of projects, including a recurring pop-up called The Future of Junk Food with Mark O'Leary, who is the new executive chef at Shojo.

At these events, Monsour and O'Leary have been playing around with modern techniques and ingredients (like meat glue) to produce interesting spins on junk foods of all kinds, all while paying close attention to sustainability and sourcing. Now that Monsour has moved across the country, the duo shares details on their future plans, including bringing The Future of Junk Food to other cities (like Los Angeles), probably starting with some continuing help from Kitchensurfing, which has been sponsoring their Boston events. (The company also operates in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and beyond.)

Sam, what will you miss most about Boston?
Sam Monsour: The people. The awesome people here. It's such a cool little community, and people are so supportive. I run into people all the time, and it's not even just the restaurant industry bubble (which is an amazing group of folks), but I love walking around my neighborhood, the North End, and just seeing people that I've gotten to know the past six or seven years since I've lived in this neighborhood. I'm not convinced that the world is like that in any other places because I haven't really experienced it. I'm sure we're going to have to kind of sacrifice that on the West Coast; it's a very Bostonian style of existence.

What's the restaurant or single meal you'll miss most from the North End?
SM: I'll probably miss Ernesto's pizza the most because that's such a specific craving. Fucking outstanding. Definitely the best pizza in the North End.

With your departure, what's the future of The Future of Junk Food?
Mark O'Leary: We're sort of taking it city by city. We'd like to do a few with Kitchensurfing in locations that they're based out of currently, so Los Angeles will be one of them — that probably will be our first stop, hopefully sometime in October. Sam is going to be our diplomat for the West Coast, and I'm going to stay here on the East Coast and still keep the name alive. We did Bacon and Beer Festival a couple weeks ago as Future of Junk Food, and we'll do a few more events possibly in the near future on both coasts, hopefully.

What's your dream city to hold an event in?
MO: Chicago will be really nice, or Hawaii would be fantastic. I just want vacation time.

SM: Yeah, we're hoping we can do every city that Kitchensurfing is in; we love working with them. So you've got Seattle, DC, New York…my personal dream city is New York, but I really want to do an event at the Beard House. We're trying to hold off on doing New York until we can do it at the Beard House, and I think it would be really cool if all the chefs who did the dinner with us are New York chefs who have received a James Beard award. That's aiming high, but we've got time to plan it out, so hopefully we can pull it off.

How'd the concept get started in the first place?
SM: O'Leary came to me in the bitter cold winter of 2013 and said, Hey, let's do some pop-up dinners together. He had a ton of experience dealing with Guchi's Midnight Ramen, so that's kind of how the pop-up dinners started. The foundation of the junk food and us cooking it together and us thinking forwardly about sustainability and including that in the pop-up food started when we were cooking together at jm Curley back in 2012.

MO: Yeah, we did a lot of drinking and a lot of experimenting with junk food. That's sort of where it all began, at least as far as I'm concerned. I came from O Ya and a few other places, and working with Sam, he taught me that you have to have fun with food and enjoy what you do. I think our styles really mesh together into one fun little project, and we're just kind of going with that right now. I mean, a lot of it was alcohol-induced, and we love junk food, so that's just how it came to fruition.

SM: The other side of what happened — yeah, we were both drinking crazy amounts of beer when we were opening up Curley to cope with our stress, and maybe that rubbed off on Mark about having fun, but he taught me so much, and it was just the perfect storm. He was coming from O Ya; I didn't even know what hydrocolloid was. He brought in this packet explaining like he was my schoolteacher, and he taught me all this cool stuff, and so it was almost like my food was dumbing down his food, and his food was complicating my food, and eventually we both kind of realized, Hey! Hydrocolloids! Modern ingredients of the modern kitchen. These are the things that people make junk food out of. Why don't we take these ingredients, with Mark's knowledge of how they work, and why don't we start making our own things, like making our own Doritos instead of just crushing them up and putting them on our burger special? That was really when we turned that corner and went from using junk food on food because we were drunk and that's what we wanted — to recreating our own.

Do you have a favorite type of junk food that you haven't done yet?
MO: I would love to tap the Asian grocery store junk food, like Pocky, moon pies, stuff like that. To me, that would be kind of fun. But there are endless amounts of junk food. We really run the gamut from packaged things from when you were a kid to fast foods, all across the junk food board. We just like to jump on whatever feels good.

SM: Something that Mark and I were really stuck on at the beginning and then never did — and I hope that we do it one day — is to make Lunchables, build it like a charcuterie plate. We got stuck because we couldn't figure out how to get those little packages and make it so you can peel it open and everything. So hopefully one day we can figure out how to do that.

MO: Yeah, we dropped the ball on that one. Lunchables is like our albatross right now. We really have to make a Lunchable work. Otherwise it will eat at us for the rest of our careers.

What's the first junk food you remember from childhood?
MO: I think I was a little ahead of my time; it could have been on the menu at jm Curley at some point. It was a mayonnaise and potato chip sandwich on white bread. I was a hefty little boy; I had to buy husky jeans and the whole thing. I used to like white bread slathered in mayonnaise and a good heaping portion of Lay's crunchy potato chips or Ruffles with ridges. That was pretty much my go-to shame sandwich.

Have you seen those weird flavors of Lay's that are out right now for some contest...cappuccino, etc.?
MO: I think it's blasphemy. I mean, cappuccino and bacon mac and cheese or whatever the hell it is doesn't belong in a potato chip. There's only plain, sour cream, and salt & vinegar. Maybe barbecue if you're in a pinch, but sour cream and onion is the way to go, 100%. Every day. All night.

What's your favorite dish that you've made so far for any of the events?
MO: Probably the Snickers. That was a nice collaboration between the two of us. We made a chicken liver pate with some peanuts and some Thai basil in a Thai caramel sauce covered in chocolate. That was the most exciting because we really thought it was going to be terrible at one point. We were like Oh man, we can't serve this. This is going to be terrible. It ended up being one of the hits. It was a dark horse, and we gambled on it, and it paid off, which was to our amazement and delight.

SM: A dish that really hit home with me, and it's just kind of a testament to the power of the experience of what we're trying to do, was the Tour of Italy. When I was younger, eight years old, going to the Olive Garden was a fucking treat. I would get the Tour of Italy and take one bite of each thing, and they had those little word search puzzles on the menus with the crayons, and it was all about that chain restaurant experience, and I thought it was awesome. We did the tastiest version of the Olive Garden Tour of Italy ever, and I just loved it. Decadent and over the top. That's what we were shooting for.

Does much of your junk food thinking pop up in any of your other work? Mark, I see some hints of it, maybe, on your new late-night menu at Shojo.
MO: I mean, I'm kind of a one-trick pony, so I'm going to go with junk food mostly. Nah, I'm just kidding. I think for me I always want to produce what I want to eat and what I think other people would like to eat. To me, late-night is about — you're a little drunk, or you're a little whatever. I always want a burger, or I love hot dogs, little snacks, and treats. I don't want a composed dish or three courses. I just want $4, $5, $6 bar bites. So yeah, I took a little inspiration obviously from Future of Junk Food.

We're doing a Son of Shojonator burger [on the Shojo late-night menu], which is two patties and a kimchi velveeta sauce with a technique I learned from Sam, because we did a Filet o' Fish for a Future of Junk Food event, and he made an awesome uni velveeta that was just beautiful and luxurious, so I ripped that off from him. And I do a ma po tofu hot dog — it's a little bit of steamed bun rolled in nori, and it's a play on a chili dog, essentially, so I'm sort of digging deep into the old jm Curley days and again, what Sam taught me about having fun with food and bringing it back to a little bit of soul. Things that bring back memories or just comfort you. That's kind of what I'm going for late-night. Hopefully it's received well.

What's the key takeaway that you want people to have when they leave your events?
SM: You don't have to change the food that you love and that you crave and that makes you feel good and American, but you can still source thoughtfully and responsibly.

Any other thoughts on the future of The Future of Junk Food?
MO: We'll always both be a part of Future of Junk Food regardless of where we are in our careers and what we want to do. I think it's just sort of in our blood right now...and then we also ordered like 10,000 stickers with both of our faces on it, so we're kind of committed to that aspect as well.

It's really exciting that people want to come to our dinners, but to me the most exciting thing was that other chefs in Boston were so willing to donate their time and to help us out and sort of demonstrate their own take on Future of Junk Food. That was really special, because you can do your own thing, and it can feel good in your own niche or your own circle of friends, but when other people embrace it, especially other chefs of that caliber — when they embrace it and have fun with us, we're just really thankful that that's the case, and it was really special, I think.

SM: Great point, Marky. It was kind of like an out-of-body experience. It was electric, and it was like...I don't want to use the word humbling, because that word gets thrown around so much. It was just like, Holy fucking shit, this is going on right now, and there are all these amazing chefs. If we weren't able to do one of these dinners at home and get some amazing chefs to stand by us for this, I don't think we really could go to other cities where we're not known and ask people to cook junk food. But they can look at this dinner we did in August and see all of those amazing chefs and say, Hey, this is legit, this is cool, these guys aren't jerking me around. I'm totally in on this.

MO: Hopefully people can look at it and say, Sam and Mark aren't just a couple of assholes making junk food. They actually can cook and other chefs don't mind working with them. Even though none of those chefs would hire us in their kitchen like any day ever, they worked with us, and they worked hard and did fun stuff with us. I think it shows something — maybe they believe in it, or maybe we're just nice guys. I don't know.

SM: Eventually this really isn't about us or our cartoon faces or our names attached to it, and we really don't have information about who we are on our website, because the focus is on the mission. If we can get amazing chefs all over the country to embrace the mission and stand behind the concept, then we can really accomplish something big, which hopefully is about reform for the food industry and progress for the American diet, and the American way of farming.
· All coverage of The Future of Junk Food on Eater [~EBOS~]
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