A Chef’s Force of Habit…Part 3
There have been many a night when I have sat with chefs, obviously and imminently more talented than I in more areas than just the kitchen, and simply jawed away. We’ve talked about philosophies, projects and ambitions such as the ones I mentioned in my first entry into this log. I’ve marveled at the way that real chefs look at the world, and how they define themselves. More important to the nature of practicality, I’ve been continuously enchanted by how different chefs are relative to their personalities, artistry, and drive.
The most obvious difference between one and another that needs no particular skill set or experience (though fiercely subjective) is the manner in which chefs cook – that is to say, whether their food is good or not. Even more on display is this series of differences when cooks are vying for jobs, one after another and day after day, in a new restaurant’s kitchen. That’s this week. Out of two hundred eighty-seven applications we received for this amazing property, I interviewed one hundred forty-two on the phone. Of that, I made second calls to seventy-eight, and asked eight of them to come cook. Two of them found other jobs in the mean time, so we are left with six. Going into the week, we know that it’s not just the fun part – and there will be five utterly awful calls to make at the end of the week (hopefully not six!), but we’re as ready as we can be. The biggest challenge is that I’ve almost always worked for chef-owners, and never really had to hire a chef – it’s always been a part of the origin. My struggle is only partly eased when Ben utters the delightfully simple phrase, almost as though it’s implicit: “We’ll know when it happens.” I wasn’t entirely sold on that philosophy – we don’t share everything in common relative to tastes, so I’m not entirely buying in to his belief in the ease of process.
I get teased a little by some of my non-restaurant friends, and in a way those that work inside might expect – “Oh, what a tough life” and “Must be nice to eat all that food all day,” but it’s not just that. Anyone who says the things about which I will speak here make the process unpleasant is lying, of course, but there are things that need to be considered before so quick a judgment is placed on the process. There’s a whole lot to look at with these candidates that show up to try to take this helm – starting with just that: when they show up says a great deal. We make no rule about a start time, but ask that each candidate pick one, show up when they say, and then cook until they’re ready, normally having them go to plate at 530. Since I live in the property, and am usually up by 430, there’s not a time that’s too early, really – but when a candidate shows up after the time they scheduled themselves, it’s curious. Even more curious is the inability in some (of the same ones, incidentally) to follow the very basic cooking instructions we’ve laid out, whether a minor detail or a blatant disregard. It seems to me that both speak either to hypocrisy or lackadaisical attitude – if I have a Chef that’s late, he’ll either ride his staff for the same (hypocrisy) or allow it (lackadaisical). Neither is acceptable. Nor is it acceptable for a cook to not follow instructions. Ever. These are the slow starts in my book. The process continues with some, and starts with others, in how the kitchen is approached for the first time that these cooks will work in them. Again, this approach continues to shape my opinion of the candidate – are they cleaning their work surfaces and moving unnecessary things out of the way, or are they working under the assumption that cleaning was done for them, and all mis en place are stocked? Are they taking inventory of what they have and need as they start, or are they running around like chickens sans tête, looking frantically for an ingredient the moment that it’s needed?
It’s almost unfair to judge too much during the actual cooking, since the candidates are working alone, but there is something to be said for the brilliance of pacing at prep. Not just in service, during tasting menus, when the timing needs to slide along with a whisper barely noticed, but also in a kitchen alone, a chef is defined by his movement – hands and arms rather than feet. A good chef is prepared with his or her ingredients and tools, and spends much less time moving around than a young cook trying to find the microplaner while the soup is already at boil. Items are cleaned as they are used, and even while the cleaning happens, there exists a symphony in only this person when it is the right person. Therein lies the challenge.
We witnessed all levels of this, from the worst to the best, over the last few weeks. Ultimately, these are all pointers over anything else, and mostly forgiven if the quality of the product, combined with the attitude of the leadership element, is consistently growing and bettering within itself. This is where we bring you to the table, and have you enjoy food with us.
We asked each candidate to prepare four courses, minimum: one fish dish and another protein of their choice. We also asked that preservation techniques be used in at least two of the dishes. Beyond that, it was up to them. And we just waited.
The day came for the first candidate, and he cooked for the entire day starting at 4:45 in the morning. His comfort in the kitchen was obvious, as was his comfort in his own skin. He knew the direction he wanted to go, and took us there – he wandered through preservation techniques in roulade and pickling, and served turkey and scallop for the fish and other protein courses. Aside from having a malfunctioning torch that prevented the precise execution of his cheese course (no doubt the extraction of certain flavors with flame would have been extraordinary), his menu was very interesting, and tasted quite good. Except the scallop, which I could not eat because of a rather nasty gastric allergy that, unfortunately, this candidate forgot to ask. That said, I do love scallops, as does Ben, and these were perfectly cooked.
Another candidate cooked and exceptional fish of local halibut, cut perfectly and seared with a deftness that could only be achieved by a tremendous amount of learning and patience. It was preceded by his own home-made pasta that he had tossed with blanched brussels sprouts and a little butter sauce, topped with breadcrumbs – which were cross-mis for the fish as well, adding a texture that could only be described, even if the term is over-used, as sublime. There were scallops in this menu, too.
Still another candidate was an obviously strong cook – knife skills that people usually pretend to have, he wielded unaware, and his movement from one side of the line to the other with very few wasted steps made for a fascinating show. On top of it all, he delivered a series of comfortably elegant dishes that forced pause; truly, this was not just a cook, but a chef. Even though he also served scallops.
Then there was this one guy.
From the moment he arrived, there was a unspoken ease between all three of us that was unrivaled by the other candidates. A flow and cooperation that was implicit. His interview was not only good, but great, and he managed to corner several characteristics of the philosophy Ben wants, coupled with everything operationally additional that I needed. He was confident, but not cocky, and engaging throughout. He answered tough questions, but had tough questions of his own. We were both looking forward to seeing how well he could cook – at the ripe old age of 28 – and for his potential first ever executive position.
He showed up around 830, a little earlier than the 9:00 time he had planned, simply to look around and “see if [he] needed any last minute things.” As it turned out, he did not; he brought a good number of his own tools, just in case. He then started to work his menu, which he had typed out using our logo, taping it to the pass that he had completely cleared of all extra pans, trays, and utensils. He tested all his refrigeration and outlets, and then went to work. He was completely ready to serve at 2:00 in the afternoon, a “mere” 5 hours after he started.
He started by bringing out bread and butter that he made. Not bread that he made with butter, mind you, but bread that he made. And butter that he made. Cultured butter, with a tang and simultaneous richness that blended rusticity with elegance in a perfectly nuanced dance. For good measure, he had yanked some radish out of the ground – also not awful, and also quite nice with the butter.
Our first course was a perfectly colored salad with an exotic array of greens, beets, white carrots, heirloom carrots, and squash. When he came to the table, he simply explained it as “some vinegar that I made, tossed with a bunch of things I found in your garden” (not vinaigrette he made, mind you, but vinegar). Indeed it was, said our gardener Garrett, who had joined us for the lunch. It seems this candidate had walked outside and asked for a tour, pulling anything that Garrett said he could. Then he just made a salad with it – and it was tremendous. Garrett pointed out each of his individual plant offspring, telling us just what to expect from each thing, and how it was grown. He was beaming, as if the mustard greens had just scored their first goal at junior soccer camp.
The chef’s next dish was a combination of Honey Crisp apples out of Vermont with kohlrabi and an apple glaze, finished with large pieces of grated sharp cheddar. I can’t really talk too much more about this, because it made me feel…naughty.
Then there were smoked mussels that had been so cooked in our outdoor smoker. Perfectly. Astonishingly. They were served in the bowl, and then a pitcher of buttermilk & fennel was poured over it. The first bite of this dish made me ready to climb a wall – the flavors were so perfectly aligned, and the ingredients provided such ramp upward, that I forgot for a moment that my two friends were even at the table. Apparently I forgot etiquette as well, running my finger through the bowl for the last drops. That was seafood.
A strip steak came next, purchased at the local grocery store (no doubt, in retrospect, to prove a point). To tell you that the steak was cooked perfectly would be to say that Einstein was pretty good at physics. To say that Julius Caesar had a small plot of land. It would be grossly understating. Salted perfectly, the steak was served with little baby boiled and fried potatoes, crisped to stunning perfection; this was the part of the meal when I forgot, in fact, that we were auditioning chefs. I forgot that I was in a new restaurant, but felt instead like I was in the restaurant of a well-establish, highly and classically trained chef, capable of making me feel right at home in his farmhouse. But it was a twenty-eight year old sous chef. “Man,” Ben said simply, “this kid brought his whole game.”
I thought we were done, and was beyond pleased. I felt confident that, barring something rather extraordinary, we had found our guy in one of the last interviews. Of course, wanting to be impartial to the end, we took our notes and prepared to thank him, ask a few questions, then have him go on his way home. He returned to the table, but wasn’t done: a caramel. Whipped caramel, served with beer nuts he had made from dry-roasted unsalted peanuts, as well as mulled cider granita. It was pretty, and I love dessert, so I was in regardless.
I was absolutely astounded by what I was tasting and feeling all at the same time. This was a near mastery of the element, both aesthetically and scientifically. This was a fellow that considered what he was doing to be the most important thing that a person could do, in giving a piece of himself, indeed a large piece of himself in his art, to us. The flavor, texture, and sensory explosion that I had was so tremendously unexpected that I actually started to well up, even though I was slightly chuckling uncontrollably. I was teary-eyed over caramel, cider, and peanuts – and perhaps it’s because of the fact that, as Benjamin said, “He’s made Cracker Jack’s without even trying.”
Oh dear god, yes. The same feeling that the critic felt in Ratatouille, whisked away back home to his mother’s cooking on the summer afternoon in the french countryside. It was the only thing I could think about: raw, unadulterated joy for this experience in this business to which I have dedicated my life. Not only had I forgotten about the critical part of my responsibility in note-taking and critical diagnosis, I had forgotten I was an adult. I couldn’t savor the item, I could only get it in my face.
Since I already had also forgotten about Ben and Garrett, I had to wait until after the meal to hear them say how utterly delicious the dish was, too. I just couldn’t stop. Most amazing about this meal was not the components, but the progression of flavors, both in each dish and from one to the other. Up to the very last second, everything has it’s place and line, and it worked brilliantly, but the caramel was the rounded edge, the finishing move. It was the culmination of perfect dishes in the perfect order. And most importantly, every time he came to the table, he was just a cook that wanted to make good food.
For a person so full of words, and so full of what I consider knowledge, I had was a single truth in my head at this moment: It happened. And Ben was right – we knew it.