Seacoast Chefs Tell All
Written by Crystal Ward Kent
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TASTE OF THE SEACOAST
In this gustatory roundtable five of the Seacoast’s best chefs talk about what it takes to succeed. Taste of the Seacoast offers the word on what to do – and not do – in the kitchen, if you want to be a professional.
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Our friends at TASTE asked some area chefs for advice on becoming a chef. Their suggestions are both insightful and educational. Read on for a glimpse of what it takes to become master of the kitchen. Meet the Roundtable -- Click to meet the chefsOur friends at asked some area chefs for advice on becoming a chef. Their suggestions are both insightful and educational. Read on for a glimpse of what it takes to become master of the kitchen. Click to meet the chefs
Taste: What’s your advice to those considering a career as a chef?
Gerry: "Go to culinary school but also work in the industry before you make any decisions. I went to Johnson & Wales right out of high school and I wish I’d had more experience before I went to school. Be prepared for a lot of long hours and working nights and weekends--you need to make sure you really like the work."
Julie: "Take a look at all the options. I have a business background so I leaned toward the food and service industry, but there are a lot of choices available--catering, restaurants, hotels, cooking for Hannaford Brothers, or even owning a little bistro. In some jobs you have less time to cook. It’s more management, so you need to take that into account. I say get your feet wet--get an entry level position to see if it’s what you want. It takes a certain personality to be able to juggle the demands of the job, work under pressure, work with lots of different personalities, and be creative at the same time. The restaurant business is show business, and you have to be on whether you feel up to it or not--and no matter what has gone wrong. It’s entertainment; the food is the star, and you have to make sure the audience--your customer--gets what he came for.
"Oh! And let me add one thing--travel! See what’s out there for food. I believe in cultural exchange. See what you like to eat and what you want to cook. Try everything at least once."
Gary: "I agree with Julie; work in as many different types of kitchens as possible. Try working with different foods, too. Get a lot of experience in different areas before you decide what you want to specialize in."
Francis: "Think carefully about a career as a chef. It’s exciting and rewarding, but it’s not for everyone. This is a high stress industry with long hours. It’s both anti-social and social at the same time. You are in a social environment at work, but it’s hard to have a personal life and a young family as I do. You’ll work late nights, weekends and most holidays so think about the life you want to live. I initially set out to be an architect, but soon realized that my heart lay with cooking. I worked in great restaurants all over Europe; this is the way I learned. For me, this was the right decision. I love my work and every day is a new challenge but this life is not for everyone.
"Also, if you have a short temper, this is not the field for you. When I’m hiring, one of my first questions is about temperament. I look for people who are good under pressure. This is hard, intense work, and there are days when it’s just insane. For me, the busier or more intense it gets, the calmer I become. When something goes wrong--you’re short-handed, a customer complains, equipment breaks down--you need a cool head to deal with what is going on around you, and to keep the kitchen going."
Gordon: "My thoughts are in line with the others. Apprentice first--definitely get a good education, whether that is at culinary school or through work experience. Read a lot of cookbooks and learn about different types of food. I also agree that you need to think about what type of cooking you want to do, as it’s all very diverse. You should also decide whether you want to aim for being an executive chef or a working chef. An executive chef isn’t always the best cook--but he or she is usually the best organizer."
Taste: What was the most important skill you learned over the years? Is it a skill you recommend to aspiring chefs?
Gerry: "I’d have to say providing consistency of service, food, management and technique. People want the same dish that they loved last week; you need to be able to deliver that. The restaurant must be consistently good."
Julie: "Every day I learn something new, and I recognize that there is a ton more I need to learn. My suggestion is to be open to learning--don’t take the ‘it’s my way or the highway’ approach. Over the years, I’ve had to work on patience, and on improving my communication skills. A good chef must be able to teach."
Gary: "For me it’s perseverance. You need the ability to get up every day and go into work and love what you’re doing. This is the only way you’re going to last in the business and be good at it. You must enjoy what you do. Because as Francis said earlier, things are going to get nutty, frustrating and hot."
Francis: "One of the most important and difficult things I had to learn as a chef was to spend time on the floor with my customers. Being in the kitchen, you are somewhat protected, but when you become Executive Chef or owner, it is vitally important that you spend time with your customers. I was very shy as a young chef and I owned my first restaurant in Ireland at the age of 22. This was when I had to start spending time in the front-of-the-house and it was extremely difficult at first. I felt awkward out of the kitchen and was reluctant to approach tables but now I really enjoy it. I love to meet people who are eating my food! Getting to know my guests has given me a great many friends over the years."
Gordon: "I agree with Julie that communication skills are key. A good chef must be able to pass along a concept, and also motivate staff to embrace that concept. If you have a new idea, you have to be able to teach your staff, and do it in such a way that they want to learn. It might be a new sauce technique, a new way to use lettuce--whatever--you need to be able to convey that and get them on board. If they don’t want to learn, you have to inspire them. You also need to remember that there are not just many personalities in a kitchen--as Julie noted--but many levels and abilities, also.
"One other thing, there is a huge distinction between a chef and a cook. The modern kitchen is organized very specifically--sous chef, fry cook, etc. The chef orchestrates the kitchen and constantly checks on everything--sauces, salad prep, entrees, etc. He or she must know when it’s ready to go; if there’s a backup and something is not working out, the chef must be able to jump in with a plan B or a way to fix it. The cook, on the other hand, has the job of processing the dinner. That’s his or her responsibility."
Taste: What was the hardest thing to learn?
Gerry: "How to manage! (laughs) In fact I’m still learning it! When I first started, I wasn’t very tolerant. I eventually realized that and overly compensated. I was too nice, and that didn’t work either. You have to find that balance of being in charge, yet also being able to give constructive criticism, and set a positive tone. You have to build teamwork in the kitchen."
Julie: (Sighs) "Delegating! I’m still trying to reconcile that. In this industry you can burn out really quickly if you don’t learn to delegate, to have some give and take. I also had to learn how to manage things better. I have loosened the reins some and passed certain things to my staff, like lunch, but it isn’t easy. When it’s your business, ultimately, your name is on every item, so it’s hard to let go."
Gary: "My toughest challenge was learning to accept criticism--from guests, customers and owners. It’s hard when you’ve spent your life learning a craft to have someone criticize what you’ve done, but you need to take it and learn from it. It’s the only way you’ll grow."
Francis: "Well, I’m with Julie and
Gerry. One of the hardest things has been learning to let go-- to let my trained and trusted staff cook the food, create daily specials, and provide input on new menus. In past years, I have tended to ‘cook from the hip,’ as my cooking is inspired on a daily basis by what fresh fish and organic produce are available that day. I work from instinct and rarely use recipes, but as Gerry said earlier, it is vitally important to have consistency in your restaurant, and you can’t maintain this without clear recipes. You also have to trust your staff to follow them. I can do that now and am very proud of the food we serve and the creative chefs who work for me.
Gordon: "I’m on the same page. Delegating is so hard. However, I also found learning to gauge the speed of the meal difficult to learn. How soon do you start preparing dinner? What should be on-line at what time? These things were hard for me to gauge when I was starting out. You want things ready on time, but not too early--and definitely not too late. It’s funny, I’ve seen times when I’ve been very short-handed, and everyone’s running like crazy, yet things got done right on time. And I’ve seen other times when I’ve had plenty of staff, it was a slow night, and the timing was off."
Taste: What is your favorite tool or piece of cooking equipment?
Gerry: "My sharp pencil! I don’t get to cook as much as I did; I’m forever writing down instructions and recipes for staff, then checking everything, organizing, dealing with the details."
Julie: "A zester or grater. There’s nothing like a citrus zest, a little shaving of chocolate or a nice hard Tuscan cheese to add special flavor to a dish. I think of these accents as like fairy dust--they bring magic to a meal. They provide that extra something that makes people say ‘Wow!’ My paddle grater is definitely the thing I can’t do without--ask my family and friends; I’ve made sure they each have one."
Gary: "My knife! I’ve had many, but my best one I’ve had for several years; I can’t live without it."
Francis: "I love what Julie said about her grater, but my favorite piece of equipment is still my sauté pan. In every professional kitchen there are a variety of positions--Pantry, Grille, Sauté, Oven and Expedite. Even though Expedite is normally the Executive Chef’s position, I have always loved working Sauté, as it is generally one of the fastest and most intense positions in the kitchen. It requires absolute concentration, speed and a large amount of skill. When I’m working with a good quality, well-seasoned sauté pan in the heat of the kitchen, it becomes almost an extension of my arm. With practice, it’s as though you are one with your pan! There is nothing more satisfying to me than hearing the sharp, sizzling sound of a beautiful piece of Ahi tuna when it hits a red-hot sauté pan, or seeing cognac ignite into brilliant blue flames when deglazing a sauté pan. This is what I live for in the kitchen. This is the poetry of cooking that inspires a passion in me. See how enthused I get just over my pan?"
Gordon: My chef knife; it’s got to be that.Taste: Do you watch cooking shows on TV? What’s your favorite show? Do you find inspiration there?
Gerry: "Not at all. I don’t take a busman’s holiday. I do like to read food magazines, though. Food & Wine, Gourmet--I enjoy those. I like to keep current with trends and new ideas. If I watched cooking shows I’d be critiquing and not relaxing.": "Not at all. I don’t take a busman’s holiday. I do like to read food magazines, though. --I enjoy those. I like to keep current with trends and new ideas. If I watched cooking shows I’d be critiquing and not relaxing."
Julie: "I’m at the restaurant from 11 a.m. until midnight, so after working those hours the last thing I want to do is think about business, but I confess, I was a fan of ‘Iron Chef America.’ It was cool to see our American chefs work well with a wide variety of cuisine. I liked their shortcuts and imagination. It was exciting TV, and the innovation was amazing--they were really flying by the seat of their pants!"
I also loved Anthony Bourdain who did ‘A Cook’s Tour’--also no longer on the air. He wrote ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ and the show was equally fascinating. I love the Food Network; it’s done amazing things for the restaurant business; it encourages consumers to cook more, and to have more of an awareness of what they are cooking."
Gary: I also love the Food Network. It’s done a great job of educating the public as to what we do as chefs, and I think it’s gotten Americans interested in food. I loved ‘Into the Fire,’ which is no longer on. I also like Mario Batali; he’s extremely knowledgeable and laid back. I like the way he explains the history of the food he’s working with and why it’s prepared that way."
Francis: "I don’t generally watch cooking shows, but I came across one last year that caught my attention because of the name. It was called ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ and I thought, ‘hmmm...that makes sense!’ I really got into it! Gordon Ramsay is a fantastic chef and a classic example of the European environment that I was trained in. While working in kitchens from Paris to Portsmouth I came across situations like those on the show many times. It really captured the intensity of a busy professional kitchen. One of the things I enjoyed most was watching Chef Ramsay, and occasionally the contestants, do and say everything any chef secretly wishes they could do in those situations.
"One thing I took from the show was the reaffirmation that for any real restaurant to work smoothly you have to take the notion of the temperamental chef, or the chef being God, out of the picture. Everyone in the kitchen works hard and deserves respect.
"Generally, I don’t seek cooking shows for inspiration; my inspiration comes from the seasons and the weather. My staff will laugh at this because when I do the ‘pre-meal’ presentations of the specials, I always say ‘this is perfect for a day like today.’ "
Gordon: "Not really; I occasionally catch it. I do like how they explain about the food; I’ve learned from them about teaching technique, and how to better describe food. I like that they try to keep things simpler and smaller. I get annoyed with some aspects of the shows, like Emeril having the band in the kitchen--you won’t find a jazz band in my kitchen!"
CONTINUE FOR SEACOAST CHEF BIOS & LINKIS
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