Back of the House

Chefs Tell Cautionary Tales of Doing What They Love

Photo: Patrick McMullan

“I have doubts about the physical demands of the kitchen,” Dan Barber confessed last night at the 92nd Street Y. “I am a part of the service and I find my stamina decreasing.” The chef joined Tom Colicchio, and French expats André Soltner and Jacques Torres on a panel with FCI founder Dorothy Hamilton to discuss her new book,
Love What You Do. Loving it, it seems, doesn’t make it easy. Keep reading, aspiring chefs. It’s time to be scared straight.

Dan Barber is tired. “At Stone Barns, for example, there are no menus. You come to the restaurant, you sit at the table, and the ticket comes in as an interview with the captain: What are your likes, dislikes, allergies, things you’re very interested in. There’s notes: They range from “this person has been dying to come to the restaurant for the last year or two,” to “this person is totally uninterested in what we’re doing, and would rather be someplace else.” The menus tend to be different between tables, and very different from night to night, and that requires a commitment and a flexibility and devotion that I hadn’t really anticipated. The best way to inspire a tired, physically and mentally rundown chef is to be there, with him or her, doing the same thing, which is really hard to do. So I wonder about this philosophy.”

Tom Colicchio is … the Apprentice “We don’t have an apprenticeship system here, but you can put yourself through one if you try. All you have to do is work in one restaurant for a year, and then you move to another restaurant. I grew up in New Jersey, and I worked at some pretty bad restaurants until I found myself at a pretty good restaurant.”

Jacques Torres, Food Orthopedist “If you look at the medical profession, the chef is in the emergency room. You see the chefs really reacting to the service and dealing with what’s going on at the moment. The pastry chef would be the knee guy or something. You cannot bake a cake by the time a customer sits. You can assemble desserts, put whipped cream and berries together, but it takes a lot more planning … At Le Cirque, we were twelve pastry cooks in one restaurant; that’s pretty unbelievable. Once the manager came and said, ‘Can you do a tanker in chocolate?’ And we said, ‘Yes, how long?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you have time, the customer just sat.’ Sirio was on top of his game when I started and it was unbelievable. He was magic and it was a magic place.”

André Soltner Gets Poached “I was working in Paris as a sous-chef, and one of my pastry chefs emigrated here. The person he was working for had an idea that he wanted to open a restaurant — Henri Soulé. He came to Paris, ate at the restaurant, and after his dinner he said to the maitre d’, ‘I bring greetings to the chef from Robert, the pastry chef, can I see the chef?’ The maitre d’ told me; I went to see him; and he said, ‘I bring greetings from Robert and, well, the real reason is I would like to talk to you outside.’ We had a meeting the next day, and that’s the way you steal chefs.”

Chefs Tell Cautionary Tales of Doing What They Love