By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Turns out, I didn't know much. I sat in culinary school listening to my chef instructor drone on about the seven "mother" sauces, sanitation and proper straining technique while, jacket freshly crisped, writing it all befittingly in a notebook.
Later, during demo, I practiced knife cuts casually while joking with classmates. "Your brunoise is too big," I teased as rosy, peaceful thoughts of running my own kitchen danced inside my naive pea.
I make "out of this world" chili and pretty mean barbecued chicken. Everyone says so. Couple that with the fact that there isn't enough Adderall in the world to get me through the math and science requirements of "real" school, and this is where life's path has taken me: a funny-hat, apron-adorned, baggy-pants heaven where I can go as far as my imagination will allow. Besides, I think, it takes only two years to become a full-fledged chef like Emeril! Get outta here!
Close to seven years ago, an extremely green 24-year-old youngster (read: me) strutted his first pair of no-slip rubber soles into a professional kitchen for the first of many body blows.
Kitchens then were vicious locker rooms with all the civility of a British soccer hooligan. We were slaves to the industry, sweating like R. Kelly at a Girl Scout meeting, presided over by evil men in toques and white jackets trying to break us.
Not much has changed in the years since. Kitchens remain throbbing, cruel beasts that have brought many a would-be chef to tears. No one is prepared for how ridiculously brutal it can be.
Horror stories are worn in the industry like badges of honor.
Jason Kerr, formerly a sous-chef under T'afia's Monica Pope (and current Shaken and Stirred columnist), had a jar of truffles thrown at him that ended up smashing to bits over a fryer, burning him in spots.
Daily Review Cafe head honcho John Rash had a chef who tested spinach for seasoning in a peculiar way: He threw it at him. "If it's seasoned it won't stick to you. That's how he'd check. I'd come home with green spots all over the back of my jacket."
Sambuca's former sous-chef John Dias remembers a particular randy French/ Belgian hothead he worked for in Bel Air, California. "He threw plates." At Dias? "At me, at the wall, on the floor all of it." In one episode, another sous-chef wound up with a deep cut in his arm thanks to the unfortunate ricochet of porcelain shrapnel. "He wrapped it up and kept working."
Jared Hunter had the good fortune to work under one of the nation's best: Southwestern-cuisine god Mark Miller. Sadly, he also reported to a hulking redneck of a man who would empty a trash can onto his station if he found a leaf of usable romaine among its contents. "That guy was crazy," he recalls. "He used to stop cuts from bleeding by searing himself on white-hot pans."
In his time, former Houstonian sous-chef Lance Feagan (his own restaurant, the Glass Wall, opens in the Heights early next year) has had a couple of run-ins with chefs looking to prove a point -- the most vivid being a busy weekend when his superior decided to teach him a lesson about talking back. "He'd call out, 'Three shrimp,' but need three strips. I'd put the shrimp in the window and he'd say, 'What are you doing? I don't need this!' " The scenario continued until Feagan started eyeing the tickets himself over Tricky Dick's shoulder, which is precisely when the rules of the game changed.
"He started saying everything was the wrong temperature: 'That's overdone.' 'That's underdone.' He sent everything I cooked back to me." Feagan, then all of 21, and full of piss and vinegar, started cooking steaks to perfection, and his crafty chef began accidentally dropping plates. "He must've dropped 20 plates that night just to make my life miserable. I got the picture and never back-talked a superior again."
Think of all the existing pressure, drama and stress of your job now double it and add fire and someone calling you "faggot" in Spanish. Add to that the odor of fish coating your hands, and sour armpits, and you begin to approach what it's like.
Laura Hamilton, currently pastry chef at the Rainbow Lodge after filling the same role at Vic & Anthony's, has always been fascinated by food. As with most chefs, family dinners in her household were an event of Super Bowl-sized proportions, a four-course "Thrilla in Manila" every night of the week. As a successful (yet unhappy) paralegal, Hamilton couldn't shake the thought of cooking for a living. She researched restaurants around town, picked one of critical note and headed in to tell the chef of her intentions.
What she got was a cross-examination that would've impressed her co-workers back at the law office from a chef who thought she was batshit crazy.
"He told me, flat out, 'This is ridiculous. You'd be going from making what you do as a paralegal to making minimum wage. You can't call in sick, even when you're sick.' He laid it all out there for me, gave me the whole speech and told me what to expect."