Chefs Rule!

If you can't stand the sight of lopped-off digits and the smell of your own flesh burning, get out of the kitchen

"I came up through the business working for women chefs in vegan restaurants on the West Coast," she says. "This entire world of Kitchen Confidential abuses is very foreign to me. I've just never had a problem with any of that type of stuff."

Why are women easier to work for?

"We're better at multitasking, handling pressure and, in some ways, handling pain. I don't know, you just don't have to deal with all the machismo stuff that comes with a lot of male chefs."

John Rash trained under a chef who threw spinach at 
Daniel Kramer
John Rash trained under a chef who threw spinach at him.
Scott Tycer says top chefs often use intellectual 
abuse to get their way in the kitchen.
Daniel Kramer
Scott Tycer says top chefs often use intellectual abuse to get their way in the kitchen.

Her sous-chef/breadmaker Emily Wells concurs. "It's stressful. There have been a few times where I've been getting killed on the grill or something and will just cry, but, yeah, I've never had to deal with much yelling either."

Big specialty markets such as Rice Epicurean and Whole Foods are poaching a lot of chef talent these days, what with their fancy "benefits," "competitive wages" and something called a "relaxed environment." Many of the protections that exist in hotels are present in these corporate structures as well, with the added benefit that chefs never have to prepare food in a rush. That three-bean dip you're making for the chef's case doesn't need to be finished until tomorrow.

Why aren't the owners of houndstooth pants and backless clogs breaking down the doors of jukes like this? Tycer offers an astute explanation. "In that type of corporate atmosphere, you're more of a kitchen laborer than a chef, really."

So in a word: prestige. You have to get yelled at by the best to become the best. Accept it or take your marbles to Central Market.

Mark Holley, executive chef at the high-end seafood powerhouse Pesce, has arms riddled by burn marks ("oven tattoos") after 25 years of kitchen warfare.

Working a steady job as a kitchen manager at the Mason Jar, the boisterous and always entertaining Holley began to set his sights up the culinary mountain. He knew that, like all cooks new to the industry, he'd have to take a few steps back before edging ever forward.

He did so under a bunch of meticulous and detail-oriented French hard-asses at the Meridien Hotel, a hot spot in Houston's big-oil '80s. He learned all the French cooking basics, ignoring as best he could daily questions about his ability to learn highly refined techniques that required expertise (he was, after all, a "dumb American").

The French, testing the fortitude of their newest addition, put him on 90 days' probation to see if he'd buck up or fold.

Holley found himself doing menial, bottom-scraper tasks such as ripping apart lobsters and stabbing the tails with skewers to keep them straight. He was also in charge of tourneting oodles of vegetables (creating a Titanic-era seven-sided cut) only to have them thrown away by a less-than-satisfied chef who wasn't happy with Holley's uneven edges.

Determined to make him crack, his superiors began making him eat French delicacies the young man from Columbus, Ohio, wasn't thrilled about chewing.

"I remember vividly the first time a chef made me eat raw sea urchin…remember, this is 20-some-odd years ago -- there wasn't a sushi restaurant on every corner back then. Anyway, they made me eat it to, you know, test me. I put it in my mouth and looked them all straight in the eye to prove to them that I wanted this. When they walked away, I spit it out into a napkin and threw it in the trash can." (He likes sea urchins now, by the way.)

Holley's time at the Meridien was tough by all descriptions. Today his management style reflects his upbringing through the industry by those French tutors -- minus, he says, the head games. First and foremost he gives all interviewees a long list of expectations that may have escaped them when company-party compliments about their artichoke dip filled their heads with delusions of celebrity-chef grandeur.

Holley knows that the industry is being romanticized. Food Network blowhards have turned every couch potato with a paring knife into a 30 Minute Meal guru with patchy impressions about the industry, formed about as well as O.J. Simpson's search for the real killers. Because of this trend, new doe-eyed youngsters with Bobby Flay dreams and Emeril aspirations are given an even lengthier shakedown. Beat around the bush, Holley does not. "I tell them it takes about ten years of a love-hate relationship with the industry before you really know if you're going to make it."

Ten frigging years?!

"What I mean is this: Of course you love to cook, that's why most are drawn to the industry. That's the love. The hate is a lot of things. You hate the pay for at least five, possibly even eight, years. You hate the long hours. You hate working holidays and weekends. You hate a good deal of it. You've got to want it."

Any cook worth his weight in kosher salt has war stories from "back in the day" when he attempted to scoot a woefully overcooked porterhouse past the chef.

Here he is -- name over the door, sole responsibility for any criticism his place may receive -- and you're handing him a snapper fillet blanketed by a hideous, broken beurre blanc? A tongue-lashing means you got off light, friend.

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