Sous chefs get dinner on the table; chefs get the credit
It's noon, and you're making reservations for dinner at any one of Austin's well-known fine dining outlets. In addition to your regard for the food, perhaps you've chosen the restaurant because of the chef/owner's or executive chef's reputation. You appreciate his or her white-coated presence in the restaurant, assuring the overall quality of your dining experience. But for every chef/owner working a dining room in sparkling clean whites that evening, you can be sure there's been an army of cooks in not-so-spotless ChefWear sweating behind the scenes all day to make sure the chef, and the food, look exquisite. Chances are, many of them started their day long before you made your reservations.
We recently spent some time with a group of the Austin restaurant scene's young unsung culinary heroes. Over pizzas at Asti, several of them described their work schedules, gave credit to valued local mentors, and shared some long-term goals. Conversation with these hardworking folks renders a very clear picture of a restaurant cook's everyday life. It also demonstrates how the personnel structure in Austin kitchens has changed in the days since cooking has become a respected, even chic, profession. There used to be kitchen managers, line cooks, and prep cooks, but now there are chefs de cuisine, executive sous chefs, and sous chefs (see p.34). While some of these young chefs are products of cooking schools and others have arrived where they are via the apprenticeship or on-the-job training route, the most important aspect of their jobs at this point in their careers is the day-to-day interpretation of their employer's culinary vision.
Journeyman cook Steven Blaisdell is the chef de cuisine at the Granite Cafe, working shifts from noon until 11pm five days a week, directing a staff of seven to eight people. His job encompasses the nuts-and-bolts operation of the Granite kitchen: purchasing, receiving, scheduling labor and dealing with personnel issues, butchering meat and fish, prepping sauces, all the while keeping his eye on the big picture. The big picture, of course, is chef/owner Sam Dickey's Granite cuisine. "In the two years Steve's worked for me, we've grown together, and he really understands what I want for the restaurant," Dickey says about Blaisdell. "He also comes up with good ideas, the style of food that needs to come out of our kitchen." The Granite kitchen is small and with minimal storage space, which means extensive prep work and butchering have to be done on a daily basis along with all the regular administrative duties. "Multitasking all day, every day, is extremely stressful, it's difficult to get into a groove on any one thing," says Blaisdell of his regular gig, adding that "anytime I actually get to spend cooking relieves the stress." Everyone at the table agreed with Blaisdell's assessment.
Another challenge Blaisdell faces these days has to do with the Austin economy. Like many local restaurants, the Granite has streamlined its staff to reduce labor costs and re-imagined its menu to lower prices while trying to maintain fine dining quality on the plate. That means Blaisdell and his sous chef Andrew Sasser are peeling, cutting, and chopping every day, work that would ordinarily be done by a prep cook. Both men work with Dickey to evaluate any new menu item to be sure it fits both the Granite style and the new menu price cap.
Brenton Childs arrives in the Vespaio kitchen between 6 and 8am, five days a week. The only other person there at that hour is baker Matt Weaver. In the quiet early morning, Childs will put some items to smoke in the still-smoldering wood-fired oven, make all the basic sauces for regular use, and check in all the produce, meat, and fish he's ordered the night before. As the day progresses, he'll steam some ducks, butcher the meat and fish to the menu specifications, take care of administrative duties such as scheduling the kitchen staff, and keep an eye on food costs. To keep his creative juices flowing, Childs will assemble the tantalizing array of salads that tempts diners in Vespaio's antipasto case. His day winds up around 5pm, just as the line cooks and grill men are preparing for several hours of dinner rush. "My job is to make sure we put the best team on the field every day and that they've got everything they need to do the best job they can," Childs explains. After four years in chef/owner Alan Lazarus' Vespaio kitchen, Childs is executive sous chef. That position makes him the owner's right-hand man and finally affords him a highly valued day shift, making it possible for him to be home in the evenings with his new wife.
Asti chef de cuisine Kristie Moore is one of a handful of women in executive positions in Austin restaurant kitchens these days. You'll see the Culinary Institute of America graduate supervising the line at Asti's open kitchen from 2 to 10pm, five nights a week. She arrives at the restaurant no later than 1pm, does a quick daily inventory, gets her ordering and other administrative duties out of the way, and is on the line no later than 2 or 2:30pm. At that point she's braising lamb, making lasagne, preparing sauces, and generally doing whatever needs to be done to set up the sauté station she works. She's responsible for supervising Asti's crack kitchen staff, most of whom have been there since the popular neighborhood bistro opened, as well as contributing creative menu ideas to chef/owners Wm. Emmett and Lisa Fox. "Lisa really found Kristie for us, when they were working together at Sardine Rouge," Emmett Fox recalls. "She's the hardest-working employee I've ever had, just nonstop hard work, no complaints, no problems." Asti will have a big hole to fill in their lineup later this year when Moore and her boyfriend, Granite Cafe sous chef Andy Sasser, take off for Europe. "We're going to eat our way across France and Italy, experience and learn everything we can as long as the money holds out," Moore says with glee, adding that she plans to return to Asti and Sasser will go back to the Granite once they return from overseas. "Eventually, we'll open our own place," she says with conviction. Sasser chimes in with a "sooner, rather than later."
The creative and talented young people who staff Austin's fine dining restaurant kitchens arrived where they are today from very different routes and have a wide variety of long-term personal goals. Casey Lloyd, a recent sous chef addition to chef Will Packwood's kitchen at Emilia's, is a product of the highly regarded Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence, R.I. Last year, Lloyd was chef in his own kitchen at the critically praised 22, an ambitious Northwest Hills fine dining venture that unfortunately opened after the wave of dot-com money had already crested. He's not bitter about having 22 closed out from under him and very pleased to have landed at Emilia's in the glow of the national spotlight. Lloyd enjoys the opportunity to make creative contributions to Packwood's seasonally changing menus as well as preparing the daily amuse bouche offerings that tease each guest's palate at the beginning of an Emilia's dinner. Over the long haul, he envisions himself with an upscale neighborhood deli, his own little version of Dean & DeLuca, selling top-quality gourmet products and prepared foods to a loyal clientele.
Different Paths, Different Goals
Vietnamese immigrant Tien Ho had planned to be a college professor until a mentor convinced him that jobs in academia were not at all what they used to be and suggested he change career paths. After graduation from UT, he took a cooking job at the Belgian Restaurant in West Lake Hills, working under chef/owner Jean-Louis DeHoux. When DeHoux sold the restaurant, the new owner hired another Belgian chef who also happened to be a culinary educator. Tien Ho did a European-style apprenticeship with certified master chef Christian Ecterbille and then moved on to his current position as executive sous chef in the Driskill Hotel kitchen. Like most hotel chefs, Tien works a killing schedule, 12 to 14 hours six days a week, performing administrative duties, managing staff, and consulting with the chef on seasonal menu items. Though he and Driskill executive chef David Bull come from vastly different cooking backgrounds, Tien says they've learned to work together as a very efficient team. Tien Ho feels that his learning process has just begun, although he says that he'd "like to continue to work with and learn from the best chefs, maybe spend some time in kitchens in New York, in Europe. Those are my personal and life goals."
Texan Eric Polzer is another journeyman cook who worked his way up through the ranks in restaurant kitchens in Bryan/College Station and Austin. He ultimately found a culinary home under the direction of chefs Stewart Scruggs and Mark Paul at the now-defunct Brio Vista. When Scruggs and Paul opened Wink in the summer of 2001, Polzer was among the first members of their team. Wink's focus is on fresh, seasonal cuisine with as much local emphasis as possible. The restaurant's small size (45-50 seats) makes for very fluid menu dynamics.
Those things combined to provide sous chef Eric Polzer with yet another job as the restaurant's forager. A couple of mornings a week, you'll find him at Boggy Creek Farm choosing exquisite little bouquets of butterhead lettuce and the most tender leaves of succulent spinach. As a result of his foraging, Polzer has developed a special interest in the farmer/chef connection and would someday like to find a way of bringing more locally grown produce into Austin restaurant kitchens. Five nights a week, you'll find Eric wearing a pirate's head rag rockin' out on the busy line at Wink, where he plans to stay for the foreseeable future.
Sous chefs Jeff Martinez and Kristine Kittrell work in the Jeffrey's kitchen under the direction of Austin's premiere female chef, Alma Alcocer-Thomas. Neither is a cooking school grad but both mention their excellent on-the-job training from Jeffrey's executive chef David Garrido and chef de cuisine Alcocer-Thomas. "Both of us work a station and from time to time, we move around to make sure that everyone can do what needs to be done at every station," explains Kittrell, adding that all the Jeffrey's cooks are encouraged to contribute ideas during regular menu meetings. Extensive experience at Jeffrey's has inspired Jeff Martinez to envision a variety of culinary goals. His dreams range from the taqueria he'd like to open with his family all the way to a ritzy Fifties-style supper club with great food, live entertainment, and dancing after dinner.
When we asked these working cooks for any advice they'd like to share with aspiring chefs, we got a wide range of good answers. "Cooking is like professional sports," cautions Steve Blaisdell. "If you can't cut it, having a backup plan is a good idea." Before investing thousands of dollars in cooking school tuition, Eric Polzer suggests you spend some time working in restaurant kitchens, "to really understand how much commitment is involved." A good liberal arts education isn't a bad idea, according to Canadian Kristine Kittrell, who opined that "university is very important" for the discipline necessary in a successful culinary career. Andy Sasser's advice was purely practical: "They better get good at peeling potatoes and carrots."
Regardless of the diverse paths that brought them to the kitchen in an Austin fine dining restaurant or where they'll go from here, the chefs we spoke to (as well as the hundreds of others we couldn't include) all have the same thing in common at this stage of their careers: hard, hot physical work done behind the scenes with very few personal accolades. Here's our suggestion -- if you enjoy the dinner that results from the reservations we mentioned earlier, when it's over, send your regards and thanks to the sous chef.