I thought that I’d fill you guys in (a bit) on life after reality TV. Contrary to popular belief, once you’ve appeared on national prime time television, the offers do not come rolling in (unless A- you win, B- you’re Ben Starr and America falls in LOVE with you #IveBenStarrStruck).
For the rest of the cast, we have all been working tirelessly to maximize our fifteen minutes and make life changes that point us in a direction somewhere in the vast culinary world. I’ve had a couple projects that you’ll see the fruits of soon… videos for a few companies that make some GREAT products.
Apart from receiving a few lovely gifts (Thank you PolyScience, Fagor, and Jacob & Co) I’ve been a bit confused on the culinary path I want to take… I’ve opened a private chef/catering company. Building a small business from the ground up is an exciting challenge. I’m often asked, “when are you going to open a restaurant”… The truth is, I do not know ANYTHING about running a restaurant and/or professional kitchen. But that dosen’t mean I can’t learn… As part of my culinary wandering, I’m pursuing this knowledge in a few ways- books, talking with chefs, and most excitingly, Staging (kitchen apprenticeship, pronounced “St-Ah-je”)
Some of you may have read my friend Tracy Kontos’ accounts of staging in the kitchens of Patina, Graham Elliot, and Del Posto but I thought I’d share my recent learning’s and perspectives.
This past weekend, I was fortunate to have worked in two Houstonkitchens. Friday, I worked at El Xuco Xicana, a restaurant run by a local chef whose menu is inspired by traditional Mexican cuisine accented with influences from the Texas Gulf Coast. Saturday, I spent 8 hours in the Kitchen at Brennan’s of Houston – Texas wing of the famous Commander’s family of New Orleans fame… aka the place that invented Bananas Foster.
As restaurant concepts these places couldn’t be further apart- Xuco Xicana is a relatively small kitchen where three cooks man the “Hot line” and create food with an average plate cost of $15. Brennan’s is a kitchen the size of a small gymnasium with at least 20 cooks moving about at any given time. Plate cost at Brennan’s? Their YELP page has three dollar signs… it’s occasional dining. As different as these worlds seem… my initial learning from both kitchens is strikingly similar.
Both kitchens are 100% focused on delivering perfect food to their diners (as any kitchen should be) The chefs work meticulously to put out perfect plates all night long. Prep work is done on a seemingly massive scale… Ever peeled and de-veined 20 pounds of shrimp? Strained 15 gallons of house made Worcestershire sauce? I have… let me tell you, it’s not easy work. At the end of each day, I was physically worn. Beat. My feet hurt like most will never know… I literally take a shower sitting down after my first night, and after the second night I can barely walk to my fridge for a much needed beer. Working in a restaurant kitchen gives you a completely new respect for the men and women that make their livings preparing your meals. Treat them well, and take it easy on them when your over modified order comes out different than you expected… by all means, don’t accept crappy food… just be patient and understanding that the kitchen staff is probably doing their best to give you a great meal.
So what did I learn from this weekend? It’s not just about peeling shrimp, shucking corn, or plating Ceviche. Working in this industry is about attitude. It’s about taking 20 pounds of shrimp and finding the best, most efficient way to de-vein them; making improvements with each piece you place in your done pile. Oddly, there’s a certain relaxation that comes from working on these types of tasks… no matter what else is going on in your life… for the next 30 minutes all that is important is that these shrimp are perfectly de-veined.
While I appreciate the opportunity to perfect my shrimp peeling, the biggest learning happens by observing and talking to the other chefs in the kitchen… detail and learning opportunities are everywhere you just have to spot it. From how a side towel is folded for most efficient use, to saucing a plate, to calculating and managing food cost.
Beyond the technical learning, there’s a wealth of information to be learned by talking with chefs. After my night at Xuco Xicana, I sat at a bar with Chef Jonathan Jones and one of his Sous Chefs Lyle… it was enlightening to hear Chef JJ talk about how Lyle should be asking the dishwasher how the mole (a classification of complex Mexican sauces) tastes. To hear JJ’s perspective on food was simply awesome.
I’ll continue to pursue learning in the not so glamorous life of professional kitchens, and would HIGHLY encourage other to do so also. Spending a night on your feet in front of a 120F hot line and then squeegee the floor clean will give you a new perspective on the folks that are making your dinner.