Quality, Not Quantity

When I started into this crazy career in the food business I was encouraged to move around and experience different things. “Learn as much as you can from different chefs”, they said. “You can learn something from everyone…even the dishwasher”, they said.

What they never told me is that at some point you need to stop that foolishness and stay put for awhile. They never told me that someday I would be judged by my personality and who I had worked for—how few jobs I’ve had and how long I stayed at them. No one ever let on that it really doesn’t matter how talented you are in this business, only how well you are liked and how stable you look on paper.

Now you might already be saying to yourself, “What’s this gonna be about?” Mainly it’s about standards.

I’ll tell you up front. I’m having a hard time finding a job I like. One I respect and can stay at. And one at which I am respected for the time I’ve put in, the dues I’ve paid, and the knowledge I’ve accumulated. Guess what…I never will. That’s what I’ve learned as the boiled down distillation of a 25 year career.

A quote from the revered chef Fernand Point stuck with me very early on; “The difference between a good restaurant and a great restaurant is the sum total of a lot of little things done well.” Fernand Point has been called one of the greatest chefs in the history of modern gastronomy. In the early to mid-1900’s he trained some of the most famous French chefs on record—Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel, and the Troisgros Brothers to name a few. He is also credited as integral in the creation of nouvelle cuisine.

When I say nouvelle cuisine I don’t mean the minute portions and the artsy-fartsy, fancy-schmancy presentations that TV commercials lampoon and diners rebuke. That’s not at all what nouvelle cuisine is about. Look it up. Anyway, I digress…

The first real chef I worked for, and still the greatest influence in my career, was a guy who rather than attending culinary school, served an apprenticeship at world renowned Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. There he learned, from the ground up, the ends and outs of true 5-Star dining at its best. If something was not perfect it wasn’t served. I’ve eaten there. It was perfect. Every bite.

A few years later I had the opportunity to work for a guy in a small French restaurant who couldn’t cook his way out of a paper bag with a sharp knife and a blow torch, but he had some great stories about training in France. He could talk for hours about the staff of 35 in a restaurant that only sat 50, most of them getting paid little or nothing. You’d start out as a young “commis” peeling potatoes, and if you stick it out and show potential you might in a few months or a year learn how to cut one of them into frites. The chef screams constantly. The best you can hope for in a day’s work is that the chef says nothing to you.

If your food isn’t perfect—your pommes puree is pasty, your sauce tastes flat or doesn’t have a shine to it, or your fish flakes, you have to do it over. It may be a good idea to duck as well, because the plate may be headed your way…airborne. If the chef catches your mistake before it gets to the plate he may raise the baton he carries and give you a whack with it. You may even get a set of knuckles across the mouth if he’s in a bad mood. But if you want to be successful this is what it takes. You put up with it, and you get better.

This is the culture of people who produce arguably the world’s most talented and respected chefs.

In many American cities we have few if any restaurants that would make in a city like Paris or New York. We have a climate of corporate engineered mediocrity. We have food critics that compare rather than judge, and in small towns they can’t be honest or they’d really screw up the economy of the local industry. Truth is most of these people have never experienced excellence. They don’t know that they’re not getting it.

I have been very fortunate to have received excellent training, as well as to have experienced amazing food. If you have never eaten at a 4 or 5-Star restaurant, you don’t know what it’s all about. You can’t. It’s kind of like an orgasm. Until you’ve had one you can’t possibly understand what it’s all about. All the reading, talking, listening, even watching cannot prepare you for it, and it can’t be duplicated or imitated.

I got to eat at Lutece in New York back in the 80’s when Andre Soltner was at the helm, and his restaurant was considered the best in America. It was mentioned in movies. Anyone in fine dining in the U.S. knew the Lutece name. I remember the menu well. It was simple. Rudimentary dishes following the classical menu style and syntax. Caviar, crabcakes, roasted lamb loin with turned vegetables fondant style, salmon stuffed with a pike mousse and wrapped in puff pastry, Grande Marnier soufflé, and a layered terrine of raspberry and blackberry ice creams.

I could have made it sound more exciting, but the truth is that’s what we had. Simple.

I can’t dress it up anymore than what it was, but I can tell you that the flavors, smells, and textures were ethereal. Like nothing I’ve ever had before or since, and I’ve had all of those items many times. If you weren’t there you couldn’t understand.

The next great American restaurant that I remember was Charlie Trotters in Chicago. Five stars as well. Been there. Just the bread alone was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever eaten. Small, round pillows of chewy French bread; the surface covered with tiny bubbles of air encapsulated in crunchy layers of dough that exploded against the palate with each nibble. Kind of like the gastronomical equivalent of popping bubble wrap! I hated to keep asking for more of them, as we chefs usually pick out the level of refinement in diners by their inclination towards bread, but I couldn’t stop eating them.

As for the rest of the meal, the freshness, skill, and passion that was put into every plated morsel was unbelievable. This, a restaurant that serves no beef, no chicken, and no broccoli. [Regrettably C.T. does have some foam in his repertoire] Dinner was around 15 courses, each consisting of about 3 bites of perfectly prepared and properly presented fresh ingredients. The service, impeccable. No less than five expertly professional staff members attended our table of two during the 3 hours that we were there.

Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. Four stars. I had cauliflower mousse with a potato chip for an amuse when I first sat down. I can still taste it today, and I’ve never quite been able to duplicate it. I hate cauliflower, except Hubert’s. The dessert I had was the most creative, most perfectly designed and executed plate of food I’ve ever experienced. And I can’t begin to tell you how simple it really was. Merely done well, with immaculate attention to detail.

The au poivre sauce on the magret at Jean Louis’ place in Vegas, to die for. Le Cirque, Vongerichten’s Prime, Michel Richard’s Citronelle, New York’s Union Square Cafe and Aureole, and Charleston’s Restaurant Million. All amazing examples of culinary excellence and unwavering standards.

I could have worked at any of them at one point early in my career, and in fact was given the opportunity and declined. I had a chance to work at Le Cirque during the Boulud era, but I folded and headed for my own idea of success, a decision I kick myself for daily. I was offered positions at Gotham Bar and Grill (a new place in NYC that I had never heard of), and at the infamous Rainbow Room. I was offered an introduction to a chef named Jean George Vongerichten at an unassuming little place called Lafayette in the Drake Hotel. Never heard of him. Less than two years later he was the hottest young chef in America, and still today everything Vong does ends up being front page news somewhere in the world. Who knew?

One year I was honored to go to a fund raising event in Charleston, SC where there were 15 or so of the most celebrated chefs in the southeastern United States hawking their wares, signing their books, and showing off their stuff. Honestly, most of it was crap. Too contrived. Too much effort to “wow” the folks and not enough passion and mechanical integrity. Just one man’s opinion.

Emeril Lagasse was beginning to become a household name through his books, but he hadn’t made it to the Food Network yet. Nice enough guy, but his dish was just this side of disgustingly inedible. He was there glad-handing those hoping to say they’d met him, and scooping out this awful crawfish pie that looked like lumpy mud and tasted like salty, mahogany colored papier mache.

In contrast, the then Asian executive chef from the Greenbrier was quiet, humble, and proudly dipping up the most incredible stuff in the room. I remember ham and wild onions (ramps) in a cream sauce ladled over something else. Chicken I think. Simple, but well prepared and excellent in every dimension.

My parents, like most parents, always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. I had a therapist tell me many years ago that this is one of the worst things we tell our children. I get it now. This is exactly what breeds mediocrity.

Recently I worked for a guy who told me a story about a chef in New York City who sent him to the basement for several weeks to peel and tournet potatoes. Though young in his career, he thought he should be on the hot line makin’ it happen. He thought the chef was an arrogant jerk and swore that he’d never be that kind of chef. The only thing good about the basement to him was that he got away from the chef screaming and throwing things.

My thought upon hearing this story was, “Yeah, but I’ll bet you got pretty good at turning potatoes didn’t you?”

Then I thought, “You’re the prick. You’re the kind of guy that creates an atmosphere of mediocrity!” “You’re the guy that thinks everyone deserves a chance and that there is no such thing as a mistake…just gentle little learning experiences.” [puke]

If someone is not standing over you screaming at you, pushing you to be better than you really are, how the hell are you to ever reach excellence? Will you always just be satisfied with what you can accomplish on your own—what someone tells you is good to keep from hurting your tender feelings?

Well, that guy and I parted company in a short time. We just couldn’t see things the same way.

Seems that I have a talent for pissing people off with my inability to conform to standards that are lower than my own. I think that it’s not so much my difference of standards, but my utter lack of discipline in keeping them to myself that gets me in trouble.

I was reading the story behind Thomas Keller, and how he came to be the chef and owner of what is considered by many today to be America’s greatest restaurant, The French Laundry. Seems that Tommy had a hard time playing well with others too. He went through a string of bad situations where he thought that his boss’s ideas and standards were mediocre at best, and that he could do better. After getting fired over his attitude and living on credit cards until the family was nearly bankrupt, he stumbled upon this charming little building in the middle of nowhere. He got the place for a song, fixed it up, and the rest is history. I’ve never been to the Laundry, but I’m told you have to plan that trip about 6 months out or better. Aspiring young chefs camp out on his doorstep to beg for a chance to work there for free.

I wonder if Thomas Keller, during his European training, was coddled and told, “Your consomme garnish is not uniformly cut, but we’ll serve it this time.” Or, “That sauce tastes scorched, but maybe no one will notice.”

Bourdain tells a story in Kitchen Confidential about screaming at a line cook for the risotto, and the cook just ignores him and keeps cooking risotto. Doesn’t matter to him how long the customer waits—that the rest of the table is in the window. The rice is going to be perfect, and you ain’t gettin’ it ‘til it is. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

When I started out I wanted to be the best I could be. I figured out pretty quickly that I had natural talent, and after a little exposure to “real” cuisine I developed passion. I went to the best school that I could. And I’ve spent the rest of my career resting on the laurels of prodigious knowledge and innate skills. I needed a job so I went to work for the first guy that would hire me—a guy that was happy to serve shit food to avoid pissing off the staff. Then I just repeated that scenario over and over. That’s the secret to my success.

Companies have hired me because they wanted my skills and experience to “take the business to a new level”. What they always fail to realize is that they are the reason the place isn’t operating at the desired level. It isn’t skill, or talent, or even passion that they lack. It’s personality. It’s truth! It’s authenticity. It’s the drive to achieve something that no one else is achieving regardless what other people think or feel. The weak ones will leave, yes, but they will be replaced by strong ones who will be driven to achieve excellence every day.

If the doors open in 20 minutes and the staff has screwed up everything except the frangipane and the coffee, then guess what—you serve goddamn frangipane and coffee. Maybe you fire them all and start over tomorrow (keep the pastry chef).

Disagree? I don’t blame you. It’s a drastic and oppressive way of looking at things. The government will fine you. You’ll spend months in court settling with damaged and offended, frail ex-employees. I understand. It’s tough in our country today with everything run from a remote corporate office, and upper management that has become so sensitive to the needs of the people that they have become functionally ineffective. But just know that this is one reason why there are only seventeen Mobil rated 5-Star restaurants in the U.S. as of December 2008, and only 140 with four stars.

So 25 years later I can say that I have learned something from everyone I’ve worked with—even the dishwasher. And the thing I learned best from the dishwasher is that washing dishes for a living when you’re really young and starting out is okay. It’s a beginning. But when you can’t even get a job washing dishes after pouring your heart and soul into the cooking biz for a quarter of a century…you fucked up, dude.

By the way, those colorful little guys at the top of the page are perfectly cooked baby beets from my buddy’s first food show competition! The judges loved those things.And the splash of magenta color on the plate behind them…beet foam. My idea [God bless it].

No matter what, ya don’t send it out ’til it’s perfect.