Learning about the industry: The cooks of Toro Restaurant

Author’s note: Trying to run a PG site here, but also want to be true to the folks I speak with. So to that end, any salty language will be replaced with just that… [SALTY]

Some people think that its asking too much for a college-aged student to make the call on what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Now imagine asking that of a 14-year old entering his first year at a vocational high school (Yes. I go voke.). To this day, I still wonder if I took the easy road, choosing as my vocation the same as my brothers before me rather than the one I was most interested in: culinary arts.

Thanks to the decision made by that particularly lazy and unambitious 14-yeard old, I’ve never been in a professional kitchen. What I know about the industry comes from what I’ve seen on television and read in books and magazines –  that is to say, I know squat about the industry. So, what’s a guy with an itch for the culinary world supposed to do to learn? I’m the primary bread winner for my family, with a mortgage and a 5-month old daughter. School isn’t an option right now. One thing I could try would be to spend time in a restaurant, learning more about the industry and the people that do it every day. The bigger question: What restaurant would be willing to have me?

To my amazement, I found one. A great one. In fact, one of Boston’s best restaurants: Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette’s Toro Restaurant.

Toro Restaurant – Boston

The setup

Having interviewed Chef Jamie prior to the James Beard Awards, I wanted to do a follow up interview. Somewhere in the shuffle, I managed to slip in the idea of wanting to observe and write about a professional kitchen. The question was asked with hopeful pessimism and zero expectations. But, at least the question was asked.

The reply I got back surprised me. There was no run-around. No maybes. Just simply, “You’re totally welcome. Just let me know. Only thing is: not on a Sunday. [SALT] is too real.” (That comment was made in relation to Sunday brunch service, but we can leave that for another day.) We went ahead and set a date. Jamie would be away that weekend for The Great GoogaMooga Festival in Brooklyn, so I’d be meeting with Toro’s chef du cuisine, Mike Smith.

Not having any idea what to expect, I realized I was feeling quite nervous as the day got near. Walking through the door of a high-test, heavily trafficked restaurant, one revered not only by foodies and local regulars, but by industry folk in general. And to do what? To squat for several hours. Take photos. Ask questions, and try not to let myself sound like a complete ass. So you get a sense of my initial nerves: I arrived about 30 minutes early on the scheduled day. To get my head straight, I took a quick walk around the neighborhood, going over (out loud, mind you…) what I hoped to learn while I was there. I only realized after how insane I must have appeared. It would only have been worse had I pulled a Stuart Smalley.

Despite the nerves, I felt at ease within minutes of walking through the door thanks to Katy Chirichiello, the assistant general manager, and Chef Mike. The message they conveyed: “We love what we do, we’re proud of what we do, and we’d be glad to talk about it.” So we did.

A cook’s headspace

The majority of my time was spent speaking with Chef Mike and line cook Eric Frier, though I want to give proper attention to all the cooks. On a typical day Toro utilizes a handful of cooks. On this day there was Chef Mike, Eric, Tomás Rubio-Keifer, Mark Bestman, Eddie Moon and Kathryn Fantozzi.

Chef du cuisine Mike Smith and line cook Eric Frier

In my time with the chef and cooks at Toro, I got the sense of how important it was to be passionate about what you’re doing as a cook. “You have to have that internal drive,” Chef Mike told me. “You either have it or you don’t. I mean, you can learn the techniques and stuff, but if you don’t have the passion or drive to do it,  you won’t be able to swing it.”

A passion for cooking is something engrained in these individuals. The feeling that they were meant to be cooks. Tomás probably managed to put it in the easiest terms to understand. When I asked him what he would be doing if he wasn’t a cook, he looked at me with a grin and said, “I can’t do anything else. This is what I do.”

Mixed in with that passion is focus, something chefs need to have in abundance. To the credit of all those I had an opportunity to speak with, I was denied nothing. Everyone was very attentive, and answered any question I asked regardless of how lame it may have been. But, at no point did anyone stop working. Cooking clams (with thyme, bay leaf, garlic, shallots and white wine) for the chowder. Butchering steak. Deveining foie. Chopping chives. All of it done while still playing nice with “that writer guy” hanging about.

Preping foie gras

“It can be hard some times when things get really busy,” Eric told me. “But, we have a great team and it isn’t often that we get in the weeds.” That led me to wonder a bit about how chefs and cooks manage to do it plate after plate, night after night. Asking Eric about it, he answered, “You know you can always do better at something. Even after a great night you go home and think about the stuff you can improve on, ya know? Tomorrow I’ll be a bit quicker on this. I’ll be cleaner doing that.” It’s a constant review and revision of the days work all with the aim of taking another step towards perfection.

A different breed

It is hard work. The reality is that it takes a different type of person to work in a kitchen. The hours alone would scare off most. Chef Mike touched on it a bit during our conversation as the team neared the end of prep:

“Ultimately we’re a very masochistic people. We put ourselves through this. But, that’s just it. I want to work harder than anyone else, ya’ know? At the end of the day… If I was to switch to a regular job where I get paid to just sit around for eight hours? I’d feel like a piece of [SALT]. I’d be bored out of my mind. There is a lot involved in doing what we do. This is part construction work, part managerial work, and part craft. Ultimately that’s what we’re doing. We’re performing a craft for others. In terms of all the things involved, being in the restaurant business has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.”

Cooks can be prideful, and rightfully so, of their skills and what they do. But, they, or at least the cooks I’ve spoken with, make it a point of fact that there is always something to learn. And, never too far away is the humbling circumstance to bring you back down to earth if you ever get too high on yourself.

Both Chef Mike and Eric bring up a favorite food quarterly called Lucky Peach. In the Spring 2012 issue, the guys at Joe Beef in Montreal talk about being clean and sometimes having to do awful things to maintain that cleanliness. Chef Dave McMillian describes his experience with a grease trap. It is an EPIC read (buy it on Amazon) that involves going head first in to a vat of grease in an attempt to unclog the trap.  Echoing the sentiment, Mike looks at me and says: “No matter how glamorous you are, if the [SALTING] grease trap breaks or something like that, someone’s got to fix it. So those things keep you grounded.”

Business time

As we neared dinner service, I found a quiet spot near the fireplace where I could continue to observe but not get in anyone’s way. I took advantage of the time to collect my thoughts on everything I’d seen and heard up until that point. Looking back I’ve come to realize that I never really appreciated how hard cooks work. Seeing it on television, reading about it, just doesn’t do it justice. Cooks know one speed: Go. Nothing less. In what could easily become a chaotic situation, chefs bring order. The end result: Something they can be proud of, and that diners can sink their teeth in to.

It’s just a brief glimpse in to the world I was so curious about at age 14, but it is one I won’t forget. It’s also one I’m not done with.

Doors at Toro open at 5:30. At 5:15, a line had already formed. What came next was poetry in motion.

Check out part two of the series Learning about the industry: Service at Toro Restaurant. Includes my conversations with Toro’s service staff, as well as some of the action that took place during dinner service.

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