The idea of perfect food: Interviewing Chef Chris Coombs of Deuxave in Boston

He’s Executive Chef of three very Boston area restaurants. He was voted Food and Wine’s The People’s Best New Chef: New England in 2011. Oh, and it’s probably worth pointing out that he’s not even 30.

With the opening of Boston Chops earlier this month, Chef Chris Coombs is now the Executive Chef of three very well-received Boston area restaurants. He’s competed twice on The Food Network’s Chopped. He was voted Food and Wine’s The People’s Best New Chef: New England in 2011.

Oh, and it’s probably worth pointing out that he’s not even 30.

Part of the new guard of young power-house chefs, Chris Coombs is an example of what makes the Boston food scene so exciting! I recently had a chance to check in with Chris about his start in the industry, being selected one of Forbes “30 under 30” in Food and Wine, and what has driven him to be so successful.

Foodie Journal: Was there a particular moment where you
realized that you really loved to cook, or have you always been interested?
 
Chris Coombs: I have loved food since I was 11 or 12
years old when I began working in my neighbor’s seafood restaurant. I haven’t
looked back since! 

FJ: What was your first experience in a professional kitchen
like?

CC: My first big break into fine
dining was working for Ming Tsai at Blue Ginger in 2003. Ming and his chefs
really were my first example of a truly professional kitchen. I remember
feeling like I was years behind everyone else in the kitchen, which I was. Many
of the cooks were kind enough to take me under their wing. I was always willing
to work longer and harder than everyone else, even if I wasn’t as talented at
the time. I would show up between 6:00 and 7:00 every morning and work until
midnight, or 1:00 AM six days a week! It was an amazing externship and
experience.

FJ: As a graduate of the CIA, do you think culinary school
is a must for aspiring chefs?

CC: I do not think that culinary
school is a must. I would rather work for free in an amazing kitchen than pay
$30,000 per year to be taught by a “variety of chefs with different skill
levels” for short periods of time. Culinary school is a good base, but once you
get out, most chefs will tell you to forget what you learned anyway. There is a
ton of information out there these days, and many different ways to acquire it.

FJ: If I walked up to you and said, “Hey, I want to become a
chef”, what would your advice be?

CC: Stick to watching the Food
Network, and cook at home. It will be a lot more fun and a lot less work. Get a
nine-to-five making six figures and enjoy going out to eat. This business isn’t
for everyone. You need to have a very understanding family, and very few of us
are ever fortunate enough to make it to the top. Most people have no idea what
this job really means.

FJ: Many chefs I’ve spoken with have made that comment,
about how hard it can be, and how it’s easy for people to lose sight of that
fact. What’s one of the tougher aspects of working in a professional kitchen?
 
CC: Being pushed to your
physical and mental limit daily, with very little recovery time. You have to be
addicted to it to keep coming back for more.

FJ: You were named one of the “30 under 30” in food &
wine by Forbes in 2012. Can you talk a little about what that type of
recognition meant to you? Does it serve as motivation to live up to that, or
does it not really change anything for you?

CC: Forbes 30 under 30 was certainly
a humbling experience. I was certainly honored to be on the same list as the
likes of Lady Gaga, Lebron James, and Mark Zuckerberg. But, more so, I was
really excited to represent Boston on the list. It is a nice honor, but it
raises the bar even higher for me personally. Most of my professional career I
have focused myself on unattainable goals, for example the idea of perfect
food. It is really just a concept that doesn’t actually exist; however we chase
that goal at Deuxave every day. I love hard work. I love to be challenged. And,
with 3 restaurants and 160 employees I couldn’t be any happier. Moving forward
I am excited see what will come next. Hopefully many great things are still to
come!

FJ: You recently opened a new restaurant, Boston Chops. I’ve
been hearing some great things so far! How did you come up with the concept for
it?

CC: Boston Chops is a dream come
true for my business partner, Brian Piccini, and I. We fell in love with the
location and the needs of the South End as a whole. We both enjoyed the idea of
a traditional steakhouse, but found it to be very boring, and not very much
fun! Boston Chops takes the concept of steakhouse and brings it into 2013,
which we coin as Urban Steak Bistro.

FJ: People that love food tend to have some really cool stories
to tell about their experiences with food. Do you have a favorite food memory?

CC: I actually gain more pleasure
from cooking for others and amazing them than I actually do consuming food
myself. This work has been as much of an outlet to express myself as an artist as
it has been for me to be an entrepreneur or a businessman. That is the true
reward in my work; Making people happy, and giving them an experience that they
won’t soon forget! 

Chris Coombs in the Executive Chef of Deuvaxe, located at 371 Commonwealth Ave in Boston, dbar, located at 1236 Dorchester Ave in Dorchester, and Boston Chops, located at 1375 Washington St in Boston.

Learning about the industry: Service at Toro Restaurant

“It’s organized chaos. But, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and when it works like this it’s amazing to watch. I’ve been in other places where it was just chaos. Here? It’s pretty special.” – Katy Chirichiello, Assistant General Manager, Toro Restaurant

Line cook Eric Frier and Assistant GM Katy Chirichiello

So let me tell you a story about Jon Kay. Jon is a waiter at Toro Restaurant in Boston. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America along with chef du cuisine Mike Smith. “Along with” works on two levels here considering that they attended at the same time, but they also followed the same educational path through the CIA: cooking and management.

One is a chef, and a damn good one. The other is, as I mentioned before, a waiter… and a damn good one.

“I like the front of the house,” Jon answered when I asked him if he ever thought about getting back in the kitchen. “I might go back to the kitchen one day, but I like serving people. I love talking to them about the food and wine.”

So, why does this story matter? It’s simple, really. A meal at Toro is better because Jon Kay is a waiter there. So is Kelly Walsh. So is John Stoddard, and others who I didn’t have the chance to speak with during my day at Toro. When the service staff loves what they do, life is better for everyone. Especially the diner!

El Toro

A strange relationship

The relationship between diner and waiter can be a strange one. Anthony Bourdain has commented multiple times on how, when he goes to a nice restaurant, he “wants his waiter to like him” and is afraid that the waiter will somehow sense that maybe he doesn’t belong. It can be contentious depending on the personalities involved.

Really, the relationship itself is bizarre and unlike any other. John Stoddard and I talked about it briefly and he summed it up perfectly when he said, “If you work in an office, you don’t have someone just walk in off the street and start telling you what to do or telling you that you’re doing something wrong. So its kind of a strange relationship. For us, its our job. We’re there to help and we want to help. Once people realize that, it works out for the best.”

With the team assembled at Toro, it usually works out for the best.

Knowledge is power

Part of what makes the team at Toro exceptional is their food knowledge. Taking in to consideration the typical clientele of the restaurant – Toro is a regular haven for industry folk – you need to know what you’re talking about. To that end, the service staff gets regular support from chefs Jamie Bissonnette, Mike Smith, and General Manager Jen Fields. Speaking with Assistant General Manager, Katy Chirichiello, she outlined some of what goes on at Toro to help the service staff get geeked up on food knowledge:

“Every day there is some form of education. This can include anything. A menu or wine pop quiz. Tasting new food or wine, and learning where it comes from and what it consists of. Jamie or Mike might bring out new vegetables or herbs and talk about how they grow, what they taste like, what the ideal climate and growing season is for them. We also offer something called “wine words” which is every Thursday from September through May. On those days Jen might run a class on a new wine, might revisit old wines, or sometimes we’ll do a month of education just on sherry. Occasionally we’ll have wine and liquor reps coming in to teach a bit about their offerings. We also may even do a month where Dave Robinson from South End Formaggio will come in on a Thursday and teach about cheeses, or Jamie will go through the whole process of making our house made chorizo.”

Growing up, my restaurant experiences were mostly limited to those of the chain variety, and most weren’t of the more “classy” variety that exist today. Asking for a recommendation in one of these joints was at your own risk. The response almost universally included a sigh and occasionally an eye-roll (followed by a short prayer on my part). There was minimal knowledge (and barely any interest) in the food being served at those restaurants.

At Toro? No such concerns. The service staff knows food. They love food. They love talking about food. Just ask them!

Well oiled machine

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, I found a spot by the fireplace where I could quietly observe dinner service, and hopefully not get in the way. I was actually quite excited about this! Whenever I’ve dined out, I’ve always taken note of the work put in by those serving my table. But, rarely have I had the opportunity to pay close attention to an entire service staff. When dinner service began that day, I was mesmerized.

Hamburguesas

A few things to keep in mind. First, Toro is not a big place. They have seating for around 90 people, and that includes the patio. Second, they don’t take reservations. That means there will be folks milling around the bar, drinks in hand, waiting for a table. Third, Toro is one of the hottest spots in Boston. So those folks milling around the bar, drinks in hand? There are going to be a LOT of them.

I concluded the first part of this series by referring to dinner service as “poetry in motion”. Melodramatic it may have been, but it was amazing to watch. Servers quickly moving to and fro. Talking to diners. Getting orders. Putting orders in to the computer. A bell sounds, and a cook shouts, “Server!” Picking up plates. Grabbing drinks. Printing checks. And all the while, the staff is smiling. They’re actually smiling.

Conclusion… for now

The final moment that cemented in my mind the type of person that makes a good waiter was courtesy of Jon Kay. There had just been the now familiar shout of “Server!” Jon grabbed the plate, and paused as he was about to pass me, showing me what he was about to serve. It was the Asado de Huesos. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jon asked me. “Roasted bone marrow with a citrus salad and oxtail marmalade. One of my favorites.”

The service team at Toro is great at what they do because they love what they do. Period.

My day at Toro was almost beyond words. Even now, I look at what I’ve written and feel that it pales in comparison to the actual experience. I came in to that day with a desire to understand a little more about the food industry. What I left with, besides the understanding I desired, was a greater appreciation for the people that do it day in and day out. They are amazing, unbelievably dedicated people. It was an honor to have had the chance to sit in with the whole team. If they’re willing, I hope to see them again sooner than later, and have them put me to work. I want to learn more.

Toro is located at 1704 Washington Street in Boston, MA. They don’t take reservations, but trust me… they are worth the wait.