Happiest when I was cooking: An interview with Katie Button of Cúrate in Asheville, NC

A winding road is one that many chefs tread. Schooling, stages, back breaking days on the line, many with a dream of opening and owning their own restaurant.

A winding road is one that many chefs tread. Schooling, stages, back breaking days on the line, many with a dream of opening and owning their own restaurant. The road for Chef Katie Button was most certainly winding, and supremely fascinating, considering that she start off earning a degree in Chemical Engineering from Cornell and a masters degree in Biomedical Engineering. Katie made her way through the kitchens of Jean George in NYC and Jose Andres’s Bazaar in L.A. before working for a time at elBulli in Spain. She opened her first restaurant, Cúrate in Asheville, North Carolina. I recently had the chance to speak with Katie. She told me a bit more about her path to working in a kitchen, her excitement about being a finalist for the 2014 James Beard Award Rising Star Chef of the Year, and her favorite food memory.

Continue reading “Happiest when I was cooking: An interview with Katie Button of Cúrate in Asheville, NC”

Chef Recipes: Ajo Blanco, a chilled almond and garlic soup

A recipe for Ajo Blanco, a chilled almond and garlic soup, courtesy of Katie Button of Cúrate and Nightbell in Asheville, NC.

Courtesy of Katie Button of Cúrate and Nightbell in Asheville, NC. Continue reading “Chef Recipes: Ajo Blanco, a chilled almond and garlic soup”

Flashback: 2012 James Beard Foundation Award nominee – Jaime Bissonnette

I’ve decided to republish this piece for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it reminded me that there is just one month left for nomination submissions for the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards. This is an opportunity for any one with a sincere love for the food industry to make sure their favorite restaurants and chefs get the attention they deserve. The James Beard Foundation is accepting nominations through the end of the year. So, if you haven’t yet, get your nominations in for the restaurant and chef related awards!

The second reason I wanted to republish is a pretty simple one. Thinking back on this past year, it has been a whirlwind (for many reasons beyond just The Foodie Journal!). This interview with Chef Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa and Toro (and, very soon, Toro NYC), was where it all started. I’ll be forever grateful for his willingness to help out a fledgling writer who just happened to send him a tweet out of nowhere.

I suppose there’s a third reason. Since this was written, the number of people that take a look at The Foodie Journal has grown considerably. So, for any newbie followers… this is where it really all began. Enjoy!

Fans of any of the competitive cooking shows (Top Chef, Iron Chef America, etc.) are undoubtedly aware of the James Beard Foundation. For those of you that aren’t, the James Beard Foundation is a non-profit organization that is at the center of America’s culinary community. They’ve dedicated themselves to supporting cooking hopefuls by providing 100’s of thousands of dollars annually in scholarship opportunities and professional grants. They help to make the culinary community in America better! As a part of that, they further promote the culinary scene by honoring those involved: chefs, sommeliers and other wine professionals, restauranteurs, cookbook authors, and journalists. These honors are known as the James Beard Foundation Awards. To us foodies, they are our Academy Awards! :)

A few weeks back, the James Beard Foundation released the nominations for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards. This year, in the category of Best Chef: Northeast, Boston got an excellent tip of the hat by having two chefs nominated. One of them was Jaime Bissonnette, owner and chef of Coppa and Toro in Boston. Jaime is all about nose-to-tail cooking (offal anyone?), and is dedicated to supporting local purveyors. I had the opportunity to have a few words with Jaime about the honor.

Jamie Bissonette - Photo by Heath Robbins
Jaime Bissonette – Photo by Heath Robbins

Foodie Journalist: What impact do you feel the James Beard Foundation has had in recent years on gastronomy in America?
Jaime Bissonnette: James Beard was one of the most heart filled chefs. What his legacy has done for our community has been epic. The James Beard House is the mecca for chefs. His books are relevant now, and will continue to influence chefs for a long time.

FJ: The James Beard Foundation Awards are considered the “Oscars of the food world”. How does it feel to be nominated?
JB: Being nominated was something I never considered. Having my name listed with a group of people I respect is mind blowing. Knowing that my peers would consider me is overwhelming.

FJ: My understanding is that once you’ve won a James Beard Award, you’re no longer eligible to be nominated. So is this one of those circumstances where it might be better to lose, but be nominated year after year? Having your name mentioned year after year can’t be a bad thing, obviously. Or, does the competitive drive kick-in and you decide “Screw that, I want to win”?
JB: I had always stated that I never thought I would be deserving of winning a James Beard Award. Being nominated is epic. If I win, that’s fantastic. If Matt Jennings wins, that’s rad. Maybe I’ll never get a nom again, maybe I’ll win. I think that winning would be great for my teams. They are just as deserving of a nom as I am. They can hold the places down.

FJ: It’s been just under a month since the announcement of the nominees. Has being nominated for the award changed anything for you? How you’re perceived in your restaurants, or by others in the industry? More diners at Coppa or Toro?
JB: Mostly I have seen it through the community. Friends and other chefs calling, e-mailing and sending notes of congratulations. No too much at Coppa or Toro.

FJ: So, win or lose, what do you have planned for the near future?
JB: Either way, I’ll be in NYC for the awards with tons of friends from all over the country. We’ll have great meals together, celebrate and just enjoy each others company. And we will all probably drink too much.

The James Beard Foundation Awards Gala will be held on Monday, May 7th @ Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center. While we wait on the results, make sure to stop in at Coppa for one of the best meals you can have in Boston (my wife is a sucker for the arancini)! You might just get the chance to see Jaime and wish him luck.

From the Boston area? How excited are you to hear that a local boy was nominated for such a prestigious award? Let us know by leaving feedback in the comments. Be sure to follow me on Twitter and on Facebook!

Keeping it local: A conversation with Hen of the Wood Chef/Co-owner Eric Warnstedt

To Chef Eric: You had me at duck sausage.

I can still taste the dish even two months later. A duck sausage and polenta appetizer with a sunny-side up duck egg. It was amazingly rich. Incredibly delicious. Locally sourced.

Pretty much every dish on the menu at Hen of the Wood in Waterbury, Vermont is locally sourced. It’s a passion of executive chef and co-owner Eric Warnstedt, so much so that he couldn’t imagine running the restaurant in any other way. Diners and growers alike have the pleasure of reaping the benefits of this dedicated chef and his team.

I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Eric. During our interview we discuss where his love of food came from, why local sourcing matters so much to him, and his (many) favorite food experiences.

Special thanks to Chef Matt Jennings for recommending Hen of the Wood. Always trust the chef!

Eric Warnstedt and William McNeil – Photo by Curtis Salvard

Foodie Journal: So, when did you discover that you had a love for food that would lead you to becoming a chef, and how’d you get your start?
Eric Warnstedt: At some point in college, my junior year I think, I applied for a job at a new restaurant. They hired me, but put me in the kitchen. I had zero restaurant experience and was just looking for a job.  It clicked, though, and I did really well. Then I got fired for drinking while dining there. I was under 21 at the time. But, he hired me back though. Shortly after, I decided to finish up college and go to culinary school.

We ate well as a family but not necessarily from a ‘high-end’ restaurant standpoint. We always had good steaks, stone crabs, oysters and lobster, etc. And, really the connection with food and environmental stewardship has been with me since day one. I knew immediately that the focus was going to be on local, seasonal food.

FJ: You’re considered one of the best chefs in the region, so much so that you’ve been nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef of New England for four years. Do awards, or any of the labels that come with it, impact chefs in any noticeable way?
EW: That’s a hard question to quantify.  There are many great chefs that for whatever reason seem to go unnoticed.  The acknowledgement feels great and definitely helps keep the ball rolling from a motivational standpoint. From a business standpoint it obviously does help to get the word out.

FJ: You really seem to have a love for Vermont. You were an integral part in the planning of the Stowe Food & Wine Festival. You make a serious effort to serve locally sourced EVERYTHING at Hen of the Wood. What is it about Vermont that hooked you?
EW: I love Vermont – I mean, I really love Vermont.  This region has been great to me and my restaurant and I do my best to give as much back as I possibly can.  We are very involved in our regions fundraising efforts and at the end of the day I feel really good about how much we support our regions producers.

From the farmers to the cheese makers, ranchers to the brewers, it really feels like we have the best of the best.  It is continually inspiring.

FJ: You obviously are very dedicated to local sourcing – why do you feel it is so important?
EW: The local thing is the only option.  It isn’t a trend or a fad.  It is what gives us an identity. It’s what connects us to the past, keeps us focused on the present, and ensures our food’s future. Seems so simple.

FJ: Its a hard question to answer for many of the chefs I’ve spoke with, but is there a memory or experience with food that really stands out above the rest for you? Something you wouldn’t mind sharing?
EW: We are so lucky to have memorable food experiences on a regular basis. We may not make that much money but we definitely live like kings.  I have great memories of my dad banging stone crabs with a hammer in our garage in southern Florida. More recent memories are of roasting whole pigs for charity events, making lobster scrambled eggs for breakfast in Maine, seeing endless bags of porcinis being delivered when the weather is just right, pressing apples for cider in the fall with friends, drinking natural wines while gorging ourselves at places like Joe Beef in Montreal. The list is endless! Sorry to not give you one good story!

Open since 2005, Eric opened Hen of the Wood, along with co-owner and wine specialist William McNeil. It is located at 92 Stowe Street in Waterbury, Vermont.

Chatting with a master: An interview with Chef Clark Frasier

There’s nothing quite like New England. Mind you, I am biased due to living here my entire life, but there is something really special about this region. It’s historic. Quaint.

A friend of mine constantly trumpets the virtues of the most northern state of the northeast, Maine, and with good reason. It’s beautiful, with scenery for all tastes. From a culinary standpoint, Maine is an amazing place for seafood, it’s crown jewel being the Maine lobster.

But, there is more to the Maine culinary scene than meets the eye. On the outskirts of Ogunquit, you’ll find one of the finest restaurants I’ve ever had the pleasure to dine in. Arrows, the flagship restaurant of James Beard Award winning Chefs, Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, is enchanting. The grounds, which include a garden that falls just shy of an acre, make you feel like you’re stopping by a friend’s house.

I had a chance to sit and speak with Chef Clark about his love of food, his start in the industry, and his upcoming appearance on Bravo’s fourth season of Top Chef: Masters.

Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier – Photo by Ron Manville

Foodie Journalist: Where did your love of food come from?
Clark Frasier: Like a lot of chefs, I grew up with parents who were very much in to food. I grew up in California, and my parents loved wine, loved to cook, and loved to entertain. We always had a house full of people. I enjoyed all that, but at the time I didn’t see myself going in to the restaurant business. I did work in restaurants from a young age, and enjoyed it. It was a good way to make money. I always enjoyed the strong environment and the camaraderie, but it didn’t really dawn on me that it would be a career choice, though. My parents were academics, so there was always the thought of college and what not. So I went in to Chinese language. I studied the Chinese language and ended up eating my way through Beijing. As an interesting side note: at that time in China there wasn’t really much in the way of refrigeration. You couldn’t get cheese to go with crackers or anything like that. So, I spent a winter eating cabbage! When it got to be Spring and things started to grow again, it was like, “Oh my God, these vegetables taste so great!” I never wanted to see a cabbage again! It was that Spring that kind of awakened that in me again, reminding me of having grown up in northern California. Being able to get at amazing ingredients right when they’re in season. It was a great reminder of how much I loved it.

FJ: So obviously you aren’t making the Chinese language your life’s work now. How did you eventually end up in the restaurant business?
CF: Yeah, when I came back it was like, “Ok. Great. So you speak Chinese. So do a billion other people. Now what?” [LAUGHS] One of my professors was a man by the name of Jonathan Tower and he said to me, “My brother Jeremiah is opening a restaurant in San Francisco called Stars”. At the time I kind of had this vision of opening an import/export business, but he said, “Well, why don’t you go work for him for a little while so you can just pay your rent.” I thought, great! I had always worked in restaurants growing up so why not.

It was an incredibly difficult place to work, and Jeremiah was a difficult man to work for. But, it was such an amazing group of people, and such a ground breaking restaurant. A lot of what we really take for granted in restaurants today really started there. The big open kitchen. The huge bar. The lively bar. You know before that it was kind of always a quiet, white table cloth, continental cuisine type atmosphere. Everything brought in from France or maybe Italy. Very formal. That was fine dining. Jeremiah totally revolutionized that, and threw the rest out the window! Now you go in to a place and everyone has an open kitchen. But, back then it was like, “Oh my god! What’s going on here?” Wide open kitchens. Piano playing during service. You could stop in for a hamburger or a hot dog after a night out at the opera. I mean, no body did that at the time.

FJ: In a tough working environment, what was it that made you want to keep at it and stay in the industry?
CF: Well, the team there was amazing. It was a group of really bright people. A lot of them have gone on to become really well known chefs. The starting team there was just a blast. We’d work all night, and then go out all night and all that regular restaurant nonsense. It was very exciting, and I felt really comfortable. I realized “I like doing this”. When you find something that you’re good at and it just feels natural to you, then you wonder why would you do anything else? Why should I try to become an import/export person? At that point, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

FJ: And now here you are at Arrows, and really it is an amazing set up you have here. You have been here since when? Early 1990s?
CF: 1988 actually. Mark Gaier and I left Stars and wanted to open a restaurant in Carmel. There were a ton of people interested in backing us, but once they’d see the cost involved, at the time it was like a little over a million dollars, things always seemed to fall through. It was really depressing. Well, Mark used to live out here, and he kept on talking about Maine. For me, growing up a kid in California, I remember thinking, “Where the eff is Maine?” [LAUGH] But, he kept talking about it. So, we took a trip out here just for fun, his brothers lived out here. We came by this property completely by chance. Some friends of his actually bought it, and they had been running a couple of restaurants at the time. They called us one day and said, “Hey, do you want to buy Arrows?” We said, “Sure. We’ve got, like, $50 to spare.” So they just said, “Well, if you aren’t really doing anything solid right now, why don’t you just lease it from us for a season and see how it goes? Then we’ll give you the option to buy.” The nice part of being young is that we had the flexibility to give it a try. We packed up the car, raised enough money to lease it for you a year, came out here and that was that. But, there was a lot to do. It was sort of dark and cold.
FJ: Yeah, that’s the trade off of being in this area!
CF: I know, right! But, that was it. So we set to work on it. With every year that passed we made it better, a bit more beautiful.
FJ: It’s really a beautiful grounds you’ve created here. It’s amazing!
CF: Thank you!

FJ: Do you feel that what you’ve been able to do here, with the garden and everything you have on site, really sets you apart from other restaurants?
CF: Well, we started the garden in 1992. We started it because we couldn’t find what we really wanted to use in our kitchen. We came from the Bay Area where you could get pretty much anything you wanted, and then we get out here, and it just wasn’t the same. Things here have changed quite a bit around here, but in those days… there were some local folks growing stuff, but it wasn’t necessarily what we were looking for.

The thing about gardens is that you really have to have someone willing to do it, otherwise you end up like other restaurants that say they have a “garden” which ends up being just a weed patch with some herb plants. So there was a person that worked with Mark and was a good friend that said, “Look, I don’t really know a ton about gardens. I’ve taken care of my own garden, so if you want I can give it a try.” So we came out and we rototilled this front portion [by the pebble walkway near the restaurant], and that was the garden the first year. Then we realized we needed to at least double it if we really wanted it to work. Then we tripled it. Then quadrupled it. Then we realized that if we wanted to extend the season we’d need to build a greenhouse, so we did that. So this garden here is probably one of the most densely used restaurant gardens you’ll ever find. It will produce most of the product you see in the restaurant here. And, as we get deeper in to the summer, we can also produce for our other restaurant, MC Perkins Cove. Having the garden really ensures for us that we’re getting great product, and that’s key. So many people ask, “Well, do you save money?” No.
FJ: Right. Just the amount of work that has to go in to maintaining it has to bring a cost.
CF: Exactly. It’s huge labor. We have one guy that is a full-time guy, and he has some other part-time workers that some time become full-time depending on how busy things get.

FJ: So coming up at the end of July is the fourth season of Top Chef: Masters. You and Mark were invited to compete. Mind if I ask a couple of questions?
CF: Sure! Go ahead.
FJ: What was the overall experience like? Can it be likened at all to working in a regular restaurant kitchen?
CF: The pressure on the show is certainly akin to the kind we feel in our restaurant kitchens. That said, at our restaurants we do our best to avoid a lot of the chaos you see on the show. With the right team work, we try to create a smooth, functional flow in our kitchens; we even like to have a bit of fun back there!

FJ: There is an interesting angle that comes with both you and Chef Mark being on the show. The two of you helm three restaurants together as partners – what was it like to now be in a situation where you would compete against someone that you are so used to working with?
CF: At first it was quite strange and a bit of a challenge because we’ve been collaborating for over 27 years! Occasionally we couldn’t resist helping one another out. Once we were on a team together which was a real relief during the competition. The hardest part wasn’t competing with one another, but not being able to collaborate on techniques, taste and simply bouncing ideas off one another.

FJ: Looking forward to seeing it! So now, my final question: we talked a little about your love of food and how you got started. With that comes memories and experiences that people like to think back on. Is there a particular food memory that stands out for you?
CF: There are so many, it’s tough to pick one. My experience with working and living with Mark has actually been really interesting. HIs family is from the mid-west, so going to his mom’s house was always really different. He’s one of seven kids, so it’s very different from how I grew up as an only child. When we’d go over there, his mom would basically kick us all out of the kitchen, telling us to go make drinks or something. So then there would be Mark, myself, maybe one of his brothers and his parents. On the table, though, would be this enormous pile of food and she’d be like, “Do you think six chickens is enough?” [LAUGHS] I’d be like, “Are you kidding me?!” It was really cool, and I enjoyed that a lot!

Chef Clark Frasier is chef/co-owner, along with Chef Mark Gaier, of Arrows Restaurant, MC Perkins Cove and Summer Winter Restaurant. Both will be competing on season 4 of Top Chef: Masters premiering July 25th on Bravo.

Jamie Bissonnette: From straight-edge vegan to nose-to-tail cook

I dig Chef Jamie Bissonnette.

The guy amazes me. For no reason I can think of, he has been unbelievably accommodating in the past couple of months. The only conclusion I can come to is that he’s just a good guy.

Jamie is also a brilliant chef. One of Boston’s best! But, you don’t have to take my word for it. Jamie won Food and Wine’s The People’s Best New Chef Award for 2011. He’s chef/co-owner of two of the best restaurants in Boston, Coppa Enoteca and Toro. He competed (and won) on Food Network’s Chopped. He was nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Northeast. Need I say more?

Having had the chance to interview Jamie regarding his James Beard Award nom back in May, it dawned on me that I didn’t get to know much about him. He graciously hooked me up with a follow-up interview. Here’s what went down!

Jamie Bissonette - Photo by Heath Robbins
Jamie Bissonette – Photo by Heath Robbins

Foodie Journalist: When did you first realize that you liked to cook and wanted to do it for a living?
Jamie Bissonnette: I think the first time I was aware of cooking I was 10 or 11 and made scrambled eggs with cheese on toast.  It was runny and I used salt and a pepper grinder like the chefs I saw on Great Chefs on the Discovery Channel.  The kids painting the house asked if I could make it for them, pretty sure just to bust my balls.  So I did, and they were wicked suprised, and raved about it.  I didn’t say “[SALT] it, I’m gonna be a chef”, but looking back now, I did know something good was happening.

FJ: I recall having heard or read somewhere that you were actually a vegan at one point. How does someone go from vegan to nose-to-tail cuisine?
JB: I was straight edge hardcore punk rock. I was totally into all of it. I’m not straight edge any more, but I still love the scene and music. So, I started eating vegetarian, and would bounce back and forth from vegetarian to vegan for years. But when I was in culinary school, I stopped being a vegan and started eating meat during one of my first long term stages. A chef told me I could never master a flavor I never tasted.  I started eating steak tartare two days later.

Having not been a meat eater for so long and as a cook and new omnivore, I was getting pissed at the waste I saw in kitchens. It evolved from butchering pork tenderloins and being curious about how it was harvested from the whole pig to asking if we could buy a whole animal to cut up.  Some waste, and a lot of mis-cuts later, I was in love with the processes.

FJ: It seems like there is more interest in nose-to-tail. More restaurants are doing it. It’s getting more play on TV, like on Iron Chef or on Chopped. Do you see it really being embraced by diners? Is it something that people are really excited for and enjoying?
JB: I think it’s more understood in the restauratn and food community, but I’d say that 40 percent of my diners at Coppa are still scared shitless.  The other 60 percent are STOKED for it.

FJ: So, I’ve asked this of a couple of people now and I’d like your take.There is so much information available these days about food, so it would seem that diners are a lot more savvy about food than they used to be. They know better what good food is and what to expect at a good restaurant. Does that impact chefs? Do you have to change anything on your end to compensate?
JB: Kind of.  They may read more about food and see [SALT] on TV, but at the end of the day they haven’t tasted it for themselves. It can be kind of hard to deal with. Even when they go out to restaurants, they can sometimes think “Well, I know what this is supposed to be. I saw Bourdain eat it, and it didn’t look like this.” But, who’s to say that the two places he went to are the only ones that make a particular dish? Or, that they make it the right way.  Who knows if they were even good?  Some chef may have been living in Thailand for years, seen some rad old recipe from an old chef there for a soup and tried to make it that way. Just because a blog, cookbook, or someone on TV has a different version, does that make the one you’re trying wrong?  That’s an issue I see.

Conversely, now we have more educated patrons who are excited that we have elvers or kokotxas because they saw them on TV.  So, it takes balance.  I think that if we start rethinking our craft too much and change for the winds, it’s gonna bite us all in the ass.  It the end, good is subjective.  I like good food. Love it. And I know what’s good to me because of what I’ve learned from my experiences, and not just information that I received from someone else.

FB: In the experience category, then, is there an experience or a food related memory that you think back on? Like, maybe a moment when you realized that food wasn’t “just food”?
JB: My dad says he knew I’d probably end up as a cook. Back in the earl 80’s most people around Hartford, CT didn’t think of chefs in the same way one does now. When I was 2 or 3 years old, I taught myself how to pull the drawers out and climb up to the counter.  I would sit and use my fingers to eat the soft butter that was sitting out.  After the first time I had a pickle I wanted one everyday.  Then I was addicted to liverwurst.  Soon after that I always wanted grilled meat.  I was watching and asking questions.  It’s too bad that NO ONE could cook anything in my house.  I grew up loving [SALTY] food.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my “Learning about the industry” series, covering the service and front-of-house staff of Toro Restaurant.

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.