Sunday, August 09, 2009

So, you wanna be a professional chef?

Food is big. People are interested. There's a whole channel devoted to food(Wait, when was the last time you actually saw FOOD COOKED on FoodTV???? That's another post.) The life of the professional chef has been glamorized and packaged into slick TV shows from TopChef to Hell's Kitchen to Kitchen Nightmares, etc. Suffice it to say, we're starting to dig food in America. The advent of the blog and social networking has allowed anyone with a computer or smart phone to write about food(hello, I'm one!). So, there's a lot of content out there. A lot of opinions. Everyone's got an opinion(they're like assholes, right?) I've always wondered how many of these people who write about food(both amateur and professional) are actually willing to put on an apron and tough it out in a professional kitchen. Yeah, I said it. Tough it out. For all the flash, dash and glitz that's been heaped on professional cooking(and we appreciate it) at the end of the day it's just plain hard work. There's nothing flashy about scrubbing a 600 degree stove on your hands and knees after a 13 hour shift. Nothing. But it has to get done.

Rich Matosky acts as many things in my life. Friend, confidant, advisor, travel companion, whipping post, etc. In this post, he reprises a role that he took on willingly last year as a kitchen stage for a weekend at the Sheppard Mansion. After spending the weekend with us, he wrote about it. This year, I asked if he'd consider doing it again so that I could see from an outsider's point of view if we'd progressed as a kitchen team and restaurant team. You see, Rich is a very successful businessman by day. He's also obsessively driven to learn all he can about the pleasures of food and wine. He didn't NEED to come back out this year and stand tall in the kitchen, but he did. And now, he's writing about it again. Not many people are willing to take the physical punishment(even for a weekend) after working a full week at their 'day job'. He's earned the respect of each and every cook at the Sheppard Mansion many times over....I think you're gonna enjoy his writing....

‘So You Want To Be A Professional Chef – Redux’

A little over a year ago, I asked Andy Little, my friend and the Head Chef at the Sheppard Mansion if I could spend some time in his kitchen to work, observe, absorb and learn in an effort to both improve my own “dinner party chef skills” AND to see how a real professional kitchen works.

That tale can be read – or in the case of you newbies…read for the first time – here.

Ok, now that you’ve refreshed or newly informed your memory of both my whiny and ‘try too hard to be ironic’ amateur writing style, let’s get to the heart of why you now get to do it again…..

Andy made me do it.

Really. He did.

He wanted - from an outsider’s point of view – a narrative as to how his kitchen is different from last year – Oh, and he and the boys wanted some old but fresh meat to kick around for two days.

First a few points of reference…..between last year and this year…

- I weigh +/- 15 lbs less than I did last year….so this year you won’t have to hear me complain about either my feet or my back. Oh, and before you all congratulate me on that accomplishment….it’s recent and it really only got rid of the ‘new’ fat….now I have to work on the ‘old’ fat.

- Andy’s got a few new cooking “toys” I can’t talk about because he’s conducting food prep and preservation experiments with them out in the carriage house. It all looks kinda like the last scene from ET before they all escape on their bikes to ride off into the moonlight. ( Jeez, what a lame reference )

- Andy’s Team – Scott, Dan & the kid – Taulbee - have been together since soon after I left last year…..and it shows. Whatever I thought about how professionals worked together last year, times that by a multiplier of 10 and you’ve got what rocks the place today.

So let’s get to it.

We’ve had a really weird summer here in PA – it rained for so much of June that most people I know were starting to look and sound like Kurt Cobain…at home, at work and at play. I don’t consider that a good thing, but what can I say…I’m old and out of touch.

July, up until the end, has been SO beautiful - - think no humidity and cool temps - - that air conditioner sales were way off in this entire area for this time of year.

So, like last year, I was told to be at the kitchen door by 11AM on Friday. Unlike last year I had decided to ride my motorcycle, which many of my friends see as a total mid-life crisis toy, the 2 hours or so from Phoenixville to Hanover.

And what a ride……early morning, bright sun, cool temps, no humidity and a back-road route through ALL the towns in Central PA that evoke visions of Ozzie & Harriet ( ok – that one was before my time…..I saw that as reruns on the old UHF channels when I was a kid ) and a snow-less Bedford Falls ( Google it ).

Arrived early this year.

Off to a great start.

Pull in, store the bike in the carriage house, chit chat, was told to go change into the “uniform”….chef’s jacket, khaki’s, clogs, apron ( new style this year! ) and….wait for it….it’s coming….YES….’the goofy skull cap beanie thing’ ! ! !

My favorite.

Still makes me look like Buddha in a bathrobe on the beach about to hit the waves.

Oh well.

I told Andy ahead of time that since I was riding my motorcycle out to Hanover and that I would not be bringing any of my knives. He said ‘no problem’ and that he had a spare to lend me. This year, Andy’s ‘throw the amateur into it’ move was – ‘here’s your knife, it’s dull as a curb edge, go out to the carriage house and sharpen it on the sharpening bench.’

Coincidentally, about a month or so ago, I had found ‘religion’, ditched my Chef’s Choice sharpener and obtained a proper - old fashioned – sharpening stone, looked at a couple of tutorials on YouTube and redid all of my kitchen and pocket knives….with a modicum of real success. My knives are all MUCH sharper than they were before.

Then I watched Scott do his knife. For about 10 minutes. The same knife he had done yesterday. For about 10 minutes. The same knife that was sharper at the end of the day than mine are right after doing them – fresh off the stone.

Look, Listen, Learn.

That’s The Point.

So, I spent about 15 minutes on this knife. Frankly, did a god job on it. Brought it back.

Next up, I find out I’m “cold side” the whole weekend.

My being here this weekend – as an extra set of prep and service hands – was helping to facilitate “the kid” – Taulbee’s move onto the “hot line”.


A year out of high school.

Already accepted to the CIA – Culinary Institute of America - version of those initials.

He’s been under Andy’s supervision since before he graduated high school and Andy convinced him to delay going to the CIA for a year to get some seasoning in a REAL, professional, high concept, high standard, high expectation kitchen.

Sort of like an old style apprenticeship.

And for the last year, Taubie has carved out the “cold side” as his own. Cold apps, salads and desserts.

And he’s done a hell of a job with it. Which is why Andy decided it was time to get him over to the “hot side”, expand his knowledge and skill-set and put him on a station that was ALWAYS active, ALWAYS different and required a little more “thinking on your feet”.

So “cold side” prep is mine for the weekend and if I finish the list that’s taped up at my station, I’m to ask everyone else what they need.

No problem.

Pretty easy….really.

The first thing on my prep list was “watermelon & cantaloupe”. OK.

What’s up with that? I had perused the menu, saw both ingredients as part of two separate dishes, so what do I have to do?

First thing I have to do is take the skin off of both the watermelon and the cantaloupe and slice them into +/- 2 inch disks.

Andy then takes me out to the E.T. LAB….I mean, the carriage house.

On the workbench is a commercial vacuum sealer and next to it is an immersion circulator. All tools of the “sous vide” crowd.

No questions. Just watch.
He takes a disc of watermelon, inserts it into a plastic bag, puts it into the vac sealer, pushes a button and – WHOOSH – compressed watermelon that – I swear to whatever higher authority YOU believe in – makes the fruit look like a KILLER piece of sushi grade TUNA.

“Now do the same with the rest of the pieces and the cantaloupe too”, Andy tells me, “And get back to the kitchen so I can show you how to prep these for service.”

I complete the task, refrigerate the fruit, and go back into the kitchen to find Andy un-bagging several examples of watermelon and cantaloupe that had been “compressed” yesterday.

I had to cube the watermelon for a “compressed watermelon, feta and arugula” salad and prep extra feta, clean, de-stem and “right-size” more arugula, store, date and initial the packaging and move onto the cantaloupe.

I had to “matchstick” the cantaloupe. Perfectly. Quickly ( which didn’t happen – either perfectly OR quickly ).

All for another “salad” of “compressed cantaloupe with mint crème fraiche, cured meat, orange oil, micro-greens, shaved radish and fresh cracked pepper”.

So what’s the point of the “compression”, you ask?

Think REALLY ripe fruit – intense flavor with lots of juice – all in a still dense, not mushy, state of just picked at the right time texture.

Without “fooling around” with either the “chemistry” of the ingredient, or the look of the ingredient, a piece of technology was used to take what is already there and intensify it’s flavor - making it possible to present – in the case of the cantaloupe dish – a familiar combination – melon and prosciutto – and combine it in a different way to simultaneously be familiar and different.

Which is REALLY cool.

The day, like last year, flows over itself. The time clicks away. The kitchen is quiet as everyone does what they need to do. I’m not nearly as lost as I was last year.

It was…..frankly….relaxing. It helps that the kitchen is fairly large and well laid out. Four people….each doing his own thing…..don’t really get in each other’s way. The ceiling is high, there’s lots of natural light from the large bank of windows over the sink area and everything that one needs to do their job is either within reach or is just a few steps away.

Few steps.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe THAT’S the metaphor for what is different this year from last.


So 4PM rolls around. Andy’s made the pretzel rolls. I didn’t have to do that this year. I guess he wanted them done faster than I can do them. Pasta’s been made, formed, portioned and chilled – by Taulbee.

Scott’s butchered and portioned the fish, fowl and meat for tonight’s service. He’s quickly completing his mise en place and the menus are being taped to both the “cold side” station and the “hot side” station.

Dan rolls in. Dan’s the man with the cool and un-rushed hands.

Dan looks like he’s cooking in slow motion. He doesn’t sweat….ever… and he’s always the one ready, willing and able to “improvise without compromise”.

I work for him tonight. He’s in charge of the “cold side”. He steps in if the “hot side” gets behind. He expedites if Andy jumps on the line.

But he doesn’t do it if he doesn’t think I can put out a salad or a dessert that is “up to standards”.

Give the amateur just enough rope to learn and succeed, but in this place where the dining room customer is ‘king’ ….not enough rope to compromise the food and hang myself.

After Dan sets up the station the way he wants it, it’s coffee time out on the back porch.

I spoke to this last year. It’s a real interesting moment, when all the work of the last 6 hours is complete and – depending on the number of covers for the night – before the work of the next 6 hours is expended.

It didn’t hurt that it was 75 degrees, no humidity, sunny with just enough breeze blowing to remind one why this part of the country can be a great place to live, work and play.

Service ends up being pretty easy.

The menu is – as always – interesting and diverse, yet still approachable in a town more known for its snack food than its high end, high concept restaurants.

“Pit Beef” is a REAL standout. It’s beef tongue that’s been smoked for 40 or so minutes and cooked… “low & slow”…. overnight.

It’s an unreal flavor combination and the dish ends up as a sophisticated – yet still recognizable – riff on your commonplace “pit beef sandwich” found in bars all over this area.

Not many people order it tonight. Dinner service ends and I realize a few things.

My back is not stiff or sore. My feet feel as good as they did twelve hours ago, I don’t have a headache and I’m as hungry as a horse.

I forgot to eat.

All Day.

Andy finds this out.

Tells me to go sit down.

HE cooks me dinner. And ya know what? He decided, come hell or high water, SOMEONE was going to eat the beef tongue tonight.

Ummm…..that would be…ME!

Andy whips up a dish of onions, mushrooms, and beef tongue….sort of like a “stroganoff” in a rich reduced stock sauce that was filling, delicious and the right thing at the right time under the right conditions.

And the flavor. Did I tell you about the flavor? Can I tell you about the flavor……unreal!

So while the kitchen gets cleaned up there’s a debrief to review both the good and bad of tonight’s service.

Friday night was fairly uneventful. A few small things here and there.

Working the line, Andy says, is all about preparation, cleanliness, speed and consistency.

Service time is production time. It’s not about the art or the menu design or the ingredient combinations. All of that is – should be – worked out ahead of time. All of that should already be decided.

Service is cooking and assembling and delivering a range of products and ingredients that – if properly conceived and then properly executed – will make the dining customer happy, satiated and feeling like the dollars they spent were well worth the time and effort to spend them.

Because, in the end, a restaurant IS a business. It needs to be thought of as a business, promoted as a business, marketed as a business, RUN like a business.

These are tough economic times. Many in the restaurant business….chef/owners in particular… are young. They either weren’t born or weren’t old enough to remember the 70’s….or in a whole other generation’s case….the 30’s.

To be able to run A RESTURANT BUSINESS, profitably, in today’s circumstances while still retaining the ability to conceive, source and produce high end, great tasting plates, night after night is – quite an accomplishment.

Especially in a town that LIKES its reputation as the “snack food capital of the world”.

Debrief over, everyone heads home.

I go to bed. Andy and Karen stay up to read, watch TV, play on the computer.

Not me. I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. It’s half past midnight.


Not a good day for me.

I wake up. Early. Always do.

The plan is to go to a local “breakfast joint” eat, hit a farm stand to get a few things we ran out of last night – corn and watermelon – and be in the kitchen by 11:30 to prep for the night.

We eat breakfast. Pretty straightforward. Eggs & Virginaia Ham. Toast.

No problem. Go to the farm stand. No problem. Get to work, change, put my prep list together, go out to the carriage house.

Sharpen my knife. For 10 minutes. Bring in some ingredients form the walk-in.

Then it hits me.

I run to the bathroom. The one in the basement. I don’t feel well. I get sick.

I NEVER get sick. Not like this.

I have a headache.

I have a stomach ache.

I ….Have…..Other….Problems.

Andy says go sit in the walk-in. Cool off.

Great. I’ve got chills along with the flop sweat. The walk-in. Not a great place to be.

I sit on the porch. I try and relax and let the waves of nausea pass over me.

Eventually they do.

Prep goes on. No one says anything. Frankly, no one cares. I’m just an extra set of hands anyway.

Andy’s friend.

EVERYTHING will get done no matter whether I’m involved or not.

I begin to feel…not as bad.

I return to my station. Finish prep. Drink A LOT of Coke & water.

Can’t eat anything.

Service starts.

Things are smooth. Dan says I get to do everything I want to tonight and he’s only stepping in if he sees a problem or I get behind.

I don’t.

It’s a good thing.

A couple of corn soups are ordered. They go out. Clean plates come back. Everybody’s happy.

Until Karen asks Andy to taste the corn soup.

It’s “off”. It doesn’t taste right.

It tastes….different.

What happened? No one knows at the moment. Later it’s deduced as to why and when something might have happened.

It ends up being – in the current phrase of the media – a “teachable moment”.

On an immediate basis…what everyone does know is that there are 4 tickets in the window and ALL of them want corn soup and this batch of corn soup can’t be used and there’s no more – appreciable – amount of corn left in the walk-in to make another batch.

Here’s where the professionalism and training of someone who’s a REAL CHEF kicks in.

In less than 10 minutes Andy & Dan….without so much as a 5 word conversation are “stealing” ingredients from EVERYBODY’S station……Scott, Taulbee, me…. and are conceptualizing and COOKING an alternative to the corn soup.

And it was good…no it was great…because what was presented to the dining room customer looked, tasted and satisfied the expectations set forth on the menu…all without actually being corn soup.


Dinner service ends.

Tonight’s the current dishwasher’s last night. Chris is a nice guy….he’s going back to school as a PhD. Candidate in Public Health.

It’s a good time to be going back to school, what with the economy and all. He’s obviously a smart dude, personable, kinda gives off that air that most “academics” do…..his assumption is that he’s the smartest guy in the room, better educated than everyone else ( which he was ) and was destined for bigger and better things.

Which is cool….really it is. Becoming a PhD IS a big deal.

But Chris is a SLOW dishwasher. And he doesn’t like it when people try and help him “speed up”…..which in this kitchen is deadly.

Andy likes to say, “As the dish station goes, so goes the rest of the kitchen”

Which is why Andy spends at least one part of the day doing either the prep wash or the dinner service wash…..especially if the dishwasher is SLOW.

So on this…..Chris’ last night…..after a fairly event filled dinner service, Andy’s decided that he’s not interested in waiting until 1AM for Chris to get the dishes done and the kitchen completely broken down and cleaned up.

He and Dan dive into the dish station and all hell breaks loose.

And in 45 minutes time, the dishes are done, the kitchen is broken down, cleaned and put back together and we are all sitting in the bar talking about iPhones – and why I don’t have one, I mean – come-on – EVERYBODY has one.

Taulbie has one and he hasn’t got two nickels to rub together.

And FaceBook and Twitter and ALL the “professional” reasons it’s good to be on them ALL.

But I digress….

Why bring up those two taking care of the dishes?

Why does that impress me so?

I read A LOT of food blogs, articles, Chef PR, watch food shows, etc.

The food world is a diverse and interesting place and it’s increased visibility over the last 10 or so years has made “making a living” in food have many meanings.

As an amateur….”outsider”…..I consider cooking a “craft” much more than I see it as “art”.

That’s a subjective opinion – at best.

Some blogs you read, or PR you see, putting chefs up in the pantheon of Nobel Prize winners, or Artist’s because of their “intellectual” approach to food, their use of chemicals in an attempt to “break apart” and “reconstruct” something….mostly just to be able to amuse themselves …or worse….gain more press….

…all of that falls flat….FOR ME.

If your doing all that and making a living doing all that and happy – bless you.

But in my real life, I’m a businessperson. THAT’S what I relate to….people doing what they have to do, day in and day out to get a job done, in real time for real people.

Leading. Other People. Not with words or pretty….ARTSY…pictures….but BY EXAMPLE.

Which is why the whole dishwashing thing struck a chord with me.

“As the dishwashing station goes, so goes the rest of the kitchen”

Whatever it takes. No ego, no sense of superiority. No yelling. No question.


Cool slogan. It’s true.

A true Craftsman understands that. Because they came up from – and through – the trenches.

After the kitchen is cleaned up…in record time….the “teachable moment” from the start of service is explored.

There’s more than one “teachable moment” in this example. There’s many.










React – intelligently.



So what’ different in Andy Little’s Sheppard Mansion kitchen between this year and last year?

For one, the same four guys are together….4 days and nights a week.

That’s a team. A tight, - cohesive - well oiled team.

What else?

Fewer steps?

Physically? Definitely.


Fewer steps? Maybe.

I think what’s changed in the food between last year and this year is that while there might be one or two fewer ingredients on the plate the food seems more complex…in a good way.

The use of ingredients from a local farm network so carefully cultivated and illustrated in more detail all over Andy’s blog is as intense as ever, but the need to make sure that every one of those individual farmer’s products are in each and every dish is less evident.

It makes for a cleanly presented and clean tasting menu that illustrates the maturity of the one who conceived it.

Someone who has less of a need to rub people’s nose in what’s happening in his kitchen but who is getting more satisfaction out of the fact that for those that make the effort to sit in his dining room – they are never disappointed in having made the decision to do so.


Sunday morning I awoke to sun, cool temps and the realization that after thoroughly enjoying myself and learning a lot, I now got to get on my motorcycle and ride 2 hours – leisurely – home.

And my back STILL didn’t hurt and my feet weren’t sore.

I had learned how to make a couple of KILLER salads that will impress a few dinner guests ( OK, so the melons won’t be “compressed” like they are at the Sheppard Mansion – I have no ROOM for a professional vacuum machine ), that sharpening my knives via an “old” method is STILL the way to go, that being sick and “bucking up” to avoid being made fun of - as an almost 50 year old dude – was surprising to me…. and that “teachable moments” happen to even the best trained and most experienced professionals and if we stop learning…..we become “calcified” intellectually – and arrogant to boot.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

“And on the seventh day, he rested”


Paul M said...

Nice job Bro! You da man! Love the descriptive style..almost like I was there. Glad I wasn't. (hehe) Just remember, "It ain't braggin' if ya can do it."

ostman said...

Well written and interesting article, Rich.

I think a lot of us non-chefs underestimate the amount and difficulty of the work that occurs before the evening starts. Rich gave us a nice feel for that.

Great to be able to peek behind the scenes.

Paul said...

Hey Bro, you da man! Love the descriptive style...almost like being there. Glad I wasn't - hehe. Just remember, it ain't braggin' if you can do it. Imagine next year how easy it'll be when you lose "the old fat". Oh yeah, next time I'm in PA I'll gin you up a fruit vacuum press in that shed out back...piece o' cake. It'll be like a chef chitty chitty bang bang. Got an old vacuum cleaner laying around?