The Evolution of a Chef | François de Mélogue

from Gastronomica 4:3

My career in food began unofficially at the age of two when, after watching a TV show, I filleted my sister’s goldfish, cutting them in half with scissors and unceremoniously depositing them in the toilet bowl. Or perhaps my career began when my beloved rabbit ran away. How could my rabbit possibly have escaped from its cage? The chef at my family’s auberge told me that rabbits did that sometimes—they just ran away. My grandfather consoled me as I cried. That day we sat down to a typically huge French lunch. The family gathered around the table. Wines were poured, food served. My grandfather leaned over and asked how I liked my chicken. It was, in fact, the longest chicken leg I’d ever seen. Midway through that leg my grandfather informed me that I was eating my beloved pet rabbit. Damn … but it tasted good.

The charcoal kills us, but what does it matter? The shorter our lives, the greater our glory.
—Marie-Antoine Carěme

I vividly remember the first, tense moments of orientation at the New England Culinary Institute (neci). Michel LeBorgne, the head instructor, paced the room, intimidating us with the horrors of the new life we had just signed up for. He told us we would work one-hundred-hour weeks. When our friends and family were playing, we would be working. When they were eating their Christmas goose, we would be cooking it for someone else. We would never make enough money to own our own place, let alone our own pair of shoes. Life would be rough. Chefs, LeBorgne went on, had the highest rates of divorce, suicide, and alcohol abuse. It was a hard life for a chosen few. Oddly enough, his words excited me. I often felt more like a new recruit in the Marines than a cooking-school student. The old-school chefs would bark orders like drill sergeants at boot camp. They wanted to break us before giving us their stamp of approval. I remember Chef-Instructor Michel Martinez sticking his arms into a deep cauldron of boiling court bouillon, gently squeezing the sides of a beautiful salmon to determine whether it had poached long enough. Oh, how I admired the way he could keep his arms in the boiling liquid without feeling pain! I wanted to be superhuman like him. One day Chef Martinez taught us how to make a terrine. We had assembled all the raw ingredients, the ground pork, fat, veal, chicken, pâté spices, sel rose. He made us taste the raw mixture to make sure it was salted properly. Raw pork? Raw chicken? That was supposed to kill us. These chefs were supermen; they demanded respect.

After six months of intense training, neci students were sent out for six-month externships. I was lucky enough to serve under Chef Franklin Biggs at Café Mariposa at Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah. My first week there he gave me three days off, but I complained that I wanted to work, not play. I came into the restaurant four to six hours early just to learn more. When I rode the ski lifts, I would read Escoffier’s Répertoire de la cuisine.

During my first year at cooking school, I met Chef Louis Szathmary of Chicago’s Bakery Restaurant. He had come to neci to talk about the food industry. His speech resembled one that a general would give to his anxious troops moments before they parachuted into hostile lands. I was hooked. I wanted to be like this god sitting before me. I ended up as Chef Szathmary’s apprentice, then his executive chef, all at the tender age of twenty-one. Louis was a great guy to learn from—hard, old school, and demanding, firm but loving. Working in a kitchen is tough. You spend long hours in a hot, hostile environment, with constant pressure from waiters. Hundreds of dishes must come out at the same time. But I loved the pressure; I thrived on it.

I spent two years in the trenches with Louis. Over the next few years I worked under other chefs and learned more and more. I was working six- to seven-day weeks with very little time off, but I did so with pride and determination. I knew that, when I had my own restaurant, I would expect the same of those under me: either you labored like me or you were out.

For seven years I was married to my high school sweetheart. She would go on vacations with my family while I worked. After five years she told me I was more married to my kitchen than to her. I agreed, but I didn’t change my ways, and two years later we divorced. I wasn’t sad: I still had my kitchen, which was all I had ever wanted or needed. Though I had many short relationships, I remained married to the kitchen. It was more important than anything else in my life. I continued on this path for a few more years.

I heard them talking to one another in murmurs and whispers. They talked about illness, money, shabby domestic cares. Their talk painted the walls of a dismal prison in which men had locked themselves up. And suddenly I had a vision of the face of destiny.
—Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars

One day I had an epiphany about the restaurant business, and suddenly I saw the world differently. I grew increasingly discouraged by the lack of appreciation of great food, by the way some restaurant owners cared only about money, not about the quality of their food or the art of preparing it. My father had always told me I was a great artist but a terrible businessman. I was working in New York at a small, faded jewel of an inn when my father, my role model, succumbed to lung cancer. In his last moments he told me that he had once seen the world as black and white but that as he got older he realized there were many shades of gray. That was the beginning of the end for me. I started to reflect on a lifetime of missed moments with my family. The restaurant business had lost its soul for me. I had sacrificed friendships, relationships, and family for food. Yet as Marco Pierre White once said, at the end of a day, it’s just food.

I ended up in rural Georgia, working for a German billionaire on what at first looked like the payoff for all my hard work. He owned a twenty-room country inn with ten thousand acres of hunting grounds and a restaurant that he wanted to transform into the best in the country. He allowed me to turn eighty acres into an organic farm where I could grow my own vegetables and fruits. I was in heaven. But then he abruptly fired the first general manager and hired a new one, the incarnation of everything wrong with the restaurant business. The new gm told me to start using frozen French toast sticks and imitation maple syrup instead of homemade French toast and real maple syrup for our overnight guests. Of course I refused. At about the same time I hired Walter Williams, a local organic farmer with a reputation for high-quality produce (his tomatoes were used in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes). Walt was a kind, caring fellow, and we enjoyed many long talks about life. He told me about the Appalachian Trail, and I was enthralled. So the following spring I left my job and headed north to hike 2,168.2 miles along the entire trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine.

I spent the following year out of the business, but then the kitchen called me back. In 2002 a former sous chef, a partner involved in a new Provençal restaurant in Chicago, invited me to become the chef. I was excited to return the city and take on this challenge. I created the restaurant’s name—Pili Pili—its logo, and a southern French menu with seductive Moroccan, Spanish, and Italian undertones. For the next year and a half the restaurant did extremely well. Food and Wine named it one of the top ten new restaurants in the world. Gourmet and Bon Appétit called Pili Pili a place people had to try. But all that time I was working six days a week, with very little time for my private life. My mother would come by with my niece once a week just so I could see them. I began to feel what Phil Cousineau describes as “soul loss.” The joy I once felt for the business had disappeared, and my work began to seem meaningless. I noticed how no one around me liked the hours they worked, how some people hid their woes in womanizing, drinking, drugs, or fragile marriages. I saw people overwork themselves, losing precious, irreplaceable moments with their spouses and children. It didn’t seem right. There had to be a way to balance work and family. I thought back to my father lying in the hospital bed. I no longer wanted to sacrifice my life for the restaurant industry. At about the same time I met a wonderful woman named Lisa. I wanted to live my life with her, not just alongside her. I no longer wanted a solitary existence.

After hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2001, I had considered becoming a private chef. Jason Stephanakis, another former sous chef, had worked on private yachts for five years and loved it. In a restaurant you are stuck with a formula, but as a private chef you have more freedom to cook whatever you want. The hours are better, and you can spend time with loved ones. Even the pay can be better. It was through Jason that I first heard of Christian Paier, the head of Private Chefs, Inc., an elite placement agency for private chefs in the United States. Christian described the world I was dreaming of. Although I had not lost my love for food and making people happy, I needed to find a balance between my private life and my work. So I decided to make the switch and join the ranks of private chefs. Now I look forward to the challenge of providing a diverse and healthy menu for my clients.

Lisa plans to work with me. We want to be placed together in six-month positions where our love and dedication to the profession can be appreciated. We hope that her extensive front-of-the-house knowledge coupled with my back-of-the-house expertise will provide an unparalleled experience for our employers. During the other six months of the year, we want to enjoy life. I really want to travel, to live in foreign lands, to write about my experiences. This downtime will be more of a busman’s holiday than a retreat, a time to learn new and exciting dishes to add to my repertoire. Meanwhile, by the time you read this, Lisa and I will already be embarked on a two-thousand-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail—together.