Of all the things that have contributed to my evolution as a chef, the advice my various teachers have given me is perhaps most important. My mentors’ philosophies are sometimes contradictory, and they don’t apply to every situation, but each one has taught me something meaningful. Here I present my evolution as a chef through others’ words of wisdom. I hope one day to pass on similar gems to young chefs working for me.
1996. East Coast Grill, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I begin my apprenticeship after dropping out of high school. On my first day chef Kenny Goodman introduces me to the cooks. He brings me over to a man elbow deep in spare ribs, arms stained red from dry rub. “Jesse, this is Alex, our new intern.”
Without missing a beat Jesse asks, “Are you an alcoholic?”
“No,” I reply, somewhat taken aback.
With an ominous grin Jesse says, “You will be.”
Although I am known to enjoy the occasional libation, Jesse has so far proved a false prophet.
Later that evening a server brings me a soda from the bar. Kenny sees me drinking with a straw and tells me, “Real chefs don’t use straws.” That is the last time I ever used a straw in a kitchen.
1997. East Coast Grill, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Chris Schlesinger tells me his philosophy of hiring. “Alex, I don’t give a damn if the guy knows how to cook, I can teach him that. As long as he’s fast, clean, and can hold his liquor, he’s the guy I want.”
Chef Alexander Feldman. Photograph by Lori Smith © 2008.
1999. East Coast Grill, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eric Gburski sees me cooking some green beans. I make the amateur mistake of catching the oil in the pan on fire. As I start to serve the beans anyway, Eric makes me try them. They taste awful. He tells me, “We don’t serve food that tastes like kerosene. This is why you have to taste everything you cook.”
2000. Tuscan Grill, Waltham, Massachusetts. Josh Ziskin sees me applying an inconsistent sprinkle of parsley to a plate. He explains his philosophy of garnishing with herbs: “Alex, if you’re going to use parsley, don’t make it look like an accident.”
2001. East Coast Grill, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shortly before my pilgrimage to Italy, Chris Schlesinger sees me plate a new appetizer. Irked by the lack of cilantro, and eager for an opportunity to bust my chops, he yells, “Alex, they won’t accept that kind of substandard garnish work in Italy!” He’s right. They do not accept that kind of substandard garnish work in Italy.
On my departure for Florence, where chef Jimmy Burke, the owner of the Tuscan Grill, has made arrangements for a stage at Il Cibreo, Jimmy gives me his parting advice. “Alex, just remember, in Italy you have to respect the ingredients. It isn’t just a tomato; it is the culmination of a season’s worth of hard work by a farmer who lives just a few miles away, whose family has been growing tomatoes for five hundred years.”
2002. Il Cibreo, Florence, Italy. Chef Fabio Picchi is preparing his fava and Pecorino salad for the first time this season. He calls me over. “What do you taste?”
Dissecting the flavors, I reply, “I can taste the soffrito, the red wine vinegar, parsley, and olive oil.”
“Can you taste the garlic?”
I take another bite. “I couldn’t till I looked for it. Now I can.” “That’s how you know there is the perfect amount.”
2003. Babbo, New York City. I am having trouble keeping up with the pace of the kitchen, where everything has to be prepared within six minutes or less. I explain to Mario Batali that the octopus takes at least six minutes to obtain the ideal level of crispness. Mario tells me, “Tiny [my nickname], I don’t care how you do it, just get the octopus in the window faster. We’ve got three hundred people to feed, and the rest of the kitchen doesn’t have time to wait for your octopus.”
A few weeks later, Mario sees me burn my hand. “You think that burns? Try doing a rail of crank the size of your thumb. Then you’ll know what a burn feels like.”
2004. LaMorra, Brookline, Massachusetts. I am a few weeks deep into my first experience as a sous chef. I am busy and moving my fastest to get the food out of the kitchen. Josh Ziskin tells me, “Alex, slow down and make it right. You can take your time, the people aren’t going anywhere.”
Later that year I am still at LaMorra, but I am having lunch with Chris Schlesinger, the owner of the East Coast Grill, just to catch up. I explain the trouble I’m having training one of my cooks to reproduce my food. Chris tells me, “Alex, if that guy were able to cook as well as you, he would have your job. You have to challenge him, but give him challenges he can excel at, and build his station around his capabilities.”
2005. Sel De La Terre, Boston, Massachusetts. New to the front of the house at a busy restaurant, I am having a hard time taking care of all the tables in my section. The senior server, José Espozzito, kindly advises me, “People only need three things: bread, water, and eye contact. You give them those and they will be happy.”
2005. Sel De La Terre, Boston, Massachusetts. I am having trouble working with one of my bosses, and I get the feeling he doesn’t like me. Maud Leal, the manager, tells me, “You just have to find something to talk about with him. You both like bikes, talk about that.” Within two weeks he is my friend.
2006. Al Cambio, Bologna, Italy. Chef Max Poggi sees me skimming fat from the brodo. Chuckling at my ignorance, he tells me, “All the flavor is in the fat. If there is no fat, it is not brodo. If there is no fat, it is not ragù.”
I am about to return to the United States. The butcher from across the street admonishes me, “Remember, we took you in and shared our traditions. You need to respect them. Don’t go back to America and bastardize what we gave you.”
2009. Da Felicin, Monforte d’Alba, Italy. I was politely inquiring about the authenticity of a maionese made with Japanese pickled ginger. Chef Nino Rocca told me, “[Here in Italy] we have the ginger, we have the vinegar, and we have the sugar, why can’t we just use the gari (pickled ginger)?
2009. Alba, Boulder, Colorado. I am trying to reconcile traditional Italian flavors with the American palate. I serve the prosciutto in the Tuscan style, sliced thickly by hand. It is a bit chewier like this, but you can enjoy the flavor better. I explain this culinary tradition. My boss, Rick Stein, responds, “People here aren’t going to like this as much as a thin slice. Sometimes the traditional way isn’t the best.”
2009. Alba, Boulder, Colorado. I see my apprentice Tim Vigers sprinkling some parsley on a plate …