Alba, Boulder, Colorado | Alexander Feldman

from Gastronomica 10:2

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.

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Executive Pastry Chef: Washington, D.C. | Bill Yosses

from Gastronomica 10:1

When I first began visiting France, I was amazed at the quality of the produce, especially at Rungis, the large food market outside of Paris. The chef I worked for at La Foux d’Allose, in the sixth arrondissement, was a man of Rabelaisian dimensions and appetites, and working for him changed me forever. Each day Alex Guini would meet me in front of the restaurant at 3:00 a.m., and we would drive his little Renault deux-chevaux to the market to buy provisions. The pavilions at Rungis are the size of airplane hangars and are filled with the best products Europe has to offer, from Spain, Germany, Italy, and beyond. Several acres of primeurs—fruits and vegetables—are displayed like jewels; the purveyors eye each new customer suspiciously.

Above: Pastry chef Bill Yosses puts the finishing touches on a cake for the Fourth of July celebration at the White House, July 2008. Photograph by Chris Greenberg © 2008

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An Interview with Rob Evans: Hugo’s, Portland, Maine | Samantha Hoyt Lindgren

from Gastronomica 9:4

Rob Evans, with his wife, Nancy Pugh, is the chef-owner of Hugo’s and Duck Fat restaurants in Portland, Maine.

Samantha Hoyt Lindgren: How did you start cooking?

Rob Evans: I went to trade school to be an electrician and did that for six months, but I was completely bored. One day I was walking by a restaurant in Southboro, Massachusetts, where I had washed dishes and bussed when I was younger. The staff were out back, hanging out, and they asked me what I was doing. I said, I’m doing electrical but looking for something else, and they said, “Hey, you want to cook for a while? We’ll teach you to cook.” It was your typical American Italian restaurant with veal parm, steaks, chops, and fried seafood. Two Italians owned it and, now that I look back, it was a good place to be. We were doing stocks, all our own sauces, cleaning our own fish, chowders, everything was from scratch. I was there for four years.

SHL: What position did you start in?

RE: Fry cook, working the fryolator.

SHL: How many times did you burn yourself?

RE: Lots of bad burns—I think I did the most physical damage to myself there. It was a crazy place. From frozen road kill in the freezer sent out to people who pissed them off, to getting drunk and unloading a gun into a customer’s car. Lots of alcohol. You were allowed to drink as soon as you walked in the door at 10 a.m., all day long. Unless you couldn’t work and drink, and then you were cut off from drinking. But they didn’t care as long as the job was done. My mom always hated that place. She thought it was a bad influence, but it turned me on. I loved the multitasking, it was different every day. I loved that it was always changing, high energy—there was no clock-watching. Two things kept me there: the crazy dysfunction of the atmosphere, and eating.

SHL: Eating?

RE: Eating. I could eat prime rib all day. You could just eat whatever. It was very novel for me at that age. I could eat more then than I can now.

SHL: After a few years you ended up on cruise ships. How did that happen?

RE: I found out it wasn’t that difficult to get onto cruise ships. Housing and insurance were included in the job, so all your money got put in the bank. It was an opportunity to save money. When I got on a ship I discovered there were chefs from all over—Europe, Southeast Asia. A cruise ship is basically a hotel on the ocean. I got my foundation there, working with classical food. Also, I loved the fact that there was teamwork on the ship.

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Savoy Cabbage: Cape Town, South Africa | Peter Pankhurst

from Gastronomica 9:3

If you had asked me at age five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would immediately have replied “a Cookerman!” (shades of a superhero complex). Despite such a clear sense of vocation at so tender an age, I spent most of my youth doing my best to avoid it. It wasn’t until I turned thirty-three that I began working in a restaurant kitchen.

Savoy Cabbage was opened in August 1998 by two friends, Caroline Bagley and Janet Telian. Caroline had recently returned to South Africa from London, where she had immigrated as a young woman to escape the apartheid policies then in force. Back in the country to try to “do some good and make a difference,” as well as to follow her dream of owning a first-class restaurant, she teamed up with one of South Africa’s top chefs, Janet Telian. They brought in Frank Winter—front-of-the-house wunderkind, wine and whiskey buff, and all-around nice guy—to consult for six months, and we haven’t managed to get rid of him yet. I joined a year and a half later as sous chef because I desperately wanted to work for Janet. And who can blame me? Among other things, Janet put Savoy Cabbage’s famous Tomato Tart on the map.

A year later, Janet took a sabbatical to write the Savoy Cabbage Cookbook, leaving me to hold down the fort. I had to be very disciplined, especially since I had a wife and two children to consider. Nearly a decade later, I am still here.

Above: Awards decorate an old brick wall at Savoy Cabbage. Photograph by Caroline Bagley © 2005

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A Cook’s Story, So Far | Payson Cushman

from Gastronomica 9:2

My first job in the food industry, and I do consider it one, was dusting the shelves of a liquor store on the main street of the very small town where I grew up. I was twelve years old. I remember being horrified by people who were willing to pay one hundred dollars, let alone three hundred, for a bottle of wine. Being a boy who was saving up for a bass guitar that cost the same amount as some of those more expensive bottles, and making only fifteen dollars for a day’s work, I considered such an expenditure frivolous and, although I didn’t know the word at the time, extremely bourgeois.

My feelings changed when I had my first glass of great wine (a 1993 Caymus Conundrum). That drink was part of a great meal at the restaurant Biba in Boston (now, sadly, closed). I had what the menu described as “The Dream Lunch.” It consisted of a spherical mound of potatoes, fresh herbs, gobs of crème fraîche, and an ungodly amount of beluga caviar. Suddenly I understood why people, if they could afford it, would spend so much money on wine and food: it tasted so amazingly good.

Now, one might reasonably surmise that this extravagant meal is my “origin story,” the first step I took on my way to becoming a restaurant cook. Not true. My mother has always cooked well; both sets of my grandparents respected good food and seemed intent on instilling in me the same sort of appreciation for it, starting when I was a child. There is no doubt that all these factors contributed to my familiarity with fine cuisine, but they had little to do with the real reasons why I decided to cook professionally.

More relevant was a summer job I had in my later teen years as a landscaper. It developed my taste for hard work, which is exactly what the life of a cook is all about. My first day on that job, an older coworker called to me, “Hey kid! You know Manuel?” Sheepishly I replied that I was new and didn’t know anyone on the crew. He laughed. “I’m talking about Manuel Labor. You’re gonna get to know him real well.” And I did.

Katherine Streeter ©2009

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