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A Rogue Chef Tells All

Debunking the myths about life in a restaurant kitchen.

Sometimes when I look through the food magazines, watch the cooking shows and read the current crop of books about restaurants, being a chef looks so appealing that I think I'd like to be one too. But even though I've been cooking professionally for over 20 years and now have my own restaurant, Prune, in New York City's East Village, which has gotten enough good press to make my head swell, I'm starting to see that I'll never be a real chef.

If I were a real chef, I'd be at the farmers' market every morning in my crisp, white, conspicuously monogrammed jacket, handpicking organic produce so vital it practically bursts into song. Anything I couldn't find there would be delivered to my door just hours after it was picked by my own private forager, a former stockbroker who had tired of the grind and discovered the simple joys of mushroom hunting. A short time later, I'd be back in my kitchen, its walls lined with freshly polished copper pans, tossing off words like fond and entremet and concassé with my staff of culinary-school graduates while we washed the lettuces by hand in mineral water and dried each leaf individually with a chamois cloth.

When this was finished (a leisurely two hours before service) we would all sit down to an intimate and convivial staff meal, passing big platters of nutritious, well-prepared and delicious food that, we would all agree, one could write a book about. And even if I had flown off the handle earlier that day, thrown a fish or a pot, indulged myself in a peevish chefly tantrum, I would know I had only deepened the respect of my underlings and that all was now well.

If I were a real chef, I would have trained my staff to answer anytime a diner inquired, "Yes, madame, the chef is at the restaurant tonight. The chef is always at the restaurant." I might be cooking at a benefit in Chicago or having my photo taken dining al fresco at my country home, but my staff would never let on.

But hands down the coolest part about being a real chef, the part that really attracts me, is that I would no longer have to cook. What with the perfection of my artisanal, seasonal, locally grown and handpicked ingredients, I would merely coax, nudge or showcase. No need to weary myself with all that labor; no need ever to tourner, sauter, flamber, dépouiller or remouiller. Fish would jump out of pristine local waters, gills pulsing, and land on my wood-fired grill long before rigor mortis had time to set in. Each turnip, radish and carrot, rich soil still clinging to its roots, would speak for itself.

Frozen limas and canned chickpeas

No, I'm afraid I'll never be a real chef. To begin with, I am confined by nature and by geography. The growing season here on the East Coast is short and, like some of my most cherished friends, rather undependable. Spring arrives by the calendar around March 21, but outside the wind howls, cold rain falls, and there is not a green shoot in sight. I crave favas and shad roe as much as the next guy, but the beans aren't growing yet and the shad aren't running. No sooner do I put peas on the menu than their short season ends. I still have a taste for tomatoes in October, but we may have had frost by the middle of September and the market would be bereft of anything but Hubbard and turban squash.

It sounds so romantic when the real chefs talk about using only locally grown produce, but I don't know how to do that where I live. I accept the need to order ingredients from Israel and South America and Holland and New Zealand. If I relied on my forager, the ex-stockbroker, we'd be eating rutabagas eight months of the year. You love your seasons, but they really try you.

That said, the one season I can count on is winter. Like a U.S. Treasury bond, it hangs on a long time and has a low yield. Going to my greenmarket any time between late October and early June is like passing through some Soviet Gulag. Nothing is available but cabbage and potatoes and softening apples. A few die-hard farmers cheerfully sell wreaths and bathroom potpourri they have fashioned out of dead flowers and fruits; I have to avert my eyes. In winter, the only market I go to daily is my local Key Food supermarket.

Actually, I'm a fan of supermarkets. They've become so good over the years that the average home cook could recreate anything I make in my restaurant with supermarket ingredients. Hellman's mayonnaise. Goya cooked chickpeas. Bird's Eye frozen Fordhook lima beans. We use them all at Prune. Goya cooked chickpeas are constant, standardized, reliable. To pick through a bag of dried chickpeas, sort them by size, get rid of the twigs and pebbles, train my staff to cook them the same way every day (perfectly tender, correctly seasoned) and to dedicate two hours' worth of burner space in my tiny and already burdened kitchen would be a bad business decision. I will continue to let Goya make the chickpeas, just as I let Lafite make the wine; I don't feel the need to crush my own grapes.

Having smartly saved myself all that work by opening cans of chickpeas, you'd think I could give my staff a decent meal on time. At Prune, staff dinner is adequate, sometimes delicious, but invariably late and often repetitive. I never have anything appropriate to feed my heavily pierced and tattooed youngest waiter, who's currently going through her vegan phase, because I am not a particular friend of vegetarians and I have lamb scraps to use up, frankly. The other waiters, a brigade of actresses who are always watching their weight and reapplying their lip liner, just want salad anyway. You can tell them a thousand times to eat now because they will be hungry later, but they won't listen. And midway through service, I find them standing over the garbage can back in the kitchen performing gruesome and debasing acts of carnage on a chunk of steak that some patron has left on his plate.

I cannot remember the last time we all sat down to eat together, much less with forks and napkins. I eat every meal of the day with my fingers, standing up or crouching down on the rubber kitchen mats out of sight of the night's first customers. I've never seen a picture of a real chef doing that.

Band-aids and lightbulbs

But I have seen chefs screaming in the kitchen, and I've even read that these fits, inordinately rageful and intent on humiliation, are all part of the great familial bond of life in a restaurant. When I hear about a chef reaming out his staff, I can only think that he could use a good day off. If his menu looks exactly like a dozen others in town, all $40 foie gras and wild baby whatever, and his tables are empty, he needs to get out and see the eager people queuing up for a Nathan's frank and let that spark his imagination. And his staff and his customers need to let him do this.

Nothing makes me feel more trapped in my own kitchen than when a customer claims to have had a disappointing meal in my absence, as if the food didn't taste as good on my day off. Is the fish going to be better if Eric Ripert poaches it himself? Poaching the fish is not my job, at least not every night. My job is to make sure that my line cooks have the tools, the training and the confidence to cook the food the way I do. My job is to accept and reject plates, keep the portions consistent, taste for salt, make salads, wipe down counters, make sure the walk-in refrigerator is clean and organized, administer Band-Aids to my dishwasher, change lightbulbs, scrape dried egg yolk off the floor and, like a good sheepdog, yap at the heels of cooks who arrive late. And to take all the credit, of course.

A well-run restaurant will be as good on Tuesday as on Friday, whether the chef is there or not. I do cook a lot of the fish here, but I am also confident that, when I am busy making a cobbler, or cutting the meat, or finishing paperwork in the office, or even out having a sliver of a personal life, the fish will be as good as if I'd poached it myself. So if I miss you tonight, I'll see you on your next visit; please try to be glad for me if I am home getting some rest. I need to read books that have nothing to do with food, to walk down a city street, to see what people are wearing, what painters are painting. I want to see the austere amber light of an October day, to chew on the August humidity and to endure the harsh January winds. I want to crave soup or watermelon, leafy greens or braised meats, depending on the weather. I don't want to learn about the change of seasons from the faxes my purveyors send me.

Mostly, though, the way I know I will never be a real chef is that I am still cooking. My ingredients may be good but they need my attention. My razor clams from Maryland, my figs from Israel, my corn on the cob from Ecuador—ordered by telephone and delivered to my door the next day by José and Manuel, who seem to have discovered the simple joys of stacking the heaviest crates on top of the softest tomatoes—are sometimes beautiful and at other times only adequate. The figs and radishes look excellent today. But some not-great artichokes will need to be braised into something that is great; the fading lettuces will need reviving, a very good vinaigrette and perhaps a piece of cheese. Today's corn is not going to speak for itself, unfortunately. It's going to need more than coaxing; it's going to need something more like translating. So tonight I will have to do something very unfashionable and un-cheflike: I will cook.

Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune in New York City.

Published July 2001
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