The executive pastry chef at Asheville's Rhubarb recalls her early career, and the moment Frank Mirabile taught her an important lesson about working with people.
Kaley Laird didn’t get into food to make friends.
And so she was terse with her team at the Monroe Golf Club’s Snack Shack as they power-washed grease from fryers, then served burgers and fries to kids dining on their parents’ dime. Laird was a Culinary Institute of America graduate with big pastry ambitions. She’d grown up in a meat-and-potatoes community outside of Rochester, New York, where people didn’t venture out much. She had needed a job that would get her foot in the door, and managing the Shack was it.
Golf clubs are where you find "all the people who have money to spend,” Laird says. “And with that comes better food and competition and better chefs.”
That’s how she met Frank Mirabile. Mirabile had graduated from the CIA first in his class ten years prior, in 1998, then worked in Europe and for Daniel Boulud before taking up the Monroe kitchen. “He's still one of the most talented people I've ever worked with, and so smart,” Laird says. At the time, she didn't know Mirabile would change her career forever.
For a while, things at Snack Shack were good. A month or so in, Laird started to sneak into the kitchen, jumping in wherever there was a gap, plating banquets, and expediting. Eventually, Mirabile let her play with pastry ideas. Towards the end of that first summer, she was put on garde manger, making salads and plating desserts. Now and then, he let her do a special. She returned during the holidays, then the following summer, setting up the Shack but actively working in the kitchen.
Laird was moving forward. She was going somewhere.
“I've always lived my life really fast,” she says, identifying the blinders she had on at the time. “I wanted so much more than what I had and where I'm from in New York. That was it – that was my option, that golf club – and it still wasn't good enough. I had this attitude that I was meant for more.” The attitude didn’t play well with others. “I was taught that you get a job and work hard and bust your ass and that's what you're supposed to do,” she says.
Describing herself as “young and dumb,” Laird rolled into some co-worker drama. Then she got into a tiff with Mirabile. She didn’t talk to her boss. For two weeks.
“Then I was having a bad day, and he just looked at me and asked if I was ready to talk,” she remembers. “He pulled me into his office. And we had one of the most emotional conversations of my career.”
He told Laird he knew she could do great things. But she had to slow down to get there, and that included making time for others – she didn’t have to be friends with her co-workers, but she had to treat them like humans. They were on the same team – they spent all their time together, shared common struggles, and had the same gripes to vent about.
“He was like, ‘You don't want to be the person in the kitchen that no one wants to talk to – the outsider,’” Laird says. “I was setting myself up for that.”
No one had broken that situation down to her before. Mirabile offered to help her further: He’d use his connections in New York or at Bouchon in Yountville, California, to help her find her next position. All she had to do was choose. But at either, he reminded her, she’d be a representation of him. She couldn’t let him down.
“I respected him so much at that point,” she says, “that I was like – wow, you're right. I can't screw this up.” She chose California. They ended the conversation in tears, hugging it out.
Change took time. “It was a struggle, but as I started opening up more, and talking to people more, and actively working with people more instead of just insisting on doing things on my own, it became a little bit easier,” she says. Rather than brushing others off, she worked to give them more of her time. A few weeks into a new friendship, one colleague jokingly called her out on her prior standoffishness: “I was determined to make you my friend,” she’d said. It reinforced Mirabile’s observation and pushed Laird harder.
The work paid off. Laird moved on to Aveline in San Francisco, where she was first pastry chef, then sous chef, then executive chef. Today, she runs the pastry team at Rhubarb in Asheville.
Most of her work at Rhubarb's sister bakery, The Rhu, means wholesale pastry and bread orders. “Every day – every day – is something,” she says. “People mess up. Bread drops on the floor. Bread gets burnt. We can't fill orders. And it's trying.” It would be easy to get angry, yell, fly off the handle, and throw things – “You know, that chef.”
But she doesn’t. Especially with stories of workplace harassment shaking the industry, Laird wants to lead as she was taught.
“I was raised with a different style, and that's what I want to put forth,” she says. She doesn’t know how Mirabile learned his language of teaching, not ordering. But she wishes more chefs were like him. “I don't want to build staff and lead through fear.” And so, when bread drops or gets burnt, she reminds herself that people are doing the job, people aren’t perfect, and that a smooth shift is never going to happen. She takes a breath. And she talks.
Sometimes, she recognizes, her staff has a little too much fun in the kitchen; then, she pulls things in and pushes social interactions for after hours. But turnover is low, and productivity high. “It's a job and it's a business. But you can't treat people like they're disposable, either,” she says.
Laird still keeps in touch with Mirabile. Their relationship has shifted a bit from mentor-mentee to colleagues – she doesn’t want to put more stress on his shoulders than he already has – but she did once directly thank him for that pivotal conversation.
“Had he not been the person to do it, I probably would have never progressed the way that I had,” she says. “I wouldn't have been set up for success. Had he not been in my life, I don't think I'd be where I am today.”