Pictured from left to right: Jamie Everett, pastry chef, Farmhaus; Jess Paddock, pastry chef, Home Wine Kitchen and Table; Josh Poletti, executive sous chef, The Libertine; Ming Liu, sous chef, Sidney Street Cafe; Ryan McDonald, chef de cuisine, Juniper; Josh Charles, chef de cuisine, Elaia and Olio; and Nate Hereford, chef de cuisine, Niche
Ming Liu, Sidney Street Cafe
Executive chefs lead restaurant kitchens. One of their responsibilities is assembling the right team of cooks to execute their creative vision. These chefs de cuisine, sous chefs, pastry chefs and line cooks often go unnoticed outside of the kitchen, but as their bosses will tell you, they are absolutely essential to a restaurant’s success. Interested in recognizing – and bending the ears – of these talented, up-and-coming cooks, we asked seven local executive chefs who they’re excited to work with on the line. What followed was a conversation with that group of young cooks over the fried chicken blue-plate lunch at Farmhaus.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of preserving the authenticity and candor of this conversation, this story contains strong and potentially offensive language.
• Jamie Everett, pastry chef, Farmhaus
• Jess Paddock, pastry chef, Home Wine Kitchen and Table
• Josh Poletti, executive sous chef, The Libertine
• Ming Liu, sous chef, Sidney Street Cafe
• Ryan McDonald, chef de cuisine, Juniper
• Josh Charles, chef de cuisine, Elaia and Olio
• Nate Hereford, chef de cuisine, Niche
Catherine Neville: What does it mean to be a chef de cuisine in your kitchens?
Nate Hereford: Essentially it’s someone who oversees the kitchen when the executive chef isn’t there. Depending on the structure of said kitchen, it kind of varies. A lot of my responsibilities at Niche are ordering, hiring and making sure the kitchen is running up to my chef’s standards. I think the idea of running it up to your boss’s or your chef’s standards is a common goal throughout.
Neville: Trust comes into play with the owner or the chef-owner of the restaurant. How do you establish a positive working relationship and that level of trust?
Josh Poletti: Proving yourself and not compromising anything. If you wouldn’t eat it, you don’t sell it. If you don’t think the dish is gorgeous, it needs to be redone.
Josh Charles: I think consistency is a big issue, too – proving that consistently, time and time again, you can produce exactly up to their standards and to your own. That was a really big connection between me and Ben [Poremba].
Neville: How did you get into the kitchen at Farmhaus, Jamie?
Jamie Everett: [My] chef back home was from St. Louis, and I was looking for jobs around here. Chef [Kevin Willmann] had just won a Food & Wine magazine award, and [my chef] recommended coming here. I came down and staged, and chef gave me the job, and I moved to St. Louis. Originally I was the garde manger cook. I still work the hot line occasionally, but our pastry chef left, and then chef started doing them, and then he just kind of asked me if I wanted to do it and passed it on.
NEVILLE: Has anybody else staged?
POLETTI: I’ve staged and eaten in every place before I’ve worked there, except Libertine, because we opened that.
NEVILLE: How long is a stage typically?
POLETTI: A full day. At least a full day.
Jess Paddock: If you don’t last a day, it’s not going to happen.
Ryan McDonald: I have people in my kitchen right now who are laypeople who just want to learn how to cook. It kind of started with the pop-ups we were doing – with [A] Good Man [Is Hard to Find] and [The] Agrarian. I had people stage for six months at a time, a couple days a week or three days a week. I still have somebody who works at another restaurant but really isn’t fulfilled; they stage twice a week [at Juniper].
HEREFORD: One guy at Niche probably staged with us for two years. He’s a Ph.D. candidate at Wash. U., and he’s a really good kid. He’s really into food. We used to give him a hard time, but he’d still show up every day.
NEVILLE: What is it really like for you to be in this industry on a day-to-day basis?
HEREFORD: I just had a child this summer, so I’ve tried to mellow it out a bit, but it’s still crazy. Today, for example, was one of my off days, and I got a text message from one of our purveyors at 7 this morning. So it’s already starting at 7am.
POLETTI: It’s almost seven days a week. We’re always prepping; we’re always trying to get our orders in on time; we’re always thinking about what we want to do. We want to keep it consistent, keep it really good and put a lot of love into it. So at 2am Josh [Galliano] will be emailing me ideas, or things that we need to work on. And then come Monday, our day off, we’re starting a new bread program, and we have to go in and feed the starter and make a levain and keep that going. It’s non-stop, all day, every day.
CHARLES: I think I have a pretty unique situation. I get in about 9, first thing I do is pull everything out of the walk-in that we need to start cooking that day because we don’t have a set menu [at Elaia]. Basically we have certain ways that we prepare items – about four or five different ways. I’ll pull out everything we need for the day and get it on the stove, assign tasks to my cooks. And then from about nine to two o’clock we’re just straight prepping, getting as much stuff as I can get done as possible. At two o’clock Ben usually pops his head in – he’s there before that, obviously – but he and I sit down, and we talk about the menu. We decide what’s going to go with what, whether it be cauliflower with bass and grapefruit or that same cauliflower going with our short rib and barley. From there, it’s all about bringing everything together, getting it in a spot, and showing the cooks how exactly we want to plate for the evening. And then, even throughout service, I get to go a little bit farther and add to the dishes. If I want to add a celery leaf garnish to it for the rest of the night, that can happen. Go through service, talk with chef Ben at the end of it: how things tasted, how things went, kind of start thinking about the next day.
NEVILLE: Do you thrive in that kind of constantly demanding environment?
Ming Liu: You have to be on your toes all the time. If you’re not physically there, mentally you’re 24 hours on-call, pretty much. I have food dreams. [Everyone laughs.] I’ll wake up yelling, and I realize that I had a dream about somebody doing a bad job, and I’m yelling at them. You just have to be there all the time.
HEREFORD: It’s so consuming, you start to realize that you cook when everyone else is off. You know that’s your job on Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, every night of the week. You know if there’s an awesome concert you’re not going to be able to take Saturday night off to go see the concert; you’ve got to get over it. That’s the biggest thing – I want to [cook] even more. You start to realize cooking is something very serious…And that’s pretty cool.