If You Can Stand the Heat: Tales from Chefs and Restaurateursby Dawn Davis, Krista Olson (Photographer)
This informative, dishy insider's collection features interviews with some of the country's leading chefs and helps answer commonly asked questions. Experts share recipes, business tips and secrets. 50 photos.
- Penguin Group (USA)
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 7.48(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.86(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING A WELL-ROUNDED COOK
With high cheekbones and long legs, Patricia Williams looks more like a former model than a former ballerina, and nothing like a typical chef. After dancing nationally for more than a decade, she traded in her toe shoes for a whisk and her tutu for a chef's toque and began working in some of the most popular kitchens in Manhattan: Arizona 206, 150 Wooster, and the Supper Club among them. In 1996 she landed an opening spot as executive chef at Drew Nieporent's City Wine & Cigar Co., where she began with a menu that blends European, southern, and Latin flavors in such dishes as risotto with hominy and ham or in guava-glazed tuna with cucumber and toasted pumpkin-seed vinaigrette. One of the growing number of women to enter the mostly male clique of nationally recognized gourmet chefs, Williams proffers advice on what, if any, special considerations women face in the profession. She also addresses why it is critical for all new chefsmale and female aliketo diversify their skills before homing in on one type of cuisine.
* * *
"I applied for my first job wearing high heels and skintight pants. That's not the way you're supposed to dress for an interview," particularly one at the Quilted Giraffe in Manhattan, which was then a four-star restaurant, but for Williams, a former ballerina, dressing theatrically was de rigueur.
Williams was born and raised in Texas but left the Lone Star State to pursue a dance career that would take her around theworld. She danced with New York City's Harkness Ballet, the Chicago Ballet, and eventually the esteemed New York City Opera Ballet. She loved the physicality and creativity of it all. But dance careers have a short shelf life, and Williams chose to get out before hers expired. She'd been dancing professionally since she was fifteen. By the time she was twenty-eight, she was ready to retire. "I could have danced until I was thirty-five or thirty-six, but I wanted to quit when I was at my best." The whole time she danced, she was in classes, on the road, or on stage, and almost always on a diet. Once she retired, she had more free time than she knew what to do with, and absolutely no idea what to do with her life.
Since she had always enjoyed performing in Paris, she bought a plane ticket to France. "I took all the money I had, said goodbye to my mother, and went there to live." As one friend after another took her on tours of the countryside, she was struck by the local farmers' markets and vineyards. One of her favorite experiences was shopping for truffles, which she likens to watching a drug deal. "The best truffle man would sell only to the people he liked. He'd go to the back of his car, open up his bag, and take out this little gram scale. It was so exciting." She also remembers watching with something akin to awe while a friend, a chef, wended his way through the hills of Provence, ascending and descending for twenty-five miles before he found the perfect baby lettuces. Williams was so utterly intoxicated by the food that she gained twenty pounds. "If you know anything about dancers, you know there is a lot of major food deprivation going on. France was an eating extravaganza."
After living in France for three months, Williams returned to the United States. While she wasn't sure a career in the food industry was the way to go, cooking professionally had enough in common with dance to make it appealing:
After working as a ballerina, I knew I had to do something physical. And with cooking you're constantly moving. It's also creative. There's always something to learn, always something new to do. It's not a career that is stagnant. And you can do it for a long time, which was really important to me.
Dancing and cooking are also both art forms that revolve around giving pleasure to strangersthe dancer gives pleasure to the audience, and the restaurant chef to the patron. Sufficiently intrigued, Williams decided to apply for the beginning cooking course at the New York Restaurant School, She was instantly hooked. "I didn't even finish the course before I went and asked for a job at the Quilted Giraffe, one of the top-rated restaurants at the time. "I said to them, `I don't really know how to do much. But will you hire me anyway?' They said yes on the spot."
How could they resist high heels and skintight pants?
If the people at the Quilted Giraffe thought Williams was going to burn out, as most newcomers do, they were wrong. Forbidden to do almost anything, Williams started out as a very lowly dessert plater; her sole responsibility was to slice and plate desserts. As in ballet, where trainees repeat one position hundreds of times, new kitchen assistants were required to repeat a task until they got it right. From there, Williams worked her way up the kitchen hierarchy, moving from cold to hot appetizers and finally to the line. She remembers her time there as rigorous and demanding:
The Quilted Giraffe's kitchen was the most consistent I have ever worked in. You didn't cook anything in the beginning. You'd watch someone do it ten times; then someone would do it with you ten times. If you did it wrong, the person doing it with you got yelled at those ten timesyou didn't. After the tenth time, however, if you did it wrong, you got yelled at. Everybody in the kitchen would come over to you and say, I'm sorry, I will not accept that plate going out.
After a year, she left the Quilted Giraffe to go to Arizona 206, where she worked the day shift. At the time, it was one of the more exceptional restaurants in town and its innovative chef, Brendan Walsh, was one of the first chefs to use organic food from California. "At 206 we saw things that were so beautiful. You don't see anything like it to this day, mostly because of price. The menus and food of the 1980s were so expensive. Men with expense accounts, people plunking down two, three hundred dollars a night for a meal. It was nothing for them."
After working at Arizona 206 for several months, Williams figured she'd learn more if she moved on to something new. As she explains it, diversifying their skills is one of the most important things chefs can do:
You have to carefully plan your job moves, to constantly think about what kind of cuisine you eventually want to pursue. When I started, I made a list of the people with whom I wanted to work. I knew their reputation because I had their cookbooks and had eaten out at their restaurants, making mental notes about each chef along the way. Often the better the restaurant, the less the pay, but it more money for you later on because you're getting an education.
This time she wanted to learn volume, which she did by working with Ali Barker, who had just left Danny Meyers's Union Square Cafe, where he had earned three stars as opening chef, to open up 150 Wooster. Not surprisinglyin light of his success at Union Square, which to this day is consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in the nationthe Mediterranean-style food at 150 Wooster was extraordinarily popular. And big crowds meant Williams got to practice her hand at maintaining quality while learning how to handle volume. Williams's next goal was to nail breakfast. When a job at a popular brunch place, Sarabeth's Kitchen, opened up, she jumped at the opportunity. Other jobs followed, including one at a hotel, which offered yet a different kind of experience. "I wanted to be well rounded: consistency, among other things, at Quilted Giraffe; organic cuisine at Arizona 206; breakfast and lunch at Sarabeth's; and volume at 150 Wooster."
Once Williams had diversified her skills, she felt that she could concentrate on one type of food. Southwestern was one of her personal favoritesit was closest to what she had grown up eating as a half-Cherokee, half-Mexican kid in Texas. So when Drew Nieporent (of New York City's Montrachet, Nobu, Tribeca Grill, Layla's, et al.) approached her about opening City Wine & Cigar, a wine and cigar club as well as a restaurant, she knew it was a perfect fit. Her mission was to design a menu of southwestern-influenced foods that, with their strong flavors, could stand up to tobacco and spirits. "I wanted the menu at City Wine to be ethnic in a daring way, so I developed a menu that draws a lot on Indian (indigenous South American) and Latin flavors, which share many of the same ingredientschile, cinnamon, coriander." Items on the menu reflect not only her background but also ideas from Latin cookbooks, which she reads voraciously, and lingering memories of her food extravaganza in France. A typical dish is Foie Gras with Fiery Leeks and Tamarind Sauce, a Latinized interpretation of a classic French dish.
As executive chef at City Wine & Cigar, Williams designs menus, controls inventory, orders food, and manages people. She mines her own past not only for food and menu ideas but also for the best management techniques. For example, she instills the same consistency she learned at Quilted Giraffe in her kitchen at City Wine & Cigar. "Nothing goes out until it's right. No exceptions, because if you let it slide once, you will the second, the third, and the fourth time as well. It's important to me because my name is out there, and I won't accept anyone putting out a bad plate." And, like the best restaurant chefs with whom she's worked, she's learned to listen to the people she employs. She has two sous chefsone who is very, experienced and one who has had less time on the line. But she listens to both of them equally, because an inexperienced cook may put something together that she hasn't considered, precisely because of his or her inexperience. "As a manager, you don't hire the people with whom you work the most closely and not listen to them."
She has other considerations when it comes to hiring and working with people. For starters, she tries to maintain the right mix of people with whom to work in the kitchen. Because she's a woman in a male-dominated field, one might assume that she likes working with other women. But in fact she prefers to have a balance:
Too many women in the kitchen and everyone starts worrying about how you feel. I say, "Who cares how you feet? There's work to be done." Too many men in the kitchen and there's too much testosterone. I call it the "cowboy kitchen""I'm better than you; I'm faster than you." A balance makes it much easier for everyone. Guys feel more comfortable and women feel more secure.
Until recently, when the effects of an increasing number of women in key positions could be felt, striking a balance was difficult because there were so few women in professional kitchens. "When I started, approximately fifteen years ago, some places wouldn't interview women. In one interview, someone actually asked me whether if I got raped and mugged on the way home, I would still come to work the next day. Then they asked why my husband allowed me to work." She declined the job.
Much has changed since that dreadful interview, and women restaurateurs such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora and Asia Nora, and Ella Brennan of Commander's Palace have paved the way for a new generation of women restaurateurs (such as Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Border Grill in Los Angeles, Nancy Oakes and Traci des Jardins in San Francisco, and Lydia Shire of Biba in Boston); but cooking professionally is still not necessarily a female-friendly industry. (For a list of resources for women in the restaurant industry, see page 169.) It's an environment, where men feel free to constantly come on to women and make crude anatomical references and jokes. The rough behavior of men aside, kitchens also lack glamour. There's no time to make oneself upand no point to itbecause after hours of dicing, deboning, and moving animal flesh around a hot grill, makeup and hairdos become smudges and hair don'ts. "It's not a job where your appearance is very appealing. I rarely wear makeup, and I never wear nail polish because I don't want chips in the food. You have to project a really clean image."
There's also the "costume" to worry about. Though kitchens are opening up and allowing their staffs to be a bit more creative in what they wear, the iconographic chef's whites still prevail. "Those whites look great on the male chefs, but dumb on women," according to Williams. At best, women "look as if they have their father's clothes on." At worst, "those great big pants make us look like a bear or a mushroom walking down the street."
Dating is also much more difficult for women than it is for men. In reflecting on her own experiences and those of her male peers, Williams found that women will wait for a man, but men won't wait for women: "I don't finish working until between twelve midnight and two A.M., every night. My schedule caused problems with my first marriage. My husband worked during the day, and I was very devoted to my work and worked all night long. We had other problems, but that was part of the breakup." As a result of the pressure on her social life, until she recently remarried, Williams tended to socialize with friends in the business but only date men outside the industryno other chefs, no waiters, no bartenders or managers. "Before I remarried, I dated people who had a whole life themselves, so that it wasn't necessary for me to be there with them all the time. They could come in for dinner and I'd try to sit down with them later at night. But they had to be very secure within themselves, and I didn't meet very many of those people."
As with her male counterparts, however, attention to her personal life comes only after her work as an executive chef is done. And at this stage in her career, Williams's main responsibility is to live up to and improve upon the initial reviews for City Wine & Cigar"Light, aggressive, very tasty.... The menu breaks new ground.... Williams has thrown out all the conventional notions of cooking for smokers. This is not a red meat and potatoes menu, but a carefully constructed group of dishes that stand up to cigar smoke and big wine through the sheer power of flavor." She is under considerable pressure. In an era when the average start-up cost of opening a restaurant has risen dramatically, the owners of City Wine have much more at stake financially than restaurateurs did twenty years ago. The responsibility, of course, falls disproportionately on the chef's shoulders, even though restaurant design and service (see pages 100 and 238, respectively) are an integral part of a restaurant's success. And it's not just the restaurant's future that's hanging in the balance but Williams's own future as well. `Tm forty-three, and a fifty-year-old line cook is an ugly thing. You have to think about the reviews in terms of your marketability and what it will bring you in the future."
Just as she did as a dancer, Williams plans to continue only for as long as she is at the top of her game. And for now, that's more than enough. "When I danced, I gave it my utmost, and it was fulfilling. It's the same with cooking. It's introduced me to people and opened up opportunities for me that I would never have experienced otherwise."
* * *
Foie Gras with Fiery Leeks
and Tamarind Sauce
Chef's note: As a kid growing up in Texas, I used to love to drink a soda made of tamarind. When I opened City Wine & Cigar Co. and was working on a foie gras dish, I thought back to that sweet, tangy drink, and I also came up with the idea of adding fiery leeks to complete the dish. The most important part of this dish is the quality of the foie gras. The next is the heat of the pan. And finally, you'll want to sauté the foie gras until it has a crisp, golden skin.
5 ounces leeks (white parts only), julienned
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup water
1 tablespoon garlic confit
1/2 tablespoon chipotle pureed until smooth
2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar
1. In a heavy-gauge saucepan, sweat the leeks in 2 tablespoons of butter in a covered pan over medium heat for 2 minutes.
2. Add the water and remaining ingredients, including the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Slowly cook the leeks until they are completely softened, not at all stringy, approximately 15 to 20 minutes. If the leeks become dry, add water to complete the cooking process.
4 ounces garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons olive oil
15 Szechwan peppercorns
1 cup pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate
1 cup veal demiglaze
1. Coat the garlic with the oil. Put the garlic and peppercorns in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Slowly heat the garlic and peppercorns and sauté the garlic until golden. (Be careful not to heat the garlic too quickly, or the peppercorns will burn and become bitter.)
2. Add the pomegranate juice and reduce to a glaze-like consistency. Add the tamarind concentrate and demiglaze, reduce for 5 minutes, and strain.
To Sauté the Foie Gras
fresh black pepper
Four 3-ounce slices of foie gras
1. Heat the steel pan until it is very hot.
2. Sprinkle the salt and the pepper on the foie gras.
3. Place the foie gras slices in the hot pan and gently press them into the heat to ensure a crust.
4. Turn the foie gras when the crust is achieved and cook on the remaining side until the foie gras is soft to the touch.
To Assemble the Dish
1. Gently warm the leek mixture and place in the center of the plate.
2. Place the foie gras atop the leeks.
3. Spoon the warm tamarind glaze on the foie gras and around the plate.
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