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Inside what life is really like for the new generation of professional cooks—a captivating tale of the make-or-break first year at a young chef’s new restaurant.
For many young people, being a chef is as compelling a dream as being a rock star or professional athlete. Skill and creativity in the kitchen are more profitable than ever before, as cooks scramble to reach the top—but talent isn’t enough. Today’s chef needs the business savvy of a high-risk entrepreneur, determination, and big dose of luck.
The heart of Generation Chef is the story of Jonah Miller, who at age twenty-four attempts to fulfill a lifelong dream by opening the Basque restaurant Huertas in New York City, still the high-stakes center of the restaurant business for an ambitious young chef. Miller, a rising star who has been named to the 30-Under-30 list of both Forbes and Zagat, quits his job as a sous chef, creates a business plan, lines up investors, leases a space, hires a staff, and gets ready to put his reputation and his future on the line.
Journalist and food writer Karen Stabiner takes us inside Huertas’s roller-coaster first year, but also provides insight into the challenging world a young chef faces today—the intense financial pressures, the overcrowded field of aspiring cooks, and the impact of reviews and social media, which can dictate who survives.
A fast-paced narrative filled with suspense, Generation Chef is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at drive and passion in one of today’s hottest professions.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Karen Stabiner is a journalist and author of narrative non-fiction. She has co-authored the cookbooks Family Table, a collection of staff meal recipes and backstage stories from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants, and The Valentino Cookbook with Piero Selvaggio. Her feature articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as in the Los Angeles Times, Saveur, Travel & Leisure and Gourmet. Her work has appeared in Best Food Writing anthologies. Stabiner teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Read an Excerpt
Jonah Miller bounded up the steep narrow stairs, each tread worn at the center from more than a century of use, the only reminder that this place had ever been anything but his. In fifteen minutes, when the doors opened for the first time, it would be Huertas, a Spanish restaurant that had the twenty-six-year-old chef almost $700,000 in debt before he sold his first beer—on paper, at least, as restaurant investors knew how bad the odds were of repayment, let alone profit, anytime soon. Everything but the stairs was new, a practical compromise between the dream Jonah had carried in his head since he was sixteen and the realities of building codes and water lines and oven vents and his partners’ input and, always, the budget. He had managed to erase the storefront’s past as a pizza place that simply stopped paying rent and gave the keys back to the landlord, a Korean place that preceded it in failure, and before all that, a vague something else. Now all he had to do was not fail as his predecessors had, in a business where it happened all the time.
Jonah was ten pounds lighter than usual on an already beanpole frame, skinny enough to catch his mother’s attention and inspire his fiancée to make sure there was always takeout in the refrigerator for a late-night meal. His professional kitchen philosophy boiled down to “keep your head down and do the work,” and he wasn’t a screamer like some chefs, so the stress of opening his first restaurant turned inward, instead, and eroded his appetite. He referred to the space that way, as his first restaurant, because there was no chance he’d stop at one.
At six foot two, he’d developed a slouch in deference to kitchen soffits that might want to knock him in the forehead or coworkers who preferred eye contact to staring at his chin. He was, he said, too tall to be a chef—which made him laugh, because he had never really wanted to be anything else. The slump was part of an overall concession to the fact that cooking always came first. Jonah had gone to the same East Village barbershop for the last five years for a $15 adult version of a kid’s buzz cut, because it spared him having to make aesthetic decisions or to engage in mindless conversation with someone who considered himself not a barber but a stylist. He had no tattoos, even though they were as ubiquitous as clogs in a restaurant kitchen. He wore anonymous dark cotton pants that were baggy enough to be comfortable on a fifteen-hour shift, and equally nondescript T‑shirts and hoodies; no outlier colors or styles that required him to devote conscious thought to what he put on in the morning. His shoes were broken in and built for comfort.
What stood out was his new chef’s shirt, blindingly white, its creased short sleeves not yet softened into shape by repeated washings. Jonah could have worn a more formal and more expensive double-breasted chef’s coat, embroidered with “Huertas” and “Executive Chef Jonah Miller,” but he chose the same shirt that the cooks and dishwasher and porter wore, and told them not to call him “Chef.” Better to lead by example, he figured, than to insist on respect before he’d shown them what he could do. Hierarchy didn’t mean anything. He was going to earn their admiration.
He checked the inanimate objects that hadn’t budged since the last time he looked, because he had to have something to do: a large Spanish ham on a metal skewer set into a wooden frame; little mismatched vintage dishes, one of Maldon salt and one of lemon wedges; a canister of tasting spoons; a metal spindle to hold completed order tickets; a jury-rigged rail that wouldn’t last the week, to hold tickets that were still in play. He checked the fill level on his squirt bottle of olive oil, retied his long apron, and refolded and retucked a towel at exactly the right position on that apron tie, just behind his left arm.
He walked back past the roast and sauté station and the fry station, peered inside the refrigerated drawers at the mixed greens and portioned proteins, and headed up to the wood-burning oven to survey the prep work of the one cook Jonah couldn’t see. The oven had been there when he leased the space and he wasn’t about to spend money to move it, so they’d ended up with a bathroom between it and the kitchen. Until everything was running smoothly, he’d shuttle back and forth to keep an eye on things. While he was up there, he reviewed the glass jars of citrus wedges that sat on the bar, to make sure they looked good enough to suit him.
Jonah had played high school baseball, starting out as a pitcher until a chipped bone in his shoulder exiled him to shortstop and third base, and the pitcher’s habit of minuscule last-minute adjustments—once the microscopic repositioning of fingers on the ball, now the equally fine placement of a knife on a cutting board—had stayed with him. It was a nice, familiar way to dissipate some of the tension.
If Jonah was right—and he had bet his professional future that he was—Huertas was exactly what a healthy range of people were looking for, from the East Village millennial crowd that cruised First Avenue to serious diners old enough to be their parents, to neighborhood residents looking for a regular haunt. He was going to serve them Basque food because he loved it and because it had newness going for it, offered in two distinct formats that gave people a range of choices, from a drink and a snack to a multicourse meal.
In the front room, where he expected the younger crowd to gather, he’d serve pintxos, little one-bite appetizers that would fly by on trays like dim sum, an endless array of impulse purchases served with Spanish beers and wines and traditional drinks like the kalimotxo, which was red wine and Coca-Cola. The pintxo list led off with the gilda, named for Rita Hayworth’s character in the 1946 film Gilda, a skewered white anchovy curved around a manzanilla green olive at one end and a guindilla pepper at the other. There would be some type of croqueta, jamón or mushroom or fish, depending on what he had on hand, and a slice of bread topped with egg salad and a single shrimp—which might not sound as good as it tasted but was going to look alluring enough to get people to take a chance. He could build a pintxo around a chunk of octopus or some homemade sausage; the point was to have a half dozen every day, and to change the list frequently, so that repeat customers had to start all over again once they got past the gilda, which would always be on the menu, no matter what else he made.
He would offer conservas, tins of Spanish seafood—Spain put its best seafood into tins—and serve them with bread, aioli or lemon or pickled peppers, and homemade potato chips. There would be a few raciones, midsized plates, but for the most part the front room was a place to drink and snack and chat, either at the bar or at a table or standing up, which was what people did in Spain.
The dining room at the back was for what he called the menu del dia, four courses, pintxos through dessert, with choices for the entrée and dessert. Jonah planned to change some portion of that menu every week, at least, to keep people coming back for what qualified as a fine-dining bargain by New York City standards—a $52 fixed-price menu, with wine pairings at $28.
His signature dining-room dish was the egg course, huevos rotos, or “broken eggs,” which summed up what he was trying to do—have fun with refined, reconsidered versions of Spanish classics. He’d tried the original at a Basque place in Madrid, a fried egg plopped on top of a batch of fried potatoes with a side of chorizo or chistorra sausage or jamón. Jonah’s version had only the basic ingredients in common with the original. He used a hand-crank machine to spin an impaled russet potato into strands as slender as spaghetti, which he flash-fried, dressed with a chorizo vinaigrette, and topped with a slow-poached egg and slivers of fresh scallions. As soon as the soft egg broke, it turned the vinaigrette into a richer sauce.
Table of Contents
1 Opening Night 1
2 The Dream 17
3 The Hunt 34
4 The Build-Out 48
5 Stampede 69
6 The Favorite 90
7 Brunch 107
8 Loss 120
9 Ghost Town 135
10 The Critic 153
11 Anxiety 173
12 The Verdict 182
13 Success 203
14 Detours 226
15 The Rising Star 251
16 Fun 266
17 Next 274
18 Huertas 280
Epilogue: Right-Sized 285
Author's Note 317
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a must-read for people who love food memoir or who dream about opening a restaurant some day. Stabiner's writing style is reminiscent of Laura Hillenbrand. Her research and access to Jonah Miller and the staff at Huertas makes for one compelling narrative. I loved getting to see everything that goes into starting a restaurant in NYC, from finding the right space to hiring to what goes into creating a menu. Miller is an interesting figure, everything you'd expect a 26 year old chef-owner to be. The sacrifices he made and all of his hard work and dedication ultimately led him to opening Huertas and through the course of the book, we find out whether the restaurant will prevail through the ups and downs. This would have been interesting as it stands but Stabiner also features other chefs' experiences and what went into the successes and failures of their respective restaurants. She also sprinkles in anecdotes from restaurant critics and Culinary Institute of America teachers, along with statistics and insights about the restaurant industry. Absolutely fascinating. Disclosure: I was provided an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.