Memoirs of a New York Cook: A Homecoming

Published by Will Pacio on

Chung Chow of Noreetuh (left), Thomas Keller (middle) and me (right) at Per Se in 2004

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”  — Frank Sinatra

Welcome to New York

In early 2003, I packed my bags and hopped on a plane from San Francisco to New York City. I only had one goal in mind: to work with some of the best chefs in the world and to hopefully one day join their ranks. Like so many naive foodies at the time, I thought that going to culinary school would be my path to culinary greatness, so I signed up to the French Culinary Institute in SoHo to become a great chef…in 6 months or less.

Naive young dreamer at The French Culinary Institute

The French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) was a reputable school which touted famous alumnus like Bobby Flay and David Chang, and was run by old guard bad-ass chefs of the world like Jacques Pépin and André Soltner. I was put in a class of 30 like-minded people all dreaming of becoming the next Thomas Keller. We toiled for 8 hours a day learning the basics of French cuisine: bearnaise, beurre blanc, and Veal Blanquette. And after six months of tastings, tests, and faux restaurant work, I had learned one important lesson: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

By the time graduation day rolled around, most of the class was struggling to find their next step in their respective paths to culinary greatness. Most of our class didn’t know where to go next, how to land an actual cooking job, and some gave up altogether — moving back home to become a food stylist or writer or whatever. The ace up my sleeve was that I knew someone who knew someone. Before I left for New York City, I had staged at a local French brasserie in Menlo Park, CA called Left Bank, where the chef I worked for was best friends with the man who would be the Chef de Cuisine at the most important restaurant of its time. The chef’s name was Jonathan Benno and the restaurant was per se.

Knowing someone who knows someone isn’t the actual path to landing one of the most coveted cooking jobs in the world, but it doesn’t hurt. The actual path is being annoyingly persistent, a trait which I had perfected over the years. During my 6 months of culinary school, I would call Jonathan Benno. Each time “JB” would politely tell me “sorry kid.” But one December morning, on the eve of FCI graduation, I received a call from JB, and he told me that he needed one more person for his opening team and that person was me. I’m guessing that he just wanted to stop getting phone calls from me because these were the days before caller ID and call block.

Preparing for opening night at per se in 2004.

In January 2004, we began training for the opening of per se. I would be a commis (prep cook) and the lowest man on the totem pole. But I was already out of my league. Joining me as commis would be Matt Louis (now a James Beard-nominated chef of Moxy who worked at The French Laundry for years before), Chung Chow (now chef/owner of Noreetuh), and Jason Berthold(now Chef de Cuisine at Monsieur Benjamin who had already been a sous chef at Annisa). These guys had already been cooking for years, and I had only been cooking for months.

The rest of the team read like a who’s who of future culinary greatness:

I was just there to peel the carrots, mop the floors, and try not to mess anything up too badly.

Just after opening per se in February 2004, a fire burned down the kitchen (it wasn’t me, I swear). We had to shut down the restaurant, but that provided most of us the opportunity to expand our horizons by staging at other restaurants around the city. I was able to work at places like Dan Barber’s Blue Hill and Jean George’s Spice Market, but it was my time at March Restaurant on the Upper East Side, where I would meet another chef on his way to culinary greatness: Dave Cruz. He was just a line cook there at the time, but he would eventually become Chef de Cuisine of AdHoc in Yountville, CA, co-write the beloved James Beard award winning AdHoc at Homecookbook with Thomas Keller, and open his own restaurant Little Gem in San Francisco.

After per se reopened, I spent the next couple years honing my craft and learning from some of the best chefs in the world. As a team, we earned the four stars from Frank Bruni in the New York Times and the pinnacle of fine-dining accolades: three coveted Michelin stars. I worked my way up from commis to chef de partie. I was living my dream.

Life as a Cook

While I was living a dream at work, it was my experience outside of the kitchen that left the most lasting impression on me. New York is the city that never sleeps and for a young cook that couldn’t be more true. After 16 hours in the kitchen, our daily ritual would be to sit at The Coliseum bar for a few drinks to unwind with the crew. We would commiserate about getting yelled at during service and share our dread for tomorrow’s prep list. Some nights would end there, but most times we found reasons to keep the night going.

Another popular spot with the culinary underground was Blue Ribbon Brasserie. There is no other place in the city where you could snack on foie gras, bone marrow, and oysters until four in the morning. In those days, you could run into just about any chef in the wee hours of the morning at Blue Ribbon. The bartender-owner James Shrum was (and still is) always there to pour me another glass of something strong to dull the pain of the day away.

Other nights led to hanging out with other cooks from other restaurants. We’d head down to the Lower East Side to eat some modern Filipino food at Kuma Inn or hang out with cooks from wd~50 and be mesmerized by their stories of molecular gastronomy that mad scientist and chef Wylie Dufresne was working on. This was in 2004, long before foams and spheres started appearing on everyone’s menus. To a bunch of young chefs back then, it was both madness and magic.

To this day, there has been nothing like hanging out with the community of cooks I met in New York. The 2000s were a special time to be a cook in the City. It was like being a part of the modern renaissance of the current food movement in America. It felt like being in Paris in the 1860s when some of the greatest artists in history like Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cézanne, Pissarro and others were nobodies hanging out together in cafes. We all had a technique to share, a war story to tell, or a new restaurant to recommend. And there were no egos. Everyone was a comrade in the same battle. Even Anthony Bourdain (before No Reservations fame) would happily share a cigarette outside his restaurant Les Halles. Imagine how cool that was for a kid from Toledo, Ohio who was inspired by reading Kitchen Confidential to become a chef? Only in New York.

Sharing a smoke with Mr. Kitchen Confidential himself Anthony Bourdain outside Les Halles.

Lessons Learned

I learned a lot of lessons cooking in New York, too many to name, but a couple have stuck with me over the years:

Lesson 1: Pay Attention to Detail (even when the sky is falling)

Late one night, I was skimming stocks in the prep kitchen when a pipe burst in the ceiling. Water came pouring out and started flooding the kitchen. The sous chefs stormed in and began cursing, screaming and scrambling to find buckets to contain the water. Thomas Keller was in the kitchen that evening and he strolled into the prep kitchen to observe the situation. He looked up at the ceiling and then calmly looked around before looking at me.

He said to me, “Chef, why is the knob missing on that stove burner?” His question totally caught me off guard. His multi-million dollar kitchen was flooding, but he was asking me about a $2 knob that was missing off his stove?! I said, “I’m not sure chef.” And he responded, “Let’s make sure to find it.” Those were the first words he ever spoke to me. To me, it was a lesson in staying calm under pressure and never, ever, ever losing sight of the details.

Lesson 2: Time is Finite (so don’t waste it being bad at your job)

Brunoise is a perfect 1mm x 1mm dice of carrot, leek and turnip. It’s the job of the commis to do this everyday — think of it as the equivalent of the Karate Kid sanding the floors. It’s back-breaking work that tests your patience since it will take a young cook hours to produce enough brunoise for the nightly mise-en-place, but in the end, will hone your knife skills to near perfection.

One evening, it was my task to produce 3 quarts of brunoise. After 3 hours of work, JB told me that it wasn’t good enough — it was bigger than the 1mm x 1mm standard. We had to throw it in the garbage. I had messed up, and more importantly, my mistake would jeopardize the next morning’s service who would need my brunoise for their mise-en-place. It was already 11pm and past my shift end time, so I decided that I would show up early the next morning to fix my mistake.

I arrived at the kitchen at 6am the next morning (way before my scheduled 12pm start time) to make sure that I could get brunoise done for the morning service. I didn’t clock in (I would work for free) as a penance for my sins. A few hours into the morning, I was finishing up my now perfect brunoise feeling pretty impressed with myself when sous chef Corey Lee approached me.

Corey: “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be working yet.”

Me: “Chef, I messed up the brunoise last night so I showed up early to make it right. I didn’t clock in.”

Corey: “That’s great and all. But you know, if you want to be a great chef, you need to learn to get your work done on time.”

In that moment, I felt angry. I had sacrificed sleep to come in early to fix my mistake so the team wouldn’t fail. But as his words settled in, it made perfect sense. In order to be great at cooking or anything in life, you can’t always rely on more time. Time is a non-renewable resource. I had to learn to be efficient, be good at my job, and get my stuff done on time.

Concrete Jungle Where Dreams are Made Of

My time in New York hardened me. The kitchens are as tough as the streets. I showed up green and wide-eyed with dreams of becoming the next Paul Bocuse or Thomas Keller. But I realized that reaching their level of culinary greatness was beyond me. I was the JV kid on the varsity squad. I was the minor league pitcher who realizes he doesn’t have the arm for the big leagues.

In the following years, I moved back to the green pastures of California to work at The French Laundry. Then, in 2010, I opened my own restaurants in San Francisco — a concept that would be happy for Yelp stars not Michelin stars.

Awkwardly posing at my San Francisco location of Spice Kit (Gabrielle Lurie for The San Francisco Chronicle)

After 12 years, I’m back in New York. We started Pared a couple of years ago to make restaurant life easier by connecting restaurants with professionals who want to work. On March 1st, 2018, we launched Pared in NYC which brings me back to the place where I started my culinary journey. While I didn’t become the greatest chef in the world, I am happy that I can help the greatest chefs in the world, and my heroes, run their restaurants. Some of our first customers are none other than Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud — which means a young cook on Pared can now experience their kitchens without having to “know someone who knows someone.” And for the thousands of cooks on our platform, I hope Pared can help make their paths to culinary greatness a little bit easier.

“I’m not going anywhere. I hope. It’s been an adventure. We took some casualties over the years. Things got broken. Things got lost. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” -Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

Categories: Company News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.