Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Where I work...

For those souls who have no idea of where I work, why I am a Chef, what makes me a Chef or why I am making a blog, I suppose I should let you in on that.

First off, I am not going to go on about why I love food so much and why I always wanted to be a Chef...let's just have enough intelligence to know that there is a nostalgic story about food including my Mother and her meatballs, and so on. Now that is out of the way, let's pick up at June 14th, 2002. I am sitting in the courtyard at Hudson Hall, The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park. My stomach is cramped from whimpering over my girlfriend and I saying so long for our externships, we would make the effort to see each other over the course of the 3 months and speak every day and night, knowing this did not make it easier when you are newly in love. My Father came to pick me up, load up my dorm room in a bag and drive me back to Long Island. In four days I will start my externship.

Most of my friends got interesting extern sites at hotels, food channels, resorts, and well known restaurants. I chose a private country club hidden away in one of the most wealthy communities on the south shore of Long Island. It was called the Seawane Country Club. It had an 18 hole golf course, 4 tennis courts, a pool, a spa, a health center, just the works. It was a hotel without the rooms. The Executive Chef was Craig Henne, a name I did not know, and most of the public did not know, however if you were a chef in the 90's in Manhattan you knew. He was the former Executive Chef at the Ritz Carlton for 5 years, an impressive term to say the least. His Sous Chef, Phil Castro, was young, maybe 10 years older than I, extremely energetic and very knowledgeable. I immediately felt at home and knew I was going to learn a lot from this. Over the course of the next 3 months I worked my ass off. Chef Henne was strict and demanded a certain quality from his food, and Sous Chef Phil rode me like a horse until the breaking point and pulled me back to reality with reassuring talks and information-rich lessons. Phil and I developed a sort of friendship, although he was my superior and I was just an extern, I respected him a great deal, and I think he might have seen potential in me.

I returned to the Culinary Institute that December, with my girlfriend, Erica in tow, reunited in October and ready for the new school year. After talking to my friends on our first day I realized that I was one in maybe a hand full of students that returned a better cook and received a decent education over externship. Too many time have extern sites used externs as cheap slave labor. The reason for my successful extern was that I saw it all. I did front of the house cooking out in the dining room in front of the members, I did large volume banquets, I did a la carte dinner service, it was a little of every aspect of the industry in one very large facility.

We graduated in 2003 and we moved into the real world. Erica and I moved back to Long Island, a choice I know she sometimes regrets...she misses her family up in Vermont, one thing I will forever feel guilty about. I worked a bunch of pretty good jobs, nothing extremely upscale. At the age of twenty two I was Executive Chef of a private dining club and making pretty decent change. But of course, all good things must come to an end. The ownership thought it was wise to run illegal card games at night and eventually the authorities caught wind of this and shut us down. I found myself working in Long Beach as the Sous Chef at Sutton Place for almost 3 years. I loved it there. The staff became not only my friends but they became my adopted family away from home. Erica and I got married in 2007.

Working at Sutton Place became slightly mundane after several attempts by the Executive Chef, David Bryer, and I to change the menu to fit our food interests and cooking styles, only to get them shot down by ownership and management. It was not because they were assholes, it was because they were right. It was Long Beach, a bar and grille town, not an upscale, nouveau type of place. People wanted to get absolutely shitfaced and eat some fried grease on some cheese. Dave is still there, cooking great food with the assistance of my friend Andy Mulligan for people with "peasant tongue" in Andy's words. If I could have 3 cooking wishes granted, one of them would be for those two guys to get out of there and do something great, something creative and daring, something I know the two of them are extremely capable of doing. In March of 2009, Erica 5 months pregnant, I called the Seawane Country Club and asked to be transferred to the kitchen.

"Hello, kitchen." "Uh, Hi, I was wondering if I could speak to the Chef?" "Yeah this is Chef Phil Castro....."

We did some catching up, Craig Henne was now General Manager and Phil was promoted to Executive Chef, a position that he is excelling in. He has been working with no Sous Chef for quite a while now and asked if I were interested. I originally called for a line cook position. Although I have had 7 years more under my belt since I worked there last, I still did not feel I was Sous Chef caliber at the Seawane Club. He said to call him back. I thought about it for a week and decided I was going for it. Cooking professionally is competitive and hard work, in order to advance, you have to challenge yourself and know when you have stopped learning from the place you are in. basically knowing when it is time to move on. I gave my notice, and on May 6th, 2009 I started work as the new Sous Chef of the Seawane Country club.

That was a year ago. Since then my Daughter, Caroline was born on July 28th, we moved into a new and much larger apartment, and I am a much better Chef. It is the first time that I can look in the mirror and have confidence in myself and how I work in the kitchen. I AM A CHEF. A real one, one who prepares for a large banquet, one that takes inventory, one that stays in health code and sets examples for others. I am a Chef that is the first person in the kitchen in the morning and the last to leave at night, or sometimes, the next morning. I am a Chef that manages 3 kitchens along with my superior. I am a Chef that creates and tries new and daring things with food and journals every triumph and failure in a book. I have never been more proud to call myself a Chef because I finally am.

1 comment:

  1. Paul, I really enjoyed reading this. I know that I might be considered to be just a "tad" biased, but I think you have EVERY right to feel proud to call yourself Chef.