Onyx reviews: The Seasoning of a
Chef by Doug and Michael Psaltis
To the outside world, the life of a chef seems glamorous. They work in
pristine white garb and flit through the kitchen creating elegantly presented
savory works without breaking a sweat.
Doug Psaltis is here to set the record straight. The grandson of a Greek
immigrant, his life in the kitchen began when he went to work lugging sacks of
potatoes in his grandfather’s restaurant and follows an arc that takes him
through some of the finest Manhattan establishments all the way to the kitchens
of world-renowned Alain Ducasse.
Psaltis identifies two kinds of cooks: those who are just putting in the
hours doing what is asked of them, and those who take jobs to learn. Psaltis
clearly falls into the latter category. Even the best-rated restaurants
eventually reach a point where they stagnate. They still produce first-class
food, but the menu is no longer evolving. Cooks-for-hire are happy to follow an
established routine. Aspiring chefs will realize it’s time to move on.
Kitchens are not spacious workspaces. In many establishments, they’re
crowded with cooks and support staff working the various stages in meal service.
Some cooks do only pastry or bread preparation, others concentrate on fish or
meat, still others do the appetizers or desserts. Often they vie for stovetop
space while attempting to coordinate the components of a meal so that everything
is ready at the same time. An overly efficient kitchen will stress the servers
who interface directly with the clientele. It’s all about pace and rhythm, but
it’s also about rank and status, with cooks competing for the more prestigious
positions in the kitchen.
It’s an exhausting life that leaves little room for anything else. Cooks
often work sixteen-hour days, six days a week. They arrive early to prepare the
mise en place, the ingredients required for particular dishes. Peel the
potatoes, filet the fish, set things up so that when the time comes everything
is ready. During the heat of mealtime rush, cooks routinely cut themselves with
their knives and burn themselves on pans and stovetops. It’s a lot like show
business—the show must go on despite injuries.
For cooks with aspirations, days off are rarely spent relaxing. Psaltis
routinely visited other kitchens, doing unpaid, menial work to learn how things
are done elsewhere, essentially interning for possible future jobs. He rises
through the ranks, gaining a reputation that eventually leads him to an elevated
position in Ducasse’s new Manhattan restaurant, which affords him the chance
to travel to other restaurants in the Ducasse empire in France and Monte Carlo.
Psaltis has strong opinions about the right and wrong way to run kitchens.
Even when he’s a lowly pastry cook, he’s studying operations to prepare
himself for the day he gets to run his own kitchen or restaurant. Ducasse makes
him chef de cuisine—the highest position in a kitchen where the chef is not
involved in daily operations—at his new restaurant Mix, but Psaltis discovers
his ideas are in conflict with the other half of the business, the management,
where the almighty dollar trumps the chef’s aspirations.
It’s clearly a job that only someone who loved cooking could survive.
Psaltis has the insider’s perspective and does a fine job of conveying the
different personalities he has worked with—both his colleagues and coworkers,
and the different kitchens themselves, each of which has its own unique flavor.
It’s an eye-opening look at a profession that few diners ever see, and a stark
contrast to the gussied-up version of cooking that is shown on The Food Channel.
The Seasoning of a Chef is co-written with Psaltis’s twin brother
Michael, who is this reviewer’s literary agent.
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