The first time I stepped into the role of a chef in a commercial venture was at the back counter — a slapped together wooden structure covered with linoleum and cluttered with boxes, purses, employee jackets and some cans of outdated string beans that had not found there way to a shut-in´s cabinet- at The Crocus Hill Market. Bill Helfman had fired up the one-burner hot plate. The rubber wrapped cord dressed in black electrical tape of the 1960´s vintage apparatus would heat up quickly, Helfman assured as he filled the 5 quart pan with water and proceeded to explain the steps involved in making the market’s famous Chicken Wild Rice Salad. The dish, according to the self appointed chef d´ cuisine, had topped the to-go menu sales performance sheet for the past 51 weeks as though it were a foodie handbook on the New York Times Bestseller List.
“After the rice is boiled, mix the grapes, chickens, and celery together. Make sure you pull of all the skin from the chicken legs. Mrs. Scanlon sent an entire container back a few Saturdays ago because she found a piece of skin in the container. She hates the skin. Add about this much Mayo and then add the salt, the onions, and the peppers. Mix it up real good in this silver bowl over here. You can keep it in this bowl in the cooler just make sure you put some Saran Wrap on top so nothing gets into it. Put it in the cooler for an hour before you put it in the case and everything should be fine.” Helfman´s words of advice stuck with me throughout my career as a restaurant owner.
Those were the first cooking instructions I had received from the previous owner of the market who was spending a few days explaining the techniques Kranston and the team would need to make the business a success.
What a nightmare. A hot plate, a silver bowl and a counter top strewn with health hazards waiting to happen.
Thank God for Moms. Mine taught me the basics of a well run Italian kitchen. I much prefer tuning up a Cassoulet than a Mercedes and am very thankful to my mentor for all the knowledge she shared.
It was definitely her influence that led me to view style as a business asset and the techniques she taught while at the stove that propelled me to delve deeper into the world of Chicken Wild Rice Salad. Had it not been for the instructions at an early age on the procedure for breading a chicken cutlet, or preparing Lasagna, or making Ravioli from scratch, I never would have tossed the one burner hot plate and entertained visions of an eatery with a real stove- or at least a two burner hot plate.
The ability to cook is an essential asset for every restaurant owner. You could very well succeed without a certificate from the nearest neighborhood culinary school. But you at least need to know basic kitchen techniques that can help you in a bind. Without any culinary skills you could be in trouble.
That is a position you never want to be in. You don´t need the credential of Batali, Keller, Emeril, or Boulud, but you should at least know whether the meat thermometer melts if left in the pork loin.
If you have dreams and desires to open that new restaurant, make sure you get some kitchen experience even if you never plan on being in front of the stove.Don’t think you need to become the chef- hire someone else for that role- and give them the room to roam and explore and experiment- but learn the basics of cooking. In the long run it will help you, and, it will also give you a better foundation to discuss the menu with your head chef when you need to discuss his journey.