The Right Recipe: Spy Inside 5 Killer Kitchens
Executive chefs often are given much of the credit for their restaurants’ success, but that praise would be hard to bestow if each did not lead an outstanding kitchen brigade.
This year, our independent restaurant review panel celebrates five Killer Kitchens — the teams of largely unsung sous chefs, line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers who work behind the executive chefs to ensure their restaurants always are firing on all cylinders.
PHOTOS BY LAURA PETRILLA
Front, left to right: Joshua Hicks, assistant butcher; Matt Owens, line cook; Jessica George, sous chef. Back, left to right: Douglas Bowers, dishwasher; Andy Gartside, line cook; David Johns, sous chef; Christopher Shuplock, line cook; Kevin Brown, line cook; Tyler Mossman, head butcher; Tim Majarian, line cook; Thomas Lonardo, sous chef; Elliot Pople, line cook; Devalle Bennett, dishwasher; Devin Tucker, line cook; Beautia Dew, pastry cook; Amanda Barbano, pastry chef.
Inset: Trevett Hooper, Executive Chef/Co-owner. Not pictured: Megan Fenell, line cook; John Locke, dishwasher; Elliott Townsend, sous chef
By 1:30 in the afternoon, the bright kitchen at Legume in Oakland is abuzz with the sounds of knives cleaving through goat shanks, house-blend hamburgers sizzling on the stove and carrots chopped rat-a-tat-tat.
Action slows while Executive Chef/Co-owner Trevett Hooper gives his team of sous chefs and line cooks the rundown for the day. He’s been here since the morning, prepping for the day alongside pastry chef Amanda Barbano, sous chef Jessica George and her lunch team. The rest of the brigade came in a few hours later, earlier than a traditional call for evening chefs. Hooper says he believes that the more prep work each chef does for his or her station, the more he or she will be invested in contributing to a top-notch restaurant.
“This place attracts people who are interested, dedicated and curious about what they are doing. My hope is that the more engaged they are the more they want to learn, and the more they want to learn, the more they want to give to the restaurant,” Hooper says.
He gives a lot of the credit for Legume’s consistency to the team he’s built over the past seven years. For example, evening sous chef David Johns translates Hooper’s broad vision into specific platings.
“My strength, in terms of process, is much more about the big picture. David’s strength is looking at things up close [and] putting the touches on it. He’s able to take what I do and make it better,” he says.
Downstairs, Hooper’s quest to use whole animals sourced directly from local ranchers is interpreted by lead butcher Tyler Mossman. Mossman also works alongside Hooper preparing vegetables for the restaurant’s ambitious fermentation program.
During the growing season, when produce rolls in from Pittsburgh-area farms, it’s all hands on deck for canning and preserving, so Pennsylvania produce still can be used during the colder months.
“We have to keep it interesting for our chefs to work here,” Hooper says.
Left to right: Nate Hobart, chef de cuisine (will move to Morcilla); Aaron Hoskins, chef de cuisine (incoming); Justin Severino, Executive Chef/Co-owner; Zachary Behm, sous chef; Max Scribner, line cook; Connor Mabon, prep cook; Michael Hoffman, garde manger Not pictured: Colin Anderson, cocktail chef
"A huge part of why I opened a place with this few seats is that I wanted to have a relationship with everybody [who] works in the kitchen,” says Cure Executive Chef/Co-owner Justin Severino.
Glance over at the open kitchen from any of the 44 seats, and it’s clear that the chefs working with Severino are a tight-knit crew. There is a resonant energy of cohesion and commitment in Cure’s kitchen while the chefs spend hours together prepping dishes such as squid-ink and leek-ash gnudi with Jamison Farm lamb-heart Bolognaise before service starts at 5 p.m.
“A lot of new cooks want to be a big-time chef, but they’re not willing to do what it takes to get there. People that we hire to work here have to be willing to put in the work, or they won’t work out,” Severino says.
Chef de cuisine Nate Hobart started working with Severino when he was just 17; he’ll soon be chef de cuisine at Severino’s new restaurant, Morcilla. Aaron Hoskins, formerly of The Rogue Gentlemen in Richmond, Va., will step in as chef de cuisine of Cure.
“I knew Nate was going to be a great chef one day,” Severino says. “If I put my time and energy into working with him, he’d get a lot out of it, and I’d have someone on my team who could grow into someone I’d work with for a really long time.”
Severino says that he’s determined to keep Cure moving on an upward trajectory. Sometimes the changes he makes are noticeable, and sometimes they’re small. The restaurant opened with second-hand kitchen equipment and cheap flatware. But every year Severino and his wife, Hilary Prescott Severino, make improvements; for example, they’ve installed a fancy new “space oven,” a larger space for the restaurant’s famous charcuterie program and, this year, a much-expanded and upgraded kitchen.
More than anything, Severino says that instead of an old-school generalissimo-based approach to kitchen management, his custom of showing respect to his staff is what has helped Cure to gain national attention.
“Don’t manage people with fear and stress,” he says. “Hold yourself accountable for what happens. Be present, both physically and mentally.”
Left to right: Rob Livingston, line cook; Terrill Orr, line cook; Adam To, sous chef; Brandon Fisher, Executive Chef; Danielle Felix, line cook; Gary Owens, line cook
Not pictured: Eddie Byas, dishwasher
Salt of the Earth
Executive Chef Brandon Fisher, sous chef Adam To and their crew of four line cooks work in an open kitchen to keep Salt of the Earth one of the most interesting restaurants in the city.
“We want to make sure people who come here for new dishes can always get that but also that people feel comfortable even if they’re not adventurous diners,” says Fisher.
Those new dishes often begin during Fisher and To’s weekly planning sessions.
“On Monday mornings, chef and I will sit down together and brainstorm ideas. We’ll go over the menu, we’ll look at cookbooks and we’ll talk about what’s in season,” To says.
There are a few menu templates such as “Soup” and “Sashimi” that change with the seasons. The two chefs also will hear from the line cooks about dishes that are close to being on the menu but are not quite working as intended. Fisher and To are not afraid to make adjustments.
“That kind of feedback helps us to make the changes we need to make,” says Fisher.
For example, a pork dish with both chop and belly took a few iterations to get just right. Fisher and To went back and forth about what was on the plate, and then they got feedback from the rest of the team. Eventually they turned an herb component into an oil and modified couscous with soffrito to add depth of flavor. The dish became a hit.
For To, the base criterion for what makes Salt popular is simple: “When I look at our menu, I want to see that it’s a restaurant that I’d also be excited to eat at,” he says.
The only thing that’s sacred is The Burger, a leftover from the restaurant’s now-ended late-night menu. “That’s not going anywhere,” says Fisher.
Left photo (left to right): Selena Orkwis, line cook; Jeff Shannon, line cook; Ben McKinney, line cook; Jamar McCray, line cook; Michael Head, line cook
Right photo (left to right): Eli Wahl, Executive Chef; Dan Okren, line cook; Rashad Grant, prep cook; Chelsea Schnuerle, pastry cook; Tim Kearns, sous chef
Not pictured: Kelly Debor, pastry chef; Joshua Hawkins, dishwasher/prep cook; Jack Martin, sous chef; Alex Mellon, dishwasher/prep cook; Alvaro Romero Moreno, line cook; Nicodemus Newman, dishwasher/prep cook; Nate Prough, line cook; Samira Seibaa, pastry assistant; David Simmons, dishwasher/prep cook; Marty Sons, sous chef; Marcus Taylor, dishwasher/prep cook
Eli Wahl, executive chef of Casbah in Shadyside, says that his kitchen’s reputation for consistent excellence over the years starts with a straightforward recipe.
“I have good people working here,” he says.
Wahl oversees a staff of 20 sous chefs, pastry chefs, line cooks and dishwashers. On any given night, line cooks are working at four stations. The garde manger preps salads, works the fryer and warms items. The grill cook works the grill and warms lamb in the ever-enticing “Shank Tank.” The sauté cook finishes pasta, whitefish and gnudi. At the middle station, sets are prepared for the grill cook, checks are run and appetizers are finished.
Wahl says his three sous chefs all have complementary strengths that help to create a system of cohesion before and during service.
Tim Kearns rose through the Casbah ranks and is able to run just about any part of the operation. “He’s the one that’s worked here as a cook the longest. He’s worked all the stations. He’s so strong,” Wahl says.
Marty Sons is full of ambition and helps to keep systems in place. “When he was a cook, we trusted him with the keys,” says Wahl. “He’d get here at 7 a.m. because he was so committed.”
Jack Martin adds an important outside voice to the kitchen brigade. “He came here with a bunch of experience. He’s a really good cook,” Wahl says.
Hardworking dishwashers are the unsung heroes of most restaurant kitchens — even more so at Casbah, where they also handle a good chunk of the restaurant’s prep work, covering everything from stemming Swiss chard to popping peas from their pods. “They’re essential to what we do here,” says Wahl.
Prep cook Rashad Grant started as a dishwasher and now is responsible for making sure the walk-in refrigerator is stocked, the bones are roasted and the stocks are moving for everything to be ready for the next day.
“We have great systems in place here,” Wahl says. “They work.”
Left to right: Melanie Krawiec, sous chef; Michael Taylor, sous chef; Bethany Zozula, executive sous chef; Derek Stevens, Executive Chef; Cindy Ambrocio, line cook; Melissa Fritz, line cook; Deontai Holloman, line cook; Matthew Taylor, prep cook; Rosa Betzaida, prep cook; Brendon McMahon, line cook; Will Marrow, bread baker; Nicole Richman, bread baker (front); Michael Shephard, line cook; Julie Martin, pastry chef; Ericka Kulan, pastry cook; Stephanie Davis, line cook; David Kirk, line cook; Paul Murphy, dishwasher; Shane Lee, dishwasher; Juan Valencia, line cook. Not pictured: Jasmine Blackshear, line cook; Gage Brady, dishwasher; Justin Crawford, line cook; Bahati Muya, dishwasher
Eleven Contemporary Kitchen
Around 9 a.m., the kitchen at Eleven in the Strip gets moving. Executive Chef Derek Stevens or executive sous chef Bethany Zozula check the huge dry-erase board outside the refurbished closet that Stevens calls his office. Once the master list of stations, prep list, orders and butchery projects is updated, the day begins.
It takes a strong hand to run a brigade as large as the team at Eleven. Stevens, who opened the restaurant in 2004 as executive sous chef, is the right person to do it. “I have high expectations of people,” he says.
That begins with Zozula, who started as a cook and over the years has taken on more responsibility for the daily rhythm of the restaurant.
“She knows this kitchen inside out,” Stevens says.
Shortly after Stevens and/or Zozula start their day, prep cooks Rosa Betzaida and Matthew Taylor arrive. Betzaida started at Eleven as a dishwasher shortly after the restaurant opened; now she makes fresh pasta, crab cakes and just about anything else Stevens throws her way.
Taylor is the “utility guy,” says Stevens. He preps vegetables, strains stocks and makes soups. He’s also responsible for the staff meal — a big deal at Eleven, which has a back-of-house staff of about 20. Taylor says that Taco Tuesdays especially are popular.
Line cooks at Eleven are trained to specialize on specific stations, but management also thinks it’s important for them to learn as much as they can about how the kitchen operates. To that end, when it’s a little bit slower, they’re rotated to train on a new station.
It’s helpful that the kitchen crew largely has been stable for the past few years. Stevens says that stability in a large part comes from a change he made in his own management style: Instead of micromanaging everything, he says, “I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s important to trust people to do their job.”