In life it pays to work hard, but it also pays to be lucky. I have been a student of the culinary world for 18 years now and not a day goes by that I find myself bored with the industry I fell for as a teenager. Along my career I have been allowed to work with and alongside some of the most talented people in this industry and they have been my mentors, guiding me through what can often be a very treacherous terrain. Now as a chef in my own right I often look back to see how lucky I was to obtain the teachings of these chefs and sous chefs, as well as cooks, and I constantly ask what inspired me as a cook or a sous chef in order for me to keep my focus and continue to push my team in the right direction.
Cookbooks are often the glimpse into a world I wish to understand, to find my way into another chef's kitchen and work beside them, as I did with my past mentors, finding inspiration and guidance through their thought process and explanation of technique. That said, the cookbook is not the same as having human interaction while preparing a meal. Cooking is an experience that involves all of senses. The sounds of a meat grinder processing pork sausage, the smell of fresh butter lightly browning in a pan of herbs and garlic to baste a golden brown piece of lamb. Tasting the salinity of blanching water and knowing what is meant when someone says, "It must taste of the ocean." Those experiences are game changers for cooks and I am certainly the beneficiary of many of these moments. So how do I recreate those moments and afford my team the opportunities to see things from outside our kitchen walls, continue to inspire them and constantly challenge them in order to make our restaurants better, to make each other better?
Reach out and bring people in! Find the people that are great, making a difference in our community culinarily and ask them to be a part of your world, if only for an evening. Since opening The Bristol nearly five years ago and Balena a mere two years ago, our team has been blessed to have many great chefs come to our kitchen and inspire our staff. Chef Mourad Lahlou found his way from Morocco via San Francisco to school our team on refined Moroccan cuisine bringing his magician-like use of spices to the forefront of our menu and pushing our kitchen to further explore the coast of North Africa. Chef Celina Tio, a neighbor of sorts, reaffirmed what it is to be a proud Midwestern restaurant, serving pork sausages, cabbage and copious amounts of beer! Adam Siegel of the Bartolotta Restaurant Group came bearing all things Wisconsin. Grass fed beef, amazing Spring produce, numerous cheeses from Sid Cook of Carr Valley. Sid himself spoke with our staff in depth about his history in Wisconsin as a cheese maker and redefining how Americans thought of cheese with the help of some other courageous cheesemongers throughout the country. Chef Thomas Keller also found himself at home in The Bristol kitchen for an evening as we paid homage to his career as a chef, author, mentor, culinary god and visionary. He ran through both restaurants tasting mis en place, shaking cooks hands, conversing at length with our Chicago audience about his beliefs as a chef, restaurateur, but mostly as a mentor. His ability to take responsibility for each individual that comes through his restaurants as his own, stating that once an individual is hired to ensure they are indoctrinated fully into his culture, that they have all the information and tools necessary to perform their job, so that he can hold each employee to the highest standards possible.
I find it impossible to walk away from these events without wanting to dig deeper, cook better, find more meaningful inspiration, to promote my cooks as professionals, hear their take on the experience, analyze what makes these chefs so great as individuals, and more importantly what makes them better as a team.
It is with these same open-ended inspirations that we will continue to ask for great professionals to come and share their knowledge with us. Michael Ruhlman, whose name rings in the ears of most cooks across the country as "TECHNIQUE," will be joining us at Balena and The Bristol on the 17th of September, 2013. He will be speaking on many subjects on which he has expertise, but specifically the art form of Charcuterie. I look forward to meeting and working with Mr. Ruhlman, who may not own the title of Chef, but who I believe can probably out-cook many professional chefs on a personal level. Perhaps he can become a momentary mentor to all that come to visit with us that day and they can look back on their experience with Mr. Ruhlman as I do so fondly on my interactions with the many talented people that I have been lucky enough to have guide me.