Inside the Kitchen: Chef Q&As

Unlike bartenders and servers, restaurant cooks tend to do all the work behind the scenes, where their incredible work can go unappreciated by guests.

That’s why we wanted to talk to these chefs, and get their perspective what it’s like working back there—prepping, cooking, plating, portioning, and doing the nonverbal dance of the kitchen. Is it anything like The Bear on Hulu? We’ll let them tell you.

Kitchen Manager Andrew Manion, Basalt

What’s your favorite part of working in a kitchen?

There’s actually a lot I love and I could probably go on forever about our kitchen and staff, but for the sake of time, I’ll try to narrow it down to my top three. 

Predictability. On face value, it’s a boring word that elicits images of mundane drudgery, but it’s the best feeling in the world to predict and address a need before it becomes glaringly obvious. If I had a motto to emblazon next to my nonexistent coat of arms, it would be “No Surprises.” One of my chief goals in inventory and prep and all the work that leads up to the marathon of weekend brunch-rush is to have my team not walk into any ambushes. No unexpected shortages. No accidents that waste a bunch of product. Having everything go exactly as planned is the sweetest feeling in the world, especially when you’ve experienced the opposite.

 Teamwork. It’s sublime when the line is running like a machine. When you’ve worked with someone else long enough to be able to read and understand each other. To be able to not say anything at all and see a teammate go right so you go left. You’re reaching out your hand and I’m already leaning over to catch. But as cool as nonverbal communication feels, verbal communication is absolutely necessary. My friends watch The Bear and joke about the kitchen shorthand jargon: “Corner! Behind! Heard!” It’s like having blinkers on your body and allows us to move effectively and efficiently. I love that I work in a field that has a dialect that is understood in nearly every other kitchen. 

The Process. This is my favorite. It may sound cliché or naïve, but seeing and making a dish evolve from a concept to an incarnation on a plate is fun as hell. A massive amount of the food we make at Basalt is from scratch and raw ingredients. When you taste our green chicken chorizo, you’re tasting chicken that I’ve ground myself. It’s been mixed with a handful of different peppers, herbs, and spices. You toss it on the grill, scramble in an egg, crumble up a hashbrown and top it with some cheese and you have our Mommy Dearest taco. 

What is on your plate at Sunday morning brunch is the culmination of a week-long process and I’ve witnessed every step of it. Every kitchen has its chemistry, alchemy, and sorcery and I feel privileged to be initiated in the mystical arts of ours.

On the flipside, what’s your pet peeve?

Our restaurant is on the smaller side, and our kitchen is tiny in comparison to other popular spots in town. As we’ve grown busier as a brunch spot on the weekends, the wait time between ordering and receiving food has obviously grown proportionally. While the vast majority of our wonderful customers understand this concept, a small minority fail to realize the correlation. It makes no logical sense to complain about the amount of time you’ve had to wait for your food when every seat in a restaurant is full, but people do it anyway. 

Another thing that annoys me is that a handful of people in our region have a preconceived notion that Mexican food = cheap. They will audibly balk at our prices without considering the quality of our ingredients and products, let alone the somewhat racist logic behind thinking that ethnic food must naturally be inexpensive.

What’s your favorite dish at Basalt?

My personal favorite dish to eat is our Breakfast Burrito. And I’m not alone - it is by far and away our most popular item. Many other spots in town have their own version, but ours is phenomenal. While it may not necessarily be complicated or intricate, it is my number one go-to after a long shift of working the grill. It is tasty. It is filling. And it’s an amazing cure if you ever have a hangover.

Chef de Cuisine Shelly Rash, 1983 Restaurants

What’s your favorite part of working in a kitchen? 

Actually, it is preparing food. I really enjoy taking food from a primal raw state and taking it through the process to its end product. Whether that be meat and fish production or making a sauce from a homemade stock.

What’s your pet peeve?

I have no negative thoughts on customer requests or feedback. My least favorite part is the ornery cooks.

What’s your favorite dish at your current place of work?

My favorite dish at Seventy Six is the Duroc Pork Chop, served with bacon hashbrowns, and a brown butter maple glaze.

What do you wish more people knew about restaurant cooks?

That for the most part, we are very passionate about what we do. We enjoy serving the public, yet it often feels like we are thought of and treated like second class citizens.

Kitchen Staff, Linear

What’s your favorite part of working in a kitchen? 

The kitchen staff at Linear would suggest that the best part of working in a kitchen would be the amount of challenges you face on a daily basis. There is so much to learn, physical body management, multiple cultures and cuisine to pull from and the techniques involved in all the preparation that there is never a dull moment. The chaotic atmosphere in which we work to take raw ingredients and transform them into beautiful edible finished products in such a hot and dangerous with very little time offers a rush unlike any other. 

What’s your pet peeve?

Collectively, it’s a sense of entitlement and miseducation when it comes to food and drink. We get an abundance of requests to alter composed dishes that the hardworking chefs these days spend hours thinking about, working out R&D and finalizing. A large amount of time and thought goes into flavors, plating, honesty, integrity and let us not forget cost. There’s a rise in the cost of goods and a desire from the general public to continue to pay the same prices. Let’s keep in mind to please be nice and considerate to the folks who serve you food and drinks, we’re all just humans working toward the same goal: Good food, drink and service!

What’s your favorite dish?

The favorite dish that we prepare based on the current menu and after a fun interview process has turned out to be the duck breast. We use an 8 oz. Maple Leaf duck breast from a family-owned company in Indiana, we sear the skin to a nice crispy texture rendering out some of the fat but leaving some for added flavor, being finished to a nice medium rare. The rest of the dish is composed of a blend of fresh summer squash, sugar snap peas, braised pearl onions, duck glacé and wrapped up with a nice pea purée.

Executive Chef Henry Ditmar, Salt of the Earth

What’s your favorite part of working in a kitchen?

Creativity and camaraderie.

What’s your pet peeve?

When guests have an unfavorable visit and don’t allow us the opportunity to make the situation right (by not informing us of the problem) but run home and leave a one-star review.

What’s your favorite dish?

Vegan curry risotto served with black beans, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, with a maple chile sauce. Or: Scallops served with farro, brussel sprouts, parsnips topped with sweet chili oil.

What would you like people to know?

The heart of the kitchen is a machine that works hard in difficult environments to produce a meal that adds to the experience of dining out. Cooks want to be appreciated for the work they do. In addition, you can get sustenance anywhere, but do you walk away feeling that you had a good experience? Our part is to create food that is pleasing to the senses, not just filling the stomach, and if that means working with the guest on their dietary restriction, we’ll do our best to accommodate.

Commissary Chef Jameson Maspaitella, All In Hospitality Catering

What’s your favorite part of working in a kitchen?

At this point in my career, teaching is my favorite part of the job.

What’s your pet peeve?

I wish customers would tell the servers when things are wrong so we can correct it immediately.

What’s your favorite dish at your current place of work?

Staff meal.

What do you wish more people knew?

Most cooks are adult children.

Line Cook Trainer Tyler Hulet, HopCat

Favorite part of the kitchen?

Working in a kitchen requires someone with ambition and motivation to stay busy and productive. It is a job that simply can exhaust you. This is largely what my favorite part about working in a kitchen is. I go home feeling accomplished. I work all day making good food and putting smiles on customers’ faces and at the end of the day, I feel like I have done something with my day.

What’s your pet peeve?

My largest pet peeve would have to be the lack of organization with those who are around me. With every station I work on, I tend to find an efficient way to create the highest quality product in the shortest amount of time. I find working with others who might not organize like me to be troubling. At the end of the day, I have worked in restaurants long enough to be able to overcome this pet peeve and make the best of what I have.

What’s your favorite dish?

Our killer mac. Simply put, it is the best thing on our menu simply because of our reward-winning cheese sauce. It is also one of our products that is easy to manipulate. Adding marinated tomatoes or brisket are some great options.

What would you like people to know?

Being a cook can be rough sometimes. Most of the time we work shifts that can prevent us from being with our families. During those holiday dinner times when you are eating with your family, we are the ones making your food. Also, be nice to your servers and always leave a tip. 

Chef de Cuisine Chloe Goebel, Café Mamo

What’s your favorite part of working in the kitchen?

There’s always something going on (whether it’s good or bad). Also having the opportunity to always learn new things, new produce, skills, and adapt to different situations keeps things interesting. Working in an open kitchen and being able to interact with people and see their reactions is really cool.

What’s your pet peeve?

Rude, entitled people. We’re people too, and a little respect goes a long way. Also when a four top comes in and everyone orders the same thing. We have a really small menu, get a few different things and share, explore and get something new.

What’s your favorite dish?

Hard to pick a favorite since our menu changes every week, but I really enjoy making the pasta. We try to have at least one or two pasta dishes on the menu, and learning new shapes and techniques each week is a lot of fum.

What would you like people to know?

For most chefs, it’s not just a “job”, it’s a career and way of life. We’ve worked long, hard hours over the years learning what we do. Our menus are written the way they are because we put a lot of time and thought into them. Trust that we know what we’re doing in trying to create the best experience for you.

Sous Chef Dan Knapp, Café Mamo

Favorite part of cooking?

Lately, it’s been the opportunity for a connection back to the land where we live and the agricultural side of the industry. We are spoiled here in West Michigan in terms of our access to great farms and the variety of quality food that they bring so working directly with farmers like we do at Mamo and understanding the bigger food picture better is exciting to me.

What’s your pet peeve?

The lack of trust or adventure that is sometimes displayed by guests. Kitchens work endless hours to create dishes and menus a certain way to reflect how they feel about food, so modifications or substitutions due to preference can be annoying. Asking for more salt falls under that umbrella for me as well. 

What would you like people to know?

The amount of hard work that goes on day in and day out. Kitchen life, and restaurant life in general, is rarely glamorous and involves a lot of long hours in a hot, fast-paced environment to make it all work. We wouldn’t work as hard as we do without loving food in some way though.

Executive Chef Lorne May, The Winchester

What’s your favorite part of working in a kitchen? 

The challenge. I’m someone that requires a constant challenge to be able to perform. In a kitchen, there is always something that is challenging my ability to be a better leader/chef/manager. I learn something on an almost daily basis, whether it’s from one of my dishwashers, or all the way up to an owner. It’s a great way to be challenged and learn, in a relatively “low stakes” environment.  

What’s your favorite dish at Winchester? 

Got to be the Butter Chicken. My team and I worked really hard on creating a very traditional and excellent tasting creamy tomato butter sauce, yogurt marinated chicken, with some beautifully cooked rice and naan bread. It’s a must try.  

What would you like people to know?

How hard this job can actually be. Many people are working long hours, difficult shifts, with low staff in a fast-paced environment, on their feet all day. The job can feel thankless at times and really beats people down. I wish more people understood how hard working in a kitchen can be. I spent almost 8 years as a Combat Medic in the Army, and I have had some of my most challenging and hard days as a restaurant employee. These guys really grind out and work so hard to give people an amazing experience with great food.