Tips from Top Chefs

What does it take to be a Rising Star Chef? You have to get on that horse and start riding it.

What does it take to be a Rising Star Chef? You have to get on that horse and start riding it.

Austin photo: Event_Rising Stars_Poster

Whether you're interested in entering the kitchen professionaly or just want to know what it takes to enjoy the greatest success as a chef, you can't go wrong listening to the superstars, well, Rising Stars actually, of Central Texas culinary excellence.

On Monday afternoon, 9 Rising Star winners from StarChefs.com, the leading online magazine for culinary insiders, gathered at Austin Community College to welcome culinary students and fellow industry professionals and dole out their best advice for entering the world of cooking and restaurants.

Panel participants included Plinio Sandalio and Josh Watkins of the Carillon, David Bull of Congress and 2nd Bar and Kitchen, Paul Qui and Philip Speer of Uchi and Uchiko, Bryce Gilmore of Barley Swine, Jason Dady of Jason Dady Restaurants in San Antonio, John Bates and Brandon Martinez of Noble Pig and Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn in San Antonio.

 "You have to understand that probably 80 percent of you sitting in this room are not going to make it in this industry." - Chef David Bull 

The discussion was moderated by StarChefs.com Editor and CEO Antoinette Bruno with chefs fielding answers to all sorts of questions including “how long did you spend as a line cook,” and “what are your average food cost and labor cost percentages.” We won’t delve too deeply into the dollars and sense questions, but there were quite a few great ideas brought forward that anyone interested in becoming a chef or owning a restaurant should heed. Her are some of the best:

How much does experience on the line or longterm experience at a restaurant matter?

Philip Speer: Experience matters. Especially the type of experience. We’re always looking for stability when we’re going through resumes. This industry has so much turnover. It’s interesting to look at someone’s resume and see what kind of commitment and loyalty someone has to a restaurant. We are also looking for mobility within the same restaurant. Where did you start and how did you progress while you were there.

How Important is your first restaurant job?

Paul Qui: I think it’s extremely important for a starting chef. The one thing you can control as an aspiring chef is where you send your applications. You have to think about where you’re passionate and about what kind of food you want to work with. It worked for me at Uchi but I was passionate every single day that I walked into that kitchen.

How important is it to have worked abroad?

Michael Sohocki: I’ve lived in Japan and have a house in Osaka. I think if you live anywhere outside of your own culture, [it] will give you a perspective that you couldn’t possibly get where you live now. It will increase your appreciation about the way people live and where food comes from; the identity of that person’s cuisine and culture and, in comparison, your own culture. It will do you good.

David Bull: It’s important to note that for all of you that are about ready to graduate and get into your restaurant career, the time to go is now. If you’re in the industry and you find a good spot locally, you’re likely not going to ever go abroad. So if that’s something you want to do, it’s really important to start that process now.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to working in independent restaurants versus hotel restaurants?

Josh Watkins: The reality is, working in a hotel is like having a giant catering company built into your restaurant. You can buy the best ingredients and the best equipment. You have anything and everything you need to play in a restaurant and a really great support structure.

It’s more challenging because you have to work with the three meal periods a day. But if you show me a rockin’ breakfast cook, I will show you someone that you can make into a tremendous line cook in any environment because it’s so fast-paced. So going through those different meal periods and learning what you need to know to have those skills is really important.

Philip Speer: To any aspiring pastry chefs, it is imperative that you spend some time working in a hotel. It changes the way you look at food in a restaurant as far as an organizational and production standpoint.

As chefs, how many of you are cooking food that you love versus cooking food that you think your diner wants?

David Bull: Without a doubt if you don’t like what you’re serving, then you’re not going to like what you do on a daily basis. What really creates a longevity process with a restaurant is the guests. If you’re talented, people will dig it and keep coming. If you love your food, that’s a plus, but people do have to dig it.

It has to be that balance. We spend a great deal of time researching and making sure that the response to what we do is exactly where it needs to be. I often walk the room and ask my guest if there’s something missing, is the value is correct, is there something they really liked? All of that information is crucial to the longevity in sustaining our success at the restaurant.

John Bates: It’s important to learn the true meaning of hospitality with your guests as well. I think there’s a certain balance of cooking-from-the-heart, where you’re giving exactly what you would love to serve yourself and your family, but at the same time, those people should be your guests. It’s a two-sided affair. You can cook all you want but if you don’t have an audience, it doesn’t matter.

Paul Qui: You have to groom your guests. I could make someone a California Roll at Uchi when I first started, but five years later, that same person will come to me and let me serve them anything I want because they trust me now. They may eat sea urchin or sea cucumber all day long. I think it’s about inspiring your guests to be inspired by you.

How savvy is the Austin diner?

David Bull: It’s a great time to be a cook in this country. Especially in Texas and Central Texas. The attention we’re getting will allow us to take advantage of different styles of food. People are looking for something different. Savviness comes from a trust factor. You have to understand the customer you’re serving and provide that experience and service to build the trust.

But you can’t answer what kind of food does the population want, it’s our job to create that and those experiences and unique flavors. Over the course of the next 5 or 6 years we’ll all develop that together.

Where do you get inspiration?

For Qui and Speer at Uchi it’s in just about anything visual, whether specific colors or a picture of Legos. For Bryce Gilmore it’s finding the time to read and see what other chefs are doing.

Michael Sohocki: All of my ideas come from dead people. The direction that food is moving in a modern kitchen with very fancy gadgets is always going to be a current topic. My original intent with this restaurant was to cook clean and honest food. The deep fryers and blast chillers make easier the job of putting things into an imbalance. And I wanted to go back to the way things were done in the old days so that you can have appreciation for a puree for example, which you won’t find a lot on my menu because it’s a bitch. You have to reconstruct a reality that was based on all handmade things and that gives me a relevance, that gives me a story to tell.

In the end David Bull revealed the hard truth: You have to understand that probably 80 percent of you sitting in this room are not going to make it in this industry. Maybe for the 20 percent of you who are making sure that you make the right choices today, who are deciding to make the commitment and deciding to make the sacrifices, it’s easy. If you have the right work ethic and passion and attention to detail and can execute our direction, you’ll love this career. But if you’re coming into our kitchens expecting the path to be handed to you, it’s not going to happen and it will be very frustrating.

Don’t go through school and the financial sacrifice just to be mediocre. You have to be diligent in your process. You have to make it happen. This is a tremendous culinary city, if you’re not getting involved with it now, it’s time to get started.

Jason Dady: My suggestion would be to ask yourself, What am I doing? Our jobs as chefs is not to give you some grand plan of your career when you step foot in that kitchen. Our job is to get you to do what we need you to do in the 40 hours a week that our government allows us to work without getting paid overtime.

There is a level of investment in yourself that you have to attack every day. In our world, it’s generally known that you are expected to come in 2 hours early. Some people get that. Some people don’t. But I can tell you, those who do give me that extra time are the first ones who go to off-site events, or on special butchery projects.

They get my extra attention because they’re putting in that extra time and personal investment. My advice is to really think about where you want to work. Are you eating at the restaurants where you want to work? Are you traveling around and eating and asking yourself if this is the type of food you want to be making? You’ve got to get on top of that horse and start riding it.

The whole cast of Rising Stars will be on deck Tuesday evening at the Driskill Hotel for the StarChefs.com Rising Stars Gala, a walk-around tasting and awards ceremony that will give diners the opportunity to eat their way through Austin and San Antonio’s top restaurants (and sample beverage pairings by the winning sommelier and mixologist).