Under the Top Chef: Sous chefs keep restaurant kitchens running

Helen Freund looks behind the scenes at local restaurants


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In a scene from the HBO series Treme, Eric Ripert, celebrity New York chef and owner of Le Bernardin, takes aside Janette Desautel, a fictional character loosely based on New Orleans chef Susan Spicer, to pepper her with some words of wisdom from his career.

  "Friends, lovers, marriage — they come and go," he says. "But your sous chef — that's a life-long relationship."

  Though those words are from a script, the sentiment is the real deal, echoed by chefs all over the world when reflecting on their second in command.

  "It's like a marriage in many ways," says chef Frank Brigtsen, whose longtime sous chef Larry Herbert has worked beside him at his Riverbend restaurant for 25 years. Together, they've been through thick and thin, from broken plumbing to hurricanes.

  "You have these unspoken understandings and synchronicity," Brigtsen says. "It's made my life so much easier. He's like family."

  In our food-obsessed times, when cooking can generate cult celebrity status, the names of famous chefs roll off the tongue like a slippery pearl of caviar. But sous chefs — even at the best-known restaurants — remain relatively unknown.

  Sous chefs may toil behind the scenes before gaining recognition. Trey Herty was the executive sous chef at John Besh's Restaurant August, a sous chef at Phillip Lopez's Root and worked at Chicago's Blackbird and The Publican restaurants, before moving to the Brown Butter Southern Kitchen & Bar last year.

  "The best thing about being a sous chef is that you're still kind of grounded and able to work behind the scenes," Herty says. "Every restaurant is different, but sous chefs generally still work the line shifts, which is what lures most of us to stay in the kitchen anyway."

  While the big names and executive chefs may dominate conversation about the restaurant world, many people don't realize how the structure in professional kitchens actually works — and that the person running the show isn't always who you think it is. Together with the executive chef or chef de cuisine and general manager, the sous chef helps communicate the kitchen's needs to the front of the house so the restaurant runs harmoniously. On good days, it is akin to a well-oiled machine; on others, it can be closer to a mess of grinding gears.

  Not all kitchens have the same structure, and depending on the restaurant's size and the scope of the menu, the chain of command can vary. Still, chef August Escoffier's time-honored brigade de cuisine is still the most widely mimicked setup in the industry and breaks down the kitchen hierarchy in a flow chart of positions starting with the commis chefs, junior cooks usually saddled with a number of tasks and prep work, to the restaurant's top dog, the executive chef.

  The trajectory of any given chef varies. Some attend prestigious culinary institutions, some learn everything in their mother's kitchen and others get a foot in the door by starting as a dishwasher or at the salad station before working their way up the hot line. In its most perfect form, the kitchen line is a meritocracy, where ability, hard work and dedication are rewarded.


  "Sous chefs are grown from within," Brigtsen says. "That speaks to their quality and their value. So much more so than any other position, it's a position that's earned."

  So, what does a day in the life of a sous chef look like? To start, sous chefs are looking at a 60- to 70-hour workweek. There's never been much beating around the bush when it comes to describing the hardships and long hours of kitchen life, but sous chefs have a particularly long haul. Because the position tends to be a salaried job, sous chefs often make less while working longer hours than some of the staff they supervise.

  Ross Dover, a sous chef at Restaurant August, says his 70-hour work week often rolls into his days off.

  "It can get really tough," Dover says. "Your free time is mainly spent thinking about the restaurant. You have days off, but there are always people calling you, asking you questions."

  The position also is very much a managerial one, from making sure orders from vendors and foragers arrive on time to last-minute menu tweaks when they don't, to dealing with scheduling and staffing issues and overseeing dinner service.

  Coquette chef Michael Stoltzfus says that while he was a sous chef at Restaurant August, his job was "basically making sure that the restaurant was ready to go every day."

  That meant getting to the restaurant in the morning before everyone else and assembling a long — and seemingly neverending — checklist: Did the produce orders get delivered on time? Is the fish fresh enough? What to do with that extra stock from yesterday? Is the new line cook working out?

  "It's always been the hardest job in the kitchen," says Alon Shaya, executive chef and partner of Shaya, Domenica and Pizza Domenica restaurants. "Middle management is always the toughest position."

  But the job is a highly coveted one, giving chefs the ability to grow while working one-on-one with their mentor. It enables them to learn while testing their creative boundaries, helping out with menu design while simultaneously learning how to manage the day-to-day operations at the restaurant in case they might want to run their own one day.

  "It's really such a great way to learn," says Katie Juban, who works as the sous chef at Sylvain under chef Martha Wiggins.

  "When you're finally in that position where you can spread your wings ... It's a real feeling of accomplishment."

Read about the chefs and the food at Gambit's 2016 Emerging Chefs Challenge.


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