While reality TV shows are more TV than reality, Chef David Blaine of Latah Bistro thinks Hell's Kitchen accurately portrayed the kind of work done by most people in a restaurant kitchen. "They were doing dishes, they were unloading trucks -- they were doing unglamorous tasks," he says. "People pay upwards of $100,000 to go to culinary school, and they don't think about mopping floors. Or washing dishes. And there's no one I know in this industry who doesn't wash dishes. That's a reality."
In The Beginning
As lowly as it seems, dishwashing is the starting point on the path to the top of the kitchen. To a person, each one of these chefs -- Blaine, Adam Hegsted of Brix in Coeur d'Alene, Peter Tobin of Spokane Community College's Inland Northwest Culinary Academy, and Ian Wingate of Moxie -- started out as a dishwasher.
"I was about 14 or 15, living in Massachusetts," Tobin recalls. "I was working in a small French restaurant in Salem as a dishwasher, in the '70s, when French was big. The owner ran a French classical kitchen. She told me, 'You need to go to school for this.' I said, 'You go to school for this?' She got me out to visit the Culinary Institute in New York. As soon as I walked in and saw all those cooks in their whites, I knew I was home. I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life."
He traveled around working at ski resorts -- Waterville Valley, New Hampshire; Taos, New Mexico; Sun Valley, Idaho -- and legendary summer hotels.
"That was a really exciting time in my life," he says. "I had my backpack, and usually I was six months here, six months there. It was a good time. There was a great sense of confidence because I wasn't afraid to walk in anywhere and apply for a job."
Wingate's first love was art -- painting -- but after landing his first job as a dishwasher, he kept moving up in the kitchen hierarchy, gaining valuable cooking experience. "I was taking art classes, but I didn't like the school thing -- the math, the science," he says. "I was cooking at that time -- I was 20, in California -- so I decided to go to the California Culinary Academy, in San Francisco."
Blaine got started in high school as a dishwasher in the banquet room of Spokane's Playfair racetrack. During times when there were few dishes to wash, he did whatever odd projects were needed around the kitchen. "Even though I was a dishwasher, I was exposed to kitchen life," he says. "It was like, 'OK, tomorrow is Sunday brunch, and you'll sit here, and you'll crack 120 dozen eggs.'"
After racing season ended, Blaine got the dishwasher's job at the newly opening Mustard Seed in Spokane Valley. "On my second day, a cook didn't show up, so I got promoted," he remembers with a laugh.
He's worked in other fields, but he always comes back to the kitchen. "Cooking is physically active, which I like," he says. "It's a portable career -- I've moved all over. I don't ever worry about finding a job. And it's a career that conforms to whatever you need schedule-wise. I've always felt like it actually provided me with the flexibility I wanted."
Hegsted also began locally, as a dishwasher at Marie Callendar's on Argonne. "I worked my way up to other things, like line cooking and baking," he says. "I was even assistant manager for a time."
He attended the culinary academy at SCC while working. During his second year, he says, "I developed a passion for the work. I was liking what I was doing, and I knew I wanted to be a chef." After graduation, he moved on to the culinary program at the Art Institute of Seattle, working at the Space Needle restaurant when he wasn't in class. "I had the basics from the community college, and I took those basics -- which are really solid -- to the Art Institute, where they were able to show me how to go to the next level. So it was a really good move for me."
It's 7:40 pm on a Friday night, the middle of the dining rush. Order tickets pour into the kitchen. The chef, the sous chef (second-in-command in the kitchen) and the other chefs and cooks work together as a unit to push the meals across the pass-through to the servers and their customers. When everything is flowing right, it's like a finely choreographed dance -- steaks grilled, sauces created, vegetables saut & eacute;ed, and everything timed so that every dish for a given table comes off the line at the same time, plated, garnished and ready for delivery. Planning ahead is essential, yet every night is an improvisational performance.
"Something that binds us in the industry is the adrenaline rush," says Tobin. "I often compare my work with sports. When you see a well-tuned team of cooks working in a restaurant, it's the Super Bowl. It's an awesome feeling. When you're good at it you don't even have to look at each other."
"It's almost like a production every night, like a play," Wingate says.
"I call it the hum," says Hegsted. "When everything's flowing and everything's busy, you can feel it in the restaurant. I feel like the [orchestra] conductor -- that's exactly what it feels like. And when we do 250 covers in a night and not one complaint, it's a great feeling. We have such a great crew. They're our backbone, they're everything."
Of course, not every night goes smoothly. There are challenges -- someone doesn't show up, someone's having a bad day -- and those inevitable times when a guest sends a plate back to the kitchen.
"I've always felt that we're there to feed those people, and if they're not happy we've got to correct it," Tobin says. "Especially when the rush is on -- just get the problem solved. Stop that whining, don't justify the problem, just fix it."
At Brix, "we fix [the problem] and give them a brand new plate," says Hegsted. "Sometimes I'll bring the food out myself, just to see what was wrong, to let them taste it and make sure it's OK."
Blaine recalls one night when a regular customer became particularly upset over a change in a favorite menu item. "And it wasn't just that it wasn't what he wanted -- he was really upset, like we had tricked him into eating it," he sighs. "That happens."
Still, he tries to keep it all in perspective and realize that, given the volume of meals he makes, someone is going to be disappointed somewhere along the line. "If you're going to get all worked up about it -- well, OK, I kind of got worked up about that one -- but if you took this personally, it would get at you in time," he says. "It's always disappointing when somebody doesn't like something. But I'm only upset when it's avoidable."
What Does It Take?
Given the arduous work, long hours, performance pressures and challenges of working with the public, what kind of person would choose to become a chef? According to these chefs, there's no single cookie-cutter personality that works well in the kitchen, but any potential chef has to share certain traits.
"Every successful person is successful, I think, because they've allowed themselves to let their personality come through," Blaine suggests. "Every kitchen is different, and every time you're in charge of a kitchen you have the opportunity to bend it to your philososphy and beliefs.
"But I'm a firm believer in pyramid hierarchy," he says. "As much as I like collaboration -- I love the team thing -- I think that in order for [a kitchen] to work and be succinct and concise, you have to have one person who says, 'Great, now that we have everybody's opinion, here's what we're going to do.' And that's where my personality comes through."
"I would say the No. 1 thing is probably drive," says Hegsted. "Definitely, because it's a lot of grueling hours. I study a lot -- that's part of the drive for me. I study every day on a new technique, or just anything I can get my hands on. And it takes a certain kind of person to want to do that all the time."
"The main thing, I think, is a palate," adds Wingate. "I've worked with a lot of people who get the education, but they don't have the creativity and the palate. You have to have the palate. And the passion. The drive. Because that's all I do -- I think about food, even when I'm lying in bed. You have to be committed to it 100 percent. I'm here 12, 14 hours a day. Even on my day off, the first thing I do is I get up, and I come down here."
So what about the abusive chefs of legend and reality TV? Wingate says that's an aspect of the kitchen that's fading away. "When I went to school, I saw how chefs were -- they were domineering and loud," he says. "But nowadays you can't be like that. Usually, the ones who yell, they're the ones who are disorganized. They're only mad at themselves, but they take it out on everyone else in a tirade.
"You've got to be organized, so you don't yell," he laughs. "You have to be a day ahead of yourself, always."
Tobin has not only worked as a chef himself, he has taught a generation of cooks and chefs, including Hegsted.
"You have to be a good cook before you can be a chef," he says. "And it takes time and a ton of effort and passion to become a good cook. You have to deal with pressure. You have to turn pressure into energy. People who internalize that pressure blow up.
"When I see good cooks, their thinking slows down the busier it is," he continues. "And you better have passion about it, because there's a dark side to the restaurant business. But that passion trumps everything bad. You get in there, there's a person next to you working, and it all comes together. Cooks won't let you down, because they don't want to let anyone down. I think cooks are like blues singers -- they can do a thousand things right, but they dwell on the negative."
Despite the pressures, these four chefs say they can't imagine another career. "I can't think of anything else that I'd rather do," Wingate says. With a laugh, he adds, "The only thing would be to sit home all day and paint, but that doesn't pay the bills."
"Oh, man, I've got a good lifestyle," says Blaine while gearing up for the Friday night rush. "I get up, I have breakfast with my family, I go ride my bike for a couple of hours, I come in to work, I eat really good food, I joke around, I listen to whatever music I want. I get free clothes when I show up, and I don't even have to wash them. Yeah, there are a lot of plusses here."
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