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RESTAURANT NOTEBOOK

A Chef Is More Than A Cook

March 22, 1987|COLMAN ANDREWS

"I had a delicious lunch at Max au Triangle over a year ago," writes Arthur Yin of Glendale, "but, to this day, I still wonder what role, if any, did Joachim Splichal (the late restaurant's noted chef) have in that lunch. Similarly, if I have an early (or very late) dinner on a weeknight, would the dinner be prepared by the main chef?"

In fact, Splichal usually was in the kitchen at lunchtime at Max--and "main chefs" are generally at their posts early in the dinner hour (if not necessarily late), except on their days off. The easy answer to Mr. Yin's question, though, is that if the meal was delicious, what does it matter who cooked it? You don't drink the label on a bottle of wine, and you don't eat the reputation of a celebrity chef. In my opinion, the sooner we all get confident enough in our own tastes to realize and admit that, the happier we'll be with what we eat and drink.

Beyond that, though, Mr. Yin's question betrays an all-too-common public misconception of the way a serious restaurant kitchen works--and of just what a chef's job is. There is a story that Paul Bocuse--who roams the world promoting French haute cuisine in general and Paul Bocuse in particular--was once asked, "Who cooks at your restaurant when you're not there?" Bocuse supposedly replied, "The same person who cooks when I am there."

He was presumably referring to Roger Jaloux, his executive chef--whose culinary talents are superlative, and who has been responsible for the particulars of Bocuse's food for years. The point is, though, that in restaurants of any size and sophistication of organization (and I exempt from this places with two- or three-member kitchen staffs), the No. 1 chef is much more than a cook--and, in fact, might very well not even actually cook the food you eat at all.

What does a chef of this kind actually do, then? He or she imposes (or suggests) an overall culinary philosophy, first of all, and then conceives menus (or sets the rules by which they are conceived), develops sources for raw materials, ensures the continued quality of those materials, hires and trains assistants, and so on. Most of all, though, a chef's job on this level is one of management--by which I mean not only physical and psychological coordination of the kitchen, but the education, development and, above all, motivation of the entire cooking staff.

The amount of actual cooking that a head chef does varies greatly from restaurant to restaurant (though, of course, a good chef must be a skilled cook as well as a good manager). But a fine restaurant that turns out inferior food just because el jefe isn't present might not really be that fine a restaurant--and a chef whose absence dramatically affects the performance of his kitchen staff in a negative manner is not a very good chef at all.

TRIDENT MISSIVE: Timothy O'Brien, maitre d' hotel at the lunch-only Trident Room in West Los Angeles (and before that, speak of the devil, at Max au Triangle), reports that he, Trident chef Berty Siegels and Trident catering manager Dean Simon plan to branch out on their own--taking over the West End Garden restaurant on Wilshire in Brentwood and reopening it in August as Timothy's. Redesign of the premises is being done by TLM Interior Designers, and O'Brien promises that the food at the new establishment "will not be trendy, or overpriced, and certainly not camouflaged." He, Siegels and Simon have also incorporated a catering firm, Hoboco Caterers Inc. O'Brien has already left the Trident Room to work full-time on the project, and Siegels and Simon are expected to depart soon--but not, it is promised, without having trained replacements for this pleasantly unexpected eating place.

SALT AND PEPPER: Bruce Neyers of the Phelps and Neyers wineries in the Napa Valley will serve and talk about wines from the former at Gilliland's in Santa Monica on April 5--to the accompaniment of a special menu including crayfish tortillas and roast pork loin with apple-honey allioli . Cost is $45 per person. . . . On the same evening, a superstar collection of chefs--among them Jean-Louis Palladin of Jean-Louis in Washington, Brian Witmer of Montrachet in New York City and L.A.'s own Michel Richard (Citrus), Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (City Restaurant and Border Grill) and the aforementioned Joachim Splichal--will cook an "Art of Dining" banquet at the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach to benefit the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Tickets to the black-tie affair are $150 per person; call (714) 759-1122 for details. . . . And Nancy Silverton, longtime dessert chef at Spago (and teacher of half the other dessert chefs in town, it sometimes seems), offers a class at the Epicurean Cooking School on Friday from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Call (213) 659-5990.

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