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Chefs of a Certain Age

What happens when you're no longer a hot young cook?

September 20, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Certain fields, most notably modeling, acting and rock 'n' roll, favor the young. Cooking doesn't have such a bias. Chefs are judged according to what's on the plate and possibly on their resumes: what restaurants they've worked at and what big names they've worked under.

Age? It's a nonissue. Or is it?

That depends on whom you ask and what headlines you read. Certainly the glossy food magazines heap an inordinate amount of attention on young hot chefs. And most restaurant critics seem to muster far more enthusiasm of a bright new 27-year-old fresh out of culinary school than they do for, say, a 30-year veteran of the business.

"The young ones do attract more attention," says Mimi Hebert, 59, chef-owner of Chez Mimi in Santa Monica, a cozy boi^te beloved for French classics such as steak au poivre and trout amandine. "But you're more quiet and more settled when you've been in the business a while."

In part, at least, that's how professional cooking has changed in the last 15 years. These youngsters have entered the business at a time when chefs, now featured 24/7 on their own cable network, have achieved celebrity status.

So though the veterans may be accustomed to staying behind the stoves, the kids, hungry for their 15 minutes, do their dining room catwalks. They take time to mingle and answer questions, hoping to insert themselves in the diners' minds: attach a face to a name; create the beginning of a buzz.

They're eager for the big time, especially those who have graduated from prestigious cooking schools.

"Upon graduation, they say, 'I want to be an executive chef or a sous-chef,' " says Roger Pigozzi, 52, former executive chef at the Regal Biltmore downtown. Pigozzi, who'd been with the hotel 14 years, quit last month to become vice president of the ONami restaurant group, a chain of Asian seafood buffet restaurants scattered throughout Southern California. The chain of six restaurants is expected to expand rapidly in the coming months.

When Pigozzi graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1969, he says, "the advice was 'Keep your mouths shut and your eyes open and in five years, maybe you'll be ready for a sous-chef position.' "

Pigozzi's first job, after a brief stint at a modest Gloucester, Mass., seafood restaurant, was as breakfast chef in the coffee shop of the Doral Country Club, a luxury resort in Miami. He stayed at the Doral for four years, surrounded by older and more experienced French chefs. "It was like a four-year apprenticeship," he says. Eventually he ended up in the main kitchen, a lead prep cook.

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Despite the rise of younger chefs, ageism does not seem to be a significant issue for most veteran chefs. "I never feel it," says Hebert. "Maybe I'm a little innocent."

In other ways, though, the effects of age are apparent. Hebert has cut back her cooking hours. "I can't tolerate the heat of the stove like when I was younger," she says. "I became more like a business person." Where she used to spend 12 or 14 hours in the kitchen, she now spends three or four, mostly supervising her staff.

Pigozzi, on the other hand, says the only time he feels his age "is when I look in the mirror. But I have wondered aloud about it to my wife: When I step in front of a cooking class, how am I perceived? Are they looking for someone with an earring and a ponytail with their hat on backward?"

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Hebert and Pigozzi are lucky. Neither has had to look for a job in years. Hebert owns her own restaurant, and Pigozzi was a Biltmore fixture. He wasn't looking to make a move, but then he received an "exceptional offer" when ONami recruited him.

Peter DeLuca, 55, has been on the job market. In fact, he's there right now. The chef at City Pier downtown until it closed in August, he says, "A guy who has been in this industry 15 or 20 years needs to make $40,000 or $50,000 a year. He's up against people right out of culinary [school] who will work for $28,000 just to get in the door.

"This is what a lot of veteran people are up against. I've encountered that a lot the few times I've gone out to look for jobs . . . There are too many young people out there who are pretty good who will work harder for less."

How do veteran chefs deal with this situation? Some take jobs that might lack glamour but offer other perks, such as more free time, flexibility and bigger paychecks.

City Pier, for instance, the restaurant where DeLuca worked for the last 2 1/2 years, was open weekdays only, and only for lunch. DeLuca also has done lucrative commissary and corporate work, as both a chef and a consultant. And he has helped open several restaurants.

"It's more intense work, but it's usually 9 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon and not weekends."

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