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Blue Hill at Stone Barns: My Staging Experience

Sunday, November 6, 2011
I’ve never done a “stage.” Well…maybe as part of interviewing for a new position, but never to just hang out and learn or absorb what another chef is doing. (A “stage” is when you work for free in a restaurant kitchen, either as part of the interview process or just to learn.) We have requests from people – mostly young cooks – to stage with us regularly, and for most it stems from curiosity or the expectation they will see something they have never seen before that they can in turn take with them. To benefit from a stage, you need to have a clear vision of what you believe in, and be a mature cook.
 

About six months ago I started thinking about staging with Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I’m not sure what prompted the thought, but I believe it had something to do with the creation of our TBL3 concept. While developing these 12-to-14 course menus, I began searching for a deeper meaning or understanding in our food: what was my story, what was the philosophy boiled down…reduced to its essence? That was my goal for TBL3, to show the essence of who we are as a restaurant. Each course needed to tell a very clear story.

I’ve followed Dan Barber’s career for the past 15+ years. He and I both spent time at Joe’s in Venice, California. I was an on-call cook for Joe Miller after I left my chef’s position at Rockenwagner, and while I figured out what my next move was going to be. I ended up as a chef in a small restaurant in downtown Los Angeles back when there was nothing down there. I then moved to the Big Island of Hawaii, an odd move that ultimately led me to my next job as chef of Sundance Resort in Utah, as well as introducing me to my incredible wife, Ximena. During that time, Dan opened Blue Hill, his restaurant in Manhattan. There is a level of “six degrees of separation” to this story. Rory Roman, who was a young, talented, pain-in-the-ass cook for me at Sundance, ended up going on to work with Dan at Blue Hill, then Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, then to Per Se, and is now executive chef at Bouchon, Beverly Hills. My good friend Jason Knibb was a sous chef at Joe’s and knew Dan from that time; when he came to Sundance as my sous, Rory worked under him.

Dan is a very thoughtful chef. He is articulate in language, as well as all things culinary. He is in demand as a speaker and has had his writings published in The New York Times and other publications, and has won numerous awards including the Outstanding Chef Award by the James Beard Foundation. He was also listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

His Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in partnership with the Rockefeller Estate and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, is a restaurant that not only prepares beautiful food but also has a deeper meaning behind it. Much of the produce, poultry, pork and beef are grown on the farm. My relationship with the farms we use, especially Chino Farms, has shown me the responsibility I have to use their produce with the utmost respect and I knew Dan was living this same reality, although on a grander scale. I wanted to go not just to see the food, but also to get a sense of how the relationship between a chef and the ingredients translated into a clear and personal culinary vision.
 
 
I can say that working closely on a daily basis with the same farmer and products for 12 years now has changed me in ways I am not always aware of as a chef. I was curious how that relationship affected Dan and his team. I was also interested in his drive and motivation. Being a chef is demanding…full of pressures and excitement…but it can also be monotonous. Some chefs explore other options at some point – TV, opening more restaurants, becoming a restaurateur more than a chef. Dan is still working every service and relating to the ingredients on a daily basis, and his drive to grow and learn and translate that personal and professional development into his career is why he is still at the top of his game. I share that same desire, to continue to grow and learn.
 
I arrived at Stone Barns on a day that could not have been more perfect. A beautiful day, still warm but with that touch of East Coast fall in the air. I met Adam Kaye, vice president of culinary affairs, which basically means he is Dan’s right-hand man. Adam has been with Dan for 11 years and worked next to Rory at Blue Hill in Manhattan. After sharing some funny stories, he showed me around and introduced me to the cook that I would be “trailing,” a term that essentially means you are their responsibility. I was to do whatever he told me to do. It was a strange position for me to be in for sure. Here I was, a 45-year old chef and partner of George’s at the Cove that has 190 employees and I was working for a cook that could be my son. It turned out he had spent time at The French Laundry working under another of my ex-cooks, Tony Secviar, who is a senior sous chef at the Laundry.
 
On first impression, the crew seemed a bit frantic. I wasn’t sure if it was just me, but I later learned that the kitchen was short a cook. A new cook with a great resume had worked one week and decided not to come back after Wednesday’s service. This is an inexcusable offense in any kitchen. You are basically disrespecting all the cooks who have to pick up your workload. You should always give notice, period. I was immediately impressed with the seriousness of the cooks. There was very little conversation, everyone had their heads down and worked as hard and fast as they could. The cook I was trailing was friendly, explaining everything he did, and answering all my questions. He had me do some basic knife work to help him set up. I subsequently ended up doing a lot of knife work on both days I was there. I think once they realized I had good knife skills they were going to use me to their advantage, and that was fine with me. It was the price I paid to be able to hang out in their environment and absorb the spirit and energy of the kitchen.
 
 
The way the menu is structured – or not, depending on how you look at it – requires the cooks to really think. The fish cook prepares items that change from one day to the next based on what fish is available. Dan had brought in some blowfish from the market and the fish cook had never worked with them before, so Dan explained how he wanted them prepared. That day there was also bass from Spain, striped bass from the East Coast and rouget from Europe. The fish cook knew how each fish was to be handled, cleaned and prepped. The meat cook was responsible for preparing a variety of meats and a variety of cuts. The restaurant receives seventy percent of its meat in whole animal form, so there are a lot of different cuts that must be utilized. The loins and tenderloins are the easy ones. Braised lamb neck, chicken thighs and offal all require skill and a longer procedure to turn them into something you can serve at the level of Blue Hill.
 
 

The way the menu works is pretty complicated. In order to utilize the produce from the farm and the variety of meat cuts, Dan decided the menus would be created spontaneously for each table.

 

This allows the kitchen the flexibility to serve one table a dish of lamb neck, tenderloin and leg, and another table lamb neck, tenderloin and sweetbread. When a table is seated, the choice is a 5-, 8- or 12-course menu and the guest is given a list of ingredients that the kitchen is working with that day. The tickets are printed in the kitchen with detailed information about the guest – whether they are return guests, any ingredients they do not like or have allergies to, whether they are having a business dinner or are foodies taking pictures, etc. The chefs at the pass then design the menu accordingly. They try not to duplicate items, so not only does each table receive different proteins but the preparations might change as well. One table may get beef with carrots and the next table may get lamb with carrots, and that might be with a piece of leg or offal depending on what courses they had previously and what the chef feels that table will enjoy. One table may get an egg dish, another table may get a pasta dish and another table may get both. Each day the ingredients change, so each day the cook starts from scratch. And Dan can disrupt the system by changing things in the middle of service based on what he is feeling or how the ingredients are that day. It makes the cooks constantly a bit off-balance, as they never know exactly where things are going. This forces them to think about their ingredients and what they are doing constantly. If the mushrooms are a little wet today, then that will require a slightly different method of handling and may change the way the dish is put together. Obviously this is a very dynamic and challenging approach – especially when they are doing between 120 and 170 covers nightly. If you figure an average of eight courses plus three amuse bouche that is a minimum of 1,500 plates going out.

 
 
One of my goals is to teach my cooks to “think like cooks.” There are restaurants out there that want a cook to execute what they are taught at a very high level over and over again, with consistency being a top priority. I respect this system; it’s a way of controlling your environment so there are as few variables as possible. But the ingredients are a constant variable. They change all the time, so by doing the same thing to that ingredient without paying attention to its subtleties will never showcase that ingredient at its highest form and never force the cook to pay attention to these variables. It is very difficult and sometimes frustrating to expect a cook to make decisions based on the product they are working with, but Dan and his chefs hold them to that standard. These cooks may not realize it as they are going through it, but they will come out thinking like cooks. And you can’t think like a chef without thinking like a cook first.
 
Since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to understand what, if anything, I got out of my experience at Blue Hill at Stone Barns…something that will translate into a tangible at George’s. I saw a lot of beautiful food, and some cool techniques and ideas, but what I came back with was a renewed sense of the way to manage my staff. That what I expect of my cooks challenges them and me, and that I am not alone in this approach. I also found a renewed appreciation of the products I am blessed to work with daily. We truly have some of the best ingredients in the world here in San Diego, and it is our responsibility to handle them with the respect they deserve and not let anything stand in the way of that.
 
Each chef has their own story to tell, and my experience at Stone Barns helped continue the process of clarifying my story.