Restaurant kitchens have a hierarchy. And at the top, according to some TV shows, are tyrannical, narcissistic chefs whom the Good Lord himself couldn’t please for more than a few minutes at a time.
But these are not the chefs I know in Winston-Salem. They are team builders, and one of the keys to their success is their sous chef—perhaps the restaurant world’s least understood and, consequently, most unappreciated professional.
“Sous” is a French term that means “under.” The sous chef, or under chef, is the number two position in a kitchen hierarchy perfected by Auguste Escoffier, the French chef and culinary writer who popularized traditional French cooking methods and elevated cooking to professional status by introducing organized discipline to kitchens throughout the world.
Chef Travis Myers at Willow’s Bistro describes his sous chef as “the backbone of the kitchen.” The relationship between head chef and sous chef is close by necessity, the sous chef often serves as the chef’s alter ego. Shortly after Myers took the chef’s job at Willow’s, he persuaded his former sous chef, 28 year-old Brent Andruzzi, to join him. Andruzzi, like many Triad culinary professionals, received training at Guilford Technical Community College.
“You learn the basics at [GTCC], but going from the classroom to a hot, busy restaurant kitchen is culture shock,” he says. “A lot of people can’t make that transition.”
Andruzzi likes the open kitchen at Willow’s, where patrons can sit at the bar and watch their food being prepared. “It’s more pressure, but it keeps you on your toes and conscious of technique.”
Kevin Olson, sous chef at Rooster’s: A Noble Grille, started his culinary journey at age 17 in an ice cream shop. He later earned a degree in culinary arts from the Art Institute of Charlotte while working in various eateries. Like Andruzzi, Olsen, 30, serves as the eyes and ears of the chef on the line. He also has administrative duties such as ferreting out top-quality produce and ingredients, ordering, scheduling kitchen staff, and cultivating a positive, upbeat working environment in the kitchen. Olson, also like Andruzzi, works in an open kitchen and says he likes seeing diners enjoy their meals and having them stroll over to ask questions or pay a compliment.
At age 14, Allie Utley at Meridian was pretty much on her own. She took the only job she could find—washing dishes in a restaurant—and then worked her way up.
“I’ve done every job in a restaurant kitchen,” she says, “so I have the greatest respect for every member of the team, from dishwasher to chef.”
She has cooked in several good spots around town, such as the short-lived but groundbreaking Mundo Global Tapas, and she’s also moved around quite a bit.
“As a [sous chef], I have to keep learning,” she says. “That’s important to me, and every chef I have worked with has been a teacher. When I stop learning, I start looking for another opportunity. The key is finding a place where you fit and are happy.”
While it’s said that every plate that comes out of a kitchen has the chef’s name on it, chefs must occasionally take time off. When they do, the sous chef has to make sure the quality and presentation of food remains the same. To do that, sous chefs have to be able to duplicate a chef’s signature dishes and cooking techniques.
Willie Smith, sous chef at Sweet Potatoes, is the dean of Winston-Salem sous chefs. The 55 year-old Rocky Mount native started learning early from his mother. “We snapped peas on the porch, and I watched her make cakes from scratch,” he recalls.
At age 16, he found a job washing dishes and bussing tables, worked years as a short order cook, and perfected tasks such as meat cutting, prepping, and line cooking. As a self-taught sous chef, he occasionally laments not being more proficient in technical terms and culinary vocabulary.
Smith has high praise for Sweet Potatoes head chef Stephanie Tyson and has the weight of the kitchen on his shoulders when she is away. He can also step in at a station if a key employee fails to show. He talked about the less glamorous aspects of being a sous chef, such as pre-shift staff meetings, uniform checks, and confirming compliance with health and safety regulations. I asked him about family life and how a sous chef keeps things in balance.
“Think about it,” he says. “We are working when most folks are not working. Nights and holidays. Your family has to be understanding.”
Gerald Warden at Bleu Restaurant calls himself a “pound puppy.” He has no formal culinary training but has cooked in Myrtle Beach, Wilmington, and St. James City, Fla. Like many in the business, Warden worked his way up. He stressed the importance of communication with his chef.
Warden can fill any slot if necessary but, at the same time, has to concern himself with a number of other duties. This includes ordering—which, he says, is a balance between finding the best quality ingredients while controlling food costs and waste—managing his team, and delivering creative food to diners. Every delivery has to be checked for freshness and quality.
“I read a lot of books,” he says, “and I look for ways to take our food to the next level. I watch the market and the restaurant community and try to spot trends and adjust.” He adds that sous chefs often work on menu development and daily specials.
The new kid on the block is Jonathan Chung, 30, the product of a restaurant family in Hamburg, Germany. He's worked in restaurants since age 14, but his family wanted a different life for him beyond the kitchen. With their encouragement, he earned a degree in health-care management and then an MBA after studying in both Germany and South Korea. But today he is sous chef at HakkaChow, and the chef is his father.
When he started job hunting with his business degree, he says there was really nothing about him that stood out. But he did know the restaurant business. “The graduates of the culinary schools didn’t know how to function in a real kitchen, but I did,” Chung says. “That made me different.” So about three years ago, he joined the staff at HakkaChow, which is owned by his parents. His mother Caroline—a seasoned restaurant professional—is the sister of Terry and Freddy Lee, owners of Bernardin’s and Bleu.
HakkaChow is an Asian-fusion restaurant and makes almost everything from scratch, including about 20 sauces, all of which Chung can make. He is proficient at every station in the kitchen and because he is multilingual, he takes most of the responsibility for supervising staff and running the kitchen. There is stiff competition for skilled kitchen staff in Winston-Salem, he says, and providing a good work environment is key in attracting and retaining capable employees.
Look for some of these talented pros to emerge as executive chefs. They have the skills, the experience, and the temperament. And it won’t be long before they’ll be stepping out of the wings.
Life Outside the Kitchen
Brent Andruzzi at Willow’s
When he’s not working: Even when he’s away from Willow’s, Andruzzi loves to cook. Aside from that, his other pursuits involve finding adventures. “I love fishing and doing anything that requires being outdoors,” he says.
Kevin Olson at Rooster’s
When he’s not working: A native of Boone, Olson loves to spend time breathing in fresh mountain air. “Activities like snowboarding and fly fishing feed my adventurous side,” he says. But when indoors, you can usually find him pursuing another passion: woodworking. “The solace of woodworking helps me to relax after a hard day at work.”
Allie Utley at Meridian
When she’s not working: Learning, growing and life experiences fuel Utley’s creative side away from the kitchen. “I love to paint, draw, crochet, and I also do embroidery,” she says. “I even worked for a blacksmith shoveling coal at one time. I just enjoy learning new things; particularly that which involves making things.”
Willie Smith at Sweet Potatoes
When he’s not working: Smith’s greatest joy in life is cooking for loved ones and friends. But when he steps away from the kitchen, he likes to indulge in North Carolina’s many bodies of water. “I like to relax by spending time on the water, fishing local lakes and rivers,” he says.
Gerald Warden at Bleu
When he’s not working: As a dedicated father of a 9-year-old daughter, Warden loves nothing more than to impart his cooking wisdom—especially during backyard barbecues. “We have a big smoker in the backyard, and we fix dinner together,” he says. “She loves to cook steak and loves to eat steak.”
Jonathan Chung at Hakkachow
When he’s not working: Aside from traveling and exploring different cultures, Jonathon Chung says he loves to play badminton and tennis. “I’m competitive in every aspect of my life,” he says. “But it really comes out during sports.”
—Compiled by Kelly Merritt
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