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The good, bad sides of celebrity chefs

Some are real jerks, but others are quite humble.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 12:01 am

I get as star-struck as anyone. Not by the crass Kardashians or silly Lindsay Lohan, but by great actors, writers, artists and, of course, superior chefs.

I have been lucky in my short career to prep and plate alongside some pretty heavy hitters, such as Rick Bayless, Patricia Wells, Marcus Samuelsson and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Nicholas Bernard and Stephane Leroux, who are both MOF French chefs, have been my instructors. (Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, shortened to MOF, is the very highest level of chef you can be in France. Only MOFs can wear the blue, white and red bands on their collars. The exam lasts three days and is very, very difficult to pass. Watch the documentary “Kings of Pastry” and you will understand why they are revered.)

So what is it like? Certainly each person has his quirks. (My apologies to Patricia Wells, but I am going to use the pronoun he in this post.) I don't want to name names when talking about personalities, but some chefs are real jerks. For example, when we cook alongside them for a fundraiser, it is for free. We are volunteering our time in order to learn from a master, garner some tips and perhaps new techniques, and add to our resume.

One particular chef rubbed me the wrong way the whole 13 (yes, count 'em) hours I cooked for him. He was rude, condescending and this way especially to the female chefs, which at this particular venue added up to four. One woman asked him if we came to any of his restaurants, would he come out to talk to us. He said no, he had no time to talk to anyone in front. He did not like to do this. She then asked if we went back to the kitchen would he remember us. He said curtly, “No, I will not remember you. I will not remember any of you. ”

Now, I know and you know it was silly of her to ask these uncomfortable questions, but she was really excited to be there. That chef could have answered her in a kinder way, don't you think? Maybe he could have said, “I will sure try! I meet a lot of people,” or “I will try, but I have a bad memory.” The thing is, this chef has a reputation for being friendly and smiley, but it is all a ruse.

The moral is, a lot of famous people are media hyped and sculpted for a personality to portray; it is not how they really are. To me, it was total disappointment with him.

On the other hand, some chefs have been very professional and actually rather humble for all their training and expertise.

Marcus Samuelsson was such a gentleman. His flavor combinations were so dynamic and robust. He was soft-spoken, serious, but kind. He was born in Africa but raised in Sweden; you can only imagine the cool things he cooks and the recipes he invents. Each one I have made is wonderful.

In the kitchen, when you bring in a lot of volunteer chefs from different kitchens across town or at a class where people attend from all over the world, you can only imagine the egos and personalities! It is a man's world in the cuisine kitchen but pretty unisex in the pastry kitchen. At one event where I volunteered at few years ago, I was the only female in the kitchen. I would say the men talked to me maybe twice the whole day without me beginning the conversation. And there was a lot of testosterone flying, let me tell you. A few were not fond of each other, and although only a few words were said under the breath, a small body check now and then, sizing each other up at the beginning – it was really uncomfortable at times. It was unnecessary as well.

On the other hand, I notice the farther the people travel to cook, the more they are open to learning from the head chef and from each other as well. Take my most recent experience at The French pastry School in Chicago.

The French Pastry School was started by an MOF and another chef who competed for the MOF three times before calling it quits. (Again, watch “Kings of Pastry.” He is the one who said it was going to be his last time to try for it, and his wife was weary of all the months of prep beforehand. He was doing well, then his sugar sculpture broke at the last minute. It was all over for him. It was sad!) The FPS's kitchen is far more up to date than Le Cordon Bleu, by the way.

It was raging hot in Chicago, and they turned off the air conditioning for the weekends and also every night. So right away the chef, Stepane Leroux, an MOF who had come from Belgium to teach this class, was up against a hurdle, because this was a chocolate class and chocolate needs cool. Ideally in a chocolate factory, the temperature of the room is about 68 degrees. Our room had to be in the high 80s. As a woman of a certain age, in my chef whites buttoned up to here and long sleeves down to there, I was about to croak. But Chef Leroux stayed calm and never broke a sweat on his well-coiffed tete. He had the student assistants bring big industrial fans in to try to cool the place down. The chocolate machine was too hot, so one was blowing on it, too.

Chef's accent was thick and his English was limited, so when he got at a loss for words, he just spoke French. The interpreter, an instructor at the FPS, had been living in the U.S. for about four years and his accent was thick, too. When I say thick, I mean molasses thick. The fans were blasting, the accents were flying, the temp was high, it was 7 in the morning, I was struggling to even hear them let alone understand what they were saying, and I thought, holy cow, I am definitely going to get schooled in more ways than one this week!

What I learned from these masters, particularly the French, was the attention to detail. Detail in all things, from the fit of their uniform to the precision of their cuts. They keep their tables clean and free of clutter, they stay clean themselves, and they have pride in all aspects of their work. It is called working clean. When you are finished with something, you take it away and you wipe the counter frequently. This is how we work at LCB or we get yelled at and our grade gets cut. Spots and drips are unacceptable on your work surface. Everything is stored behind us. Although I can never hope to be as organized and clean as they are, I have come along way and we work pretty clean at La Dolce Vita.

Why is working clean important? It keeps you focused. It takes the distractions out of cooking, because there are not a million dirty measuring cups, spoons and scraps of paper around. It is also more sanitary. In fact, when there are several of us working in our tiny kitchen in Roanoke, we will take the dirty dishes to the back kitchen to wash to keep the sink from becoming a catch-all and piling sky high with dirty colanders, bowls and vessels.

To me, these details separate the chefs from the cooks. I have toured many a kitchen, and the best food comes out of the cleanest kitchens, where pride is taken in every step. Yes, I am one of those who ask to go back to the kitchen now and then. But many kitchens of high-end restaurants are glassed in or totally open for the diner's view. Such an example is the kitchen tour I got to take after eating at Grace in Chicago. The kitchen is behind glass there. They have nothing to hide. When one can see the kitchen while the chefs are working, you know the standard is high.

Back to the class at The French Pastry School. Chefs came to this class from all over the world. Interestingly, to me at least, most were from Canada. There was the head pastry chef from the Ritz in Ottawa Ontario. There was a physician from Canada, my partner, who had a side business called the Chocolate Doc.

There was a mean, grumpy cake baker from Canada who worked at the table beside us. She was the most interesting of the classmates because of her mercurial nature. I think she was just unhappy, and she was bossy to all. However, she was pretty darned talented. I will give her that!

Other classmates included the head pastry chef at the Ritz in Dallas, the head pastry chef at Nobu in Miami (but he was French) and a super nice cake baker from New Zealand.

The class was full; there were about 16 of us. Lunchtime was a time to chat and get to know some of the others' business ideas, their hopes for the future and their training. I got to see their quirks and their desire for excellence.

Some of us struggled. (OK, one of us more than others as this was a chocolate sculpture class and I had never done a 4-foot-high sculpture from chocolate.) Some got it right away. But all of us learned, and I think everyone thought they got great value for their money.

I would bet most take another class from the French Pastry School. I know I'll be there again. As there are levels for food enthusiasts as well as professionals, you should go there too!

Laura Wilson, owner of La Dolce Vita in Roanoke, is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. Her column appears every other Tuesday in The News-Sentinel. Have a question for Laura? Submit it to clarson@news-sentinel.com or call 461-8284. We’ll pass on questions to Laura. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.