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|l||The Simple Things
Working in a professional kitchen is to love the cool chrome of the worktops, the always-present slight smell of the pilot lights, and stacks of white cutting boards, towels, and cookbooks. In the morning, when it is calm and kempt, sleepy chefs begin ordering, organizing, and heading up a team that after many, many small steps will produce a cohesive product intended to satisfy hungry, appraising patrons of an undetermined number with inconsistent tastes. The job of a chef is a tough and stressful one, but when the evening runs smoothly like a machine, it seems not only worth it but also incredibly gratifying as a creative endeavor.
For young chefs today, with the advent and popularity of celebrity chefs, there are more real opportunities to learn more about the trade, enjoy the gratification, and make a name for themselves in this profession. I recently spoke to two young chefs, Eric "Abe" Lansdale and Graham Waller of Emmett's Restaurant, and asked them about their past training, their work at Emmett's, and food trends that they foresee.
They attended The Culinary Institute of America (the CIA), which is a dream for many working in kitchens and foodies alike. The CIA began in 1946 in Connecticut as a cooking school for the vocational training of veterans of World War II with 50 enrollees. As the student population rose, the college moved near Yale University, then on to it's campus St. Andrew-on-Hudson in Hyde Park, New York and then a second location in Greystone, California. There are many great culinary schools out there, but this one is really growing by leaps and bounds due to its reputation. "38 kitchens, unprecedented libraries, and they keep building more and more," said Waller.
Lansdale adds, "Yeah, it's fun. You have classroom work, but a lot of it is hands-on. You start off by classes that are three to six weeks, the history of food, why we have a fork, and slowly get into skills. They teach you sanitation and your first kitchen class is skill: how to sharpen a knife, etc."
Waller and Lansdale, who have been friends since high school, became interested in the CIA when they were 19-years-old working at Dudley's with several prominent area chefs who helped train and prepare them for attending culinary school. This was very interesting to me because there does seem to be a point after working in the food industry that you need to make a decision; to go to school or work with mentors. There has always been somewhat of battle in the kitchen between the hands-on trained chef and the culinary school-trained chef, often quite vocal. Each side will gladly tell you the pros of their decision and the cons of the other. For Graham, though, the culinary school path led him to work in California, which he describes as the best thing he could have done.
"Passion is not the word. This was his life, his restaurant," recalls Waller of his externship semester with Roland Passot, the multi-awarded French master chef and owner of La Folie in San Francisco. "This is what he had done since he was 12 and this was his in San Francisco. I had never seen anything like it, the food and the way they handled it. They put me right on the line and when I got back to school, I was ready."
Abe was also able to work in California right out of school at Pacific's Edge in Carmel, an award-winning restaurant as well. "It was almost as good as the education at the school. Working at my restaurant, eating at Club 19 where a friend works, then up to Graham's restaurant in San Francisco, was a great education."
What they brought back to Lexington from their travels seems to be an excitement for food and how they can bring what they have learned to the table. They started at Emmett's in January and have since then have worked on food and labor costs to the point that they can focus on other projects such as upcoming wine dinners, a lobster feast, and as Abe points out, "get sockeye salmon instead of, well, salmon."
Which leads me, naturally, to current national trends in food and how they are prepared to incorporate this into a Lexington dining experience. Lansdale is the first to say "simplicity" and I agree.
He continues, "I know in the 80s and 90s there was more of a built tower nouveau cuisine, kind of contrived and I think that especially here in Lexington, people are focusing on a better quality product cooked with a better technique, not so contrived."
"You take the best ingredient that you can and let that ingredient speak for itself. All you do is season it a bit. You take the best lobster, fish, tomatoes that you can get instead of putting seven squeeze bottles of reduction or oils all over the plate. You just get a really nice extra-virgin olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, cracked black pepper, and salt and you're going to lighten up the whole dish, and fresh herbs," adds Graham.
Sitting with handsome young men has never been a chore, but to see how excited they are with this fairly new project and how they want to create better and more creative food product was especially fun. The love of the food is the name of the game and whether it is the up-and-coming chef or the seasoned, highly esteemed veteran, we can only benefit from their cumulative knowledge in this field.
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