With the New York City Wine & Food Festival here, we held a roundtable to dish all things culinary: Landmarc and Kingside’s Marc Murphy; The Lambs Club’ Geoffrey Zakarian; Barbuto’s Jonathan Waxman; Fatima Ali of the Patina Restaurant Group, and banker-turned-lobster roll guru Luke Holden.
Geoffrey Zakarian: We all got into this business because we’re super-passionate. This is a business, if you don’t love it, you’re not in it.
Marc Murphy: And we’ve got to eat! I got kicked out of most of the schools I went to — being dyslexic, I never did well. When I moved to New York, I thought, I don’t want to be homeless and hungry so if I learn to cook, at least I’ll be able to flip a burger and eat one every once in a while.
Jonathan Waxman: I was a musician for a long time — I played the trombone — and my band got a gig in Kaanapali, Hawaii. This was the Seventies. The band broke up and I’m stuck there. My friends said, You have two choices: sell drugs or work in a restaurant. The latter was more palatable, so I took a job at the Rusty Harpoon. I bused tables, wrapped the mahi mahi (all frozen from Taiwan) in tin foil, and cut the steaks. I loved every second of it.
Fatima Ali: I’m a baby. I only started out in the industry a couple of years ago from culinary school. Before that I was in Pakistan, going every Sunday to the farmers’ market with my grandmother…
Luke Holden: I grew up in a fishing family in a small town in Maine. My favorite job of all time was working on a lobster boat. When I came to the city — after being terrible at playing the trombone and not getting kicked out of school — I did investment banking because a lot of my friends were going that route. After three years I realized there was an opportunity to marry my passion with business.
JW: One of my godsons told me he really wanted to cook. His mom, who worked with me at Jams, gave me the evil eye. I said, “Jake, don’t do it.” But he kept coming back every summer in college to work for me. He really wants to do it, but I want to be hands-off because I want him to fall down 25 times and pick himself up.
MM: That’s the only way I feel I’ve ever learned, is to fall down and get back up. If you burn yourself once, you don’t do it a second time.
GZ: On Chopped, everybody always asks us [the judges] what it takes to be like us. I tell them, one, you don’t want to be like us — you want to be like yourself. And, two, if you’re really committed, forget about making money and go out and suck the best brains you can find. Do whatever you have to do — beg, borrow, steal — and just work three or four years for them. Things will happen really fast.
JW: The thing that’s troublesome is that you’ve got people who accelerate too fast and… I was at Michael’s in Santa Monica for five years and people would ask me why I stayed for so long. It was important to have that foundation. If I didn’t, people wouldn’t take me seriously.
MM: But I also think that the nice thing about our industry is that there are so many different jobs out there. You can be a chef, a food writer, a blogger, a stylist or a producer for a food show. That never existed when we started — you were in the kitchen.
GZ: That’s a great point about striation that’s happened in the industry. When I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1981, you were either back or front of the house. And those were very defined. Now, there are buses going by with Tom Colicchio in Top Chef on them.
JW: Back then, aside from André Soltner and a few others, chefs were not restauranteurs. I remember when I opened Jams in New York in 1984, people looked at me like, who’s this American idiot? I was so naive. I didn’t realize it because André was my mentor. André would teach me about the the health code, if I needed a purveyor at Debragga meat, he would make the introduction…
MM: That’s a funny thing, these relationship we have with people. When I was in cooking school, the teacher introduced me to Ed Feron at Prix Fixe. He got me my first job there. Then he became a major sales guy at Dairyland — I bought from him for years.
JW: I’ll tell you a crazy story. When I was at Michael’s, this guy from a New York fish market told me he wanted to sell me fish. He still flew in on the red eye the next week and brought me this box of beautiful scallops and red snappers. It was Joe Gurrera of Citarella. That’s the beauty of all these stories of our industry. Fatima, growing up in Pakistan, did you have a connection to the farmers?
FA: Absolutely. I mean, everything there is about the seasons. There are no supermarkets. At the farmers’ market with my grandmother, we would pick up whatever was fresh that day. It was as good as it gets and as bad as it gets.
MM: In New York, we’re divorced from this stuff. That’s why I think it’s important for chefs to make the effort — go upstate, go milk a cow and watch the butter getting made. The biggest thing I tell young chefs is to be realistic. You can have the passion and if cooking doesn’t come a bit naturally, it’s going to be harder. I’ve worked with people where literally, after a year, I’m like, dude, what was your second career choice?
JW: But I also love the ability of not taking no for an answer and plowing ahead. I think some of the best chefs are these kind of people. Pierre Gagnaire, for instance, doesn’t have the greatest skills, but he has the intellect and creates genius dishes.
GZ: I worked for Gualtiero Marchesi, who’s a three Michelin-star chef, and I was shocked that the guy didn’t know how to sauté. He would tell his chef, “Do it this way, no this way,” and what he came up with was amazing, but the guy was not a cook.
MM: My advice to somebody who wants to get into the business is, before you even go to cooking school, hang out in a kitchen for a week or two. I loved cooking on the line. I sort of equate it to being a drummer in a band. When I was at Le Cirque, I’d line the bottom drawer of my fridge with Heinekens and put all the meat on top. Then you’d start cooking and when you start seeing the green bottles, you’d know service was almost over and you could start popping them.
GZ: That adrenaline you got before service… I started at Le Cirque in 1981 and on the line next to me was David Bouley, Rick Moonen, Terrance Brennan, myself and one other gentleman. There was no sous-vide; we did 300 covers ourselves! I remember coming in two hours early to an already 12-hour shift. I didn’t care. I loved it. It was the best education ever, plus you were making money at the same time.