A Day in the Life of a 'Top Chef' de Cuisine
By Veronica Dudo
Culinary shows on TV chronicle all the preparation, hard work and talent that must come together in the kitchen to carefully construct delectable dishes. While sitting at your table in a restaurant, do you really know what's happening in the kitchen? This is a day in the life of a chef de cuisine.
At the award-winning 10 Arts Bistro Lounge by Eric Ripert, located inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, Jennifer Carroll, the chef de cuisine or "head chef," turns the heat up in the kitchen as she and her staff create palatable dishes for guests.
It's an environment she adores, "I love being here," she says, "I love working here and I love everybody that I work with. It gets intense and passionate sometimes, and emotions may run high. But, at the end of the day, everybody knows if I'm yelling, I'm yelling because I want perfection, consistency, and quality.
"It's not about being personally insulted or humiliated, that's not what the kitchen is about and it's not what I'm here to do. I'm here to guide everybody and make everybody better, and to make everybody more motivated about food."
From calling out orders and slicing and dicing cuisine, to adding garnishes and tasting sauces, Carroll oversees every aspect in this 24-hour operation.
"I'm in charge of everything," she says. "I do everything from food and payroll, to scheduling and training."
Running a Non-Stop Operation
In addition to serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, her staff also fills all of the lounge, bar and hotel room service orders, available around the clock. With a nonstop operation, Carroll typically starts her day around 9 a.m., meets with fellow employees and then checks their mise en place, a French phrase meaning "everything in place." This process refers to the organization and arrangement of ingredients required to make menu items, which her cooks will need during their shift.
Next, Carroll leaves the kitchen to answer emails and make calls in her office. At lunchtime, she returns to the kitchen to taste everything again.
Carroll has another meeting in the afternoon to begin dinner preparations with the night shift, who come in and set up for dinner service, "They do all of their prep, which is their knife work, sauce work, blanching of their vegetables, butchering and portioning. So right before 5 p.m. I walk through the line and I taste all of their mis en place which would be everything that they just prepared to get ready for service. And I taste everything to check it and make sure that the sauce is absolutely perfect, to make sure that the blanch is not too salty. That it's cooked perfectly."
Once an order is placed, a machine in the kitchen prints out a ticket and Carroll reads it out loud for the chefs to cook -- all while controlling the flow in the kitchen, "It's about keeping a steady tempo in the kitchen, without having too long of a wait and without overwhelming the cooks."
Demonstrating a style all her own, Carroll demands consistency from her staff when preparing dishes, "I check it and I taste it before it goes out, and I put a couple of finishing garnishes onto it before it goes out in the dining room."
Carroll also develops the menus consisting of modern American cuisine with an emphasis on local ingredients, which she thoroughly enjoys. As she explains, it's all about "Having fun with a couple things and experimenting. And trying to do something different, because each week we change our [five-course] tasting menu."
While specializing in fish, Carroll reveals that there is one item that she truly enjoys mixing. "My favorite thing to do is to make sauces. I think I am really good at it, my palate is really good, and I like finding the balance, as well as making things unexpected.
"So when you think it's going to be heavy and overwhelming, you can taste it and be like, 'Wow, this is a lot lighter than I thought!' It's really delicate and they can feel that my feminine touch went into it, but still experience something really super flavorful and complex at the same time."
Dealing With the Unexpected
On any given night, Carroll never knows who will walk through the restaurants' doors. With a location inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the staff has welcomed many personalities through the years, but there are two memorable encounters with celebrities that Carroll fondly recalls.
"Jack Nicholson came in and he ordered the ribeye and he loved it! I got him to come back into the kitchen and took a picture with all of my staff and he was just so gracious. He was fun, joking around with all of us, it was great."
The second meeting was with the singer Sting, who was in town performing. "The first night he was here we sat him in our private dining room and I didn't want to come out and intrude on their dinner, but he actually asked for me to come out and I was like, 'What! Sting is asking for me to come out?' I was so nervous," she remembers.
"At that point, I had a vegetarian dish on the menu. It was a 62-degree poached egg with cauliflower, and every single night he was in town he came back and he got it. On the last night of his tour, he brought everybody back and everybody got the cauliflower and egg. It was hysterical! That was really, really cool and then for him to come back each night was awesome."
An Early Start
Even though Carroll didn't start out planning to become a chef, she says she did start cooking from an early age.
"Growing up as a kid, I always loved cooking. I always cooked with my grandmother. My mom always made things from scratch, so it was definitely in my blood."
After discovering an interest in cooking, she decided to pursue it as a career. "I wanted to be creative and I wanted to be working with my hands," she explains. "And I liked the feeling and the intensity of working in kitchens."
After graduating from Philadelphia's Restaurant School, Carroll took a position at Derek Davis' Sonoma and Arroyo Grill, as well as Neil Stein's Avenue B, under Chef Patrick Feury. She also spent two years in San Francisco, where she was sous chef at both Julia and Cafe Kati.
Having dreamed of working in a classic European kitchen, Carroll became the sous chef at Eric Ripert's prestigious Le Bernardin in New York City, before she opened his 10 Arts Bistro Lounge back in her hometown. Many also know the talented chef from the sixth season of Bravo's hit TV show, "Top Chef," in which she was a finalist and fan favorite.
From ordering tons of food, to scheduling chefs, creating menus, conducting meets, feeding guests all day long, and making sure the kitchen operates efficiently, Carroll has many responsibilities, but can't imagine doing anything else. And she is very happy with her decision, "It's been a great career move for me, a great ride."
Her passion for the art of cooking has taken her all over the world, afforded her the opportunity to work in exclusive restaurants, given her the chance to donate her talents to many charities, and, most importantly, to create beautiful culinary masterpieces every day.
It's all in a day's work as a chef de cuisine.
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