Kiss The Cook
On the nights that I wanted to throw in the towel during my years as a server, the kitchen is where I went to gather slivers of my sanity. Watching the sous chefs and the prep and line cooks sweat from physical heat and mental pressure gave me enough perspective to go back out and try again.
The backbones of every restaurant operation, these folks are in at 7 a.m. to cut vegetables and braise duck so you can devour it on your dinner dates. They handpick pomegranate seeds out of a hundred fruits just to make your plates look pretty. No one is sneaking into the kitchen to give them thanks, and they don’t get to walk around a dining room to receive praise like the head chefs they work under.
Here are just a handful of the talented people who keep San Francisco on the international food map. Compliments to the prep, line, and sous chefs.
The first time Daniel Lim used a really sharp knife was a busy dinner shift at Namu. After years of touring as a band’s drummer, he emailed head chef Dennis Lee mid-2010 to ask if he could work for free in return for learning how to cook. For his first year there, he practiced chopping millions of scallions in back near the dishwasher, while slowly taking on elements of signature dishes. Now, he crafts entire entrées, nuts to soup, literally. Daniel is a friend to keep close if you know the goodness that is Namu’s limited-order, handmade, rich ramen.
“It took me a year to realize I wasn’t cooking for money. When people take a bite, and they’re silent but they nod their head, they’re happy, and that’s why I do it,” he says. This unexpected full-blown venture into cooking has turned into a sustainable career. He’s sharpened his skills just in time for Namu’s move to the ever-bustling Mission food scene, where the crew will settle on Dolores and 18th in early 2012. Daniel will stagier in New York, by way of Dennis, to prepare for the opening of the new spot. He says, “I know I’m really lucky.”
"It was sink or swim, and I didn’t know if I could swim," Echo Hanson says about the first time she staged at flour + water. A year and a half later, she still sometimes steps into the walk-in refrigerator to “get a grip” when the pasta station gets hit with 30 order tickets. But Echo has found her rhythm, mastering the cappellacci’s origami-like folds, and, like any respectable pizzaoilo, appointing a special spot in the wood oven to land her pies.
Growing up in Sacramento, she remembers Top Ramen dinners and thinking, "There’s gotta be a way to make this taste better." In third grade, she teared up as career possibilities were introduced, knowing she’d never be able to sit behind a desk. Five years ago, when she was painting nails to pay the rent in Reno, she bought an Italian cookbook at a yard sale, made every recipe twice, and finally began to follow her culinary calling.
Echo is still in love after a late discovery of soul food, teaching her friends the magic of Southern mac 'n' cheese and ribs on her days off. She daydreams about operating her own food truck with "slow-cooked pork belly corn dogs."
It’s 11 a.m. and Maritess Tse is about four hours into another 12-hour shift. Nopa hosts over 500 people on a weeknight, and serves till 1 a.m. Maritess has a lot to accomplish, but she is calm and collected. She begins butchering and brining pork chops, searing rabbit, braising duck, and turning duck carcass into stock. This is all in between ordering meat, dry goods and supplies, and supervising her seven prep cooks.
The SF-native scrapped a 9–5 in publishing to start cooking at 32. She humbly shakes her head when I tell her that head chef/co-owner Laurence Jossel calls her a “natural standout.” Instead, she attributes her quick ascent from extern to line cook to morning sous chef to her supportive kitchen staff. But it takes a special someone to be the first female to hold down the grill at Nopa, which she did for two years as a line cook. On that grill she perfected the Nopa pork chop (aka meaty heaven). She knew her chops were the business when Jacques Pepin examined them and nodded his happy approval. Otherwise demure, she is known to yell, “Jacques Pepin poked my chops!”
Ninety-seven percent of Straw’s menu is made from scratch, which means tubs of big, raw food need to get broken down really fast. Meet Juan Tejevo, prep cook. Head down, lips tight, he’s a chopping machine, splitting garlic for the elote-style “Oh Hi Juan,” a dish devotedly named after him by Straw co-owner Naomi Beck. He’s a crowd favorite, from co-workers to first-time diners.
After four years of watching the head chefs at Gary Danko get applause, Juan came to Straw almost a year ago to gain the experience he’ll need to become a chef. “I want it, but it’s hard work. I just want people to say, ‘Your food is good,’” he says. Old burn scars line his arm and a more recent injury left him with the tip of a finger gone for now. He shrugs, and smiles shyly, explaining he is always trying to be the fastest at chopping, and sometimes the price is pretty bloody. He misses the Yucatán, and hasn’t seen his mom in seven years, but he’s determined to stay in San Francisco to climb the ladder to chef-dom.
Maria Poot would barely make the height requirement for most roller coaster rides, but her stature and personality couldn’t be more opposite. The Yucatán native started as a fill-in dishwasher in September 2010, with no experience, and killed it faster than any of the bigger, male washers. Now she’s got a hand at almost every station in the back of the house – slicing strawberries for the ridiculous strawberry shortcake and picking skins off Jimmy Nordello and Corno di Toro peppers, all without neglecting her dishwashing duty. Maria also likes to turn the crank of the sausage machine, just so no one forgets she is "muy fuerte!"
Head chef Brandon Jew has given her leftovers of a pig carcass, which Maria made into tamales and brought back to feed the Bar Agricole staff. “Everyone loves Maria,” he says. “She’s madre back here.” Sous chef Salomon Borenstein says her work ethic is something you can’t teach people. He says, “I wish I had 10 Marias.” She pulls double-duty three days a week, spending her mornings at brunch haven, Chloe’s, where she is a prep cook. “I chop, chop, chop, chop, chop!” she says with a wall-to-wall grin. Does so much work make Maria gloomy? She says, “I’m a happy person.”
Cleaver, hacksaw, rubber mallet: These words excite Zach Swemle. His eyes light up, and he will thoroughly walk anyone through the gnarly details of how he can use all of the parts of most any animal. “Anything I’d create would have meat in it. I’m not really into anything vegetarian. If I wasn’t cooking, I’d be a butcher.” The slaughterhouse will have to wait for now. Zach is fully committed to a serious relationship with Locanda. The new osteria is the fourth restaurant from the people at Pizzeria Delfina, where he cut his teeth making about 300 pizzas a night and became a very young sous chef at age 23.
Somehow, this laid-back 25-year-old Minnesotan manages to both ride his fixie to Rosamunde burgers and Toronado beer and be in at 7 a.m. to break down steaks and lamb heads and make pasta dough, even hovering around the restaurant after he clocks out around 7 p.m. “The long hours don’t bother me because this is what I want to be doing,” he says. He recently prepped and cooked a whole pig single-handedly for his friends, combining his animal obsession and his love of cooking with “big fire!”