When we dine out, we don’t give much (if any) thought to the people who are actually preparing our meals. But chefs know the importance of having trusted line cooks and sous chefs (French for “under-chef”) behind them.
A sous chef has generally made his or her way up the kitchen line to that position. “You need a sous chef in the restaurant who can steer a ship at a moment’s notice,” says The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges executive chef Ron Gallo. “While you train a line cook to cook, you train a sous chef to manage people.” As an executive chef is front and center, being not only the face of a restaurant but also dealing with suppliers, scheduling, and payroll, the sous chef is the one who is in the kitchen, motivating the team, tasting the food, and keeping up morale, says Gallo.
A good sous “maintains an environment where everyone is able to work together cohesively,” says Eric Brach, sous chef at The Inn at Pound Ridge, adding that he’s been fortunate to have had “excellent role models and mentors” who prepared him for his move from line cook to sous.
Danielo Recinos, sous chef at Crabtree’s Kittle House, says smart chefs see ambition and skill in their staff and nurture it. That is how he moved his way up the ranks, starting as a dishwasher at the restaurant. “Now I’m in the kitchen, trying to keep everyone centered, and if a mistake is made, we learn to do better next time,” he says.
Chefs generally hire sous chefs who have moved up the line in their restaurants. “He or she has to have the understanding of everything going on in the kitchen and command respect,” says Kittle House’s executive chef, Beau Widener. At The Inn at Pound Ridge, Brach looks for a couple key attributes in a line cook: that they are actively involved in all that is going on in the kitchen and that they’re always looking for something else to do if it’s quiet in their area.
Widener and David Starkey, president of ERL Hospitality Group (Sweet Grass Grill, Tomatillo, and Grass Roots Kitchen), note that a line-cook position is a job often held by immigrants. “It’s physically and mentally demanding; kitchens depend on the immigrant population,” Starkey says.
At Sweet Grass Grill in Tarrytown, Ecuador-born Jose Lucio started on the line as a prep cook and moved up the ranks to a front-of-house position as the restaurant’s bartender. “You have to be willing to put in your years. It takes a good boss to see potential in you and give you opportunities,” he says.
Reaching the rank of sous chef requires a certain set of skills. “You need to be a jack-of-all-trades,” says Lucas Diehl, one of the two sous chefs at Dale Talde’s Goosefeather, in the Tarrytown House Estate. Both he and Samuel Pak came onboard before the restaurant opened in the fall of 2019. Pak says one of the vital roles of a sous chef is “making sure everything that goes out looks and tastes to the chef’s vision.” Talde explains, “The chef is the person in charge of creating the culture; the sous chefs are the ones who disseminate that culture to the kitchen staff and carry out the theme.” A good chef really makes good use of his sous’s background. And Pak says while it is Talde’s name bringing people to the restaurant, “the kitchen shares the glory and the grief.”
That’s also true at smaller restaurants, such as Katonah’s The Whitlock, where chef and co-owner Matt Safarowic doesn’t use formal titles in the kitchen. There is a “line of command,” says Jake DeLucia, whose role encompasses the same responsibilities as a sous chef. “Matt lets my background and creativity inspire the menu.” Safarowic started working as a line cook with David DiBari (The Cookery, The Parlor, Eugene’s) and says that experience taught him how a chef should treat those working for him. “The sous chef has to have everything be right for the chef,” Safarowic says. “It may be the most important job in the kitchen.”
So, when you notice that your meal is delicious, give a thought to the sous chefs and line cooks. “When the people in the kitchen are executing or plating a dish, we’re communicating with our customers,” says ERL’s Lucio. Adds The Whitlock’s DeLucia: “If the chef makes his staff happy, then that staff cooks the best food, and the customer is happy.”
Abbe Wichman is a Katonah resident who writes about food and drink. She has a new appreciation of the behind-the-scenes kitchen staff who are instrumental to a restaurant’s success.