Becoming a Chef- Chapter 4, Mondo Bistro
The Culinary Institute of America in 1994 was a tough scene socially. The male to female ratio was 10-1 and most ladies put on 20-30 pounds eating classic French food in the first three months of school. The school thought they were educating the new students in how dining was supposed to be, an indicator of how behind they were with the changes in American cooking, but instead were crushing the health and palates of young people. Except for me. I was a skinny long haired hippie who needed desperately the 15 pounds to cover up the ribs and loved the heavy cooking. The style was still dominated by machismo, hair grease, and Bud Light. The gents weren’t any better. I had met a few young ladies, had a beautiful old friend at Vassar down the road, but couldn’t wait to get out of dodge and be anywhere but Hyde Park, NY. My old friend, Mitch, needed a roommate in Chapel Hill, NC and I packed up my Subaru and headed back down south. Here the ladies were thin, beautiful, polite, witty, and in abundance. Oh, did I mention? Some big things were happening here in the national restaurant scene and I learned the most important lesson about cooking from my first job at Mondo Bistro.
In Durham the beginning of the American food revolution was starting. Ben and Karen Barker, at The Magnolia Grill, were setting the pace with local, seasonal, southern cooking that was rooted in the south but pulled from all the cultures that make up the south. They were disciples of the late Bill Neal who brought the source cooking of France to the south and its classic recipes. At Magnolia, Asian ingredients accented black eyed peas and pork chops got a dose of warm spices in the flour dredge before pan frying. The area was full of their acolytes and I scored a line cook job at Mondo Bistro in Chapel Hill.
Mondo Bistro was owned by Rick Robinson, a former sous chef at Magnolia Grill. It was a modern American bistro that had a French base with seasonal and regional accents. The cooking was very simple but clean, thoughtful, and delicious. The kitchen was a tiny galley layout but it worked. 12 burners and two ovens were more than enough to produce the cooking Rick wanted. He worked every night and was a wonderful cook who taught me how to taste.
Classically trained cooks were hard to come by and Rick hired me on the spot. The neckerchief I wore to the interview should have been a strong indicator of how green I was but he saw something in me that was worth hiring me and put me on the fish station. I had never worked a hot station in a restaurant and was very nervous and excited. I was about to finally start cooking.
I realized quickly how bad I sucked. The CIA had prepared me for dick in the real world. I did my best trying to set up then learn what the others would show me, but they were all line cooks that came up through the ranks. I was a dirty hippie and they were punk rockers, Austrian lesbians, and street kids working for drinking money. You know, good old fashioned line cooks. The things I needed to know couldn’t just be told to me, they had to be experienced, and I was getting a heavy dose.
---My head was full of old French techniques but I couldn’t season properly. How can a graduate come out of $40,000 worth of schooling but not know how much salt and pepper to put in something? I over salted the mashed potatoes, I under seasoned my fish, no salt in the salad, salted the bacon. Ever had béarnaise with no salt in it on a perfect strip steak? It sucks. Thank God Rick tasted everything.
---I came to work with a full kit of knives, scoops, and tools but a simple fish spatula was not to be found and the only thing I needed.
---The ingredients were better than any I had ever seen and everyone respected them fully and totally, showing me the foundation of what cooking was all about. Where the fuck were all these farm fresh ingredients at the finest culinary school in the world?
--- I forgot to check my mise en place and would be missing important ingredients at opening that took hours to make.
---I didn’t know to check the beans before soaking and served some with rocks in it.
---I sharpened my knife on the grinder in the store room during service not thinking that it filled the dining room with an amplified sound of nails on a chalkboard.
---I was slow, unorganized, and clueless.
---I burned myself. A LOT.
Rick was patient. He talked me through many frustrations and showed me detailed cooking when I obviously just needed to focus on the basics. He must have wanted to kick me in the ass, call me a stupid fucking shoemaker, and throw a hot pan at me as I flipped another brown dog omelette. But he didn’t. They cooked around me, waiting when they could, praising me rarely when I started to understand a new basic skill, staring at me shaking their heads when I fucked up. As I started to be able to taste my cooking I built a little confidence, and a little of the teams. Tasting is all I ever mastered there, but is the most important lesson any cook can learn.
However, I learned. Real fucking fast. It was clear that I needed to step it up or the ship was going to sail. I tasted everything religiously and developed a basic palate. I organized my station to stream line my pick up times, I tried my best to work organized and quickly. Sometimes I did, and sometimes….well it was a college town with a lot of distractions. I WAS 20 years old, the male to female ratio had switched to 2-1 in my favor, and I was living with some of my oldest friends in a ghetto shack where we could do just about anything we wanted. Work was important, but if there was a party where there was a chance to meet some young ladies and some fine malt beverage that took precedence.
When I came into work one day worse for wear Rick pulled me aside.
“Are you hungover?”
“No.” I said.
“You can’t lie to me. I wake up to that face every morning.” I knew I was done.
He finally sat me down and let me go. He really thanked me for the effort but he didn’t have the time or skills to teach me what I needed to know. He kindly placed calls to a number of great restaurants with larger staff and more experienced chefs that could teach me what I needed to know. I came back to eat there a couple of times for inspiration until it closed shortly after my leaving. Seemed he wasn’t kidding about the face he woke up to every morning and he and his wife/partner were calling it quits.
It would take me years to get back to that style of simple cooking and the basics of flavor in my job but I never forgot those lessons I pulled out of the hazy few months at the bistro. The ability to taste, adjust, taste, ponder, taste, imagine your guests experience, taste,…..and serve is by far the most important thing a cook needs to know. All the great chefs hammer this home and any chef who doesn’t taste their food is a worthless piece of shit, should take themselves behind their restaurant and throw their jacket in the grease barrel. Taste everything until it is right, move your ass, stay out of the brown liquor if you are working the next day, and sex is more important then sleep. That’s a solid Carolina education.