Several top-tier chefs met at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival to discuss how they became famous in a notoriously competitive industry. Moderating the panel was Jennifer Baum, founder of the public relations firm, Bullfrog & Baum. Sitting on the panel were Manhattan-based Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, the executive chef of Butter Restaurant; Josh Capon, the executive chef and partner of Mercer Street Hospitality Group; Laurent Tourondel, the chef/owner of LT Hospitality; and Dale Talde, the chef/owner of Talde Restaurants.
Baum: When you went to culinary school, did you see that this type of high-profile career would be a possibility?
Guarnaschelli: I started cooking because I didn’t want a job where I had to get dressed and be on time for work or wear color-coordinated outfits and be agreeable more than two hours in a row. I discovered that restaurants are a really good place to hide and cook your heart out.
Baum: The irony is that you no longer can hide anymore.
But I did spend 10 years or more cooking 16 hours a day, cleaning artichokes and sea urchins in the basement. I did a lot of crying through a lot of years of sheer physical repetition and manual labor. But I really, really enjoyed it overall. Cooking is athletic, it’s a sport, it’s an art, it’s a lot of different things. I also decided to be a chef because I had a deranged relationship with food. I thought if I was around it a lot, I would eat less of it, which is not a good plan [the crowd laughs]. I also thought that I might end up in prison and that I better do something [more laughing]. I know it’s funny, but it’s also true.
Baum: How about you, Laurent?
Tourondel: It was rough training in Europe. We would start at 6 a.m. and finish around 11 p.m. That was for about 10 years.
Baum: Did you have to do what Alex did and stand outside kitchens before someone accepted you to work there?
Tourondel: Yes, it was a rough time. I saw people quit the first day on the job. It’s not like that anymore, but you have to be conditioned to handle it.
Baum: Dale, you worked through a lot of kitchens and then you were on TV (Bravo’s Top Chef). How did things change?
Talde: I had to stop a lot of really bad habits before I became a passable cook. I started cooking to party. I don’t like getting up early. I like sleeping until noon. I didn’t stop smoking weed until I walked into work. But then I got serious. As for getting on TV, the exposure definitely helps you get money to finance a restaurant.
Baum: Was it a self-motivated thing to get serious and stop partying?
Talde: No, a chef sat me down and said, “You are high every day you come into work. If you want to continue doing this you must stop.” When you are in garde manger (pantry chef) for two years and you don’t get moved up, it’s a bad sign. That’s when you realize you have to get serious or stop cooking.
Baum: What about you, Josh?
Capon: I went to the University of Maryland for a couple of years and didn’t do well academically. My mom and stepdad made an observation that every job I’ve had since I was 14 was in foodservice establishments. They picked me up one morning and took me on a tour of Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island. I made a mature decision to step out of Maryland two years in and enter culinary school. I knew two more years of partying in Maryland was going to get me nowhere.
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Baum: Chefs, how do you balance life?
Capon: I found that no matter what you do, be doing that, be in the moment. We work holidays and weekends and I have two kids. My wife gave me a compliment saying that for the little time I spend at home, I make more of it than most guys who are home every night.
Capon: I’m involved with a wellness program, so I go to my kids’ schools in New York once a month and do a cooking demo. My kids relate to that. My kids eat sushi and shuck oysters. There’s a lot more interaction with my kids as a chef than if I worked in an office.
Baum: How do you find time to have an existence outside work?
Tourondel: It’s difficult, particularly for me because I have restaurants all over the world. (Hong Kong, Puerto Rico). It’s much harder to be at home.
Talde: For me something always breaks, and that’s when I know I have to give up something else. We just opened two restaurants in Jersey City for a month’s stretch of 12-hour days. After a while you just snap. You can see the tension in everyone’s face you’re working with. Everyone is getting crazy, and you get angry over something stupid. It’s trivial stuff. That’s when you know you have to take some time off and detach from the restaurants.
I only have one restaurant and I work with people who really like each other a lot and will help each other. I tell this story about an incident that happened right before dinner service. Everyone was standing around because all the cucumbers were diced and everything was prepared. Then, all of a sudden, everybody was furiously chopping and prepping stuff. I asked what happened. They said nothing, until someone finally told me a glass had broken on the pantry and shattered all over the prep area. I got mad and said angrily, “You better get it together!” Then a second later, through tears, I said, “You guys are amazing. I love you.”
Baum: What is your best piece of advice about how to have a long career?
Capon: I spend more time in an average week with my kitchen staff than I do with my own family. I always say that we work together, and never say they work for me. I don’t like the way it sounds. Everybody is making a lot of sacrifices. The biggest struggle I have is not being able to be everywhere I want to be. I have chefs and managers at each restaurant that I trust to do the right thing.
Talde: I love my business partners and trust them, but when you fight, you have to fight it out. If you disagree with someone, you have to tell them. We argue, but in a healthy way.
Baum: You recently brought a new partner into the mix. How was that?
Talde: It was difficult. We were the end all and be all. We were the decision makers. But when the new guy came on board to do design, you can see how some of the partners were upset because they lost some control. But after talking it out, we decided that this is what this guy does for a living, so we have to trust his aesthetic.
Tourondel: The best way to go about it is have everyone do their role as best they can and respect that.
Guarnaschelli: I definitely have a macho streak where I think I can do it all—pick out the curtains, do the flowers, compile the wine list. But you get in over your head. If you’re cooking you’re probably a person who has a lot of energy.
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Baum: What was a big mistake you made in your career? It could be yesterday or 10 years ago.
Talde: My biggest failure was not putting my friends and family and loved ones ahead of my restaurant. I screwed up a relationship really bad by burying myself in work. What I can never get back is seeing my nieces grow up from 2 to 4. For almost two years I never did see them.
Tourondel: My biggest mistake was getting involved with financial backers who had no experience in the business. I had to shut it down. If I had to do it again, I’d do it differently.
Capon: I was working for Charlie Palmer at Aureole and one Saturday night the air conditioning broke down with 400 covers on the books. He was scurrying about trying to figure out what to do and I said to Charlie, “Hey, Charlie, at least you have the hottest restaurant in town.” He looked at me like, “You dumb son of a bitch!” Sometimes it’s best not to say anything and don’t drink the boxed wine in the kitchen because it will only give you a headache.
Capon: The dumbest thing I’ve ever done was using flour to relieve the chaffing between my thighs during a hot Saturday night in the kitchen as a young cook. I should have used cornstarch to soak up the sweat. As you know, if you take flour and water it makes dough. After a while I couldn’t even walk anymore because it was turning into cement between my legs.
Audience member: How do you deal with people who come to you to endorse a product?
Talde: For me, the reality is that when you have restaurants, you are never going to be rich, especially when you’re dividing the pie between three restaurant partners. I look at everything that is going to pay me because I don’t make a lot of money. Now is an opportunity to make some. I just got engaged and I’m trying to pay my own way, pay my parents for their investments in my restaurants, buy a house.
Capon: I agree with Dale 100 percent, but you have to know who you’re getting into bed with. We have agents and advisors who usually lead us in the right direction. You want to do it all, but it’s challenging because people want to use your name. You have to be careful who you do business with.
Audience member: What are you most proud of?
Talde: I’m a self-hater, so nothing is ever really good enough for me. I am proud of Talde in Brooklyn. I’m proud of how we turned a bad New York Times review into a positive. We got one star. We knew we were better than that. We turned it around by fine-tuning dishes and some wait staff. We looked at the review and decided we would make it better.
Capon: We got a bad review at Lure Fishbar 12 years ago and it was like a dagger in my heart. I always say running a kitchen is a lot like sports. You have to work together, start strong and finish stronger. But I’m proud to say that the reviewer came back three years later and gave us a nice review. We got the monkey off our back and the restaurant is now on fire.
Audience member: How many of you do your own social media?
Talde: We have someone in house who does it. When I do my own it’s not PG and it’s sometimes creepy. My agent told me that I would never get endorsements, not with the way I handle my Instagram and Twitter accounts.
Capon: I have a hard time with it. My biggest problem is that no one enjoys what they’re doing anymore while they do it. They have to tell the rest of the world what they’re doing while they’re doing it. Someone came into the restaurant and wanted to sell me a battery pack that you put under tables so customers can plug in their phones. I’ve seen tables of six where all six of them are on their phones. With the younger generation, if their phone battery dies, the evening is over. You can fight it all you want, but you have to get on board with social media or get the hell out.
Guarnaschelli: With social media, you can water the flowers a couple times a day and spend the rest of the time in a hammock.
Restaurant Hospitality editor Mike Sanson reported live from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach. The event, now in its 14th year, attracted more than 60,000 attendees, 150 celebrated chefs and 250 wineries and spirits producers. A component of the festival is trade panels designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson's reports from South Beach focus on those talks and interviews with top chefs attending the event.