WASHINGTON — About 12 years ago, something happened that forever changed the way the world viewed food: Cooking competition shows made their debut.
With a behind-the-scenes look at the genius — and the drama — that takes place in the kitchen, programs such as “Iron Chef America” and “Top Chef” shined a spotlight on an industry that for a long time was somewhat unheralded.
Overnight, food became fashionable and chefs emerged as celebrities — and a new generation wanted in.
James Beard-nominated food journalist Karen Stabiner became fascinated by this younger, chef-obsessed bunch while co-writing “Family Table,” a collection of recipes and stories from the people who work in Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants.
During her time observing the line cooks, sous-chefs and pastry masters, she heard the same thing, time and again: “They all had a plan, and the going wisdom was, ‘If I don’t have a restaurant by the time I’m 30, I’m never going to have one,’” she explained.
That ambitious mentality was the inspiration behind her new book, “Generation Chef,” which unwraps and explores “the new American dream.” For more than a year, Stabiner followed Jonah Miller, who quit his job as sous-chef at one of New York’s top restaurants to open his own restaurant, Huertas, in his mid-20s.
What she witnessed is that it takes more than culinary skills to make it in the restaurant industry. For starters, a lot of people don’t realize how physically grueling restaurant work is.
“Jonah was 26 when he opened his restaurant and at the end of the first week, he looked like my grandfather,” Stabiner said. “It’s repetitive, it’s physical, it’s challenging.”
And unlike a lot of jobs, everything is split-second.
“It’s not like a job where you say, ‘Well I’m going to work on this in the morning and then I’m going to work on that in the afternoon.’ Ten people walk in off the street and want the duck at the same time, you’ve got to turn out 10 beautiful plates of duck.”
TV often depicts chefs as being hot-headed behind-the-scenes — flinging pans and expletives at even the smallest of mistakes — but Stabiner witnessed the opposite. Executive chefs have to be the grown-ups in the kitchen for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they have a team of cooks and servers that look up to them.
“You can’t act out the way Anthony Bourdain did a generation ago. You’ve kind of got to be the parent in the kitchen — and that’s difficult when you’re 26,” she said.
Second, it’s their name, their fame and their bank accounts that are on the line, so maintaining a sense of control with the staff is essential.
“The day Jonah opened the restaurant, he was $700,000 in debt. So you have to be a benevolent parent, but you better make sure everybody does their job too.”
If Stabiner could offer aspiring chefs one piece of advice, it would be similar to what Tom Colicchio tells culinary students at speaking events.
“If you are coming into the business to be him when you grow up, forget it,” Stabiner said about the famous chef, restaurateur and TV host.
“Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali and people like that of the universe are less than one percent. Those are the visible people we see.”
Another piece of advice? Make sure your business chops rival your knife skills. The restaurant industry is a crowded one; only the best succeed.
“Make sure that your business prep matches your passion for cooking,” Stabiner said.