Executive chefs tend to be the stars of the show. They earn Michelin Stars, James Beard Awards and accolades for their most artfully prepared dishes. Some appear on television. Others write columns in the local paper. You can Google their names and come up with their biographies, countless interviews and honors.
But, despite the acclaim heaped upon their mentors, we very seldom hear from the unsung heroes of the restaurant kitchen. Sous chefs aren’t lauded with awards. Or mentioned in most restaurant reviews.
They seldom get credit for dishes they’ve created that make it onto a restaurant menu. And, in most cases, there are few restaurant patrons who even know their names. In fact, I’d venture a guess that most people, unless they’ve worked in the service industry, don’t have a very clear understanding of what a sous chef (French for "under chef") really does.
These indispensable executors are painstakingly trained and nurtured to do everything the boss can do, but they also need to be willing to do just about anything needed to keep the kitchen running, including counting towels, boiling water, or supervising prep cooks and dishwashers.
Eventually most sous chefs move up. Perhaps they branch out to another restaurant to learn techniques from other culinary masters. Or, if the time is right, they become the masters of their own kitchens. Many of the best sous chefs become executive sous chefs, a job that can last five years or more.
But, like any other apprentice, the sous chef toils in the shadow of the mentor, motivated by an innate desire to learn as much as possible and evolve into the sort of person who is more than capable of running his or her own kitchen.
In the meantime, the sous is the go-to person for everything that comes in and out of the kitchen.
"A sous chef runs the kitchen," says Justin Carlisle, executive chef at Umami Moto. "You are on salary, working 80 hours a week. You’re the first person in and the last one to leave. Everything is your fault. You’re responsible for everything."
Robert Druschitz, executive chef at the Intercontinental agrees. "A sous chef’s only job is to keep the executive chef sane. Whatever that entails, that’s you. It’s the mid-management kitchen role. You take the heat for the entire kitchen. A good sous chef is one who – if the chef is angry – takes the brunt and really communicates the message to the rest of the staff in a way that keeps things running."
But, every kitchen is different. Some sous chefs might assist with menu planning, inventory, and managing of supplies. Others may assist in making sure the kitchen is up to safety standards, and that staff are obeying sanitation rules.
When I asked Dan Jacobs, executive chef of Wolf Peach, what he relies upon his two sous chefs, Cole Ersel and Kyle Toner, for most, he remarked, "Being my eyes when I'm not there … be it meetings, writing emails, running errands for the restaurant, expo-ing service, or a day off, I want them to handle situations and approach the food the way I would if I was there."
Sous chefs also make sure that the food a restaurant or commercial kitchen is using is of top quality, and that staff are being mindful of the cost standards that come with the food. For instance, if a steak costs $10 per 8 ounce serving, it’s up to the sous chef to make sure servings aren’t too large so that the establishment meets its budget.
A sous chef needs to be intimately familiar with every single activity in the kitchen and be prepared to carry any of them in a pinch. Sous need to be quick on their feet and be able to make smart decisions instantly. They often work for long hours with little of the overall credit, but creativity and problem solving skills are ultimately the elements that will set them apart on the way to becoming chef.
"I remember Jacky Pluton, owner of Pluton's 4 stars in Chicago in 2005, telling me to never complain about being the sous chef," recalls Jacobs. "It is both the hardest working and longest hours worked by anyone in the kitchen. You get shit from below and shit from above, but you have to go through that to be a chef."
Carlisle attributes a great deal to his time spent as sous chef, which he says made him a far better chef in the long run.
"If our towel count was off when I was at Tru, I’d get yelled at," he recalls. "At the end of the week, it was my problem if the cooks were stealing them. It wasn’t easy. It was demanding and difficult, but that made my transition into being an executive chef much easier. I already had the number systems down."
And, despite their current standing, every single one of Milwaukee’s chefs have done their time. Justin Aprahamian remembers his first weeks as sous chef at Sanford being some of the most stressful of his life.
"I remember it being very nerve-wracking," Aprahamian tells me. "I was 21 when I became sous chef here, and it was my first experience in any kind of management. I remember being excited and nervous. I was one of the youngest in the kitchen, so it was tough."
Fortunately, Aprahamian also acknowledges that there was an up-side to the work.
"I remember the excitement of being able to play with new dishes and get to work on new things and be at the helm of some of that," he says. "At one point Sandy and Angie D’Amato were gone, out of the country, for about six weeks. The kitchen staff really needed to take ownership. Knowing the standard by which we’re judged, we really needed to step up and deliver. There was always this idea that we had to keep things running at the same level, and no one could know that Sandy wasn’t there."
When executive chefs are hiring their sous, they’re aiming to put someone in the role who really clicks with the vision that they have for their food. But, it also has to be someone who fits in seamlessly with the culture of the kitchen.
"What I look for is someone who has the same mindset as me," says Dan Van Rite, executive chef at Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub. "We share hours and concepts. As a sous chef, Paul [Funk] takes the orders and then makes sure that everyone else in the kitchen is up to those standards. We’re both the first in and the last out of the kitchen. Normally, I might be able to come in early and leave early. But, that’s just not how I work. I’m pretty hands-on, and that’s just the way I’ve always done it."
And hands-on is a necessary component to the work of a sous chef, who needs to be able to replicate exactly what his mentor has in mind.
"In the training sense, you want to get people thinking the way that you do," explains Aprahamian. "You want someone who’s concerned about the same quality and the same standards. I like to train them so that they are developing a palate, thinking about balance in the food and working toward dishes that really exemplify the quality of the food we’re known for. Here, that’s kind of always been the mindset. We get a lot of people who do their time here… Sandy has touched so many people who have gone on to work at other restaurants."
But, it’s not always easy. Aprahamian says that he still has trouble giving up some of the responsibilities he had as chef de cuisine.
"I still work a station on the line, but I’m learning that I have to give some of that up," Aprahamian says. "It’s becoming easier with other things that are pulling in other directions. Since the sale of the restaurant, my sous, Casey Davison, has really been there and stepped up to cover loose ends. That’s huge, it’s a paramount thing right there."
And the ways a sous can step in and save the day are many. Thi Cao, executive chef at Buckley's, says that he almost always hires a cook who has been with him for a couple of years to be his sous. It has to be someone, he says "who can execute my vision and philosophy."
He cites a particular scenerio when a VIP came into the restaurant unannounced.
"I was away running errands. I told everyone I would be right back but got caught up in traffic for a few hours," he says. "The VIP made a bold request for an old dish that I did at a different restaurant and my sous chef executed the dish flawlessly."
In some ways, for executive chefs, training a sous is a very personal endeavor.
"I became an executive chef for the first time because my chef bailed," Carlisle remembers. "I’d only been there for 5-6 months. I ran that one for 3-4 years. It was really rough. I was too young, and I learned a lot on the job. If that happens, I want my sous chef to be prepared."
Part of that preparation, for Carlisle, consists of requiring his sous chef, Jackie Lee Woods, stage in Chicago at least once a month.
"Right now, he’s staging at Next," Carlisle says. "I want him to see different systems and understand different kitchens."
That diversity in experience, Carlisle says, not only enhances a sous chef’s work in his current restaurant, but also the work he or she will do when moving on to a different kitchen – work that will, ultimately, reflect upon the executive chef who trained him or her.
"I want people, when they do move on, to be better than when they left," Druschitz says. "I want them to be on their way to becoming a chef."
In an effort to acknowledge the work of the unsung sous chef, I’ll do a series of interviews with some of the best in Milwaukee. Stay tuned for OnMilwaukee interviews with Shawn Abbott of Mason Street Grill, Kyle Toner and Cole Ersel of Wolf Peach, Casey Davison of Sanford, Jackie Lee Woods of Umami Moto, and others.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.