In the highly competitive world of high end cuisine, there are little to no room for errors and vying for a position at a fine dining restaurant is pinnacle. High end Chefs go to great lengths to try and sift through the barrage of applicant’s chomping at the bit to apprentice in their kitchen in hopes of picking up some priceless skills and much needed notoriety. Each Chef has a technique developed specifically for their genre, culture or goals.
Some Chefs choose a working test where ambitious Chefs get thrown into the lions den on week one. Others, choose a more relaxed approach of settling for the traditional job interview.
…Not Chef Benjamin Epicure!
We met up with the Chef at Smithmore Castle, a splendid Scottish Castle in the Appalachians. This 15,000 Sq Ft luxury estate owned by Lord Robert Smith since 2008 is a literal fairytale. Chef Benjamin is on contract for a short while; managing the kitchen and consulting in High End Cuisine via his Culinary Academy. We sat in on the initial telephone call the Chef had with a hopeful candidate seeking mentorship and a career at Smithmore. On the phone you can tell right away that this particular candidate named Ryan knew who the Chef was and seemed to be nervous. True to Character, Epicure did not ease his tone. “I want you to tell me to whom was the last 10 most recent calls you’ve made?” “Do you spend time with your parents,” Epicure asks. “If you weren’t you, who would you be?,” he followed. Obviously, the person on the receiving end of this call was overwhelmed and stumbling by the non culinary questions being asked. After a long and brutal ten minutes, Epicure says, show up to the Castle in the next hour, wear all black and you’re going to cook me my favorite dish. “Really? Today?, uh? What’s your favorite dish?” Ryan desperately seeks answers. “Show up in an hour if you want to be a part of my team, good bye.” He walks towards a Jr. Sous Chef and says, “good work on the Cheese Cake, there’s always room to improve on the plating.” Epicure, always straightforward, always sure, a bit dickish.
We asked Epicure if his demands to Ryan were unreasonable. Besides, people can’t just drop what they’re doing and come prepare an unknown dish at a job interview for a renowned 5-star Chef. Benjamin went on to explain that he comes from the old school of understanding that ethics in the workplace determine a persons success outside of it. “If you can’t commit to a job, one hundred percent of yourself, a job that will pay for your electricity, food, shelter and recreation, if you can’t give me that hour, straight away, then I’d say that I don’t deserve to be mistreated by you, that’s how I see it, that’s my test.”
To most readers, this may sound pompous, arrogant and slightly cruel. Then again, who are we to judge the methods of Greats. No one told Michael Jordan to be nicer to his teammates during practice. Infamous for harsh attitude and even a bullying demeanor was said to be Jordan’s style. Who can argue with the discipline and tenacity of Tiger Woods. A man so driven by perfection that often it appears insane. Well, to the average…
We stuck around waiting for Ryan and we weren’t sure if or when he would show. Nearly at the hours mark, Castle Concierge brings Ryan into the kitchen. A formidable man, about six foot, well groomed and dressed in all black as the chef directed. “Welcome, you’re late,” Epicure stated. “Sorry Chef, thought I had 12 minutes left,” Rayan answers slowly. “Exactly!” Epicure replies, “Exactly.” Epicure directs Ryan to wash his hands, elbows high and begins sounding off what he wanted to eat. To Chef Benjamin’s credit, he had all the ingredients laid out Mise en place (French pronunciation: [mi zɑ̃ ˈplas]) is a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “gather.” It refers to the setup required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that are expected to be prepared. Chef was having, Frog Legs for starter, Ostrich Pasta for Main and a Banana Split for Dessert. Ryan, signals “Yes Chef” and begins to work. Epicure stands watch and whispers to me. “I’ve purposely left out one important ingredient from each of these dishes and I want to know if Ryan will catch on.” I thought, oh bloody hell, not another test. It was hard enough for this poor chap to try and complete such wizardry. I began getting nervous as I heard the final instruction from Chef Epicure, “You will have 30 minutes from start to finish.”
Needless to say, Ryan picked up on 2 of the 3 missing ingredients during this test. And the dishes I might add seemed delightful to look at. Epicure tries one bite of each, says nothing but points out that he forgot an ingredient, which when left out is ‘not proper nor forgivable.’ He thanks Ryan and gives him a crisp $100 bill and says “for your time.” Although Ryan wasn’t hired that day it was made clear to him that he could reapply in 2 months and only after he’s improved. It seems unfair but after spending hours with the Chef, watching him harmonize the kitchen which such grace, such discipline and witnessing his artful creations it all became clear. Perfection seeks perfection.
Written by: Les Silverman