What’s Not Cooking?

Sometimes, after we've called in sick with a strange "stomach virus," we spend the day testing Bloody Mary recipes and watching cooking shows.

According to television, chefs spend their days sipping wine with Andrea Immer on some ocean-side deck, fishing for rainbow trout in a roaring mountain stream, roaming Tuscan villages--that sort of thing. But one morning last week, when we stopped by the Landmark Restaurant for much-needed coffee...well, we actually hoped to nab a key to the Library Bar and slam some breakfast vodkas at discount prices, so to speak, but the desk staff refused to believe Jerry Jones was in the next room and his face-lift had collapsed with tragic results...we noticed chef Joel Harloff surveying the dining room.

He had worked the night before, too, and was planning to supervise lunch and dinner service that particular day.

Unlike the popular images, you see, a chef spends much of his or her time in the kitchen. Most work 60 to 80 hours each week. That's equal to a lifetime of bathing for the French or to the time George W. spends inside the White House each year. Chefs plan menus, select ingredients, teach line cooks and the like. For the most part, their efforts are neither glamorous nor relaxing. Even on their day off chefs often participate in charity functions or other events.

But do they ever eat out?

"Of course we eat out," says Travis Henderson of Perry's. "Out of a box, out of a to-go container."

Guess our editor moonlights writing Henderson's material.

Chefs apparently thrive on meals they catch on the way home late at night or on the same sloppy, quick-service items the rest of us order every day. "It's one of the great fallacies, that we're sitting back with foie gras on our days off," explains Aaron Staudenmaier of Jasper's.

In fact, it's unlikely that chefs surrounded constantly with truffles and diver scallops will long for such things when they kick back at home. Staudenmaier prepared countless lobster tacos while working for Dean Fearing at the Mansion and served a steady flow of lobster shooters during his time at Abacus. He now happily passes up the delicacy in favor of hot dogs from a vendor outside his local Home Depot.

"I like places where my expectations are zero," he says. Hmm...we may have an opening on the Burning Question crew.

His point: In a fine dining establishment, chefs can't shut themselves off. They evaluate place settings, service and menu items. Although they recognize the value of scouting rival hot spots, the very process disrupts their (or, more likely, their family's) enjoyment of a meal.

"I spend 70 hours a week in a restaurant," adds Tom Fleming of Old Hickory in Grapevine's Gaylord Resort. "On my day off, I don't want to go to a place where I can't relax." Instead, he chomps fajitas at Chili Gordos. Harloff calls the menudo at Sol's Nieto Fajitas "good stuff." He also hangs out at Mattito's. Henderson totes his three kids over to Chili's. Joanne Bondy of Ciudad prefers Angry Dog.

As Staudenmaier puts it, "If I pay $10 for a burger and fries, I don't care."

Ah, but what happens when one chef drops in on another? They generally check reservation lists several times before the dinner rush hits, so unless the visiting colleague calls in a false name--Seymour Butts, perhaps, or Biggus Di...never mind--chefs are aware and prepared. They dole out special treatment (which we assume is different from the "special" treatment the Burning Question crew receives, which generally involves a hasty escort out the back door) and perhaps an additional course or two.

"We don't get nervous when we see another chef," Harloff claims. "For us it's fun. It gives us a chance to cook something special, to show what we're all about."

So that's pretty much it. You're far more likely to encounter these culinary giants at a local dive or a chain restaurant than at Nana or Abacus. After all, they live this stuff every day.

Oh--in case our editor reads this, only nonessential Burning Question crew members ever call in sick. And since they're not paid for their...hey, come to think of it, none of us has ever been paid.


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