Burning Question: How Much Time Do Chefs Spend In The Kitchen?

Earlier this fall, chef Nobu Matsuhisa passed through for a well publicized book signing...and rare visit to his restaurant. Sometime in the next few weeks, Wolfgang Puck's people--not the great man himself--holds a meet and greet session for the real chef at his soon to open Dallas venue.


At least that's what our web guy tells us. Puck's PR machine sent him the invitation, apparently hoping to keep us away from the festivities. Not that the Burning Question crew would, say, take undue advantage of all that free booze.

Nobu and Wolfgang Puck are, of course, nationally ranked brands, culinary idols in charge of franchises spread across the country. It would be impossible for their ilk to run kitchens in Miami, Vegas and Dallas at the same time. But even the local names gallivant a bit. Kent Rathbun jaunts off for an appearance on Iron Chef America. Pyramid's J. W. Foster joins the line up for Stephan Pyles' celebrity chef dinner--every week some event begs for the services of well known cooks.

So how much time do top chefs really spend in their kitchens?

"I don't have the big bucks," says Blythe Beck of Hector's On Henderson. "I have to work."

Indeed, she had an arm jammed halfway up a turkey's hindquarters as we spoke...although, come to think of it, the bird wasn't on that evening's menu. Um, anyway, at the moment, Hector's is down a sous chef. Chef Beck and a crew of five handle all the line duties. Yet, she admits, attending charity events "is like playing hooky"--a welcome respite from the everyday grind.

"I've come to learn they spend as much time as they want to," says the aforementioned Stephan Pyles, one of the toppest chefs and owner of an eponymous downtown destination. "It's very exciting to do events," he continues, reflecting back on the days when he promoted books and stopped by functions on a regular basis. "But today I can't think of anything better than to be in the restaurant.

Still, he often serves more in the role of executive and front man, touring the dining room to chat with guests and checking in on progress in the kitchen. Although many patrons imagine the chef huddled over a stove, personally finishing each and every dish, most establishments of any size rely on a sous and thoroughly trained line cooks to prepare appetizers and entrees, even when the chef is in the building. In smaller restaurants like Beck's, the chef still spends more time expediting--an industry term for the role of overseeing, double-checking and (when necessary) throwing tantrums--than working a grill.

"If I'm gone, it should run just as well," explains French Room's Jason Weaver of his line. "I trust my staff--but," he adds, "I should be there."

Simply put, chefs spend as much time as possible in their loud, steaming, crowded little rooms. But they pick and choose time off for events or travel. Pyles plans vacation for January or July, when restaurant crowds thin out. Restaurant Week ruined August as a getaway month, he says. Weaver selects four weekend charity events a year. Beck as well--limiting her appearances to Taste of the NFL, Savor Dallas and maybe another.

"You can argue, is it marketing value or charitable value," explains Pyles, who will team with Wolfgang Puck for events in Ohio next year. "I can't do them all, so we pick first based on charities we feel a pull toward, then on marketing value--and, of course, if Wolf calls."

But every chef enjoys playing hooky, even when it involves some cooking.

"Its fun times when we leave," Beck admits. "And if we have to sample some of the liquor, that's OK."

Speaking of which, where is that invitation? --Dave Faries

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