The City of Ate Interview: Grape Sous Chef Danyele McPherson on Life as Luscher's No. 2

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The Grape's sous chef, Danyele McPherson, sat down with us last week to chat about the life as a sous. Let's just jump right in.

How did you initially get into cooking? Well, I went to normal college - got a degree at North Carolina at Chapel Hill and worked in offices full time, in a cube.

Cubes are fun, huh? No. I made a few customizations to my cube and they didn't like that.

Like what? Well, I stood on the top of my cube and stapled colored folders around the florescent lights to make them a little less harsh. But, they didn't like that. They basically said, "You're trying to be an individual and we don't really need that here."

How long did you last in the cubicle? Not long. I also worked in a library, but that was actually fun. I processed fines and worked the circulation desk.

Wait. So, do you have tips for fine forgiveness? Oh, man, I heard every excuse out there.

Really, like their kids wrapped the books as Christmas presents and gave them away? Even that one? At the end of the day, you know, the fines are really cheap, I don't understand why people don't just pay them. They're usually like fifty cents.

Say the fine is more like fifty dollars... You can try to say the library lost it, but they have ways to trace that. It's the library, man. You just have to pay the fine.

So, what was your first job at a restaurant? I'd work my day jobs in cubes, but would also work a few shifts at restaurants at nights and on weekends. I just loved working at restaurants. Everyday I would think, "I can't wait to get done with this shit so I can go to the job I really like."

Then at some point, I just realized I had to make a change and enrolled in the CIA.

You initially came to Dallas to work at Stephan Pyles. How did you land that job? It was initially just for my externship. A lot of students want to get jobs in New York City or Chicago, but I really like the south. And there were a few chefs at the CIA that had worked here in Dallas and they encouraged me to come here. So I applied at Stephan Pyles and they said come on down. I started four days before Valentine's Day - had my first rodeo.

Were you nervous about moving to Texas? Well, I drove over a thousand miles with just my cat. That was a little crazy. I was suppose to stay for four months, but towards the end I talked to Tim Byers, who was my chef at the time [at Stephan Pyles], and asked him if he thought I should go back to school or not and he was like, "Man, you're already working here, you already got a job. Who cares about culinary school?"

So, I stayed.

Hope that advice works out. Honestly though, it has to be hard to leave a great job with a fantastic chef to go back to culinary school so you can get another good job. It seems like a conflict for a lot of students when they do their externships. I understand the set up -- you're supposed to go out there and get this experience then return to school with this knowledge of what you're facing. It all sort of depends on your experience when you started. If you're going in to hone the vernacular of the job, then I understand that.

Did you like working at Stephan Pyles -- not a loaded question? I loved it. Stephan Pyles is one of the craziest jobs you can have. It's never just dinner, there's always something else going on, like a cooking class, or Fuego, I was doing that from the start, private dinners, catering for 500 people.

As an extern, did you work side-by-side much with Chef Pyles? Absolutely. For example, I would coordinate cooking classes for him and I was the one who had to make sure everything was set up. So, I was the person standing next to him in the room, handing him things and I had to be able to anticipate what he wanted. Once you work with someone for a while, you get to know them, their style and how they do things.

What's your advice for externs? I've worked with a variety of externs. There are the kids who sit in the corner and are only there because they have to be, then there are the ones who ask "What can I do next? What can I do next?"

I guess it's clear which one is successful? Absolutely. Externships are a job. It's real, not school. If you come in and act like a dick, it's not going to work out. People come in and think being a chef is a celebrity job now, like when you're a chef you don't have to work anymore.

Are you saying that's an illusion? (We laugh.) Couldn't be further from the truth. Brian [Luscher] always says he wishes he could just come in and cook. That's the easy part of the job. Scheduling, covering food costs, running an entire restaurant is exhausting.

As far as externs go, if someone gives you a list of ten things to do, do all ten as fast and well as you can, then say, "What now?" No one is going to teach you unless you want to be taught.

In a general sense, what are a sous chef's responsibilities? In three words we "bust it out." From everything to prep, orders, ingredients. I hand out a lot of post it notes on what people need to do. I coordinate a lot. As a sous chef you do as much as you can so the chef has to do as little as possible. So they can concentrate on being the owner and growing the business. So, does Chef Luscher yell at you a lot? No. He's not a yeller. If he's a little off or something he's probably just playing Rush really loud.

Oh bummer. I'd rather have someone yell at me. Do you like Rush? No, I feel like I used to like Rush, but after working here and hearing them all the time, I'm totally not into Rush anymore.

That could be a form of torture. You know what's funny a friend told me they were at some random concert the other day, completely Rush unrelated, and the crowd just started chanting "Rush sucks! Rush sucks!" Other people joined in and the whole crowd was chanting "Rush sucks!"

Did you tell Brian about this? Ummm, I don't think so.

As a sous chef, I'm sure you want to get rid of him one day so you can be the big chef. Any plans to run him outta town? Well, it's always a challenge to figure out when you're ready for the next step. As it is now, I always have someone to go to. Like if I have a dream about some food and I want to figure out how to make it, I can talk to him because I know he's probably made something like it before - I can ask him what his approach would be. It's nice to have that guidance and scary to think about not having it.

When did you start culinary school? 2008 or 9.

That's a pretty fast ascension. What do you think helps a cook move up the ladder that quickly? I went from being an intern to a sous chef in a year and a half. My advice is to be that person that they can always rely on. You're never sick or hung over - that's just something you have to work out yourself. If you're too sick to come in, come in anyway...

And puke on the potatoes? Maybe not on the potatoes. There are just no sick days in a restaurant. You still have to make an effort. People will notice that.

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