Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cooking in professional kitchens proves difficult, even for old pro St. John

Chefs are tough. They have to be.

Cooking in a professional kitchen is one of the hardest jobs out there. The pressure is high, the heat is intense, and the skill set needed at the upper level of the restaurant business is earned more than learned.

A lot of people get into the restaurant business because they cook a good steak in their backyard. This is how it happens:

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“Say, Joe, that’s a good steak. You ought to open up a restaurant.”

“You think so?” says Joe.

“Sure. You’ll make a mint.”

Then Joe opens a restaurant and quickly learns that being able to cook a good steak is about 5% of the knowledge needed to operate a successful restaurant.

Bankers hate restaurants. It’s because people like Joe are constantly opening restaurants and then going out of business.

I talk to a lot of kids with stars in their eyes. They have seen the Food Network and have romanticized the restaurant business. Most think that when they graduate from chef school or receive a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, they’ll be floating around their successful restaurant’s dining room, basking in the glow of their adoring and grateful customers, while later taking a seat at their private corner table for dinner.

They quickly learn the truth when they are filling in for a dishwasher who didn’t show up for his Saturday night shift, or mopping up the ladies room, or learning that their chef career wasn’t supposed to include stints of pressure washing greasy mats on the back dock at 11:30 at night.

My title is Executive Chef, which is a fancy way to say, “He doesn’t cook much anymore.” Sure, I put in several years of 90-hour work weeks early in my cooking career, but the truth is, if I got behind my line tomorrow night, I would slow everyone down. My kitchen passed me up years ago. I might be bale to get my service chops back in a matter of weeks, but the truth is, I can better serve my company doing the “vision thing.”

I am a dinosaur. I get to create nowadays. I work mostly in menu development, creating new dishes for my restaurants, and making sure that the dishes I created years ago are still being executed in the way they were developed.

The key to success in the restaurant business is management, management, management. All problems in the restaurant business can be traced back to management, or lack thereof. Conversely, all successes in restaurants are due to a crackerjack management staff staying on top of food quality, service, consistency, and the “1000 little things” that require constant attention and supervision.

Again, cooking in a high-volume professional kitchen is tough stuff. Chefs have to be strong. Linda Nance, Chef De Cuisine at the Purple Parrot Café, graduated at the top of her class at the Culinary Institute of America in the mid 1980s. She has been cooking in kitchens across the country ever since. She hasn’t slowed up a bit. I’d put her up against any 25-year old male chef and she would run circles around him. She is a great example of how tough the women who cook for a living can be.

The Toughest Chef of the Year Award goes to noted New Orleans chef, Paul Prudhomme. Earlier this year, the father of the Cajun blackening movement was shot while cooking at the Zurich Golf Classic. True Story: A .22 caliber bullet hit just above Prudhomme’s elbow early in the morning while he was stirring seafood in a skillet. The chef felt a sting, shook his arm, and the bullet fell out of the sleeve of his chef’s coat. He kept on cooking for another six hours. Apparently, even golfing in New Orleans is dangerous these days.

Chefs are tough, but taking a bullet for your food and continuing to cook is taking one’s professional commitment and dedication to an entirely different level.

For this week’s recipe, Cracked Pepper Filet with Mustard Cognac Sauce from Robert’s brand new book New South Grilling, go to the blog on

(Robert St.John is an author, chef, restaurateur, and world-class eater. He is the author of seven books including the newly released New South Grilling.)