RESTAURANTS : When the Chef Steps Out, Who Minds the Store?

Last week they were in the Napa Valley, cooking at the American Institute of Wine and Food. This week they're in Los Angeles, cooking for charity at the big American Wine and Food Festival for Meals on Wheels. But if all the hot young chefs are here cooking for us, who's home on the range cooking for the customers?

"The same people who do the cooking when I'm there." Almost all of the chefs answered the question with Paul Bocuse's classic response. But their answers give some insight into the way restaurant kitchens are run nowadays.

"Old French chefs," said Yannick Cam, chef and owner of Washington's posh Le Pavillon, "like to act as if there were some kind of magic about them. As if they had to be there or the food wouldn't be any good. But a chef doesn't cook alone, and the truth is, the more you get employees, the less the chef cooks. I cannot supervise everything even when I'm there. I have great confidence in my staff."

Traditional French restaurants ran on fear. Today, say the chefs, trust is the keynote in the kitchen. Says Stephan Pyles, chef/owner of Routh Street Cafe in Dallas, "It's the trademark of the American chef. My staff are all as committed as I am; I keep people forever and ever and we work in an atmosphere of mutual respect. I try to make the staff feel that they are contributing."

Kazuto Matsusaka, chef at Chinois, says much the same thing. Although he rarely leaves his kitchen, Matsusaka said that he feels that his second-in-command, Fred Iwasaki, "has a better palate than I do. He has a good finishing touch for the food. I feel that me, Wolfgang (Puck) and Fred are a good partnership. We're a team."

The grand old French chefs had an Olympian attitude; the young chefs seem to take an opposite stance. "I work all the stations in the kitchen," says Matsusaka. "I want to know what's going on." Cam feels it's important to get the customer's point of view as well. "I think," he said, "that it's very important for a chef to sit down in his own restaurant, to see how it feels for the customers. And," he adds, "a chef should also go into other restaurants, to see what they are providing for the same money. I think a chef should be in his kitchen 95% of the time, but 5% of the time he needs to be away."

But what about Andre Soltner, chef/owner of Lutece in New York, so often held up as an example of the quintessential chef? He is always in his restaurant; if he couldn't be there, he has said, the restaurant wouldn't open that day. Is this an admirable attitude?

"That's his point of view," says Gilbert Le Coze, "but I don't think it is a responsible way to think. A chef should not feel that he is the only one who can do it. If a chef takes time to teach, if you train people properly, everybody can do it. It's crazy to have a restaurant for that many years and not have people you trust."

Says Cam, "If after 20 years a chef cannot take a few days off, he is not properly organized." Adds Pyles, a bit incredulously: "It doesn't make sense to me. Soltner's obviously got a formula that works, but I've got to have more faith in my staff than that."

"You know," says Cam, "sometimes people see me sitting in the dining room and say, 'The food was so good, I couldn't believe you didn't cook it. It was as good as when you're in the kitchen.' And I say, 'Of course.' "

Adds Le Coze: "If the food in my restaurant would be better when I'm not there, I would be very proud. That's a good chef."

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