What’s cooking in the life of a chef?

January 31, 2011 — by Jackie Gu

Before I walked into the kitchen of Chez TJ, I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting to see. Angry-looking chefs aggressively wielding culinary weapons, like in “Iron Chef”? Perhaps high-strung chefs dropping pots right and left, as in “Food Network Challenge”?

What greeted me instead was a small, relaxed kitchen environment, free of the hypertension or samurai knives I’d come to expect from watching Food Network. But I’d arrived four hours before the restaurant’s opening at 5:30 p.m., so the real show had yet to begin.

Chez TJ is a classy restaurant tucked in downtown Mountain View, a high-end establishment specializing in contemporary French cuisine, where four-course meals cost around $85 and eight-course $120.

Located in a classical Victorian home, the restaurant’s interior is intimate and romantic. But because my own culinary skill extends to the ability to burn toast, it was quite a surprise to find myself behind the scenes of an upscale restaurant that seemed to be the epitome of fine dining.

1 p.m.:

Chef Nicolas Russell led me around the back of the building for a quick tour of the 1,500 sq. ft. garden, small by restaurant standards. The “garnish garden” grows a wide variety of herbs—arugula, Swiss chard, and seven kinds of thyme—which are fresh-picked and later used as garnishes in the restaurant’s dishes.

Culinary horticulturalist Louise Christy, an alumni of Saratoga High from the class of 1979, said it’s “almost impossible” to maintain the herbs in good enough shape for serving.

“Because Chez TJ is a Michelin-starred restaurant, the things that go on the plate have to be pretty much perfect,” she said. “If a bug walks across a leaf and bites it, it doesn’t make the leaf inedible, but it does make it ineligible for the plate.”

2:06 p.m.:

Although Chez TJ doesn’t open until the evening, a chef’s work day starts at around noon. The time between noon and 4:30 is used to prepare sauces and garnishes, expediting the cooking process to shorten the customer’s wait time. While the chefs prepared the ingredients, I spent much of the afternoon picking and washing herbs from the garden—tasks that even a culinary idiot like myself couldn’t botch.

5:35 p.m.:

Once the restaurant opened its doors, the atmosphere in the kitchen thickened palpably.

Despite Chez TJ being a small restaurant with two fixed menus and a reservation policy, the foggy tension in the air starkly contrasted with the earlier laid-back environment. I tried to stand in a corner and make myself invisible (because who wants to be in the way of a stressed chef brandishing a large knife?), but that was rather difficult in the crowded kitchen.

The four chefs rounded corners spewing jargon meant to warn others they were carrying knives. (Too bad I didn’t figure that out until later.) And despite the enormous exhaust hoods hovering over the stoves, extraordinary scents of salty, smoky caviar and creamy coriander soup saturated the air. (When the patissier left a tray of spiced macaroons with foie gras on the counter, it took almost all my willpower to resist stealing one.) The orders continually trickled in, and although I left at 7 p.m., the rest of the staff was likely to stay past midnight.

Overall Experience:

Scott Nishiyama, Chez TJ’s executive chef, said the path to becoming an executive chef is a lengthy one. Aside from the vast expanse of culinary knowledge necessary, the executive chef sometimes needs to be able to run the restaurant and control financial aspects as well. Between learning everything from butchering and filleting to understanding revenue, the process to become an executive chef typically takes about 10 years.

“There are many hats that a chef wears,” Nishiyama said. “A lot of people think that you can go to school for a couple of years and you’ll be a chef, which is really not the case. It’s not something you can do overnight.”

But despite the grittier aspects of the culinary industry, everything is worth it, according to Nishiyama. Not necessarily in monetary terms—according to allculinaryschools.com, the national average of an executive chef’s salary falls in the $50,000 to $80,000 range—but in freedom of expression. Chefs are most often drawn to the profession because of the creative liberty it offers, rather than financial advantages.

“We have this innate desire to please other people, and we do this through our artistic, creative energies,” Nishiyama said. “Being able to produce something that people enjoy and make them happy is a passion. It’s instant gratification.”

After my six hours of shadowing at Chez TJ, I think I can safely say that the career of a chef does indeed go far beyond what is portrayed on shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Iron Chef.” And while I myself will probably never end up anywhere near the culinary industry (except as a customer), it is a field unlikely to ever die.

“People are always looking to explore different things,” Nishiyama said with a shrug. “At some point, I think food does become art.”