with Chef Robert Wiedmaier
I was raised in pretty tough kitchens, but they taught me some incredible lessons about running the back of the house, especially in the areas of cleanliness and organization.
The culinary school (if you can call it that) I went to in the Netherlands consisted of long days in the kitchen followed by painting the fence aroundthe chicken coop, mowing lawns, or scrubbing pots, with a few cooking books read in between! I cooked all the meals for the chef’s family and worked the line every night. My first duty of the morning was to get up early and check the lobster tanks to see which ones were dying and needed to be cooked that night. Then I had to turn on the ovens, which back then were heated by oil and took a while to get hot, and make sure the place was spotless before the rest of the staff got there.
I will never forget the day I thought the oven was lit but when I went to check on it, I realized it had gone out. With the chef living above the kitchen, I knew it was just a matter of time before he found out my mistake. I opened the oven, threw in a match, and the next thing I knew, everything in the kitchen was covered in black soot, including me. It took me three days to scrub that place clean, but it taught me a valuable lesson: always doublecheck everything!
From there, I went to work for a well-known and demanding chef, Eddie Van Maele, in Brussels. He had a tiny 26-seater two-star Michelin restaurant, and the entire team consisted of three cooks and the chef. There, I did everything from washing the windows to being the garde manger. He was such a perfectionist and awesome chef, but his wife didn’t let anything slip. You were expected in at the crack of dawn, got a 45-minute break in the afternoon for lunch, and then worked until two in the morning. And every evening, before we left, she would inspect the place to make sure it was clean: if she found one fingerprint on a pot, the kitchen was ripped apart and we had to scrub it from head to toe. I have to admit, I run one of the cleanest kitchens in the city to this day. Just last week, I made everyone stay and just clean, clean, clean. It’s essential in my kitchens!
Whenever I bring in a new cook, it’s very important for them to understand my culture. My kitchen standards set the pace. So you’re in or out depending on whether you are prepared to dance my way! If you want to work in one of my restaurants, you first of all have to come in and observe for an entire day. Just stand and watch. Then we sit you down and point-blank ask if this is something you really want to do. If you say yes, we tell you to go think about it for a week and then come back and see us. This weeds out a lot of candidates. If they do come back, they start off at the lowest point in the kitchen: peeling shallots and garlic. I don’t care if you went to culinary school, and I don’t care where you worked before—that’s where you start.
I tell each and every new employee that everyone in my kitchen has to be treated with the same respect. That means everyone: from the pot washer to the sous-chef. We can’t run a restaurant without each one of these guys. And besides, that’s where I started: cleaning the glasses and silverware and scrubbing pots and pans.
This is how I know if someone has what it takes to cook for me: I hand him an onion and ask him to simply cut it brunoise and present it to me. If he takes that onion, peels off the skin, and puts it in a little bowl next to him; then perfectly brunoises the rest and puts it in a nice stainless steel bowl; then wipes down his cutting board and cleans his knives and says,” Chef, your onion”—then I know he has worked in some great places. But if he comes in without his apron or hat, cuts the onion, and leaves a mess, then that tells a different story.
If I’m hiring for a chef de partie or a saucier position, candidates have to cook for me. I tell them to go into thewalk-in, pull out two to three ingredients, and just cook them. I know this is a daunting task, but I’m looking primarily for proper seasoning, technique, and balance of flavors. You’d be amazed at the amount of “food” I’ve had to look at and attempt to eat throughout the years! Seasoning is one of the biggest parts of being a cook. You won’t believe how many cooks don’t season or taste anything. It’s my eternal question to the cooks in my kitchens. You have to taste; you have to season properly. Because if the flavors aren’t right, you either forgot one of those two steps or you have no palate! Salt is a really special thing, if you think about it; it wakes things up. Now salt in the wrong cook’s hands can be poison, as much as no salt in any cook’s hand is just plain ignorance! If I gave you a steak that had no salt and pepper on it and then that same steak properly seasoned, you would taste the difference. It is that simple! I am always impressed by a chef who can extract incredible flavors out of a protein, whether it is using the bones to make a great sauce or simply by seasoning a dish perfectly. It’s my personal approach to cooking.
I drive all of my recipes by taste, which means that unless I have to submit one for an article or magazine, we do not use recipes. Almost everything that I do at Marcel’s is through repetition and showing (and showing and showing) somebody how to do it. Because I believe that unless you are making a cake or a soufflé that is precise, cooking doesn’t really need to have a recipe. It has to have ingredients, and then everything from there is a path to a great taste. I can’t quantify ingredients, because that might change. For example, the carrots might not be as sweet or have enough sugar quality to them this time. So I never just hand over a recipe to a new cook and tell them to follow it. Instead, get all your ingredients mise en place and let me show you how to make it. I’ve been making the boudin blanc the same way for 14 years. You can’t learn that from a recipe, but you can learn it from watching and practice. This also pretty much sums up the recipe for the culture in my kitchen: observe, taste, listen, and respect!