Kitchen Understudies

Restaurants sous-chefs learn behind the scenes and dream of becoming stars some day

April 25, 2001|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

The Oregon Grille in Cockeysville boasts one of the most sumptuous menus in the area - beluga caviar appetizers, 18-ounce prime sirloin strip steaks, 5-pound lobsters and New Zealand rack of lamb.

Diners who eat in its elegant rooms may know that their meals are the inspiration of celebrated chef Mark Henry. It's not likely, however, that they have ever heard of Jason Openhym or Matt Siegmund.

They are the Oregon Grille's sous-chefs, and it is their job to turn Henry's vision into reality each day.

Like understudies in the theater, sous-chefs work behind the scenes, learning their trade from the stars and waiting some day for a leading role.

There is little glamour in their work. "You need someone who can grasp an idea quickly and execute it efficiently," Henry says.

The word sous comes from the French word for under or assistant. Consistency, reliability and an even temperament are the traits chefs say they want in a sous-chef.

While the job of the sous-chef varies from restaurant to restaurant, he or she is expected to know how to do every job in the kitchen - from preparing a salad to ordering the next day's supplies. The sous-chef also supervises the kitchen staff, sometimes makes up the work schedules and listens to staff complaints.

In his best-selling book, "Kitchen Confidential," chef Anthony Bourdain writes, "My sous-chef, in an ideal situation, is closer to me than my wife."

Openhym works with Henry in the Oregon Grille on a recent Friday night, helping oversee the preparation of the evening's meals. The kitchen's bright fluorescent lights and concrete floor are in sharp contract to the posh, candlelit dining rooms above.

Even before the dinner rush begins, a dozen men and women are at work - taking rolls from the oven, pouring sauces, grilling steaks and washing dishes. Henry stands in one corner, peeling potatoes over a rubber trash can.

Openhym, 27, mans the saute station, standing before two gas stoves as the temperature climbs to 110 degrees. He wears a white chef's apron and black checkered pants. Tongs hang from a back pocket, a dish towel from a side pocket. He doesn't wear a chef's toque. The ceiling is so low, it would probably knock a hat off anyway. Occasionally, he pauses from his work to sip at a jug of water.

Openhym started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher at a Holiday Inn in Ocean City 10 years ago. He later worked as a prep cook, line cook and sous-chef at a number of restaurants before coming to the Oregon Grille three years ago.

"I've learned a lot," he says. "I'm sure executive chef is in my future."

Siegmund, 27, the Oregon Grille's day sous-chef, discovered cooking after deciding a job behind a desk wasn't for him.

"I get bored very quickly," he says.

He dropped out of Towson University and enrolled in Baltimore International Culinary College (now Baltimore International College). He spent 3 1/2 years in the kitchen of the Hillendale Country Club before going to the Oregon Grille.

Working under a renowned chef like Henry can be intimidating, he says. "You want to impress him and keep on your toes," he says. "But it's definitely an advantage because he's knowledgeable and always teaching."

Chefs say they depend on their sous-chefs to make sure the meals leaving the kitchen are prepared in the way they were intended. Precise choreography is needed to assure that all of the hot dishes arrive at a table hot and the cold dishes cold.

"The sous-chef is heavily relied upon to be a second pair of eyes," says Mark Hofmann, chef at Rothwells Grille in Timonium.

While chefs ask their sous-chefs for suggestions to freshen the menu, the sous-chef's creativity is not a primary consideration.

More important, Hofmann said, is the sous-chef's ability to work well with the rest of the kitchen staff.

"He's got to be the leader. He's got to be the locomotive. He's pulling all the other trains behind him," Hofmann explains.

His sous-chef, Dave Venable, says the sous-chef must remain calm, even as orders and tempers fly in the hot, often cramped kitchens. "In the kitchen, there can be a lot of stress and confusion," he says. "You have to be cool."

And sous-chefs must not only know how to do every job in the kitchen, they must be willing to do every job in the kitchen. "I've washed more dishes in chef's clothes than I did as a dishwasher," said Chris Meyer, 30, sous-chef at Innovative Gourmet, an Owings Mills catering business.

Meyer says he is willing to take on such jobs because he loves food and cooking.

And sous-chefs must have passion for the business, because they won't get rich. Although some can earn $40,000 in the Baltimore area, the median salary for sous-chefs nationally is $27,500, according to a 1998 survey by the National Restaurant Association.

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