The Chef Is NOT In: The Arguments For And Against A “Name” In Restaurant Kitchens—Updated

Cuchara's cooks

Most restaurants aim to provide fantastic food, drinks and environment at a fair value. However, with the “celebrity chef” trend that started a few decades ago, diners often want something more: a well-known chef in the kitchen.

An executive chef lends a certain amount of credibility or cachet; someone who is perceived as having formal education in the culinary arts, many years of experience and exceptional creativity. “I feel that it is important to have a chef,” said Shanon Scott of Sud Italia, where Sandro Scarafile oversees the kitchen. “A chef brings his own family recipes and considers each dish a reflection of his creativity. He also gets to know the guests and their personal preferences, which creates a much more familiar and intimate dining experience.”

However, “name” chefs can also embody special headaches for restaurant owners. Butting heads over the menu, food costs and staff is common. The pseudo-celebrity status of a chef—even if just locally famous—may mean that there is diva behavior to contend with. When he or she leaves, it often results in negative press for the restaurant. To negate that latter quandary, a typical owner response is to replace one known chef with another to make the departure look like an “upgrade.”

Restaurateurs In Charge Of The Kitchen

Some top Houston restaurant owners have decided that it is better to just go without an executive chef. Felix Florez and Ken Bridge of Ritual have chosen to take the lead and work alongside their sous chefs instead of handing the reins of the kitchen to another person. (Ritual’s most recent executive chef, Crash Hethcox, is on leave for personal reasons.)

That strategy works best when the owners already have strong vision, presence and food experience of their own—even if they don’t have formal culinary degrees. “Together, Ken and I have over 40 years of cooking experience,” said Florez. I choose not to go to culinary school due to various reasons. I was raising step-kids by age 21. Going to school wasn’t really in the cards for me. I made a point to be a ‘sponge’ around chefs and I’ve worked with some of the best in the South. I’ve spent my entire career with this philosophy and it has served me well. I try to learn something new as a chef, sommelier, butcher, rancher, manager and entrepreneur every single day.”

Updated, 7/26/2017, 11:45 a.m.: After publication, Florez added this comment: “Just for the record, I believe every situation is different, Ken and I are able to work closely with our team on the menu. That doesn’t mean that every restaurant can do that. My closest friends are chefs and there are few people that I admire more than chefs! My official stance is that every situation is different and different teams work in different concepts.

Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill is another example. Despite regular accolades of having some of the best burgers in Houston (and even the nation), and growing the business to five locations, Hubcap Grill has no “chef,” unlike other “craft burger” specialty restaurants that have cropped up over the past few years.

“Hubcap doesn’t do the title thing,” says Craig. “I’ve noticed “titles” mean [chefs] want big pay and want to run operations their way! They get a big head. Instead of chef, I’ll call them “lead cook,” “lead shift leader,” or “Hubcap leaders.”

Craig did begin with a chef for his short-lived Galveston restaurant venture, Harborside Mercantile. It ended with the two parting ways on bad terms after just a few months. After that experience, Craig said, “I don’t need a chef. I need great cooks!”

Interior Mexican-themed restaurant Cuchara is another example. It’s long been notable for its all-female team of cooks, but has never had a head chef. “We never wanted one,” said owner Ana Beaven. “The best restaurants in Mexico have female cooks. That is the concept I wanted from the beginning.”

Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte
Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte in Cypress was so frustrated by his bad experiences with executive chefs that he got his own culinary degree from CIA in New York. Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

For Gerry Sarmiento of Mezzanotte, every time he hired an executive chef it was more of a liability than a boon to his business. In fact, to combat the issue, he earned a culinary degree from the Culinary Institute of America in New York so he was properly equipped to be the executive chef. “These chefs, being what they are—artists—would change pretty much everything on the menu, including the sauces, ingredients and procedures,” Sarmiento explained. “The customers noticed the changes and we started losing customers instead of gaining more. I said, ‘You know what? This isn’t going to work. I need cooks who I can give instructions on how to do things and they just execute.” At this point, Sarmiento says he will never again hire an executive chef for Mezzanotte.

Many Name Chefs Aren’t Doing Much Of The Actual Cooking, Anyway

Does anyone still go to Emeril’s in New Orleans and expect Emeril Lagasse to be in the kitchen?

Florez points out that restaurants might have celebrity chefs to set the theme or menu, but someone completely different is actually running the kitchen. “I’m cooking at a dinner at Cafe Boulud next month,” he said. “When you think of Boulud, you think of Daniel Boulud right? Well, the chef is Rick Mace, but he follows direction from Daniel Boulud. Ritual’s ‘Rick Mace’ consists of a few talented guys.”

The Challenge Of Running Without A Chef: Finding Great Cooks

Great cooks are hard to come by. Folks in the restaurant industry tend to move around from one job to the other. Sarmiento says a big characteristic he’s looking for is demonstrated ability to stay in one kitchen for a while. Beyond that, he says, “My concern is finding good, hard-working people that do their jobs. They come in, look for direction and execute.”

The Value Of A Chef

Shepard Ross, restaurateur of Pax Americana (where executive chef Martha de Leon rules the kitchen) is coming up on two decades of experience of running restaurants in Houston. (His other projects have included long-closed Zula in downtown, Glass Wall and Brooklyn Athletic Club.) Regardless, he’s happy to have a creative culinary talent overseeing the kitchen and prefers to focus on the front of the house.

“There’s a level of menu design and implementation that exists at a chef-driven restaurant versus a chef-designed menu where maybe there is somebody coming up with recipes and then they just let a crew handle it,” he said. “I don’t think you’re ever going to get past a certain level of food because there’s not a visionary or a driving force. Everybody just toes the line and knocks out those recipes day after day—which can be consistent, but where’s the innovation? Where’s the ‘wow moment?’ Where’s the extraordinary meal?”

Ross also strongly believes that a chain of command in the kitchen is important for preventing ego-driven power struggles over how dishes should be executed. “There needs to be leadership in both the front of the house and the back of the house. In the back of the house, I think of the saying, ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’ There are too many opinions in a kitchen where there is not a definitive leader.”

Brennan’s of Houston has a legacy of many chefs who have gone on to be successful elsewhere.
Photo courtesy of Brennan’s of Houston

Building Legacies And Developing Businesses Through Chefs

Hiring and developing chefs can also have an intangible impact that extends far beyond their tenure. Take, for example, the number of chefs who once worked at Brennan’s of Houston, then went on to open their own restaurants or carry why they learned to others. They include Mark Holley (Holley’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar), Chris Shepherd (Underbelly and One Fifth) and Mark Cox (of Mark’s, which finally closed after 19 years). Current executive chef Joe Cervantes worked at Killen’s Steakhouse for years before returning to his alma mater, and there are a slew of others who passed through Brennan’s of Houston’s kitchen and currently hold positions elsewhere.

It’s a reciprocal relationship. Owner Alex Brennan-Martin says, “We’ve learned as much from those that have passed through our kitchens and dining rooms as we have taught. My mother, Ella Brennan, is passionate about lifelong learning and made this a part of our business DNA. We’ve had so many exciting people contribute their passion and ideas to ours and we know we operate better restaurants for it.”

To Chef Or Not To Chef?

Ultimately, whether or not a restaurant can hit its marks without an executive chef depends greatly on the restaurateur’s food knowledge, vision for what role the establishment fulfills in the food scene and management style.

Whether or not there’s a “name” in the kitchen, treating employees with respect and ensuring they work well together is crucial—and that’s a point on which restaurant owners on both sides agree on. It’s not just a matter of being “nice”; there are practical reasons, too. “My cooks at Mezzanotte have been with us quite a few years. My main cook has been with us for six years, if not seven,” says Sarmiento. “My second cook has been with us for four. If you can’t retain cooks, that’s a big problem because then you have to retrain again.”

Brennan-Martin advised, “One person just can’t do it alone, not for long anyway. We learned from our earliest days as restaurateurs that this is a team sport.”

That’s a lesson that Florez, a Brennan’s of Houston alumni, clearly took to heart. “Value your team,” he says. “Not much happens without a strong team.”

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