It seems like just yesterday my brothers and I were playing Lazer Tag and hide and seek with him and his brother at my sister Julie’s house. Today, my nephew Kent Bui is half a dozen years into a career as a cook, currently as Cook 1 at the Four Seasons Biltmore in Montecito. Kent always had an amazing talent for illustration and most of us were pretty certain he’d make his living in the visual arts. Instead, his love for food drove him toward the culinary arts and here we are now.
He was kind enough to spend some time with me via teleconference to share some thoughts about a cook’s life. I was a little concerned at first because we had scheduled the session late on a night before he was going in for surgery on his throat. When his video popped up I saw him sipping on a glass of champagne and realized I had nothing to worry about. Two words: Baller. Status.
You’ll Have What We’re Having: What made you want to go to culinary school?
Kent Bui: Because I’m a fat kid and I like to eat (laughs). Actually, I had an ex-girlfriend who attended CCA (California Culinary Academy) in San Francisco and she’d come home telling stories about breaking down a whole side of cattle in class and stuff like that. After visiting the school and seeing what the classes were like, the seed was planted in my mind. Unfortunately, at the time the CCA was about $55,000 to attend, which I couldn’t’ afford.
In 2006 I moved to Santa Barbara and was living with my younger brother who ended up finding a school locally that was about $22,000. I decided to just go for it right then and there. I remember talking to my teacher when I first signed up and he tried to talk me out of it because I had just gotten married and had plans for a family. He told me there was no way I could be a cook and have a family and asked me to read Bourdain’s book, “Kitchen Nightmares” hoping it would scare me off. Instead I read the book and said, “Holy crap, I need to get into this industry!” I didn’t care about the drugs and the sex (writer’s note: what is wrong with this boy?) but if everything else he said was true about the kitchen, then it was everything I wanted in a career. The adrenaline rush, the idea that every day is going to be different, the problem solving side of it. So I stuck it out through culinary school and now I’m pretty sure of the nine in my class I’m the only one still in the industry.
YHWWH: So finding and maintaining a career in the food industry is pretty tough. Does the culinary school experience prepare you for that?
KB: Yeah, as far as the pressure of culinary school it does help because it gets pretty gnarly at the end. One kid got expelled halfway through. Two people almost got divorces towards the end of the program. One girl was in tears almost constantly during the last month. Then we graduated and went on to actual work in the industry and it wasn’t until then that most of my classmates realized it wasn’t for them.
YHWWH: So it doesn’t get any easier once you find work in the industry?
KB: No. I had a lot of people ask me for advice on culinary schools, especially after I first graduated. I managed to talk almost every single one of them out of it. I ask people why they want to go and they say, “I love to cook.” That’s great – if you have the means to go to school to learn how to be a better home cook, then absolutely – go for it. By all means. But I think most people don’t realize what the industry is really like. I mean, if this is going to be your career, before even jumping into culinary school, do a stage (pronounced staj, basically meaning working for free at a restaurant) or an internship or something. Spend some time in a restaurant and really see what it’s like, because you are going to get the shit kicked out of you for a while. I had one chef who burned me with a hot pan on purpose just to demonstrate a lesson. Others who are smacking you with salad bowls. The every day work is physical and exhausting. It’s a painful industry – you come home beat up. Without a doubt it is a blue collar job.
All these people who watch TV and think to themselves, “Oh I want to be a chef with my cute little tweezers and whatever,” you are not going to be there until after at least a decade of getting your ass kicked in nightly.
YHWWH: Now let’s say you do survive that decade plus of ass kickings and you’re now an executive chef. How’s it different? Once you reach that level are you skating on your reputation a bit?
KB: Yeah, to an extent that’s true. It depends on the environment. The Four Seasons is corporate because it’s a hotel chain, so there’s less creative freedom and the executive chef has a much more managerial role. Our chef right now is great because he’s a good manager, but if we’re slammed he will jump right on the line and try to help. There are other chefs who are driven purely by their passion and just want to own a place where they can serve what they want to cook. In smaller places like that the chef will be more hands-on. You’ll find him in the kitchen at any given time doing anything from prepping, to grilling, to maybe even serving. Then there are chefs who are in it only to make a name for themselves and are using it purely as a vehicle to fame and stardom and all that. Those don’t work out too well, usually. I never want to badmouth anyone, but you can just tell watching TV – and I can’t even watch Food Network anymore – there are some celebrity chefs who would never know their way around a real kitchen. I guess it’s just like any other industry where you might be in the public eye: there are people who are in it because they have a passion for it and there are others who are just using it as a platform to the next big thing.
YHWWH: A lot of people think you go to culinary school and now you’re going to open a restaurant and make a million bucks. It’s not that easy is it?
KB: As far as jumping from culinary school to being a superstar chef? It doesn’t happen. In fact, most chefs you talk to aren’t fans of culinary schools because they put out competition-style chefs: the type that are slow and focused on perfection when that’s not how a real kitchen works. Most restaurant chefs prefer cooks who started at the bottom and have worked their way up, like dishwashers who work their way up the ladder. A lot of times you could actually hurt your chances by having something like CIA (Culinary Institute of America) listed on your resume.
YHWWH: So how is it that you ended up at the Four Seasons Santa Barbara, which is a pretty exclusive establishment?
KB: I kind of lucked out in a way. I had moved to Santa Barbara and the Four Seasons just happened to be holding a job fair so I gave it a shot. I did five interviews, one after another, working my way up. I was fortunate enough to get hired as part of the team that would open up the Coral Café in the Four Seasons. We only had one week to do all the prep, but by the end of that week we were good to go and fully functional. The first couple of months were a lot of trial and error: this recipe’s good, this one sucks; rearranging the line because we were in a 15 foot long space; making things more efficient. Eventually we got things up and running and on a busy Summer day we were doing 400 covers in that tiny space with five or six cooks, including myself.
YHWWH: You’ve now moved up to Tydes, the fine dining restaurant at the Four Seasons. How has your experience been so far?
KB: It’s been interesting because I’ve worked under three different chefs at Tydes and got to see the different styles of each. Our first chef was a lot more rustic, but I kind of picked up some bad habits from her, which took a while to undo even after she left. The next chef I had was all about super fine dining. Your average restaurant aims for a food-to-sale cost of about 21%, whereas we were quadruple that at 86%. Our chef now is a nice balance of both, where it’s definitely fine dining but not ridiculously so. So it’s been really interesting to see the progression from one chef to the next.
YHWWH: Tell me about your progression through the kitchen at the Four Seasons. What can someone entering the cook’s profession expect as far as career path?
KB: I was a little lucky in that I started out as a Cook 3, but your basic entry level position is as an intern or a Cook 4, which means you’re not actually on the kitchen line. You’re more of a prep cook, meaning your day basically consists of chopping romaine lettuce, peeling potatoes, stuff like that. As a Cook 3 I was responsible for the Garde Manger (pantry station: cold foods, salad). Usually you’ll be in that position for a while – I was Garde Manger down at the Café and when I moved to Tydes I remained in that role for about a year or so. For most kitchens you typically move from Garde Manger to Grill, then to Saute, but the way our kitchen works I ended up skipping Grill and went straight to Saute or Entremet (pronounced on-truh-may, meaning garnish station), which is generally regarded as the hardest station. It’s basically everything that accompanies an entrée. For example, if you order a steak, Entremet does all the sides and garnish that come with the steak. At this stage, you play a much bigger role in the line and the element of timing becomes more important. Unlike Garde Manger, where you are cranking out things as quickly as you can, for Grill and Entremet you have to pace it according to the other stations. For instance, at Entremet I can’t just knock out food as fast as I can because then it screws up the person at Grill.
YHWWH: So are you currently a Cook 2?
KB: Actually I was promoted about a year ago to Cook 1 and I’m currently on the Grill, which in truth I’m not as into as I was Entremet. So I’m putting in my time there, but eventually I want to shift back to Entremet.
YHWWH: Do you have more creative freedom in Entremet vs. Grill?
KB: You don’t really get a lot of freedom because you’re only cooking the chef’s dishes. As a cook there’s really no freedom – I mean, it’s military style: you have your hierarchy and you follow what the people above you want you to do exactly. I prefer Entremet because of the pace – at any given time you could have fifteen different pans down and you’re trying to time everything perfectly. It’s just a completely different atmosphere than Grill.
YHWW: So you have fifteen pans, each started at different times and needing to finish at different times. How do you coordinate all that?
KB: It’s a lot of mental juggling. You’re back there as the chef’s calling out tickets and you’re immediately throwing down pans. You’re thinking, “OK, I need a pan that needs a little less heat over here, I need one blazing hot so I’ll throw it on the hottest burner, etc.” Ideally, there should be a little bit of time in between tables so you can get mentally organized. In reality, though, there are nights when the printer never stops spitting out tickets. I’ve had nights where I’m standing there reading tickets as they print out and I literally can’t even make out what’s on them anymore. But that’s part of the fun of this industry. It’s what we hate about the job, but also what we love about it.
YHWWH: So is the restaurant business what you had expected when you chose this career path?
KB: Well, I learned it is definitely a very physical industry, but there’s really a lot of thinking that goes into it also. It’s a mental game, but not in the way people think of when they watch cooks on TV and think, “Wow, it’s a mental game. Oh, they’re so creative.” It’s not that. As a cook, you’re not creative – you don’t have the opportunity. Your creativity shows in that you are always thinking of how to do things quicker or better. One of the cooks I trained told me the most valuable thing I ever taught her was how to plant her foot deep in the lowboy behind her so that she could quickly turn back to her hot station after grabbing ingredients. Just speeding up that often repeated movement made her more efficient. We were constantly doing stuff like that: trying to eliminate all wasted motion.
YHWWH: You’ve always had such a talent for illustration. I can barely color inside the lines, so if I went to art school I might learn some basics, but I don’t have the innate talent to be an artist. Is it the same deal with the culinary arts?
KB: Food has it’s own challenges because with a pen I know when I draw a line it’s going to stay there and not run off the page. Whereas with a sauce, it might be too thin or too thick, but you can’t adjust it so much that it interferes with the food. Taste needs to come first. You can’t sacrifice the taste or texture of a dish just to fit a mental image you have of how it should look. I’m lucky to work in a smaller kitchen where we have the opportunity, when the chef introduces a new dish, we get to come up with ideas for plate-ups and get input and feedback from the chef. Normally as a cook you won’t ever get that chance, or at least it’s very, very rare. Usually the chef or sous chef comes up with the idea and the plate-up and it filters down to the cooks and you do it exactly as they’ve designed every single time. In general, having an art background doesn’t give me as much of an advantage as you might think. Maybe one day if I’m a chef or sous chef and plating everything myself then it might, but right now in my day-to-day job it makes little difference.
YHWWH: When my mom, your grandma, owned her restaurant, I was able to witness first hand how hard the kitchen and staff work to make the dining room service seem so effortless. It seems diners care less and less about that these days and I blame some of the food-themed networks because they’ve over-emphasized celebrity chefs and now everything about cooking is a competition. How do you, as a cook, feel about the whole “cooking as competition” craze?
KB: I love those shows…well, I love some of those shows, but people watch them and they forget that it’s entertainment. “Top Chef,” “Kitchen Nightmares,” even “Chopped” – none of those are indicative of what happens in a kitchen. You watch a “Top Chef” Quickfire challenge and people are running around trying to do something in 30 minutes — it’s not like that in a real kitchen. Everything is a progression of small tweaks to make a dish better, so that when someone comes in and orders it they’re served a perfect dish, because it’s been repeated and improved upon over time. That’s the problem with restaurants that are seasonal or change the menu regularly. They don’t get the chance to refine each dish as much as we have. When you order from our menu, that dish has been made and re-made a million times. So it’s a trade off: it would be fun to do new dishes every week, but you know you’re not putting out the absolute best version of that dish as you could.
YHWWH: I wanted readers to get a taste of some “behind the kitchen doors” type shit, so answer honestly here. A raw $200 Kobe steak drops on the floor. Five second rule applies?
KB: (long pause; lots of hemming and hawing) The reason that situation is so horrible is because you don’t follow the five second rule for that. If you did, you’d feel a little guilty but you think, “No one is going to know.” I know there are cooks and chefs out there that would do it, but the answer is NO. That happens, you prepare yourself for a major ass kicking from your chef, but no, no five second rule. What most likely will happen is you pick it up, rinse it off and maybe later you grill it up for staff meal or something. There will be chefs that let shit like that happen. They’re hacks. That’s not cool. My first chef followed the five second rule. Also, instead of using the plate wipes that servers made for us, she would take her side towel, dab it with spit and wipe the plate. That shit’s not cool and needs to be weeded out.
YHWWH: One day you have a kid and they tell you they want to go forgo college and go to culinary school. Honestly, what do you tell them?
KB: Absolutely not! (laugh, long pause) I really don’t think I’d want my kids to work in this industry. It would be different if I had my own restaurant and they grew up washing dishes and worked their way up that way, organically. I wouldn’t want them to have to go through culinary school and take that route. Hopefully if I stay in the industry for a long while I’ll have developed enough contacts where my kid could stage or be an intern and from there decide if it’s for them.
YHWWH: Seems to me cooks enjoy drinking even more than eating. True?
KB: I think sometimes for cooks it’s not about enjoying it. Cooks drink – as a culture. It’s a stressful job. That’s why cooks either drink or smoke and the stupider ones do drugs. I drink because I enjoy it, but I definitely drink more than I should. Every cook in my kitchen drinks pretty heavily. The only ones that don’t drink are those who’ve gone through rehab and don’t drink at all. It’s the same reason cops get divorced so much – or lawyers or doctors. It’s a different job. It’s definitely not what’s portrayed on TV.
I’d like to thank Kent for spending some time with me right before his procedure. Talking to him has got me very excited to come visit soon because he has promised me a lesson in sous vide cooking, which no doubt I’ll be sharing here. For those who are wondering, a week after surgery he is recovering well, albeit with some difficulty talking and swallowing. For a cook that must be hell. Feel free to leave well wishes in the Comments area as I know he’ll get them. Thanks again and have a speedy recovery, Kent!