Kristen Cote’s job begins at 11:30 a.m. each day, when she arrives to help with lunch service. Cote, the chef de cuisine at the Grill Room and Bar in Portland, makes all the restaurant’s sauces, from the chimichurri to the bacon-peppercorn-cream, and butchers ducks at her station in the open kitchen. She writes menus, changing them with the seasons. She sets the specials and makes staff meals, and she orders all the food. She hires and fires. She sauces and she salts. She’s the last person to eyeball your plate before it arrives at your table.

Have you ever heard of her?

Kristen Cote, center, chef de cuisine at the Grill Room & Bar, in a staff meeting before guests arrive Wednesday, May 1, 2019.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The position of chef de cuisine is part of the old French brigade system that established the hierarchy of the kitchen, notes chef Brendan Walsh, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “Each person had their station,” he said. “The poissonnier did all the fish and the legumier did the vegetables. A hundred years ago that’s really where the structure of kitchens started.”

Today the chef de cuisine may be called simply the head chef, or the executive sous chef. Locally you’re most likely to find them at larger restaurants, or at restaurants that are part of a group, where there’s a chef de cuisine for each restaurant and an executive chef who oversees all of them.

“Every restaurant is going to be a little bit different,” says chef Matt Ginn of Evo Kitchen and Bar, who has held both executive chef and chef de cuisine positions. “A true chef de cuisine is going to run every aspect of the kitchen, top to bottom – food, hiring, administrative. He’s going to be capable of doing just about everything a chef can.”

No matter what they’re called or where they work, their contributions play a pivotal role in making a restaurant run smoothly.

“Some of the greatest chefs were only great because they had unbelievable” chefs de cuisine, Walsh said, “so the seconds at restaurants were extremely important.”

COMES WITH THE TERRITORY

Chefs de cuisine mostly toil in anonymity. While executive chefs may do their best to give credit where credit is due – Harding Smith, the chef/owner of Grill Room and Bar, puts Cote’s name on the top of the menu, for example – the identity of these second-in-command chefs is not always known to the dining public.

Ginn was chef de cuisine at Five Fifty-Five in Portland for 2 1/2 years before becoming executive chef at Evo. He recalls cooking a five-course tasting menu for an out-of-town “food personality” who had numerous dietary restrictions. After the meal the diner approached Ginn and told him how great the food was, and how lucky he was to be working for and learning from chef/owner Steve Corry. “And I don’t deny that,” Ginn said. “I think working for Steve was great. He taught me a lot.”

But it struck Ginn that the diner had no idea that it was actually Ginn who created and prepared the complicated menu for him. It’s a reality that comes with the territory.

“When I worked at Five Fifty-Five, I knew that the food I was doing, I was doing it for Steve Corry,” Ginn said. “That is part of the job scope, is you’re behind the scenes. Any awards Steve won, or any recognition, it goes to the chef. If that’s something you can’t swallow, then you don’t really know the way the totem pole works.”

The silver lining? Learning from the top chef, and running the kitchen in a way that upholds his or her standards, means when it’s time to move on, it’s done “with an enormous amount of confidence,” Ginn said.

Cote thinks customers at the Grill Room do know she’s in charge, especially since the Grill Room has an open kitchen with a chef’s bar.

“We have four seats that sit right in front of us and they can see everything that’s going on,” she said.

Cote was raised on a dairy farm in Pittsfield. She’s worked at the Grill Room and Bar for three years, starting as a saute cook. After nine months she was promoted to sous chef. Last August she became chef de cuisine and is now in charge of 14 to 17 employees. She spends 10 to 12 hours a day at the restaurant, five or six days a week, and on her days off indulges her other passion – baking.

At all of Smith’s restaurants, Cote says, “he trusts us to do what we need to do to get through every single day and through the seasons. If I need him or have a question, I can always ask him.”

Cote makes the seasonal changes to the menu but always runs them by Smith, who has the final say.

Some chefs de cuisine view the position as a stepping stone on the path to becoming an executive chef, while others yearn to own their own restaurants.

“For me, I’m pretty young,” Cote said. “I don’t know what my plans are going to be forever. I’ve always thought about owning a bakery or a food truck but I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next three to five years. I’m 27, and I would say doing pretty well for myself currently.”

VISION KEEPERS

Some chefs prefer to remain No. 2 in the kitchen, where their focus can be mostly on food, and they don’t have to worry about financing their own restaurant, dealing directly with owners or investors, marketing or other such concerns. And the responsibility for the restaurant doesn’t fall entirely on their shoulders.

“There are some players who just want to be really great seconds,” Walsh said. “They want to just run that space and they find it fulfilling. They don’t need any attention. They don’t need media. They get that fulfillment on a daily basis, just by providing an unbelievable food experience every day.”

Kristen Cote, chef de cuisine at the Grill Room & Bar in Portland. Chefs in her position do most of the day-to-day work of the kitchen, but the dining public may have never heard their name. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

That describes the new chef de cuisine at Fore Street, Dan Young, who moved to Portland from Cleveland with his fiancee about three months ago so she could take a job at L.L. Bean. He sees being behind the scenes as a blessing, joking that he finds working with the press and being on TV “absolutely terrifying.”

“Those are things I never wanted in my life,” he said. “All I ever wanted is to run a good kitchen and make good food.”

In Cleveland, Young, who is 31, worked in “the world of pierogies and kielbasa” at restaurants owned by celebrity chef Michael Symon. He was executive chef at Mabel’s BBQ, and sous chef and butcher at Lolita, Symon’s Cleveland bistro, before that. Before moving to Portland he researched the city’s food scene.

“I already knew who Sam Hayward was,” Young said, “but once I came in and ate at the restaurant and got to know him, he was the person I wanted to work for more than anybody else in the city.”

Young still cooks every day but also helps manage operations. The Fore Street staff holds at least two daily meetings to develop the day’s menu, based on what ingredients come in the back door, Young said.

“My job is to help all of the line cooks and the sous chefs keep the cohesive vision of what Sam Hayward does, which is focusing on quality and focusing on cooking properly, and also using the best ingredients that we can get our hands on,” Young said.

He monitors what’s in the larder – pickles, ferments, vinegars – and helps line cooks work on a sauce or garnish. He’s on the line every night with five other cooks, expediting orders and tasting dishes to make sure the food is seasoned properly before going to the dining room.

Hayward, the executive chef, is still “a very important presence in our kitchen,” Young said. “We see him at least four days a week. We were talking about the halibut coming out of Casco Bay just yesterday. He’ll sit in on our menu meetings.”

At Evo and the Chebeague Island Inn, the two restaurants Ginn presides over as executive chef, Ginn makes it clear to his chefs de cuisine that if he’s not in the restaurant, “your job is to run it as if I was there.” When he’s at Evo, Ginn and his chef de cuisine, Hagai Bernstein, work closely together.

Bernstein says his boss gives him plenty of credit, often posting photos of his dishes on social media. “He really likes my cooking,” Bernstein said. “He always compliments me. Sometimes he even makes me blush about it.”

But they do have their disagreements and are honest with each other if something’s not good. Bernstein uses more spice than Ginn, and prefers drawing out the flavors in food through simple techniques, such as charring or curing. He’s liberal in his use of lemon juice and garlic. Give both chefs a plate of lamb ribs, and Ginn will think North Carolina barbecue while Bernstein puts a Middle Eastern twist on the dish. “I don’t like sweet with proteins like that,” Bernstein said, “so I’m going lamb with black pepper and sumac, without a barbecue sauce.”

Bernstein believes their differing styles add variety and value to the menu. The other cooks at the restaurant are offered just as much creative freedom, he said, “and that freedom begins with what happens between us.”

Bernstein, 33, is from Israel. He was a security guard who loved to cook until an injury made him think about changing careers. His wife suggested he try to get a job at the cafe next door, and it worked. That was his first job in a kitchen.

Bernstein helped open Evo about four years ago and became chef de cuisine in 2017. He typically arrives between 7 and 8 a.m. and starts creating the lunch menu. He offers guidance to the cooks who come in later to set up for dinner. His day is usually done at 5 or 6 p.m., when Ginn or one of the sous chefs takes over, but he sometimes works nights. And when he does, he says, people notice the difference in the food and atmosphere – especially Israeli or Jewish diners. Some members of the local Jewish community have encouraged Bernstein to open a Jewish deli in town, or a falafel place, “but at the end of the day I like Evo and I want to see it succeed.”

Sometimes being second is No. 1.


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