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BON Appetit! (Featured in biz-x magazine)

Being a good chef takes more than talent. It takes hard work, confidence – and a passion for food. “Every day you have to be up and be on,” as one chef puts it. Biz X offers readers a glimpse into the busy kitchens of four area chefs. 

by Christina Friedrichsen

It’s 7 p.m. and the restaurant is full. The kitchen is hotter than asphalt in July, but there’s no time to plunk down in front of the fan and sip ice water. Not now. There are customers to feed and a reputation at stake.
With his fingers reeking of fresh garlic, he hands the waitress his creation. A trail of fragrant steam follows the plate outside the door. He nailed it again. Got it right. But that’s the way it has to be - always. There’s no room for screw-ups.
Being a chef is not an easy gig. Sure, when food’s your passion, working with it can be satisfying and fun – but the life of a chef is not for wimps.
Aside from some inherent talent, and a keen interest in food, chefs need creativity, confidence – and endurance. Not only that, but they need to thrive under pressure.   
“A lot of people can have bad days. Chefs can’t have bad days. Every day you have to be up and be on,” says Jeff Hicks, executive chef at Pointe West Golf Club. “You’re only as good as the last plate you’ve made … It’s not a normal life.”
Hicks, a 33-year old Windsor native, says most chefs he knows work 50-60 hours a week – and they never really leave the kitchen. Not mentally anyway.
Even on days off, Hicks is always thinking about what he has to take out of the freezer, what needs to be ordered, what specials he can create for the week.
The all-consuming nature of the business can take its toll. Hicks calls it a profession that “eats its young.”
“I don’t know any successful older chefs in their fifties or sixties that haven’t had some sort of surgery for something,” he says.
Despite its demands, Hicks gets a buzz out his profession.
“There’s a big rush from knowing that 200 or more people left totally satisfied and have smiles on their bellies,” he says. “When everything goes well, it’s the most satisfying job on the face of the earth.”

Fitting In

Hicks went to chef school at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
Before Pointe West (he’s been there since August) he was the opening chef at Erie Street’s Aldo Goldbergs, where he worked for two years. He’s also worked at Casino Windsor and spent time working in Switzerland.
Working at a private club is much different than at a restaurant, he explains.
“You have to a certain extent, a captive audience. You have much more direct interaction with your members than you would a regular guest walking in,” he says, adding that members don’t hesitate to comment on their food.
It’s also more conservative. Unlike Aldo Goldman’s where he had longer hair and wore an earring, Hicks appearance and approach to cooking are a little more traditional.
“The way I hold myself here is far different than I would at a restaurant,” he says. “If you bring yourself to the forefront in a place like this …you have to have some innate creativity, you have to have excellent communication skills and you have to fit the image of the place.”
Because a chef can make or break an establishment, he’s expected to be on the ball at all times, he says.
“There’s always someone who wants your job. When this (job) came up there were 15 qualified applicants. When you are fortunate enough to get it, you have to deliver,” he says.
Hicks admits that there are trade-offs to moving up another rung.
“You lose a little bit each time you get promoted of the things you truly love to do in the kitchen. You don’t get to make everything. You don’t get to have everything go out like you want, but you also have different perks. I also get credit for things I had very little to do with sometimes,” he says.

Honest Food

Hicks takes an honest approach to cooking. He likes to use fresh ingredients, and prepare them as close to the surface time as possible.
He says there is an overall trend towards food that is ‘naked.’
“It used to be a solution of butter and flour and that’s what you thickened everything with. Now the emphasis is on reductions and letting sauce simmer … Adding fresh herbs and splashes of this and reductions of that are far more vibrant.”
He especially enjoys Italian food because it is “straightforward.”
“You can make dishes with very few ingredients that are very rich … You’ve got wonderful prosciutto, wonderful pasta noodles, tomato sauces, the rich seafood ingredients that you can use. It really covers the entire spectrum of food and it allows you to introduce other elements too,” he says.

Art Vs Craft

Although being a chef involves creativity, Hicks says hard work and practise play a key role.
“There’s nothing I despise more than someone that describes this as an art. It’s a craft with artistic expression …There are things that you learn and only can learn through time,” he says.
Even though a chef can have years of experience under his belt, it’s essential for him to break outside of his comfort zone and try new things, says Hicks.
“One of the worst things that can happen in a kitchen is when everyone becomes so familiar, so comfortable with everything that it becomes routine.  When it becomes routine, then it starts to taste routine. The more elements you can change on a regular basis, the more excitement and interest that everybody shows,” he says.

And sometimes trying new things means a change in venue.

Jeff White, the former chef at Pointe West (he was there almost three years), is now heading up the kitchen at the Windsor Club.
White, 33, says the Windsor Club is one of the best places for a chef to show-off his stuff.
“We’re a social club and (people) come here for a dining experience,” he says.

The Windsor Palate

White, who is from Windsor, got his chef training at the Stratford Chef’s School. After school, he worked at numerous restaurants including Alabazam, Casino Windsor and the Windsor Hilton.
Through his years of experience in the Windsor area, White has come to know the market well.
He says this is one of the keys to being a successful chef.
“There are lots of chefs out there with lots of food knowledge, but if you are producing a product that nobody wants to buy, that’s going to break your establishment - there’s no doubt about it,” he says.
According to White, Windsorites – for the most part, don’t like to get too funky when it comes to food. They’d much rather stick with stews, meatloaf and cabbage rolls, than try a dish they’ve never heard of. And they want big portions.
“Areas like Toronto and New York are very trendy, so they are open to new ideas. Whereas with what I find it Windsor, they are very much into comfort foods. Whether that is blue collar related, I really don’t know the answer to that, but that’s what works here,” he says. “We’re not as adventurous.”

Family Recipes

Marco Perri, co-owner and chef at the new Mezzo Ristorante and Lounge on Erie Street, says his greatest influence in the kitchen is his mom.
“My mother is the best chef,” he says.
Gnocchi, fettuccine, both make from scratch are just a couple of recipes that have been passed along by his mother.
“Most of the food on the menu is stuff I’ve been brought up with,” he says. “ I like to offer people the same food I’ve been offered my whole life.”
Although he’s modest about his cooking abilities, it’s obvious that Perri takes pride in his culinary skills.
“I don’t take shortcuts on anything,” he says. “My mother taught me a lot and she always told me if I’m going to do something, do it the best I can or don’t bother doing it at all. Every day her voice is in my head.”
What does she think of his cooking?
“She loves it,” he says.

Started Young

Although Perri is only 26, he’s been cooking in restaurants for eleven years. He got his start at Da Luciano, where he worked for five years.
“I started out washing dishes. One day, one of the chefs didn’t show up and it was really busy… and I was asked to help out,” he says.
After working at Da Luciano, he moved on to Nico's – where he also worked for five years.
At Mezzo, he puts in 16-17 hours a day. Even during his one day off, he’s still thinking about the restaurant.
“ I try to take one day off to clear my mind, but that doesn’t work because when I’m off I'm always thinking of the restaurant,” he says. “I even dream about it.”
The payoff for him is having customers enjoy his food.
“When someone eats my food and they say they love it, it just makes me very satisfied,” he says.

The More The Merrier

Perri says that even though there are 19 restaurants on Erie Street (Mezzo got its name because it’s smack dab in the middle), there’s still room for more.
“I personally think the more the better. It makes the whole street grow,” he says.

Go West

On the other side of Windsor, the Alan family is busy inside the kitchen of an old brick mansion – The Mason Girardot Alan Manor, getting ready for Friday evenings onslaught of hungry customers.
The Alan family started the restaurant, which is in the heart of west Windsor – not exactly a breeding ground for fine dining establishments, in 1983.
After the death of Mr. Alan in 1992, the restaurant was leased to the Greater Essex County District School Board for two years, but re-opened by the family who missed it dearly.
Since then, the family matriarch, Perihan Alan has been running the show, along with her daughter Misli Alan, and son-in-law Dhiren Miyanger, an established actor (most recently starred in CBC’s Jinnah on Crime.)

Food With A Conscience

A garden ripe with lettuce, cucumbers, fresh basil, rosemary and a variety of other fragrant herbs surrounds the restaurant.
Perihan uses food from the garden in many of her dishes.
Miyanger, who is responsible for creating the menu, says the ingredients that are not found in the garden – are for the most part, locally sourced. If they are not from Essex County, then they are at least, from somewhere else in Ontario.
During the growing season, 70-80 percent of the produce used is organic. When it comes to meat, the restaurant makes an earnest effort to source meat that is hormone-free. (They grind their own beef, and have found a local quail farm.)
“We want to share things that we value,” says Miyanger.

Never Stops

When it comes to cooking, Perihan is akin to that famous rabbit in Energizer commercials – she doesn’t stop.
She’s been known to single-handedly cook up 100, 10-course Turkish feasts – and to work an entire year without taking one day off (that was in 1983).
“She’s there every single opening hour in that kitchen,” says her son-in-law.
Perihan says that even though cooking is physically exhausting, she still gets a kick out of satisfying hungry bellies.
“When you enjoy something, you never get sick of it,” she says.
Although Perihan has her own style as a chef, there is a common thread that links her to each of the other chefs: all of them have a passion for food, a strong work ethic and each of them takes great pride in giving an all-out effort.
As Jeff White puts it:
“When I walk home at the end of the day … I walk home knowing that I’ve contributed and that I’ve earned my pay, and I can go home happy.”
Until, tomorrow, when they’ll all wake up and do it again.