What it takes to be a kitchen’s second-in-command

Behind the line

What it takes to be a kitchen’s second-in-command
Photo by Jenna Belvender

While chefs capture the limelight, sous chefs are the unsung heroes of the fine dining kitchen. They're second-in-command, in a role described as a "workhorse." But what are their backstories? What is the relationship between the sous chef and executive? Is it contentious and ego-driven or one of a nurturing mentor and protégé? In metro Detroit, where the high-end restaurant scene is really taking off, sous chefs tell us their relationships with the folks in the back of the house are like families. Competitive as it may seem to the average diner, the cooks in the kitchens of some of the most popular establishments in the area are helping one another grow, creating an environment unlike other cities such as cutthroat New York or Chicago. We sat down with a handful of such sous chefs to find out more what it's like to be No. 2 in the kitchen.

Jessi Patuano, Bacco Ristorante, Southfield

Originally from Long Island, Patuano started cooking after high school when she moved to Philadelphia. She worked at a couple of Irish pubs and then headed west to Michigan, where she figured she'd live for a year or two. Wrong. It was here in metro Detroit where she decided she would turn cooking into a culinary career and enrolled in Schoolcraft College.

That's when she came across James Rigato from the acclaimed Root restaurant in White Lake. Under Rigato's mentorship, she began diving into the farm-to-table philosophy, meeting local farmers and raising eight pigs. She lucked out again when she was hired to work under Garrett Lipar, then at Torino in Ferndale. The popular eatery shuttered abruptly over the summer, but Patuano, by then a veteran in several restaurants, landed on her feet once more, this time at Bacco Ristorante in Southfield, working under chef-proprietor Luciano DelSignore.

"It's been a great opportunity, actually. I have worked with a lot of talented chefs and also with the people who have come up with me," Patuano says.

Of the workload, Patuano says it does put a strain on any sense of normalcy for any average 20-something. "I spend my Sundays sleeping," she tells us. That has to do with the fact that she's often the first person in the kitchen every day at about 9 a.m. and the last one to leave, well after 10 or 11 p.m. closing time.

"In this job," she says, "you have to have the hands of a mechanic, the knees of a football player, and the feet of the ballerina."

So far that balancing act has paid off.

Reid Shipman, Gold Cash Gold, Detroit

Fine dining as a career path hadn't become apparent for Reid Shipman until his early 20s. Up until that point, he had only worked in mom-and-pop restaurants, flipping burgers at his aunt's bowling alley, just kind of getting by as a short order cook. But it was those experiences that helped shape his work ethic. He learned to work fast on his feet. And even though he didn't know it yet, the chef bug bit him hard, prompting him, like so many others in the industry in metro Detroit, to enroll in Schoolcraft College's culinary program.

At that point, he was still apprehensive about the direction his career would take. He remembers standing in line to enroll when he met an older guy who had been in the business a while. "He warned me exactly what I was getting into and I didn't listen to him," Shipman tells us. "But now, I'm glad I didn't listen to him."

What that guy in the line warned Shipman about was the long hours, the missed holidays, the time spent away from family. "He was right, but there's a level of satisfaction that you can't find in another career path," Shipman says.

After Schoolcraft, Shipman worked at the Stand in Birmingham, before jumping onboard to help chef Josh Stockton open Gold Cash Gold, then the hotly anticipated rustic, farm-to-table restaurant that's now firmly ensconced in a former pawnshop on Michigan Avenue. That's where Shipman became obsessed with learning how to prepare dishes using only the ingredients that could be found at the moment. If Stockton were to find four varieties of beets, for example, a dish unique to those four beets would be on the menu. "This is my favorite job I've ever had. The local sourcing is the most I've ever done," Shipman says.

That's important to note about what's happening in Detroit's hip kitchens. Chefs at many of these newer restaurants are designing menus that work for the area. In Michigan, where the nearby rural influences urban trends, cooks like Shipman are learning to use that to their advantage.

Casaundra White, Mex, Bloomfield Hills

As a 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Casaundra White has been on both sides of the sous-executive relationship. She started her career in Madison, Wis., and moved to Michigan, where she held leadership roles in several metro Detroit restaurants, including Andiamo's, and now at Mex, first as sous chef when it opened two years ago, and now as the executive chef.

Over the years, she's picked up some insight that has helped her navigate her way through the politics of working in a kitchen, both as a sous and as an executive. And she has some advice for the many aspiring cooks who are trying to break into the restaurant scene:

While the natural instinct when tapped for the No. 2 position in the kitchen may be to push the boundaries to prove you're worthy of the job, keep in mind that you've already made it. Don't do more than what is expected of you or the job could take over your life. The great thing about being second-in-command is that you're a manager, but the tough decisions go to the executive. That can be helpful in that, when a sous goes home, he or she can leave the work at the restaurant. When you make it to the executive level, the phone calls, the mini-crises, and all the logistics follow you home. The hard parts come when you don't see eye-to-eye with your No. 1. But don't let a disagreement get in the way of being consistent with the rest of the crew. They will pick up on unrest between sous and executive and that creates a tension you don't want in the kitchen.

White says her team at Mex tends to be more collaborative than hierarchical. Refried beans have to be churned out daily. If White has to make it, so be it. Everyone is part of a team in her book. For a sous, that means leading by example. Don't place yourself above doing the dirty work, just because you've made it this far, your team needs to see you do the work so they know what needs to be done in the kitchen.

Above all else, White says, in order to make it in this business, you've got to really love what you're doing. "If you don't have a love and a passion for it, it will consume you," she says.

Chris Skillingstad, Standby, Detroit

If the executive chef is the creative mastermind, then the sous chef has to have the business sensibility to run the logistics of a kitchen. That's the attitude of Chris Skillingstad, the sous at Standby bar and restaurant, which as of the printing of this dining guide had not yet opened.

Working in kitchens since the age of 17, Skillingstad found himself drawn to the position of manager after several stints in various restaurants across his native Minneapolis. When he got his first executive chef position at a gastropub in northwest Minneapolis, he stayed about a year and a half, but wanted to try his hand at the more creative side of cooking. So he quit to work at Victory 44, a popular restaurant with an unusual structure: There were about 15 cooks, but no wait staff, meaning they all rotated between serving, bussing, bartending, cooking, even being baristas, as the place had a coffee side.

It would be this experience (and another one at a restaurant with a similar concept) that would inspire the career direction Skillingstad always wanted to have. "What I want to get into is just helping chefs open restaurants in the city," he says. "I don't want to be my own chef yet at my own restaurant. I want to help other chefs succeed. I don't think I have the most creative side. I don't find myself artistic. I'm more of a logistics [guy]. I like to think everything through and be efficient as possible in every aspect of my life, and I've found that I'm really good in the restaurant industry."

So call it timing, but when he was about six months into dating his then-girlfriend about two years ago, that she decided on a whim that she wanted out of Minneapolis. She was headed to Detroit, she told him. So Skillingstad decided he would propose to her and move on out to Motown with her. "Neither of us had a job out here, we just up and moved, thinking that Detroit was on the up and up and was going to have the most opportunity for whatever we wanted to do," he says.

The gamble paid off. In less than two years since relocating to Detroit, Skillingstad has surrounded himself with some of the most celebrated up-and-coming chefs in town, including Brendon Edwards, who hired Skillingstad on as his second-in-command a couple of months after they met.

Emma Taylor, Marais, Grosse Pointe

The nature of working in restaurants can be volatile. Bad reviews can be demoralizing. The physical and mental demands can be overwhelming. Oh, and a routine health inspection can put you and your crew out of work in an instant.

Which is what happened at Torino in Ferndale, when an inspector ruled earlier this year that the kitchen was too small for chef Garrett Lipar and his team to continue cooking there, magical as as the food that came out of it may have been. Fortunately for Lipar and many on his staff, including Emma Taylor, their talents did not go unnoticed.

Both landed at Marais, the celebrated white tablecloth French restaurant in Grosse Pointe. Owners David and Monica Gilbert handed over full control of the kitchen. That meant Taylor would join in the task of recalibrating the established restaurant's culinary compass.

The move to a different kitchen together builds on a two-year, sous-executive mentorship. Taylor was hired at Torino about two years ago, after returning to her native Michigan upon completing her degree at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She stuck around after school a while working at a bistro in Brooklyn, before finally deciding it was time to come home.

The mentoring at Torino was very hands-on, Taylor said. Though many kitchens operate under a strict tier system, Lipar was more interested in helping his crew learn. It's that nurturing, Taylor says, that drives her to aim to do her best. So far in her young career, she hasn't felt the sting of sexism that her elder female chefs might have encountered. It could be luck that she wound up in the environment she did.

Taylor tends to think of it as less than a gender issue than in how she carries herself. "It's not so much male and female: A lot of it is holding yourself to a high standard, how you carry yourself," she says.

Joshua Keller, Andiamo's, Sterling Heights

We've been writing a lot about the young chefs who have been leaving a dramatic mark on the region's dining scene. But lest we forget, kitchen staff at local chains like Andiamo's have been in the trenches for ages. Like the newer, high-end locavore eateries making their mark in Detroit, the suburban chains before them changed the way Detroiters dined out.

And that didn't come easily. Fans of chains want a certain amount of consistency, no matter which location they've visited. It makes them want to return again and again. That consistency comes from strict organization within the ranks of chefs. Josh Keller, a veteran Andiamo's sous chef at the Sterling Heights location, knows full well the importance of not overstepping it.

"It can be a challenge," Keller says of working seamlessly within an organization that bases its success on order and conformity. The Andiamo's chef hierarchy starts with a corporate executive chef, who oversees all of the executive chefs assigned at each branch. Then those chefs have a sous, like Keller, then there are five cooks, and finally three dishwashers, all helping keep the workload moving.

The corporate-level brass holds meetings with the executive chefs once a month, who then communicate any issues with sous chefs, mostly through email. Keller's job isn't to be inspired by his rising-star superior, nor is it to suggest changes to the menu. "But definitely if there's something in the execution [of a menu item], because a lot of times the menus are written by corporate." If there are hiccups on the restaurant level, Keller may communicate those types of issues. "But I don't just go and change it without going through the proper channels," he says.

Some people like to refer to the executive-sous relationship as a marriage, Keller wouldn't go that far. "But you do have to trust each other, because you are entrusted with other people," he says.

Speaking of marriage, he met his wife at Andiamo's. She's since moved on from a restaurant kitchen, but still understands the oftentimes taxing schedule Keller deals with, mostly consisting of 12- to 14-hour days.

"We rarely go out, not because we don't enjoy it, but because nine times out of 10 I'd rather make something at home."

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