Round two with David Payne, executive chef of Jelly
Craziest night in the kitchen: That's the night that the lights went out in -- nope, not in Georgia, but in Chico, California. It's Saturday night -- it's always on a Saturday night -- and the house is full to the max. The reservation book is full, there are still people walking in, sitting at the bar -- even standing with drinks and appetizers, because this was the place to be in Chico. People are having a great time, the music is playing, servers are flirting and running around, the bartender, Evan, is effortless in his style and ability to make everything look easy. This was many years back, when California was having an energy crisis and experiencing rolling blackouts throughout the state, and apparently, on that Saturday night, it was our turn for the power to go out. No more vent hoods, no more lights and no more refrigeration, but the gas was still on and the burners and grill still worked -- and so did we. We couldn't let anyone down -- we were that good. We had to open the back windows in the dish room because the smoke was billowing off the grill and starting to infiltrate the dining room. Some people left, but this staff -- good Lord, they were good -- just made it happen. We obviously stopped seating people, but the people who had already ordered still got their food, glowing slightly near the tea lights that were on every table. We couldn't believe it. Suffice it to say we drank well that night.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When you're trying to teach a newbie something important and they interrupt you in the middle of a sentence to interject whatever they have on their mind. So, Mr. Cook, did you ask me your question for me to answer, or for you to answer?
Which chef has most inspired you? I've always been one to watch and learn from everyone I can. I've learned cooking techniques, purchasing strategies, number crunching and all manner of other things over the years by learning from others. But two people who made the most difference in the kind of chef I am today are Patrick Cole and Bruce Bowers, both from the San Francisco Bay Area. They made everything come together for me; they were the voices of reason through all the messes I made. Everything became clear to me because of these two people. Thank you.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? The French Laundry. I've always said that I would never cook perfect classical French food, nor would I ever want to work somewhere with such a strict, high level of perfection, with ingredients out of a garden on premise, with access to the best ingredients the world can provide, be it salt, vinegar, vegetable or meat. I've said that I wouldn't want the biggest thrill of my day to be the grapevine-filled drive to and from work on a daily basis within easy access of the fermented juices they provide. What a moron I was.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: The competition in this career is staggering, and to make money in this business, you have to be obsessive, never blink with the eyes in the back of your head, never sleep, hate holidays to yourself, and have the most understanding family in the world. We all have a very hard job at great personal sacrifice. But we love it.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Chefs are miracle workers -- blood, sweat and tears literally go into everything that we do. The love and the rage that go into what we do, how we do it, in the environment in which we do it, often takes place deep in our medulla oblongata, the deepest and oldest part of our emotional brain. We've trained ourselves to be the warriors of the line, better than the guy next to us, and stronger than the guy behind us. All of that mental struggle, all of that stress and frustration boiling up after a long, five-day stretch of effort really becomes a very sad series of emotions when a customer walks out because we couldn't do something as simple as get them something to eat.