David Payne, exec chef of Jelly, on losing your authority, Rick Bayless and gross sticky goo
Most memorable meal you've had: I was very impressed with Frontera Grill in Chicago. We were there on a packed Saturday night and had to wait at the bar for what seemed liked forever before a table opened up, but once we sat down, we shared a trio of great ceviches and margaritas. I had the carne asada en mole negro, an aged ribeye topped with chef Rick Bayless's mole negro -- a 29-ingredient recipe he'd been working on for years that makes it nothing short of amazing. The highlight of the evening was when Bayless learned that two chefs from Austin, Texas -- my friend Melissa and me -- were sitting at one of his tables. He invited us into his kitchen, spoke with us for a short time and gave us a tour of both Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, his upscale restaurant next door, which shares the kitchen. A tour on a busy Saturday night by Rick Bayless himself? Wow. How often does that happen? What a cool night.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I enjoy making every person who works for me grow into a great cook. Transforming a slow, arrogant, naive culinary-school graduate into a fast, mentally strong, physically dominant kitchen badass makes me proud beyond words. I know that when I'm done with them -- or they're done with me -- that they can go to the next restaurant and shine, because they now have a foundation to absorb what they see, repeat what they've been taught, be respectful to their new chef, and take what they've learned and at some point make it their own style. The kids these days -- they just don't know what they're able to accomplish until someone forces them to grow by constantly removing them from their comfort zone. I've seen some of them look back on where they were two years ago and then smile when they compare what they were then to what they are now. It's a great feeling for me, and tells me that I've done my job.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: The first beer dinner I did in Chicago at Dunlays on the Square. I was so nervous. I'd searched for ingredients specifically to pair with five beers from one beer company, and I even had them bring me some of the barley from the brewery that I could grind up and use as a flour on one of my dishes -- a barley-crusted halibut. Each beer was paired with a separate course, and in between courses I'd come out and explain my thoughts and reasoning behind the pairings and answer questions posed by the guests. It was incredibly fun but also so stressful. And yet the night was a complete success, down to every last detail. I was like, no way, get out! Everything was perfect...I couldn't believe it.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Losing your authority. We all make mistakes. Hell, we have to make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions on a daily basis with just seconds to think -- and that's okay. You must believe in yourself and know that even when you're wrong, you're right. Why? Because you're the chef. You fought for it, and you've earned it.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be doing some kind of medical research that's cancer-related, or maybe plastic surgery. Actually, I'd just be a server at a nice restaurant, to tell the truth.