Find more from our What It’s Like series here.
A chef’s job is physically demanding and often stressful. Chefs work long hours, often in uncomfortable conditions. But most are passionate individuals who love food, and what they do for a living.
We caught up with four Milwaukee area chefs and restaurant owners to get an inside look at their profession.
Meet the Chefs
How did you become a chef?
“I got into the food service industry kind of by accident. When I was about 18, my dad dropped me off at The Rafters, this Oak Creek restaurant, and told me to apply for a job. I wound up holding a number of different positions there. After that, I got a job as a line cook at the former Water Buffalo downtown. I was promoted to kitchen manager in just a few weeks. Then, the Hospitality Democracy (the restaurant group that now includes AJ Bombers, Smoke Shack, Onesto, Blue Bat Kitchen, and Holey Moley) chef left, and I got the job.
I never went to culinary school. I didn’t have the years of experience, but I had the drive and work ethic. For example, I’d spend 30 days perfecting pasta. Chefs do much more than just create a plate of food. Often, we are also the HR and payroll person.” –– Alex Sazama, Hospitality Democracy
As a chef, what do you enjoy most about your profession?
“I love traveling and learning about different types of cuisine. (By the way, for chefs, travel expenses are often tax-deductible.) I also feel very proud when people enjoy my cooking — it’s that instant gratification thing for me. I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” — Suzzette Metcalfe, The Pasta Tree
“It’s all about making somebody happy. We strive to create a memorable dining experience for our guests. Also, as a chef (and restaurant owner) you never know what’s going to happen. That’s kind of exciting.” — Jason Tofte, Tofte’s Table
Do you have a secret ingredient that you always go back to?
“I often work with a number of different spices. Firstly, the Spanish combination: toasted cumin, onion, garlic, epazote and cinnamon. Secondly, warming and comforting ‘holiday’ spices: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and anise. However, I was taught that a good chef never reveals his secrets (wink, wink).” — Franco Sanchez, Sabrosa Cafe and Gallery
“My favorite ingredient that I will put in anything I can is butter. I love its flavor and what it can do to a dish.” — Jason Tofte, Tofte’s Table
What are some specific challenges chefs face in the workplace?
“Long hours. You work lots of holidays, weekends and double shifts. Being a chef is a very physical job. Kitchens are hot, and you’re on your feet your entire shift. When you’re a chef starting to build a career, it’s hard to have a work-life balance. You miss things, such as family get-togethers.” — Jason Tofte, Tofte’s Table
“You have to withstand heat like no one else. You have to have a very high set of standards and be a perfectionist. Also, you should have the ability to create a gourmet meal from an almost empty fridge, when someone else would see almost nothing in it.” — Suzzette Melcalf, The Pasta Tree
What are some essential qualities of a successful chef?
“You must be comfortable dealing with the unknown. It’s a game of curveballs. But that feeling of being on the edge is kind of addicting. It’s important to be recognized, but for me, the most important thing is to stay authentic and true to my passion.” — Franco Sanchez, Sabrosa Cafe and Gallery
“Chefs really need to love to come to work and play with food. Some days are glamorous; others aren’t. Also, both chefs and restaurant owners need to be cost-conscious. For example, I use vegetable ends to make a soup stock. Nothing goes to waste.” — Suzzette Metcalf, The Pasta Tree
What’s the weirdest thing that ever happened to you on the job?
“I once worked with a girl in pastry who kept forgetting the salt in the bread. She’d get in trouble because we couldn’t use the bread for service. One day, she came in to work with a tattoo on her arm of the Morton salt girl, with the words “don’t forget the salt.” Despite that, I’m pretty sure she still forgot the salt in the bread a few times.” — Suzzette Melcalf, The Pasta Tree
“Having to prepare barnacles for a tasting! The crowd’s reaction was priceless.” — Franco Sanchez, Sabrosa Cafe and Gallery
What are some things most people don’t know about being a chef?
“As a chef, you’re always analyzing everything you eat. You’re always expected to cook. Oh, and you’re crazy.” — Suzzette Melcalf, The Pasta Tree
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?
“Start at the bottom and work your way up.” — Alex Sazama, Hospitality Democracy
“Get to know your customers. Let them see your face. Communication is key, for both chefs and restaurant owners.” — Franco Sanchez, Sabrosa Cafe and Gallery
“Be self-sufficient and a self-starter.” — Suzzette Melcalf, The Pasta Tree
“It’s not about the money. If you became a chef for the money, you picked the wrong profession.” — Jason Tofte, Tofte’s Table