Operating system: The all-important role of the sous chef

Tyler Thomas and Mike Hollar share the title of sous chef at Latin flair mainstay Zocalo, co-owned by chefs Andrew Silver and Ivan Rekosh. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Tyler Thomas and Mike Hollar share the title of sous chef at Latin flair mainstay Zocalo, co-owned by chefs Andrew Silver and Ivan Rekosh. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

As anyone who has ever worked in a professional kitchen—or any aspect of the restaurant industry—will adamantly testify: The life of a chef is by no means for the faint of heart. The hours are long and strange. The work relentlessly demanding, ulcer-inducingly stressful. And yet, we’re assured, profoundly rewarding.

Nowhere is this dynamic of culinary pain versus gain more readily exemplified than with the position of sous chef. Day in and day out, these instrumental second-in-commanders quietly pay their dues, logging heaps of hours while harboring not the vaguest hope of reaping the benefits, nor basking in the glories of public adulation, as that is a perk nearly always reserved for the chef.

Seeking to commemorate our local, behind-the-scenes comestible heroes, C-VILLE sat down with a quartet of Charlottesville’s preeminent chefs to discover what makes their sous chefs some of the best in town.

Zocalo

Sous chefs: Mike Hollar and Tyler Thomas

Chef Andrew Silver: First and foremost I look for someone who loves food, who loves to eat. Second, the sous has to have a really, really strong core knowledge of food and principles. Third, they need to possess a vernacular of cooking terminology and technical know-how.

The sous should be able to function as you when you’re absent. A restaurant’s reputation is based on consistency, so, as a chef, you have to instill a value of doing things the right way. You want someone who holds themselves to the highest standards, with or without the presence of ownership.

We hire people of the highest quality, and these guys are real culinary professionals. They’re guys who show initiative; they want to be successful, to stand apart. They take a sense of ownership in the business. They come in seeking to be better than they were the day before.

Tavola

Sous: Caleb Warr

Chef/owner Michael Keaveny: Basically, the way I look at the job description is, a sous should do everything in their power to make the chef’s life easier. They have to have an above-and-beyond attitude—a great sous knows he’s paying his dues, and, as such, he wants to be the hardest-working guy in the kitchen.

The sous chef’s job is to act as an extension of the chef. He or she has to maintain the quality and functionality of the line, to oversee all the operational details that, because there are only so many hours in a day, the chef just can’t attend to.

When Caleb and I have differences of opinion, we talk about them respectfully. Unlike a lot of guys out there, he listens to other’s ideas. Because of this we can have an open, collaborative and creative environment where everyone’s bouncing ideas off one another and working together to create the best dishes imaginable.

Parallel 38

Sous: Andrew Hunter

Chef John Shanesy: Undying passion and love for the ultimate goal. I want a guy who will never stop. Who is committed to getting 5-star reviews, [on all the consumer review sites], each and every night. Who wants to leave every last guest completely blown away, to have them cursing softly and ecstatically to themselves after tasting that first bite.

A sous chef can absolutely never drop their standards. Because you’re the second in command, it’s imperative you carry out orders, delegating amongst the other cooks exactly what the chef wants done.

Andrew knows what I expect and, by virtue of explaining those expectations to the staff, enables me to focus completely and totally on what I need to be doing. Furthermore, he’s a great teacher. Whatever it may be, he finds out what I want done and makes sure the rest of the staff understands how to execute.

The Local

Sous: Kiko Lucas and Dave Stone

Chef Matthew Hart: I want a guy that both understands my vision and can accentuate what I’m trying to do. Someone who’s loyal and hardworking. While the ideas come from the chef, the responsibility of execution always, always falls on the sous. Without fail, they have to be committed to working their ass off to make that vision a reality.

Quality control [is fundamental]. The reality of a kitchen is, the sous sees a lot more of the plates that are coming through the pass than the chef does. Because I can’t be everywhere all at once, he or she is the last line of defense against a mistakenly executed plate.

Dave and Kiko have been with us for seven or eight years each. These guys have a vested interest in making the restaurant successful, and because of that interest, they not only understand its workings from top to bottom, they can spot flaws that a lesser experienced chef would never notice. And they’re extremely hardworking—they’re willing to put in the hours to make sure things are done right.

–Eric J. Wallace

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