Photographer Alan Batt has been photographing restaurants in New York City for nearly 15 years, and he has befriended many key players in the kitchens. While chatting one night with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, executive chef at Southeast Asian eatery Spice Market in the city, he learned the culinary guru really needed line cooks. It turns out many culinary school graduates don’t expect to start at the bottom, feeling instead that their degrees entitle them to more advanced jobs. This leaves a multitude of New York City restaurants needing talented employees. Soon after this discussion, Batt envisioned a mutually beneficial course that would bring together passionate neophytes and chefs in the high-end restaurant world who are seeking fresh talent.
Thus The Chefs Connection course was born. Composed mainly of people who are unemployed or seeking job retraining, although some do have restaurant experience, the 10-day course is taught by a new guest chef every day. Each class lasts for three hours and is overseen by Batt, known to his friends and associates as Battman. Held at the Food and Finance High School, a culinary high school in the Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan, the first course took place in early March, and 12 of the 15 students found work in the industry afterward.
When Batt first put the word out about his class via Craigslist in early March, 106 people showed interest on the first day. When he then said he would do an open interview in an auditorium setting, 63 people responded. It was a very snowy Thursday, “and it only brought out the people who wanted to work,” Batt recalls. “They schlepped through the snow, and I got 20 really good people out of it,” 15 of whom ultimately took the first class in March.
Unsure initially of what to ask—other than basic information like age and experience—Batt examined body language. “The chefs all want attitude,” he acknowledges. “They want students to come here [to class] and they’ll teach them everything. I picked the people who I liked, who I thought had a little energy in them. It was just a gut feeling.”
Batt says the teaching chefs are not paid and the students are not charged. He would like to pay the chefs one day, but for now the volunteer chefs are happy for the opportunity to find prospective employees. Guest chefs in the second course in April included Ian Davis from Momofuku, John Beatty from Catch, and Top Chef winner Hung Huynh.
Restaurants that do hire graduates of the class pay $200, the equivalent of a finder’s fee, for each hire who lasts at least two months. It saves restaurants money on advertising and time on interviewing, and many establishments are game for the opportunity.
“We actually hired two students out of the [first] class,” says Cynthia Billeaud, director of human resources for Daniel Boulud’s management company, The Dinex Group. The two hires were Iris Biales at DBGB and Felicia Simon at DB Bistro Moderne. Billeaud notes that she looks for individuals with a strong attention to detail, organization, and cleanliness. “While some technical skills are preferred, we welcome enthusiastic and capable individuals who are passionate about hospitality.”
FSR attended the first class of the second course in mid-April, and for the new assembly of 13 students, Anthony Ricco, chef de cuisine at Spice Market, discussed his career, the basics of kitchen etiquette, kitchen dynamics, and maintaining high standards, and he showed the basic techniques of knife cutting and grilling. Plus, he offered pearls of kitchen wisdom: Never bring your problems to work. Do what the chef says, and be open to things. Let the chef decide if you are sick enough to stay home. Check your ego at the door.
Occasionally, Batt chimed in with observations. “I can help with the knife skills,” he says. “I can tell them what they are doing wrong. I also interject when I think things need to be explained further and give them a little pep talk before and after the class. I feel like they need the same face there from the beginning to the end. Someone who they can ask questions, who knows what they’ve learned, because there is a different chef every day.”
The students in the course are set up with great facilities. The expansive kitchen used for the second course at the Food and Finance High School had eight rolling butcher blocks, three stoves, six ovens, two convection ovens, fryers and skillets, a slicer, a deep fryer, and a grill in the back. It also had nine sink basins. Each student got a high-quality knife to use for the duration of the course during various cutting and chopping exercises, and students receive an orientation package with beef and pork charts, photos of kitchen items, other basic information, and essays from veteran chefs.
Spice Market’s Chef Ricco has taught a class in each of the first two courses and plans to continue his participation. The 34-year-old chef began as a prep cook at the China Grill in Manhattan at age 19, then attended culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education (ice) before taking an internship at Water’s Edge in Long Island City. Ten years ago, he began working for Chef Vongerichten at Spice Market.
“Not everybody can afford a full-blown culinary school adventure,” Chef Ricco says. “I’d rather take a guy who’s a dishwasher or has no experience and a good attitude and understands how to hold himself or compose a conversation with a chef—versus a guy who has a full-blown education and is a jerk.” From the first class he got two fresh hires. “I got two very good guys who were very green, but their attitude is shining. If you go into a kitchen after this with a good attitude, people are going to be willing to teach you everything and anything that you can handle.”
Rafri Frias, Chef Ricco’s 28-year-old assistant and a fellow ICE graduate, helps him with the class. “I think it’s a great thing that Battman and all the chefs are doing,” Frais says. “A program like this brings you inside, and we can hire these guys later on.”
The Chefs Connection course was a perfect fit for 20-year-old Miranda Garcia. She spent a year in college, but the expense and the fact she didn’t feel comfortable in a traditional classroom setting led her to Battman’s course. She loved the experience. “I’m very hands-on,” she says. “I’m walking around with a lot of knowledge, especially from different chefs. They all have their different style, a different taste, a different background, and now we’re getting that mix. Instead of hopping around from restaurant to restaurant, they’re coming to us.”
Thomas Gantt, 31, has been working in mom and pop restaurants for seven years and has found the transition into high-volume restaurants difficult. He signed up for The Chefs Connection hoping the course would offer entry into that world. “In the kitchens I come from, there isn’t a big emphasis on knife skills, making everything perfect, and having good efficiency,” Gantt says. “I think that’s what I’m really taking away from the class. I really appreciate the fact that we have a [new] chef every day. They give you a different perspective on the kitchen and the way chefs work.”