Lordfer Lolican—Lo, to his non-Filipino friends—had been working in fine dining kitchens for just two years (a line cook for less than half that time) when his phone rang, and on the other end, it was Dan Barber. He wanted to know if Lo would come out to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the restaurant on his 80-acre farm and agricultural center, to spend a day cooking with him and his team.
In addition to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which would, a few years after his phone call to Lo, be named one of the 50 best eateries in the world with a “dining experience so unique and special, it has the power to change your perspective on food,” Barber was the proprietor of a second restaurant, Blue Hill in the City, for which he earned a Michelin star.
Barber’s invitation was one most cooks would’ve killed for. Lo was so green, he’d never even heard the name Dan Barber.
He spent the night before making the trip out to the farm searching the internet. He was surprised to learn that Barber had been named, by Time Magazine, one of the world’s most influential people. He was also surprised to learn that, the man who’d personally reached out to him had, just the year before, been awarded the title Best Chef in America by the James Beard Foundation.
He tried not to let any of this intimidate him as he took the subway to Grand Central Station, then boarded a train for the Hudson Valley, his chef knife in a sheath in his backpack.
It was the Food Network, which first sparked Lo’s interest in cooking. Before he was old enough for a learner’s permit, he’d sit in front of the television watching Rachel Ray and Jamie Oliver. He’d take his allowance to the grocery store and buy the ingredients needed to imitate their recipes. When he couldn’t scrap together enough cash, he’d improvise, switching out ingredients with stuff he could find in his family’s pantry.
By the time he got to high school, he was using his kitchen skills to get out of chores. After class, he’d invite friends over. He’d cook for them. In return, they’d do his housework.
Lo’s parents were first generation immigrants. His father was deported twice. Each time, he had to leave his wife and three sons behind as he was forced out of the country. His ticket to legal residency was a nursing shortage, which forced the United States to turn to other countries, like the Philippines, for recruits.
Determined to put their boys through college, Lo’s parents each worked sixty-plus hours a week.
“In my house, a chef wasn’t considered a career. I didn’t even know culinary schools existed.”
After high school, he enrolled in the University of Florida, studying health sciences.
“It was an easy major that allowed me plenty of time to party.”
It was in his junior year when he got his first job in a restaurant. Two friends from the Filipino Student Union, who graduated a couple years before him, opened a strip mall sushi shop. Far from fine dining, it was the type of place where, if you arrived during happy hour, you’d be offered two for one carafes of hot sake and half-priced California rolls.
They had dreams of a franchise. After Lo graduated, they asked him if he wanted to work toward opening his own branch. He accepted the offer and in preparation, moved into a management role.
If he was going to run his own restaurant, Lo decided, he would have to first master every position in both the front and the back of the house. A plan which quickly derailed when he hired a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America.
“He began teaching me things. That annoyed the shit out of me.”
The most important thing he taught Lo was that he had a lot to learn. “You should be able to provide more to your employees than they can provide to you.”
In order to get the education he needed, Lo knew he had to leave Florida. It was not an easy decision. Had he stayed, he would’ve owned a piece of, what was becoming, a lucrative franchise.
“All my friends thought I was crazy for leaving.”
Mark Berdin, another friend from the Filipino Student Union and former co-worker at the sushi restaurant, was one of the few who encouraged Lo to get out of Florida.
Berdin had already been in New York City for a year. He, like Lo, had been looking to develop his craft. Also like Lo, he’d decided that the kitchen, as opposed to culinary school, was the best classroom.
Berdin was working at Morimoto in the Chelsea Market. Through an acquaintance, he was able to put in a good word for Lo, getting him a job at what would be the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. A new concept, overseen by French chef Joel Antunes, who had earned his second Michelin star at the age of twenty-eight.
Before leaving Florida, Lo read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. That, and the knife skills he’d picked up while slicing sushi, was the extent of his education.
The key thing Lo remembers from Kitchen Confidential is Bourdain’s assessment that the kitchen is the last surviving meritocracy in America. A place where an unskilled laborer could get a job washing dishes and, through nothing more than hard work and determination, work their way up to chef de cuisine.
The new owners of the Oak Room had ambitions of transforming their space in the Plaza Hotel into a Michelin star, fine dining restaurant. In addition to Joel Antunes, they recruit sous-chefs from Le Bernardin, Gramercy Tavern, and Robuchon, three of the most revered restaurants in the city.
It was an ideal situation for Lo, who explained, “Every restaurant is a different school.”
If he had gotten a job at Le Bernardin, he would’ve learned to cook according to Chef Eric Ripert’s tastes. A fine education, indeed. But not nearly as wide-ranging as the one he got while working under three sous-chefs, each from a different school.
This diversity, so beneficial to Lo, would, in his opinion, be one of the biggest factors behind the Oak Room’s failure.
“They didn’t know their identity. It was a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
Lo’s position at the Oak Room was prep-cook. Most of his time, he says, was spent trying to keep his head above water.
“They’d give me a recipe. I’d look at it and not know what the fuck was going on. Then I’d get screamed at for not knowing what the fuck was going on.”
An example is a recipe he was given for squash sauce. It consisted of a list of ingredients: garlic, onion, squash, and aromatics: rosemary, sage, black peppercorns.
To Lo, it looked like nothing more than a grocery list. But, to the experienced cooks around him, it was all they needed to make a sauce.
They knew that, first, they had to cook down the onion and garlic. When cooked down, both these ingredients take on a sweetness, which adds dimension to the flavor. They might let them cook until they took on a little color, or caramelization, adding another dimension to the sauce.
After the onion and garlic, they’d add the squash. They’d let that cook, then pour in stock, followed by the aromatics.
At Blue Hill, Lo would learn to cook with no recipe. Barber would tell him what he wanted and he would have to figure out not only how to use the ingredients, but, also, which ingredients to use.
“He was only concerned about the taste of the final product. How I got there didn’t matter to him.”
Barber spent most of his time at Stone Barns. But on Mondays and Tuesdays, he would make the trip into the city to check on his staff at Blue Hill.
“You’re scared when he comes in,” Lo said. “Cause you know he’ll eat you apart.”
While at the Oak Room, Lo witnessed the temper of a French chef. Antunes did not spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It was during one of his infrequent visits that Lo learned the French word for shit.
He tasted a dish and declared it was merde, then flung it across the room, shattering it against a wall.
“It was the first time I’d seen anything like that. It was crazy. And these were expensive plates, imported from France.”
Barber rarely yelled. And he never threw plates. He had more clever ways of getting in a cook’s head. He’d stand real close to Lo; he might even put his hands on his shoulders, as he whispered into his ear, things like, “What the fuck do you think this is? Do you know where you are? Put that shit down.”
He’d slap things out of Lo’s hands. “Just don’t do anything. I’ll do it.”
Lo had no choice but to stand and watch as Barber demonstrated the correct way to cook, looking up every now and then to remind Lo he wasn’t capable of doing anything right.
Or, he’d ignore Lo, addressing his comments to the sous-chef.
“How did this guy get a job here if he doesn’t know how to cook? Can you do me a favor? Can you please teach this guy how to cook?”
Barber would keep pushing until he got the reaction he was looking for.
“He wouldn’t stop until he saw you moving faster, trying harder.”
Three months after the Oak Room opened, the New York Times published their review. It was written by Frank Bruni, who, at the time, was the chief restaurant critic for the paper.
Before writing his review, he made multiple visits to the restaurant. Each of these visits, he said, were, “stippled with disappointment.” The letdowns, “huge and many.”
He detailed some of the failures. The pasta, he wrote, was “overcooked.” The sunchoke puree, “degenerated into mush.” The salmon appetizer, “frigid and hard.” The pork chop, “a tough, juiceless mountain of meat,” which he refused to even taste.
He had positive things to say about the space, which he thought was beautifully renovated. And he enjoyed the dessert. (Joel Antunes is one of the few Michelin star chefs who started his career in pastry). But neither of those things were enough to earn the Oak Room more than a single star.
“It’s nearly impossible to come back from a one-star review,” Lo said.
I asked him what it was like the first day back. He told me, when he got to the kitchen that morning, “Everyone was already looking for another job.”
Although he had, at times, embarrassed himself with his lack of knowledge (“I didn’t even know the difference between a quart container and a pint container,”), he had shown himself to be a hard worker.
“I’d be the first one in in the morning. I was constantly asking questions and taking notes.”
A person who “doesn’t know shit, but works hard” is a valuable commodity in the kitchen. That’s why, as everyone around him was fleeing, Lo was getting offers to join them.
He ended up following his sous-chef, Duane, to Allen and Delancey, a modern American restaurant, with one Michelin star.
The plan was to work toward earning a second star. But, along the way, the owners became more interested in profit. Instead of putting resources into improving the food, their focus was on moneymaking ventures, like opening early on the weekends with a brunch menu.
Lo’s philosophy while in New York was, “If you’re not learning you’re in the wrong place.” At Allen and Delancey, he learned advance kitchen skills thanks to Duane, who regularly came in early to teach him.
“He taught me the basics of charcuterie. How to make terrine, headcheese, foie gras torchon. Stuff I’d read about in books but had never seen in real life.”
Also while at Allen and Delancey, Lo, for the first time, stepped onto the line to cook.
The head chef was so impressed by Lo, when the kitchen staff, frustrated with the owners, began to leave, he passed Lo’s number onto Dan Barber, his former employer, who, he had heard, was looking for a cook.
Lo was familiar with farm-to-table cooking. He’d often gone to farmer’s markets to gather ingredients for the night’s menu. But, when he arrived at Stone Barns, he saw a more immediate interpretation.
“Our day started with farm chores. Most of the ingredients served that night were harvested that morning.”
Barber assigned Lo to one of his sous-chefs. “I want this guy to come work for me,” he said. “So treat him well.”
Lo helped with prep, then stood aside and watched how the kitchen worked. At the end of the shift, Barber asked him if he knew how to drive.
“Take us back to the city.” He gave Lo the keys to his Toyota Highlander.
Barber had his laptop with him. Sitting shotgun, he answered emails, looking up every once in a while to ask Lo questions. Lo describes Barber as sporadic. The conversation, he said, jumped all over the place. He was also funny, with a sarcastic, dry sense of humor.
He wanted to know why Lo had come to New York. He wanted to hear about Lo’s life goals.
When Lo asked him what made him successful, he said he had an idea and went for it. For him, the key was hard work and focus. At the end of the ride, Barber invited Lo to spend a few days cooking at Blue Hill in the City.
It’s common for cooks to work as a stagaire before accepting a position in a kitchen. A stagaire is an abbreviated internship. A trail period, in which the cook and the kitchen assess one another, to see if they are a good fit.
After three night as a stagaire, Barber was ready to offer Lo a spot in his kitchen. But, first, he wanted to cook for Lo.
Barber invited him to eat at the restaurant. Lo told him his father was in town. His father, Barber said, was a welcome to join him, as was his girlfriend.
“Our food was comped. But I left a nice tip. When my father saw it, he nearly fell out of his chair.” He said the tip was so big, Lo’s mother could’ve used it to buy two week’s worth of groceries.
After dinner, Barber came out to the dining room and offered Lo the job. He started as garde manger, one of the bottom-most positions in the kitchen. Barber’s kitchen was more advanced than any Lo had worked in. Even as garde manger, he had things to learn.
“I was in charge of the bread service. I learned to make butter, using the milk from the cows at Blue Hill Farms.” With materials provided by pigs from the same farm, he learned to make lardo.
After mastering the garde marge station, he was placed on the line, first as a meat cook, then entremetier.
The entremetier station at Blue Hill in the City had the reputation, amongst cooks, of being the toughest in the city.
An entremetier is responsible for everything on the plate that accompanies the protein. In a traditional French kitchen, there are at least two entremetiers, one for the fish cook and one for the meat cook. At Blue Hill, Lo served as sole entremetier, responsible for the garnishes, vegetables and starches on every dish that left the kitchen. He worked on a French flattop, in-between the meat and fish cooks.
“It was the hottest spot in the kitchen, in the middle of all the ovens.” Because he had the most to do, he moved faster than everyone else.
Each time a server punched an order into the computer, the sous-chef, who stood at the pass, plating food, would tear the ticket off the printer.
If a two-top ordered fish, served with risotto and a vegetable, and the steak, served with polenta and carrot puree, he would call out, “Fire one fish, one steak, medium rare.”
The cooks would season their proteins and toss them on the grill. Theirs was a job of finesse. Eyes closed, they should know when a cut of meat is done by the way it smells.
Lo’s was not a job of finesse. He was the workhorse. For the fish, he would put a pot on his flattop and brown shallots for the risotto. He would need a second pot for the vegetable.
For the steak, he would need a pot for the polenta and, in another pot, he would heat the carrot puree.
While working four pots, another ticket could come through.
“Fire one lamb, medium-rare, one cauliflower,” the sous would say.
Lo would add three pots for the lamb, which was served with rice, a vegetable and mint puree. The cauliflower had no protein. So the entire dish was on Lo’s shoulders. It would call for an additional four pots.
He’s now cooking with eleven pots and the tickets show no sign of letting up.
It was also Lo’s job to coordinate each ticket. He would ask the meat cook how much time he needed on the steak. If it was coming off the grill in two minutes, and needed to rest for five, he would tell the fish cook to be ready in seven. Fish gets cold fast. It must be served right away.
Since Lo’s oven didn’t function properly, it was used as a plate warmer. This meant, in addition to his other responsibilities, he was in charge of pulling plates.
Once the steak had sat for the appropriate amount of time, the sous would call for plates. Lo would reach into the hot oven, grab two plates, and set them on the pass.
The fish cook would pull the fish. Lo would hand over his four pots. The sous would check all the food. Then he’d plate both dishes. At which time, the server better be there to run them to the dining room.
“How much time on the lamb chop?” Lo would ask as he tended to the seven pots remaining on his flattop. Meanwhile, the sous would be ripping tickets off the printer, calling for more food to be fired, more pots to be added.
The summer that Lo worked at Blue Hill, a record breaking heatwave had settled over New York City. The Times profiled a man who worked a Lower East Side newsstand, not far from Lo’s apartment. To keep cool, he stuffed frozen bottles of Poland Springs down the front of his pants. He strung them together and wore them, as a necklace, under his shirt.
Most days, he closed shop early.
Lo did not have that option. He had to stay until the end of his shifts, which started with prep work at 10am and did not finish until the last customer settled their bill and every surface in the kitchen was scrubbed clean, usually around midnight.
He was used to working in a 90 degree kitchen. But, that summer, he watched as the temperature climbed into triple digits.
He remembers one night, he looked at the thermometer hanging on the wall, and announced to his co-workers, “Oh, shit, its 125 degrees in here.”
That night, he went through three chef’s jackets. Each time, the sous would cover his station while he ran up the stairs to the office and stripped out of his soiled jacket. Standing in front of the a/c, he’d mop up his sweat with a towel, find a clean jacket, then rush back down to the kitchen.
“I was moving so fast, there was no time to stop and drink water.”
In the middle of service, his stomach cramped. He told his sous he had to go to the bathroom. It was an emergency.
“I took a shit. Then I had abdominal pain. It was the worst feeling. Thank God I had time to wipe my ass.”
He was stuck in the bathroom, bent over in pain. “I couldn’t straighten my body.”
Eventually, he was able to return to the kitchen. “I’m a man,” he explains. “I had service.”
He was not on the line long before, once again, he asked his sous to cover for him. This time, he thought he was going to puke.
He was gone for so long, the sous came to check on him. He found Lo balled up on the floor, next to the toilet.
“He asks me ‘What the hell is going on?’” Lo told him he couldn’t stand. “He knows it’s serious, because I’m no pussy.”
The sous got in the stall and pulled Lo to his feet. He walked him through the kitchen, helped him up the stairs to the office, and sat him in front of the a/c.
Down two men, the kitchen would soon fall behind. The sous called for the maître d’, so he could get back to work.
The maître d’ decided Lo needed to go to the hospital. He gave him a copy of his worker’s comp card. From the register, he got cab fare.
Walking down the stairs, Lo collapsed. Everyone panicked.
“No one knew what was happening to me. And you got to understand, we spent so much time together, we were like family.”
At Blue Hill, there is no service entrance. So, when the paramedics arrived, it was through the dining room that they rushed, carrying a large medical bag and a plastic stretcher.
They disappeared into the kitchen. Only to return, minutes later, their stretcher unfolded, on it, an Asian man, wearing an unbuttoned chef’s jacket, an IV line stuck into his arm.
At the hospital, Lo was told he had become so dehydrated his kidneys, unable to process the lactic acid his body was producing, had started shutting down.
He spent one night in the hospital. The day after he was released, he returned to his spot on the line.
Since then, Barber has made it a policy, in both his kitchens, of having jugs of coconut water within easy reach of the cooks.
Although Lo had great respect for his sous-chef, he did not think highly of his chef de cuisine, in part because of his habit of leaving each evening before service to be with his wife and kids.
“A chef who doesn’t hang around for service has a hard time keeping the respect of the kitchen.”
The few times he stayed, filling in for the sous, it was apparent to the cooks that his talent was not in the kitchen.
“He was good with purveyors. But, as a chef, he had nothing to offer me.”
Since Lo’s objective was to further his education, he knew his time at Blue Hill in the City would have to come to an end.
The final straw was when his chef pulled him aside and told him he needed to work faster. Lo asked him what he could do to improve. The chef had no answer.
Lo’s next move was to call Dan Barber. He told him was done with Blue Hill in the City. He wanted to go to Stone Barns, to work alongside Barber. Also, he needed a raise.
Barber told him he didn’t know what he was asking for. If he came to Stone Barns, Barber warned, “You would grow to hate me.”
Lo told him, if he didn’t get transferred, he would quit. Barber gave in, offering Lo a position at Stone Barns. Also, he increased his pay from $8.25 an hour to $11.50, making him the highest paid cook in the kitchen.
Blue Hill in the City was in walking distance to Lo’s apartment. Stone Barns was, by car, over an hour away. When he got the position, he went down to Florida to pick up the car he’d left behind when he moved to the city.
Each morning, driving out to Stone Barns, Lo blasted Drake’s debut album.
“That music,” he said, “always put me in the right state of mind.”
Drake is a hip hop artist whose name is an acronym for Do Right and Kill Everything.
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