Continuing education for modern-day chefs is the stage (pronounced “staahzgh” or something like that; just make it sound Frenchy-cool), where one commits to observe and cook for free at someone else’s restaurant with the goal of broadening one’s culinary horizons.
In the industry, it’s a privilege, and most chefs aim to get on at famous spots such as The French Laundry, Le Bernardin, Alma De Cuba and others.
Anthony Lamas? He’s staging at a Louisville Waffle House.
And the chef-co-owner of Seviche is loving it, learning far more than he expected.
No, he’s not honing his short-order cooking skills in preparation for opening a breakfast joint. He’s competing in this weekend’s Waffle House Smackdown at the increasingly tweedy-trendy Charleston Food and Wine Festival of all places. Dude wants to win, to be the gorilla of the griddle in a breakfast battle against some top-notch chefs.
“I know, Waffle House, right?” Lamas says. “Half the time people go in there half-drunk late at night and they never watch those cooks. And let me tell you, they’re badasses. Total badasses.”
Unintentionally, that’s been a trade secret known mostly by restaurant chefs who recognize how hard breakfast is to cook, especially at the pace of business at a Waffle House. Anthony Bourdain detailed the deep skill set required for short-order cooking in his watershed book “Kitchen Confidential.” Even Jeremy Ashby, chef-partner at Azur and Brasabana restaurants in Lexington (also a guest chef at CF&WF this weekend), worked at a Waffle House on the side to ramp up his own skills.
“I did it for about two months because I wanted to learn how to cook only by hearing,” says Ashby. “I’m telling you, it’s wild and fast, but it taught me a lot. It gave me some serious kitchen chops.”
Here’s why breakfast is such a beast: Customers often are a little morning-grumpy and super hungry after an eight-hour “fast” in bed. They want their food fast and their way. Period.
Annie Pettry, executive chef at Decca (also a guest chef at this weekend’s CF&WF), says restaurant customers who have no problem eating straight off the menu at dinner get picky in the morning.
“Sometimes they’re ridiculously particular, even a little crazy,” says Pettry. She was invited to compete in the Smackdown but says “I think I answered ‘yes’ too slowly. I’m kind of glad I did. That’s going to be tough.”
The three-judge panel includes a Waffle House exec, Bon Appetit magazine restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton, and two-time Smackdown champion Mike Lata. Yeah, that Mike Lata, the James Beard award-winning chef-owner of FIG and The Ordinary restaurants in Charleston.
“You look at that and think, ‘He competed? Mike Lata. This is serious!’” Lamas says. “One of the chefs I’ll be competing against this year is Chris Shepherd (chef-owner of Underbelly in Houston). I mean, seriously, these guys want to be in this contest. I’m competitive, so I do, too, and I want to win.”
Which means he’s worked multiple shifts at Waffle House: donned the uniform and nametag and became a spatula jockey. Lamas says the team there includes veterans who’ve logged 15 years at the ranges.
“It’s the hardest type of cooking I’ve ever done, and they’re knocking it out on a little flattop and two burners all day long,” he says. “I have mad respect for them.”
Part of why it’s so hard at Waffle House is cooks don’t get to see the orders: They’re all given verbally. And while that’s common in many restaurant kitchens, there aren’t many kitchens where orders are so detailed. So cooks have to learn a combination of industry argot and visual cues to keep up.
As each dish is ordered, cooks respond by setting up plates in such a way that reminds them of not only each dish’s basics, but each guest’s particular preferences.
“They’ll order by saying things like ‘pull’ and ‘drop’ to tell you where to start and when to cook,” Lamas says. Certain dishes get qualifiers such as “scattered,” “smothered” or “chunked” to describe whether it gets onions, bacon or topped with chili, etc. Once the order is called, cooks place something — usually a garnish or a small bit of food on the plate — to indicate what will be cooked next and how.
“So they have a spotter, one person who calls the orders — like an expediter in our kitchen — and you have to follow that system,” Lamas says. “All these different terms mean ‘over easy,’ or ‘hard,’ or ‘scrambled with cheese,’ or ‘extra crispy hash browns.’ It goes on and on. And most people think they’re just a bunch of cooks, but as a chef you really respect this system.”
He’d better respect the system if he plans on winning the Smackdown.
“I start thinking, ‘Oh, I can add some of this to make it my way,’ but you learn that’s against the rules,” Lamas says. “This is a Waffle House contest, not a chef contest. The one Waffle House judge will enforce that.”
Most fun of all for Lamas is he’s learning new ways to cook, picking up tricks he’ll take back to Seviche and incorporate into its system.
“That’s one of the most fun things about this business: You’re always learning. Whether it’s from a dishwasher, a cook or a bartender, somebody’s always got a better way of doing it,” he says.
Lamas says one of his favorite moments in training was when a Waffle House cook admired how quickly he was learning the system and told him he was really doing well. She didn’t know he was a veteran chef, knew nothing of Seviche or Lamas’ growing fame.
“She asked how long I was going to stay there working,” Lamas says. “That was really sweet. But it also made me proud that I was catching on. Honestly, it’s tougher than I ever thought it would be.”