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A few weeks ago, Theo Friedman, a junior studying in American Studies and Entrepreneurial Leadership hosted eight guests at his house for an eight-course, fine-dining experience. As the courses emerged from the kitchen, we struggled to restrain ourselves from devouring each gorgeous plate while Theo elegantly described them to us. To give you one example from the menu: Sous Vide Salmon with Watercress Puree, Horseradish Whipped Cream, Lemon Foam, Pickled Pearl Onions, and Crunchy Salmon Skin. All eight courses followed in similar extravagance. Theo’s culinary skills have not gone unnoticed: he managed to snag a job this summer in the kitchen at Wd~50, a Michelin-rated restaurant in New York City.. We followed him around for the whole weekend to get the inside scoop on his thoughts and experiences about the food industry.
Observer: Why did you start doing these dinners?
Theo Friedman: The main reason is for me to continue my cooking. It’s a passion of mine, something that I love doing, but I don’t get much of a chance to do it when I’m at school. It’s also a way to test out ideas that I’ve been working on, recipes and flavor combinations that come into my head in the middle of class. It’s also just a way to bring people together, to bring my friends together and spend time together eating food, which is one of my favorite things to do. I like to bring people together, to entertain, and to nourish—to create a space not only for people to eat, but to interact as well.
O: Was food a large part of your childhood?
TF: From what I can remember, everything I’ve done has been focused on food. I’ve always been a super adventurous eater; there’s nothing that I don’t love to eat. My dad and I relate to each other through food. We would always be the ones picking apart the carcass of a chicken while my mom and brother looked away because they thought it was gross. It also became an artistic outlet; I actually thought I was going to be a photographer, but I found this new way of incorporating art in my life.
O: What is the most satisfying part of the cooking process?
TF: I love the transformation of ingredients into something finished. I guess I could say the grocery shopping, because it is where the ideas on the paper start turning into a reality and I can start to see what the final product will look like. I smell, touch, and taste things, and that is the true source of inspiration. That’s what gets me excited.
O: You made two desserts at the dinner; have you ever considered become a baker or a pastry chef?
TF: The flavor combinations I am drawn towards would fall under [those categories] However…I don’t like to see the categories of savory courses and sweet courses. I also like to blend the lines a little bit and serve things that you would usually find in a savory course in a dessert, and vice versa. I don’t categorize things; I see flavors just as flavors, regardless of what category they fall under.
O: What are your career goals? Will you become a chef?
TF: There’s nothing definite in my mind right now. I will do something with food, I know that. I would say that right now I am on the road to becoming a chef, but I am a guy who likes adventure and spontaneity. If an opportunity presents itself that seems really attractive to me, then that’s probably what I’ll do. This is all that I am passionate about, all that I love doing. It’s what makes me happy; if I’m going to do something every day, why not do something that makes me happy?
O: How does your education play into your future career in the food industry? Will you go to culinary school?
TF: Everyone asks me, “If you’re so interested in food and being a chef, why didn’t you go to culinary school?” I wanted—and still want—a liberal arts education, regardless of what I do. I think it is very important to learn how to think, learn how to learn, and get a pretty broad spectrum on things before you focus on one thing for your career. I think that some of the best chefs take on the philosophy of a liberal arts education, in that they incorporate not just food in cooking, but a lot of other ways of thinking, philosophies, and views about food It makes me a little nervous because I do feel like there are some foundations and fundamentals that I will miss by not going to a culinary school, but I think that a sense of inadequacy is healthy at all times, I don’t think you should ever feel fully adequate.
O: Are there certain chefs whose work you follow closely?
TF: Hands down, Grant Achatz. Words cannot describe my feelings for him. Obsessed. My Idol. All that. He’s so cool. He changed the dining scene in America. What is just so admirable is his mentality of constant innovation. Constant, constant innovation. That’s what he’s really known for. I’ve read his biography three times, I just want to find out as much information about this guy because he is truly a genius beyond cooking. His goal is to evoke the emotions of his diners, and to create an emotional dining experience, and make it something more than just food.
O: What’s it like to work in a real kitchen?
TF: There are some things people don’t realize about working in kitchens. You don’t sleep. You work around 15 hours a day. Most of the time, you don’t eat You are on your feet the entire time, [the work is] extremely high energy, fast-paced. You need to move as fast as you possible can. Faster than you think you can. It’s hot. It’s 120 degrees, away from the stoves, as soon as you step to the stove, you feel your face start to contract and your eyes start stinging. A lot of cooking consists ofboring, repetitive tasks. Some days this summer I cleaned mushrooms for five hours; I picked edamame beans for 5 hours. It’s stuff that no one really thinks about.
I got to the restaurant around 10-10:30. Right off the bat you have your prep list from the night before, you know exactly what you need to do—you get going. If you’re a good cook, you’ve prioritized and strategized. You start memorizing other people’s work habits so that you can maximize your efficiency. You have to have everything in its place, it’s pretty straightforward, you prep up to six o’clock. If you got all your prep down, service should be smooth for the most part. You can take a breath, definitely not relax, but breathe a little easier. Service would be from six until depending on when the last table came in, anywhere from 11 to 12:30. Then you break down your station and put everything away. And then you clean, for hours. That’s another big thing that people don’t realize. Cleanliness and organization are probably the two most important things about being a cook, and being able to write a prep list. A monkey can put a pan on a stove and put a piece of fish on the pan, wait three minutes, and then flip it. That’s the easy part. It’s more about organization, strategy, that’s what leads to being a successful cook. So I would usually be out of there by three. It’s a really hard life. Your life is literally at the restaurant. Most of restaurants have one day off, but no one else has those days off in the real world. Your friends are on different schedules, you don’t interact with people other than the people at the restaurant. It’s hard to lead a social life and to live outside of the restaurant. The reality is that you do make an incredible sacrifice of your social life.
O: What is fine dining culture to you?
TF: No one has to go out to eat. It’s the whole experience. I think that food not only nourishes you, but it really brings up emotions and memories, and creates new emotions and memories. It tells stories and it is a way to present ideas.