Kent Rathbun is one of the most renowned chefs in the country, earning rave reviews for his restaurants and teaming with brother Kevin to whip up on celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the “Iron Chef” TV show. So what happened to this neighborhood resident not too long ago in his home kitchen?
“I burnt an entire pan of barbecue chicken,” says Rathbun, the executive chef and owner of the five-star Abacus and the home-style Jasper’s. “I left it in the broiler too long and completely burned it.”
In other words, professional chefs are just like the rest of us in the privacy of their own kitchens. This might seem hard to believe, given their skill and that it should be easier to cook at home than in a restaurant kitchen. After all, it’s quiet at home; there aren’t any customers pricking the meat to see if it’s rare enough; and a waiter isn’t pacing up and down waiting for the next order.
But many of them don’t like to cook at home. In fact, several big-name chefs said they wouldn’t be of much use for this story, since they stay as far away from their home kitchen as humanly possible.
“We don’t cook at home often enough,” says Taco Borga, who owns the various La Duni restaurants with wife Dunia. “But we try to have a family brunch once a week.”
Still, the Borgas and many of their peers persevere. They do the same things we do — throw back the apples with brown spots in the produce section, brave grocery store checkout lines at 5:30 in the afternoon, and leave pots and pans scattered all over the kitchen.
And you know what else? Their home efforts aren’t always as successful as their professional ones.
Neighborhood resident Avner Samuel, a decades-long fixture in Dallas and currently the chef owner of haute cuisine Aurora, says he was pre-heating his oven one day. That’s when he discovered that his children had left a cardboard pizza box in the oven: “Very smoky,” he says with a sigh.
Or consider this, from Julia Lopez, the executive chef for the Borgas’ Alo, which serves Mexican and Peruvian food. Lopez was invited camping and wanted to make her specialty, shrimp soup.
“I love cooking outdoors, and I was so excited, prepping and enjoying the view, that time flew by,” she says. “When my friends came back from walking in the woods, I served the soup. They loved it.
‘What kind of soup is it?’ one asked. I told them. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘It’s shrimp soup,’ I said. They looked at me, and said, ‘Well, it tastes very good, but where is the shrimp?’ Then I realized that I got carried away and totally forgot to add the shrimp in the soup …”
Their experiences offer hope for the rest of us. If a big-time chef can make amateur-like mistakes such as leaving the shrimp out of shrimp soup, then it’s a lot less embarrassing when we do similar things — and it’s something we can learn from.
Feel guilty about all of the 49-cent packages of ramen noodles in the pantry? Don’t. Chefs use them, too. Embarrassed by the oddly shaped muffin or cookie tin that you received for Christmas? Don’t be. Chefs get them, too. Feel silly that you have an expensive piece of kitchen equipment that you had to have and never use? Don’t. Chefs do that, too.
“The best piece of advice for the home cook?” Rathbun says. “I would tell the home cook to give yourself plenty of time to prep, enjoy the preparation, and don’t put yourself in a stressful position.”
And try not to burn the chicken.
Kent Rathbun, Abacus and Jasper’s executive chef/owner
Most interesting place you worked before your restaurant: Bangkok, for sure. It was a new world of culinary experiences I’ve never seen or experienced in my life.
What you like least about being a chef: There’s very little free time for either myself or my family.
Where you eat when you don’t eat at your restaurant: Hole-in-the-wall places because, often, you get way better food.
Guilty pleasure restaurant: Taco Bell.
Most essential gadget or piece of equipment in your kitchen: A Japanese mandolin, in addition to a thick cutting board and sharp knife.
Most essential gadget or piece of equipment to splurge on: Definitely good knives. I splurged on Chroma Chef Knives by Porsche.
Silliest gadget or piece of equipment you’ve owned: A heavy rubber pot holder. By the time I get it on, I could have grabbed 10 different towels.
Most surprising thing in your pantry or refrigerator: Pre-minced garlic.
On deciding to be a chef: I grew up around a family of really good cooks and started cooking in a professional kitchen when I was 14. But it wasn’t until I was about 20 when people started to compliment me on my culinary creations and skills. That’s when I decided to take it seriously.
On cooking at home: I love to cook at home, but unfortunately, due to my schedule, I only cook at home about once a week, and it’s usually on the grill. When at home, I enjoy keeping things simple.
Taco and Dunia Borga, La Duni and Aló restaurants chef/owner and pastry chef/owner
Most interesting place you worked before your restaurant: Taco: Working as an actor with my parents, who were famous stars in and . Dunia: Opening the Baby Guess store on Madison Avenue in New York.
What you like most about being a chef: Taco: Being able to convey emotions through flavors and becoming part of our guests’ memories. Dunia: Watching people smile. It’s an honor and privilege to become part of their life celebrations.
What you like least about being a chef: Taco: The hours and the days I worked on the line when I was in desperate need of a shower afterward. Dunia: The long hours without my family. Even though my husband and I work together, we have to be on a vacation to really spend time together.
Where you eat when you don’t eat at your restaurant: Depends on the mood, but we like York Street.
Guilty pleasure restaurant: Taco: Sammy’s Bar-B-Q. Dunia: My son and I love to go to Houston’s. My guilty pleasure is chili cheese fries and a root beer float, but the best is midnight truffles. <I need to check with her on this – neither is listed on the menu.>
Best advice for the home cook: Taco: Patience. Get to know your equipment and ingredients, especially if you have a gas oven. Gas ovens are alive, and they don’t always behave the same. Never try new recipes for parties or gatherings. A new recipe can become very frustrating, and you do not need the extra stress. Dunia: Don’t ever try baking in a bad mood, because things just won’t come out. It will just get worse.
Most essential gadget or piece of equipment in your kitchen: Our espresso machine and the two dishwashers. We hate washing dishes.
Most essential gadget or piece of equipment to splurge on: More dishwashers. A great espresso machine, or even a Nespresso machine.
Silliest gadget or piece of equipment you’ve owned: Egg shell cutter. It never works.
Biggest home cooking disaster: Taco: Never assume that someone else is doing something. Always check — never assume. We had a family gathering planned, and my wife and I assumed that the other was getting the meat and the tank of gas. At the time of cooking, no gas and no meat. We ended up ordering pizza. But the day was saved with my wife’s dessert. Dunia: My worst was baking a chocolate cake in a hurry and not checking after myself. I forgot to add the sugar — of all ingredients. It was still on the counter, all measured out. The cake was horrible. It tasted like soap.
Most surprising thing in your pantry or refrigerator: 15 different flavors of jams and marmalades, five types of black pepper, 10 types of salt, four types of butter.
On deciding to be a chef: Taco: I always enjoyed restaurants, but did not want to become a chef. I still do not consider myself a chef — just a person who likes to cook. My father also had restaurants. One day on New Year’s Eve, he fired the entire kitchen staff, so he and I got behind the line and I started cooking. Dunia: I wanted to be a child psychologist. My husband convinced me to take a baking class, and I loved it. I’m really a mom who loves to bake.
Avner Samuel, Aurora chef/owner
Most interesting place you worked before your restaurant: Paris, where I was classically trained in French cooking schools. Learning in the two- and three-star Michelin restaurants had always been a dream. I created Aurora to emulate those restaurants.
Where do you eat when you don’t eat at your restaurant: My family and I almost always eat at ethnic restaurants — Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Mexican — because of the flavors and because they are so different than Aurora.
Guilty pleasure restaurant: Dim sum or Bubba’s fried chicken.
Best advice for the home cook: Keep it simple and have a sharp knife.
Most essential gadget or piece of equipment in your kitchen: My truffle slicer for black French summer truffles and white Italian winter truffles.
Most essential gadget or piece of equipment to splurge on: Kitchen Aid mixer with all of the attachments.
Silliest gadget or piece of equipment you’ve owned: It may seem simple to others, but my egg topper. It’s a small gadget that pops the top off an egg shell. I use it for Aurora’s signature Amuse Bouche.
Most surprising thing in your pantry or refrigerator: My home refrigerator usually has almost no food.
On cooking at home: I only cook at home maybe once every other month on Sunday (my only day off), when we have guests over to the house. I make comfort food, like oven-roasted rack of lamb with potatoes.
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