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Top chefs on the importance of happy, skilled staff

Hear Daniel Boulud and Jonathan Waxman from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., gathers chefs and restaurateurs from across the country to meet foodservice leaders, exchange ideas, eat and drink.

A reception on the opening night, Thursday, for restaurateurs at the Jerome hotel featured wine tastings and cheese-and-beer pairings. That was officially followed by a barbecue hosted by Washington, D.C., chef José Andrés, with beverages supplied by Wines from Spain.

View seminars in their entirety at

More Aspen Food & Wine Classic coverage from NRN:

On Friday morning, as consumers attending the show went to wine tasting and cooking demonstrations, many restaurateurs attended the 22nd annual American Express Restaurant Trade Program.

SLIDE SHOW: Aspen Food Wine Classic 2011

In the first seminar, chef-restaurateurs Daniel Boulud, Judy Rogers, Frank Stitt and Jonathan Waxman shared what they saw as keys to the longevity of their careers.

“A lot of hard work,” said Rogers, who has been the chef-owner of Café Zuni in San Francisco for 24 years. She and the other panelists also underscored the importance of having the staff “pick up some of your DNA,” as Waxman put it.

Noting that Americans are not naturally inclined to be servants, Waxman, a native of the San Francisco Bay area who currently is chef-owner of Barbuto in New York, said that servers have to pass on the enthusiasm that the chef has for the food. To get them to do that, you have to treat them like family, he said.

Stitt, chef-owner of Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham, Ala., said he wants to “provide a place that’s going to be a refuge for someone for a couple of hours,” and to do that he needs to create an environment where his staff respects each other and where his cooks understand how great a meal can be.

“I had this one big guy from North Birmingham, and when I gave him a taste of Venetian style veal liver, he started to cry because it was so good,” he said.

Rogers said that once she knows that one of her cooks is a “keeper,” usually after about three weeks, she schedules time to spend “a really relevant chunk of a shift to be there working hands-on with them, teaching them how to taste.” She said that demystifies both her as a famous chef and the cooking process, and makes the cooks feel more at home.

Moderator Steve Dolinsky asked the chefs about appearing on television, and although Stitt said the phenomenon of celebrity chefs gave some cooks unrealistic expectations, they agreed that being on TV was good for business.

Waxman said he saw a one-third jump in sales after he appeared on Top Chef Masters.

“It’s a little bizarre for chefs to get in this limelight, [but] I’ll take it,” he said.

Boulud added that, in a cooking show like Top Chef Masters, “you get to cook things from start to finish,” something he rarely gets to do anymore.

Contact Bret Thorn: [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary
Follow tweets from Aspen at #fwclassic

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