What makes a great chef? Celebrity chef Michel Richard and Michael Williams, the executive chef at his Atlantic City restaurant, Central, agree in one word: Passion.
“You just have to love it. You should be entranced with food,” Richard told a group of culinary students Thursday afternoon. “If you love it, you’ll never get sick (of cooking), it will be easier. When you finish making the dish you should want to rush the plate to the guest and say ‘Here, this is love from me.’”
“It has to be a passion. A chef has to have heart,” Williams said. “I can train anyone who wants to learn and has a passion for it.”
Richard and Williams were at the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing Thursday to give a cooking demonstration to students at Williams’ alma mater and answer questions about running a real-life commercial kitchen. Richard also was promoting his cookbooks, with proceeds from the day benefiting the school, Williams said.
“Just the opportunity to be in the same room with you was enough to get everyone here excited enough to fill the room,” said Kelly McKlay, dean of ACA, while introducing the chefs.
Indeed, student Pauline Donohue, of Pine Hill, was so excited about the workshop she spent the preceding night learning to say “I love what you do” in French to Richard, who hails from Champagne, France. For her trouble, Donohue got a signed copy of Richard’s cookbook, “Happy in the Kitchen,” adorned with a fast sketch of a chef’s hat on the flyleaf as Richard reminisced about how he always dreamed of “being like van Gogh.”
By Richard’s standards, Donohue has what it takes to be truly great in the kitchen. She works at Home Depot by day and said she plans “to build an empire, like him. It’s not just being a cook. Some chefs, you can tell, they speak with passion.”
She passed another test of fine French cooking — she had clean hands.
“When I hire a new chef, I look at their hands,” Richard said in answer to Shanay Baker’s networking question. “If their fingers are clean and neat, they’ll respect the food and take care of the hygiene of the food, too.”
“You are welcome in my kitchen,” he told Timshal Snable, of the Dorothy section of Hamilton Township, after inspecting her clean, short nails.
When another student asked about the most difficult aspect of running a restaurant, Richard said it’s the money. That led to tips on food costs — a 30-percent markup seemed reasonable to the students who had studied that subject — and efficiency in the kitchen.
Any chef can tell you consistency is the key ingredient to running a great restaurant. At Central, the emphasis on simple, consistent dish presentation leads to some interesting customs.
“We couldn’t find the perfect size of tomato (to fit the 8-ounce lobster burger demonstrated Thursday), so we make tomatoes,” Williams said, explaining how tomatoes are pureed, seasoned and then piped into a casing the exact width of the encased lobster burgers and potato tuille — for a satisfying crunchy texture — they complement. Even the lettuce is cut down to fit the perfectly round burger, available at Central.
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