Why Do You Cook? Chef David Schuttenberg Answers

David Schuttenberg

David Schuttenberg › David has honed his skills in some of New York City’s most celebrated restaurants, namely ...

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The story may be long, but hang in there, I eventually reveal an answer.

Fresh out of college in 1992, an initial job in my life-long dream field (radio DJ) had me despising corporate radio in just a few months.

I had to look for some other way to earn a living.

For ten years I toiled in a field (information technology) that pretty much found me, rather than I being turned on by it. I was on the ropes. I couldn’t see myself spending another day wearing shitty discount store ties, with two pagers strapped to my belt, and having to check my usual obnoxiousness at the client’s door.

One night at loose ends, nursing a whiskey, it hit me. It was so obvious. It was the one thing I actually enjoyed doing that would, at the very least, provide some sort of a paycheck. Surprisingly, playing 80s punk records at filthy LES mainstay Motor City and swilling bourbon by the pint wasn’t going to pay the rent.

But, I had cracked it! I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to cook!

Like many aspiring cooks at the time, I was enthralled by the now well-known Anthony Bourdain narrative of the punk rock pirate–hopped up on goofballs, hammering it out 16 hours a day, drinking, smoking, snorting, and fighting.

Entering a 3-star kitchen for my first job at 34 years old, I had some questions as to just how punk-rock-pirate I could be.

I will never know it all, and that’s why I cook.

After every shift during my first line cook job at Craft, I was so sure I would be shit-canned that every night, I emptied my locker. I took all my gear home with me nightly–spoons, meat fork, rubber spat, fish spat, knives, sharpening stone, clogs–the works. Fully expecting that after yet another pathetic showing on the line, I would be summarily dismissed. I was sure of it.

My back locked up every time I reached for my low boy (a refrigerator housed under the prep counter). My feet were swollen every morning. I would hobble to the shower, begging the warm water to provide me with some relief.

But, I learned more in the first week on that job than I did the whole time I spent at culinary school. What I took from that job was the understanding of the importance of ingredients, and the even greater importance of respecting it by letting it do its thing.

Use good technique, cook it properly, and it will do the rest. Simplicity. Chef Colicchio used to say “Simple ain’t simple.” I still recall that line often, like when I make a chorizo taco for lunch.

Other than simply ‘the learning curve of being a new cook’, there was some early drama. The empathetic side of me felt incredibly guilty about how my professional life was now completely superceding my personal one. My wife was becoming a stranger and my friendships didn’t exist until after 2 A.M. However, the selfish side of me LOVED the lifestyle.

Being the ten-dollars-per-hour-80-hours-in-the-kitchen-but-only-50-on-the-clock-rapidly-approaching-middle-age-beaten-down-line-cook played right into my ‘root for the underdog’ sensibilities. And while I couldn’t hang with these men and women on the line from a physical or raw talent standpoint, I could more than hang cerebrally and they had a few things to learn from me when we attacked the bar every night after our shift.

As I contemplate those reasons, I’m realizing they don’t align with any of the reasons I’m still cooking today.

In 2004 I was green, new to the industry, not without my own opinions and ideas, however misinformed, but I lacked the requisite experience to adequately argue my positions. Before I knew it, the reasons for being in the business seemed to be more about the lifestyle and not the actual profession. I loved the fact that I was cooking, but who really, in their right mind, wants to work in a 10-square-foot hot apps (appetizer) station, with 13 different pick ups, one of which required half of the station just for the mise en place, for 14 hours a day? The cooking had becomes a means to justify the lifestyle.

I survived in that hellishly sweaty corner of the hot line for nearly 5 months. I tried to leave that job–my chef and mentor wouldn’t let me. Instead of letting me walk, he promoted me.

That’s one of the first great lessons I learned on this journey. The experience taught me that it’s as important to have a team around you that you are comfortable with as it is to be surrounded by hot shots. In my case, it trumped actual real-life experience, and even ability.

I’d only been a line cook for 18 months, had never even made it through all the traditional French brigade kitchen stations, and I was to become a sous chef. Second in command. Management. Why in God’s name was I being given this opportunity? I pondered the other line cooks I worked next to. They were all better than me. Every one of them.

A lot of what we do as cooks can be taught. It’s not some innate ability that separates one cook from another. Certainly the creative forces at play in this business can be difficult to teach. And it’s true that a bad palate is a bad palate–but even that can be fostered and grown to some degree.

The point is, ‘team’ trumps talent, at least in the raw sense of the word. At some point, you better catch up from a talent perspective or the team moves on without you–and what you bring to the table becomes less and less important. You find yourself on the outside looking in.

So part of the answer to ‘Why I cook’ is: I cook, because I am able to surround myself with good people. I derive great joy being around people who know more than me.

And often times, I try to have those people be better than me–at least in some part of our skill sets. Being the best at everything seems like a bore to me.

The constant learning, the endless and ever-changing techniques, is another part of the picture of why I cook.

The best cooks share. They tell. They teach. Who wouldn’t want to be around that energy, that joie de vivre, that creativity?

I discovered at my first sous chef job a certain joy in the craft of production cooking. What skills I lacked on the hot line for the nightly shit-show (that was dinner service), I more than made up for in my ability to do the heavy lifting during the day.

It certainly helped return my personal life to some sense of normalcy, and it was then that I realized I was now cooking for the joy of it. I finally realized that I got as much pleasure from watching people eat my food as I did from eating it myself.

When I speak of music, I often say that its OK to be derivative, as long as the source material is good.

I am a derivative cook. I’m not wildly creative, the kind of cook who writes recipes, or invents new dishes in his dreams. I enjoy cooking simple, comforting, peasant-like food. I enjoy poring over old cookbooks, understanding the history of a classic dish and then trying to execute it at a higher level than most. Tweaking here and there, respecting, but not being bound to or limited by tradition.

When I opened Cabrito, a small Mexican restaurant in the West Village, my kitchen team was visited by arguably the world’s most renowned Mexican cookbook author. A hero of mine, I was simultaneously excited and petrified. I was overwhelmed by the opportunity of picking the brain of someone who knew so much more than me about a cuisine that I was so very passionate about–even before I ever knew I wanted to cook. She tried some of my food and exclaimed; “I’m sure this will all be good, but it is NOT Mexican food!” I didn’t ask her a single question. I decided that to be bound by rules that stiff was a bad idea.

I view cooking as a craft not an art, and I’m proud to be a craftsman. I love that cooking is an all-senses-on-deck job. Listen. Keep your ears open and there’s a wealth of knowledge to be found around you.

When I was in garde manger, I used to listen to my sous chef cinch foie gras torchons next to me while I was 10 tickets and 113 oysters deep on a Saturday night. I never got to touch the thing, but I was able to start to grasp the process, just by paying attention.

Ears are, more often than not, just as important as eyes and noses and taste buds when cooking. I can hear when one of my cooks drops a piece of hamachi in a too-cool pan. I can hear when a sauce is finished reducing. The bubbling slows from the sound of my daughter madly blowing air into her milk through a straw, to that of a slow-moving, gurgling brook. When you’ve got seven other tasks working, you better not let your ears fail you, or your nose will soon smell the result. Your ears will come back into play as your porter curses you, but hey, at least you’re learning a new language right?

But certainly, my nose is important, too. I stop in the hallway of my building, trying to decipher the ingredients in the unfamiliar supper I smell wafting under the door of apartment No. 1. I sniff the butt of the cantaloupe to see if it’s ready to eat. I swirl the wine and hope that the assy, barnyardy scent I’ve come to love in a good bottle is present.

I am respectful of, but concern myself less with, the science that happens around me in a kitchen and choose to focus more on flavor. I eschew plating and presentation to a fault, sometimes hoping that flavor alone will get the job done. But it’s those realizations, the ones that make me fully aware I’ve still got a long way to go, that keeps me rolling my sore back out of bed every morning and thinking of what new sausage, pate, or whatever I can make that day. I will never know it all, and that’s why I cook.

Honestly, I feel lucky that I’m still allowed to cook–and that’s an important distinction. I don’t have to. I don’t simply want to. I GET to. Many cooks move up, finally learning enough and gaining enough experience to be good, and then head off to the office, mired in scheduling, costing, inventories, and P & Ls.

I do not, for a second, take for granted the fact that my hands are still, more or less, in every product created in my kitchen. Not just in the concept or the recipe, but in the actual preparation. I have an amazing team around me. We all work very well together, acknowledging each other’s weaknesses and respecting each other’s strengths. Team personified.

I cook all day. I come home, and I cook some more (OK, sometimes good ole General Tso shows up for dinner). I derive just as much joy from the creation of a pleasing shit-from-the-fridge dinner as I do bringing home a deeply funky, fat-addled 45 day dry-aged rib eye, then charring the hell out of it and serving it with roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and warmed farro.

The wonderful thing about cooking is, even after your worst day; the one where everything you touched turned to shit, you get to come back and be better the next day. That’s why I cook. The profession is both unforgiving, and yet is forgetful. I love walking into a cold, gleaming kitchen first thing in the morning, firing up the stoves, feeling the temperature rise, knowing that I get one more chance to be better than I was the day before.

David is the Chef at Dickson’s Farmstead Meats in Chelsea. After he cooks all day there, he goes home and cooks for his wife Tina, and their daughter Jessie Ruth. Do you cook all day, then cook all night?

Photo Credit: Slow Films