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LA Chef Curtis Stone's time away from the stove - Part 3 of 3

Dessert - lemon curd
Dessert - lemon curd
Image courtesy of SHGfoto

Third part of 3 parts, please start here with Part 1
"When I stepped away from the stove, my understanding of food became far greater," Marco Pierre White.

LA Chef Curtis Stone of Maude Restaurant
Image courtesy of SHGfoto

According to Maude's chef, Curtis Stone, chefs draw inspiration from a variety of places. For Stone, the first place he gets inspiration from is the garden. He's a keen gardener. He's always gardening and those ingredients usually spark most of his ideas. Stone believes another place a chef gets inspiration is from other chefs, from their books and restaurants, plus somewhat uniquely for Curtis Stone, he draws inspiration from standing in the “Top Chef Masters'” kitchen, the show he hosts. Here he has watched these other "top chef masters" cook, and has drawn a lot of inspiration observing them.

Since Stone left Marco Pierre White's kitchen, and achieved success outside the kitchen on TV and through other media, the one luxury he had that other chefs don't have is time, simply because he hasn't been in a kitchen every night doing service every night. Stone noted, "When you're doing service, after working five nights a week, on Sunday you're so exhausted that the last thing you want to do is go out for dinner, so that only gives you one day a week you can actually go out a week to eat and think about food." Whereas instead for Curtis, over the last six or seven years he has had time to do “Top Chef Masters” and watch what other chefs are doing. He also has had a lot of time to think about what different dishes, ingredients and components and how these different items can be used in the kitchen.

In his current kitchen his team members don't really have a second to stop and think. They get in at 8:30 in the morning, prep until 5 PM then clean down to get ready for service, which takes them through to midnight, when they clean down their stations and then drive home a little brain dead, Stone stated " that's just the reality of it." So the creative process can be a challenge with such a huge time commitment and focus especially for Maude's concept where they change the menu each month. What they're doing is going to be difficult, but that's why Curtis did it, he loves this challenge.

With the luxury of having time, Curtis has also eaten in a number of restaurants all over the world. Thus he has seen some amazing food, which he's had time to think about rather than having to be in a kitchen every night making broccoli puree. So, when Stone stepped away from the stove, his exposure and knowledge of food became far greater. As Curtis noted, "Once you're actually a diner, as opposed to being a chef, you get that other perspective and I think that is really helpful because sometimes chefs will cook dishes to try to show off their skills as a chef and sometimes they cook dishes to try to really impress their diners."

Additionally what Curtis has been doing foodwise on the more familiar television and media side of his career had been quite different. He still cooked; he's cooked every day of his life since he was sixteen, but in a restaurant like Maude, cooking is about the art of perfection because all your raviolis, for example, have to be perfect. These raviolis all have to look and taste the same plus be cook the same amount of time. Since they're doing fifty a day of this course they're obviously going to get good at making raviolis, including the pasta dough every single morning. On the television and media side, where Curtis has been developing recipes for magazines, books, TV shows and whatever else, he can never do the same thing twice otherwise it's redundant. So, according to Curtis, instead of doing the same thing again and again, in the media world he constantly has to move, be new, and different. In the media world there's less refinement, but there is much more creativity.

In contrast, Curtis pointed out what Marco Pierre White did instead when he became the youngest British chef to obtain three Michelin stars. Curtis reflected,

"Marco started like that and just got better, better and better, but it became quite narrow in terms of what we did as a business. In terms of our restaurants we kept doing the same things again which is why he won three Michelin stars. Let's face it. You don't get three Michelin star by changing your mind every five minutes trying something different. Consistency is what the Michelin guide looks for and what a lot of diners look for as well through refinement, refinement and refinement. He really drilled that into me. He also said to me it is much more exciting to work in a two star than a three star. You've chosen a three star because it is the best, but it's not always exciting as a two star, because in two stars they don't have to have that crazy consistency and absolute perfection."

Marco Pierre White has also complained about how television, with its celebrity chefs, has adversely affected many who enter the industry. White has stated that he feels new apprentices "come into kitchens with the wrong attitudes, they want to be stars, they want to be celebrities." What Marco has advised these young people who come into the industry is to "keep your head down, learn your job, obtain your knowledge, and build a foundation. Then in five years, six years’ time then decide what you want to do." This advice is pretty much what Curtis Stone did spending eight years building his culinary foundation in Marco's kitchens before pursuing other less traditional opportunities that present themselves.

Curtis recounting this past stated,

"I think with all the media attention around the chef world a lot of things have changed, that's for sure. I think back to when I was an apprentice coming through the ranks it was before the Jamie Olivers. Before the TV shows even started. I'm not sure when the Food Network started here, but certainly in Europe and Australia there was no such thing as a celebrity chef. There was a huge shortage of young people who wanted to join this industry because it's really hard work. There's no two ways about it. We work 16 hours a day. We don't blink at working these hours. But when you look at another industry's like what, you work until midnight, but you start at 8:30 in the morning? And that's what it takes to be at this level in a kitchen, and it's not easy. So, I think what has happened is that the industry has gotten more limelight which has done exactly what Marco said, it has brought people into the industry for the wrong reason because they want to be the next Top Chef contestant. There are only a handful of those. There's hundreds of thousands of new apprentices each year so they can't all be on these shows. Regardless, there are more people coming in which is the good news, because a lot of those people come in and they fall in love with the craft and they fall in love with what we're doing, which is really special and really important."

Curtis continued,

"It’s important to keep new people coming into our industry because if you don't you end up with a real de-skilling of the industry. That's happened already and it is continuing to happen. I remember when I first started it was normal for restaurants to be buying whole fish and filleting them. It was normal to buy whole primals and break them down and make sausage out of this part and using this piece to do something different. Nowadays, everything just gets brought in portion control. Fish comes in filleted, Meat comes in sliced and it’s literally open a bag and start cooking. That's a real shame because if the young guys coming into the industry don't learn that, how on earth will they ever teach it to someone? They can't because they don't have the skill. It is important that we do buy meat in bigger pieces."

In regards to Marco's point of putting one’s head down and working hard, Curtis felt that a personal brand and possible celebrity should take care of itself if a person does a good job. Curtis recalled that when he was twenty five years old and included in a book of London's finest chefs, opportunities then came his way, and he chose to take some of those opportunities. But Stone emphasized that these opportunities didn't happen because he chased being a celebrity chef. He didn't get included in that book on London's finest chefs because he went for an audition for a show like “Top Chef.” Instead the book's authors came and reviewed the restaurant where Curtis was head chef. They also reviewed a bunch of different restaurants and fortunately included Curtis in their book. So, for Curtis Stone, his personal brand sort of evolved after that and included television, endorsements and books.

However, as Curtis has also noted, he's done things a bit backwards in that he has achieved success in the entertainment world on television and then decided to come back and open a tiny little restaurant rather than the other way around like most celebrity chefs. Maude, his new restaurant, isn't about building a brand because this restaurant only seats a handful of people each night. So instead of being so brand-oriented and pursuing the next big NBC TV show, Curtis has stepped back some from that lime ight to pursue his passion for cooking and enjoy the camaraderie of his team.

Though Curtis also noted,

"Who knows what is around the corner. I think in life whether it's business, kitchen or in general, stuff comes up. This stuff can be an obstacle. This stuff may be an opportunity. You have to decide on which one they are. I think at the end of the day, you just have to be true to yourself. If being true to yourself means you really want to be on television and that's where you want to go, then you probably shouldn't go work in a restaurant. Instead you can go work for a food stylist, you can go work for a TV network that does cooking segments because if your goal is to be on television that's the route you should take. If your goal is to own your own restaurant and do what I'm doing here, then this is the right route to take."

Though hearkening back to the words of his mentor, Chef Marco Pierre White, Chef Curtis Stone concluded, "Learn the basics first and then decide what direction you want to go."

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