If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that the moment I became a chef was when I put on my crispy white chef’s jacket with my name coupled with “executive chef” at a now-defunct Cleveland restaurant. Looking back, not only was I in fact not a chef, but I really had no idea what I was doing. My chef’s jacket today is blank. The jacket — or even the title — does not define me. An inscribed jacket can make you too comfortable. And comfort is a chef’s worst enemy.
Technically, I am a chef. And part-owner of a restaurant. I’m very proud of both, but my path here wasn’t a typical one. I didn’t go to culinary school and I made a lot of mistakes. I tend not to get too caught up in titles. Of course, my passion is cooking. But if someone is sick and I have to do the dishes or work the line, great, I’m in. It’s not a singular position, in my opinion.
When I was in high school, I was responsible for watching my younger brothers. This included making sure they ate. I had no idea what I was doing, but I’d throw some stuff together that loosely resembled pancakes or meatloaf. I’m sure it wasn’t very good, but we had fun. And a spark was born.
That spark led me to a Home Economics class in high school, during which most of my classmates goofed off or even cut class. Me and this other guy, who happens to be a fellow chef in Cleveland now, too, ended up winning this cupcake contest — white chocolate macadamia nut. And suddenly, I had the confidence that maybe I could do this. For whatever reason, I could look at a recipe and it just clicked. And this meant something because nothing else in my life was clicking. And this meant something because nothing else in my life was clicking.
Around that same time, I was reading Kitchen Confidential on the bus heading home and happened to look up to see a bunch of chefs standing outside in their jackets, talking and smoking. It was this perfect trifecta of events and I was sold. I wanted this life — or rather, the life I perceived those chefs to have.
I walked in to that same place I saw from the bus, Chefs for Hire Catering, and asked for a job. I was now a dishwasher. On day one, I walked up to the three-compartment sink and saw all the dishes and warming trays from the previous night’s party stacked to the ceiling, untouched and hardened with leftover food. I did every one by hand.
Eventually I was able to do a work release program my senior year. I’d go to school until noon then head to work and do dishes for three hours. The owners became like a second family to me and really took me in. After four years, I worked up the ranks and eventually left as a sous chef. I was 18.
I took a job at the Willowick Cabin, where everyone was old and had a lot of vices. I was young, naïve, and determined to make friends with the head chef who wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence. To my surprise, this job led to me another restaurant where they actually made me the head chef, a role I had been dreaming of. Except I hated it. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know, and realized I had to refine my abilities and go to culinary school.
Turns out, my family didn’t put away any money for college, so I was on my own. Luckily, I was really into hip-hop music at the time and didn’t realize how that would actually fund my education. One of the drivers at the restaurant recognized it and offered to buy all my turntables for $2,000. Every last dollar was spent on cookbooks. I’d throw dinner parties for friends and treat them like my guinea pigs.
I used my new education to get a job in the best restaurant in town working 80-plus hours a week. My only goal was to shut up and learn. After my shift — and a few rounds — I’d head home to recreate this dishes I made that night.
This experience allowed me to follow different chefs that were mentors to me around the country, and experience various aspects of running a kitchen first-hand. But Cleveland was my home and I wanted to come back. I made my way to Flour where I met chef Paul Minnillo, a very well-respected, old school chef. We had instant chemistry. He taught me to take a step back and really focus on the details. He’s made me a better man and a much better chef.
I have no regrets about not going to culinary school and think my training and type of education can stack up to any. I learned long ago that school in the traditional sense does not make someone a chef. Discipline, passion, integrity, camaraderie and literally doing whatever it takes, no matter how long you’ve been sporting the coat… That is what makes a chef a chef.
A recipe is the most fundamental configuration element within the organization. A recipe:
- Is authored using Ruby, which is a programming language designed to read and behave in a predictable manner
- Is mostly a collection of resources, defined using patterns (resource names, attribute-value pairs, and actions) helper code is added around this using Ruby, when needed
- Must define everything that is required to configure part of a system
- Must be stored in a cookbook
- May be included in another recipe
- May use the results of a search query and read the contents of a data bag (including an encrypted data bag)
- May have a dependency on one (or more) recipes
- Must be added to a run-list before it can be used by Chef Infra Client
- Is always executed in the same order as listed in a run-list
Before we can move to a more hands-on view of Chef, it is important that we get acquainted with important terminology and concepts introduced by this tool.
- Chef Server: a central server that stores information and manages provisioning of the nodes
- Chef Node: an individual server that is managed by a Chef Server
- Chef Workstation: a controller machine where the provisionings are created and uploaded to the Chef Server
- Recipe: a file that contains a set of instructions (resources) to be executed. A recipe must be contained inside a Cookbook
- Resource: a portion of code that declares an element of the system and what action should be executed. For instance, to install a package we declare a package resource with the action install
- Cookbook: a collection of recipes and other related files organized in a pre-defined way to facilitate sharing and reusing parts of a provisioning
- Attributes: details about a specific node. Attributes can be automatic (see next definition) and can also be defined inside recipes
- Automatic Attributes: global variables containing information about the system, like network interfaces and operating system (known as facts in other tools). These automatic attributes are collected by a tool called Ohai
- Services: used to trigger service status changes, like restarting or stopping a service
Chef recipes are written using Ruby. A recipe is basically a collection of resource definitions that will create a step-by-step set of instructions to be executed by the nodes. These resource definitions can be mixed with Ruby code for more flexibility and modularity.
Below you can find a simple example of a recipe that will run apt-get update and install vim afterwards:
How To Make Scarlett’s Pasta (Aglio E Olio)
Aglio e Olio is a classic Italian dish of garlic (aglio) and oil (olio). It's an easy recipe that shouldn’t take more than half an hour to make. Chef Casper makes this simple dish for Scarlett Johannson's character, Molly, while exchanging flirtatious glances between chopping copious amounts of garlic and parsley - the primary flavors in this take on Aglio e Olio.
- 1 lb dried spaghetti
- 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 12 large garlic cloves, thin slivers
- 1 tbl crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 cup fresh parsley, minced
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
- sea salt
- ground black pepper
- 2 lemons
Boil the pasta in salted water and reserve some of the pasta water before draining the spaghetti – about a cup of pasta water should be enough. The cooking liquid from pasta water contains starches that thicken and emulsify pasta sauces as well as adding seasoning and helping the sauce to coat the pasta more evenly.
Heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat then add the garlic. Be sure to stir the garlic as it cooks or it will cook unevenly and begin to burn. Once the garlic is golden brown, add the pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, then add the cooked spaghetti and toss until the pasta is fully coated. Add a few tablespoons of pasta water at a time, as needed until the sauce achieves the desired consistency. Turn off the heat before adding the parsley and parmesan, continuing to toss until well-mixed. Taste for salt and adjust accordingly. Garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice and more parmesan before serving.
What makes a pastry chef indispensable?
Osteria Morini DC’s executive pastry chef Alex Levin: “Do I want to be a chef who’s constantly yelling, ‘faster, FASTER’? No, I don’t.” (T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)
I t is late on a summer evening, and four friends have eaten themselves into a comfortable stupor at Osteria Morini, the northern Italian restaurant in Navy Yard. Still, a last course beckons, so they nod that one dessert should come to the table — with extra spoons.
The fragole (Italian for strawberries) dessert is deconstructed, a 21st-century style ubiquitous and often overwrought at upscale dining establishments. A ring of strawberry sauce piped no wider than Lady Gaga’s eyeliner serves as the epicenter. Atop it go craggy pieces of tender angel food cake pastry crumbles tiny strawberry meringue kisses rehydrated basil seeds short cylinders of lemon semifreddo dollops of Meyer lemon curd a couple of dehydrated-milk tuiles freeze-dried strawberry dust crème fraîche and strawberry sorbets and slices of the fruit, their pointed ends turned upward.
[Have baking questions? Pastry chef Alex Levin will join our online Free Range chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.]
In the kitchen, Alex Levin has heard his station’s point-of-sale machine scratch out the ticket he reaches for the right prep trays instantly because he knows the sound of each dessert order by heart. It takes the executive pastry chef, or one of his well-trained cooks, less than two minutes to assemble a camera-ready presentation, including last-minute shaping of the sorbet quenelles. A firm tap on the server bell, and it’s out to the dining room.
“The table shared it,” he would recall later with a weak smile, “and I kind of wish they wouldn’t.” The chef had thought out every component, designing his fragole to be enjoyed by a single spoon following that circular progression, moving through bites of creaminess and crunch and cold.
Levin graduated in baking and pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park a mere three years ago, in the golden age of modernist cuisine and deconstructed desserts. A limited practitioner of the former and reasoned defender of the latter, he says efforts can fall short unless each plated component can stand on its own merits, for texture, aroma and flavor. There can be no weak link.
“I’m trying to play on geometry and beauty,” he says. “But if my dessert doesn’t taste delicious, it’s a failure.”
Turns out, he’s a bit of a deconstructed dessert himself. Elements that make up the man are not what you’d expect. Some of them seem at odds with what it takes to create artistry on the plate. Levin could be running a multimillion-dollar company instead of piping perfect rows of perfectly crafted Italian meringue. He is a Microsoft Excel geek (having memorized all the software’s keyboard shortcuts) with a fascination for numbers and ratios. He has a borderline compulsion to keep things mess-free, which is tough to manage in a space where flour is tossed around all day. He is all about the group effort, not the star turn.
Yet when you consider the elements on the whole, they explain why Levin — named a Young Gun by Eater.com this year, at age 37 — has earned such respect so early in his culinary career.
ABOVE: The fragole dessert from the summer dessert menu at Osteria Morini in Navy Yard. RIGHT: Alex Levin and pastry sous-chef Lloyd Cruz dock the olive-oil-rich focaccia dough just before it goes in the oven. ( Alex Levin)
(T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)
Restaurant pastry chefs are well aware that nobody needs to order dessert. One of their more decorated role models, San Francisco’s Emily Luchetti, even launched a campaign last year urging Americans to eat it less often. Economist Tyler Cowen opposes the costs of it.
But pastry chefs who head restaurant operations have plenty of other things to worry about. They are most likely responsible for bread service and savories as well for making ice creams, candies and other frozen goodies for producing special-occasion menus for navigating a modern-diner world of food sensitivities for ordering and inventory for sourcing the best ingredients they can find for building a collection of flawless recipes for training and maintaining a staff for engaging the public for upkeep of some very high-tech kitchen equipment. They must be organized, precise, not easily flustered, inspirationally creative — and they typically are relegated to less-than-ideal kitchen real estate. In early, out late, slim margins.
Even so, Levin is right where he wants to be.
“Once Alex decides to do something, that’s it,” says his mother, Shira Nadich Levin, partner in a Manhattan law firm. “There’s no end to what he can do to keep improving.”
His decision to step away from a lucrative top job at a New York management and training company in 2010 had to do with personal fulfillment. Levin needed to be happy in his work, and to work where he could learn from the best. He’d gotten that at Ramaz, the Orthodox Jewish prep school in New York, where math and physics were his favorite subjects and the demands of a double curriculum forced him to be hyper-organized. It’s why he chose to attend Yale over seven other prestigious colleges that accepted him.
But long before, he learned how much satisfaction can come from working in the kitchen. As early as age 3, Alex would spend afternoons baking with his grandmother. Martha Hadassah Nadich was the wife of Judah Nadich, rabbi at the Park Avenue Synagogue from 1957 to 1987. She would do the cooking and baking for congregation events, and she caught the attention of Craig Claiborne, who twice wrote up her High Holiday recipes in the New York Times.
Alex and his grandmother developed a special bond. “She trusted him at a very young age to do things on his own,” Levin’s mother says. A family photo of young Alex shows him standing on a chair next to Martha Nadich’s Mixmaster he is beaming.
The Levins are a genuinely close family. Of their three grown sons, Shira and Jim Levin say Alex has always kept in touch the most. It’s not unusual for him to e-mail or call after a busy evening at the restaurant. When chef Levin was invited to celebrate his Young Guns honor in Los Angeles, he asked his parents to come and share the joy.
They were totally supportive of his application to culinary school, and not at all surprised when he graduated in 2012 with the highest grade-point average in his class.
“There are good students, and then there are those who also have drive, desire and curiosity. Alex was one,” says Francisco Migoya, who trained thousands of young chefs during the nine years he was at the CIA.
Now the head chef at Modernist Cuisine in Seattle, Migoya ran the culinary school’s Apple Pie Bakery Café, which he describes as “a kind of finishing school” for pastry, breads and savory. He saw Levin operate both as a student and as a paid worker. “He was a bit older than the others and therefore knew he wanted to do this,” Migoya says. “He would take the time to get something right, then he became faster and better at it. I remember his learning curve seemed sharper.”
Levin’s reputation got him stints in the New York kitchens of Del Posto, Jean-Georges, Ai Fiori, Amy’s Bread, Cafe Boulud and Osteria Morini from 2011 to 2013, where once again he got to learn from some of the best pastry chefs in the business.
“He seemed like a person who was going to move up. He came to Cafe Boulud with a specific set of goals,” says Noah Carroll, who supervised Levin there and is now corporate pastry chef at Dominique Ansel in New York. Levin took full advantage of the kitchen’s requirement that its pastry cooks create their own multi-component plated desserts he developed 25 to 30 of them while he was there.
“I learned how to compose with a balance of flavor, textures, always a frozen element,” Levin says. “Chef Noah guided us and taught us to be creative.”
Executive pastry chef Alex Levin, right, and pastry sous-chef Lloyd Cruz begin to plate a “dessert storm” order, making every item on the final-course menu. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)
The good student has become the kind of mentor he was lucky enough to have, again and again. “Alex is patient — not like a lot of chefs, says Lloyd Cruz, who rose from pastry cook to pastry sous-chef in 15 months at Morini in the District. The 29-year-old Rockville resident has learned how to be better organized and more efficient: “He has guided me.” Levin doesn’t hurry his people through the rotations of daily tasks that go into Morini’s dessert menu and focaccia production. He shows them the way, then lets them do things on their own — just like his grandmother treated him.
“Do I want to be a chef who’s constantly yelling, ‘faster, FASTER’?” Levin says. “No, I don’t.”
That said, he eagerly touts Cruz as Morini’s quickest hand at plating desserts: “He recently handled 300 covers on a Saturday night! On his own.”
The pastry boss’s ultimate goals are to keep the young staff motivated and to build flexibility into their work schedule. When he instructs them, he stops to talk with them directly — with his piercing green eyes, this is easy to take — and reinforces the lesson with a give-and-take conversation.
Levin’s department runs as smooth as toffee sauce. Ingredients are clearly labeled, Sharpie on blue painter’s tape, and containers are neatly stacked where they’re needed most. Between incoming tickets, there’s no downtime. Levin’s team consolidates or refills prep trays, keeps the warm bread coming, sets up for the next shift. In that way, Morini pastry stays ahead of the game and sends out meticulous plates, every time.
Shelves above the pastry area’s tight kitchen quarters at Osteria Morini in Navy Yard. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)
Levin jumped at the chance to help open Morini in Washington in 2013, assigned to work under renowned pastry chef Bob Truitt from the parent Altamarea Group in New York. In the month or so before they could get into the kitchen, Levin summoned his spreadsheet skills to design the weekly budget report the entire restaurant uses today, which allows for pinpoint, instant tracking access of inventory and purchases.
As a result, Osteria Morini D.C. runs consistently about 1 percentage point below the food-cost targets set by Altamarea. Executive chef Matt Adler says his friend Alex is instrumental to the restaurant’s success. “He is intense in the kitchen, but always cool-headed,” Adler says. “You couldn’t ask for a better work ethic.”
Folks in the city’s restaurant community tend to use the same word when asked to describe Levin: mensch. He’s the guy who finds out what your favorite sweet treat is, makes a terrific version of it and brings it to your party. (His brownies and chocolate chip cookies are legend.) He was promoted to executive pastry chef at Morini in November of last year.
Guajana Brownies, named for the Valrhona chocolate Alex Levin uses in the recipe, are thin yet sinfully rich. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)
Not all Levin’s desserts are complex: Honey Buttermilk Gelato is served simply, with vanilla shortbread. (T.J. Kirkpatrick/For The Washington Post)
Levin’s constant reach for a taste surprise, a tweak for the center of, say, a warm chocolate cake (caramelizing milk chocolate for hours) and his eye for composition yield a variety of desserts that diners find irresistible. That he has eased tiramisu off an Italian restaurant menu (“I never really cared for it,” he says) speaks to his ability to create a dish with comparable flavors. Better, and stunning: praline chocolate mousse cake, espresso crema, chocolate-dusted almonds and torrone gelato.
In the end, his deconstructed desserts are not a way to show off. They are practical.
With so many different elements, a diner with celiac disease can find gluten-free options on half of the menu, and Levin can swap out a single component on a plate for someone with a nut or dairy allergy. Such an approach reflects the thought Levin puts into his work — and his ultimate goal.
Chef Salad Storage Instructions
Can you make chef salad ahead?
Yes, you can make this salad ahead. Most of the chef salad ingredients can be stored together without making your salad wilt.
How to store homemade chef salad
Store the chef salad ingredients separate from the dressing in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
- Passionfruit Banana Tart
- Caramel Lace Tuile
- Berries, fresh
- Edible Flowers
- Arrange the berries on the tart in random places. Make sure the tart is covered nearly completely.
- Break off pieces of the caramel tuile and stick the pieces standing up in random angles.
- Decorate with edible flowers, mini meringues, and enjoy!
Connect with our April 2021 Chef of the Month
Recipe for Success: What Characteristics Make a Great Chef
We finally watched a movie I've wanted to see for many years: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Here's some information about it from Magnolia Pictures' website, published about 11 years ago:
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI is the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many to be the world's greatest sushi chef. He is the proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant inauspiciously located in a Tokyo subway station. Despite its humble appearances, it is the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded a prestigious three-star Michelin Guide rating, and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimages, calling months in advance and shelling out top dollar for a coveted seat at Jiro's sushi bar.
This description merely hints at what a remarkable man Jiro is. His pursuit of excellence is remarkable, continuing today at the age of 94.
Regarding the comments below, Yamamoto is a Japanese food writer who has published several restaurant guidebooks and visited every sushi, soba, tempura, and eel restaurant in Tokyo. He's most famous for an appearance in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which includes Jiro and he outlining the five characteristics of a great chef.
Here are those five characteristics and how they could relate to anyone who is trying to be the best at what they do.
1) Work Ethic
"Great chefs take their work very seriously, and consistently perform on the highest level." - Yamamoto
I don't think it's possible to be successful at anything without being 100% committed. That doesn't mean working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It does mean putting focused attention for a significant and consistent amount of time to one's business and one's related responsibilities.
You can't be as successful as you want to be unless you're willing to give your business what it can only get from you. And, at the same time, you need to give those you love the attention they want and need from you. If you don't, the outcome is you becoming worried and distracted, which diminishes your ability to give your business what it needs.
"Great chefs aspire to improve their skills." - Yamamoto
A business owner expects their employees to engage in continuous growth. Becoming better and better is what distinguishes one business from the rest.
The only way to make that happen is for the owner of the business to model the behavior they expect from their employees. To show them a level of commitment to excellence that is almost impossible to understand and that encourages respect from their employees.
The biggest remodel you'll ever do is the one you do on yourself.
3) Cleanliness"If the restaurant doesn't feel clean, the food isn't going to taste good." - Yamamoto
In the remodeling business, much efforts go into creating the protection of existing finishes to remain and the spaces that are not being remodeled. It is remarkable to see that protection done well.
But it doesn't matter how well it is done if it is not maintained. Maintaining the dust protection is a pain in the butt for the workers, as it always needs attention. Simply getting the work done tends to wear it out.
No client will have good things to say about the company unless it does a stellar job keeping the work area AND the rest of their home clean.
"They are better leaders than collaborators. They're stubborn and insist on having it their way." Yamamoto
Jiro is a remarkable person working to pursue perfection in a world over which he has an exceptional level of control. It is amazing what he has done.
Most businesspeople must moderate their tendency to have it their way in order to achieve the level of success they want.
I can relate a lot to the challenges of being impatient! Moderating my level of impatience so I could work more effectively with others took a long time.
"You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. Dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success, and is the key to being regarded honorably." - Jiro
Passion is key. Passion is what keeps you going when things get tough. It's what drives continuous improvement for your business.
Employees respond positively to an inspired owner. They get energy from working with a person like that. I cam to think that being so inspired is part of what their compensation is, because a paycheck alone is not enough.
Are you a great "chef"? Ask your employees. They know.
How? They have to dine on what you dish out. So, make doing so a pleasure for them!
A variety so good, even Neptune is jealous! We all know the ocean’s cuisine is delicious, but it is also extremely heart healthy and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Feel good about treating your tastebuds to healthy dishes such as feta and herb-crusted salmon and shrimp jambalaya. Use our meal delivery service to make it easy to fit your weekly seafood dishes into your budget.
Interview with a White House Chef
Watch this video to learn what it’s like to be a chef at the White House.
Chef Career Video Transcripts
White House Chef Video Transcript: My main responsibility as executive chef of the white house is taking care of the first family foremost and all just their daily meals and of course if they have any social functions or state dinners, or any kind of entertaining, we take care of everything in the kitchen. Definitely, it’s high pressure because first and foremost it’s only for the President of the United States so, and also like the visiting countries and the visiting heads of state because you want to respect their traditions you want to respect their protocol, dietary restrictions, so there’s a lot of things to learn.
We have harvested so much in that little garden and in the span of like two and a half years. I mean there’s like 300 at least pounds of produce that we have harvested throughout the years. These are the actual Italian eggplant that came from the garden. Eggplant is such a wonderful staple, and then what I did earlier is just grilled this until it’s charred and what it does, it really just, you know it’s easy to peel but then at the same time, it gives it a wonderful flavor. I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chef growing up, it’s definitely not on my top list.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chef growing up, it’s definitely not on my top list. But I think the more that I worked with food and I always have helped my mom cook for a family of eleven, it’s a huge family so every day it’s like a banquet in our house but not thinking that’s what I’m really gearing up for. If you really make food yourself you can control the taste, you can control the fat that’s in there, you can control the salt, you can control the sugar and at the end of the day, it’s very rewarding because it’s your own hand that made it.
How to Become a Chef Video Transcript: Some people think the words “chef” and “cook” mean the same thing, but in the restaurant world, there’s a big difference. Chefs are more highly skilled and better trained than most cooks and have more responsibility for designing the meals that make a restaurant’s reputation. But it’s not just about the food. This job requires good organizational and management skills. Sometimes called a head cook, the chef supervises the entire kitchen staff and keeps track of supplies and schedules.
A chef should have a highly refined and inventive sense of taste. He or she creates the menu items and often prices them too. Advancing in this field may depend as much on limiting food costs and supervising less-skilled workers, as it does on creating a memorable menu. To keep things running smoothly in a hot, noisy kitchen, chefs need to be expert multitaskers. The work is fast-paced and a missed detail can result in time lost and wasted food, not to mention an unhappy customer.
Chefs are on their feet for hours at a time, often working evenings, weekends, and holidays. While many cooks learn skills on the job, chefs and head cooks usually hold degrees in the culinary arts from a recognized cooking school. Many employers look for safe food handling certificates as well. Chefs advance by moving to new jobs and learning new skills, sometimes opening their own restaurants. And while only a few ever get their own cooking show, they’re always delighted to accept your compliments.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Chefs and Head Cooks.
National Center for O*NET Development. 35-1011.00. O*NET OnLine.
The career video is in the public domain from the U. S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.