In kitchens across the nation, executive chefs rely on a team of culinary professionals to bring their visions to life. While the role of the sous chef may seem unglamorous or under-appreciated, often the most promising sous chefs of today become the award-winning culinary leaders of tomorrow. Here, five sous chefs from across the nation describe what it takes to make it in the culinary world, and what’s in store for the future.
The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Washington
Located on a stunning and remote island along the Northwestern coast, The Willows Inn boasts one of the most renowned restaurants in the world. Guests can only reach the property by ferry, so the staff, including sous chef Nick Green, live on the island year-round. “We’re kind of trapped,” the chef laughs. “We start very early and we’re working long after the last ferry is gone.” Led by the 2014 James Beard nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year, Blaine Wetzel (who was a semifinalist in this category in 2012 and 2013), The Willows Inn is a secluded culinary escape, where every dish is meticulously prepared with very little accouterment and strict focus on ingredients fished, foraged and farmed right outside its doors. “My approach to food has evolved quite a bit in the three years I’ve been here,” Green says. “I’ve learned so much about the wild edibles in the area and have found that there’s a fleeting nature to a lot of ingredients: Certain berries, flowers or shoots only last for maybe two weeks.” Green plans to start his own restaurant in the relatively near future, but for the moment, he says, he wants to continue growing the acclaim that Wetzel built on Lummi Island. When he does venture out on his own, you can bet he’ll take the lessons learned along with him: “I can’t imagine thinking about food in any other way at this point,” he says. “I almost feel like now, if you’re not cooking seasonally, you don’t have any business in a kitchen. I can’t imagine cooking in any other way.”
Pinewood Social, Nashville
A native Nashvillian, Julia Sullivan trained at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and worked at some of the best restaurants in New York (Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Five-Star Per Se, Franny’s) before returning to Nashville to join acclaimed chef Josh Habiger at Pinewood Social, a 2014 James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. With Pinewood’s six reclaimed bowling lanes, living room, bar, dining room and soon-to-open outdoor cabana area, Sullivan has become an expert at logistics, implementing systems, managing staff, expediting service and making sure the kitchen is running as smoothly as possible — all while keeping the culinary experience consistently delicious. In the future, she plans to open a restaurant with strong ties to local farmers and producers. “The menu at Pinewood is driven by its Americana, bowling alley vibe, so we have some playful takes on American classics,” she says. “But the food I love to cook most is rustic, seasonal, vegetable-driven food that is bright and satisfying. So, although they certainly have their place in modern cuisine, I am not too interested in new technologies. I’d like nothing more than a group of people, gathered around a table, sharing a simple, delicious meal. That’s what I want my restaurant to feel like.”
The Pig and The Lady, Honolulu
Brandon Lee is the six-foot-five sous chef to acclaimed chef Andrew Le, the brain behind Oahu’s pop-up-turned-brick-and-mortar The Pig and The Lady. Though his favorite cuisine is, as he puts it, “fat kid food,” or food that brings an emotional response, Brandon Lee fell in love with kitchens by befriending chefs and exploring different cuisine around Oahu — including Le’s modern take on traditional Vietnamese food. “I ate so much food that year,” Lee laughs. “I went to Andrew’s first pop up and I was really blown away. Everything was so cool, delicious, so new and inspiring.” Eventually, Lee began helping chef Le at pop-up events and later took a part in the kitchen. He rose quickly to the role of sous chef by taking initiative and showing great adaptability in the kitchen. He says that this year, the entire team took great pride when Andrew Le became a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year, and that he looks forward to leading a team of his own one day.
Westbank Grill, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
As sous chef at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Four Seasons Resort and Residences Jackson Hole’s Westbank Grill, Mikey Termini eases the burden for executive chef Michael Goralski, enabling him to focus on the bigger picture of service and the finished product. And it’s not the first time the two have worked together: Termini and Goralski first collaborated five years ago at Five-Star Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea — however, Termini is quick to point out their Wyoming partnership has been much more focused on seasonal vegetables and game than Hawaii’s seafood and fruits. He took an unconventional route to his current position as sous chef — he moved to Hawaii from California right after high school and started as a dishwasher before climbing the ranks and landing in the coveted role with the global hospitality group. “I always take something valuable away from every chef I have worked under,” Termini says. “I hope to one day pass my culinary and leadership knowledge to sous chefs of my own.”
Farmstead, Inc., Providence, Rhode Island
After working for seven years at an intellectual property law firm in New York City, Matthew Leddy sent out more than 50 e-mails to restaurants, hoping to land a chance for a massive career change. After a stint in a small New York kitchen, he attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence and completed his final internship at Farmstead, Inc., under Matt Jennings, a 2014 James Beard nominee for Best Chef: Northeast. Now, as a sous chef, Leddy is training a new batch of interns and cooks to execute Farmstead’s award-winning cuisine — from hand-milled Rhode Island corn polenta to oysters straight from Narragansett Bay. As for the future, Leddy doesn’t think too far in advance. Instead he says, “I just want to keep loving what I’m doing.”
Photos Courtesy of Pinewood Social and Mikey Termini