features Join the Club: Chefs Get Involved in their Communities
Join the Club: Chefs Get Involved in their Communities
February 2010

Chefs are, by nature, social creatures. After long hours on their feet in a hot kitchen, nothing soothes the nerves like a cold beer and the company of friends. These late night jam sessions, which are more often than not fuelled by spirits and grub, aren’t just fun and games—they’ve been known to spawn some of the most exciting ideas and events in the industry. Chef Daniel Boulud, for example, used to celebrate the arrival of a visiting chef to New York with an informal midnight dinner. It was these dinners that ultimately inspired his popular television cooking show, “After Hours with Daniel Boulud.”

Chef Clubs: Then and Now
Chef clubs—whether formal or informal—are nothing new. In the 1990s in Washington, DC Chef Jeffrey Buben created the monthly Chef’s Club About Nothing, which consisted of up to 40 chefs getting together to hang out and discuss what was going on. A different chef hosted every month and each attendee brought two bottles of wine and whatever dish they wanted.

In Boston, Chef Michael Schlow started the monthly Chefs Without A Cause, which organized day trips to different farms and culinary destinations. Spinazzola was big benefit dinner hosted by Chris Spinazolla every year up until two years ago. Chef Mark Orfaly would host a late night dinner at Pigalle for all the chefs who came to cook at Spinazolla; he recalls that this event was particularly fun because chefs from all over the country came to cook and hang out.

And more recently in Los Angeles, Chefs Michael Cimarusti, Donato Poto, and Josiah Citrin started the 5X5 Chefs Collaborative, which hosts dinners at one of their five restaurants “To create a better feeling of camaraderie among LA Chefs and also to raise money for charity,” says Cimarusti.

Today the tradition is going strong because of the foundation that has been laid. Chefs in Boston attribute their strong culinary community to their forbearers, including Michael Schlow, Marc Orfaly, Frank McClelland, Lydia Shire, Jasper White, and Gordon Hammersley. “As a young chef we saw they were all friends and they all got along even though they were in competition,” recalls Chef Andy Husbands. “That’s always flowed through Boston—we appreciate each other and the hard work, and we saw this in the generation before.”

Different Strokes: Formal Clubs vs. Informal Get-Togethers
As the old adage goes, there are different strokes for different folks—some chefs thrive on spontaneous get-togethers while others prefer the structure afforded by organized clubs. In the end, there’s no right or wrong, it’s all about what works for you.

In San Diego, local chefs started a group called Chefs Confab where the members rotate hosting themed dinners. The dinners are open to the public and any proceeds benefit the local chapter of Slow Food. Chef Brian Sinnott of 1500 Ocean says, “We tend to get lost in running the line, expediting, managing people, and we wanted to get back to why we got into this business to begin with: cooking.” Cooks Confab started as a group of chefs who went out to drink together and it evolved into a formal group, which now has 15 members.

At Sel de la Terre in Boston, Chef Louis DiBiccari organizes events that are about chef interaction and cross-promotion. One recent event came about because a local farmer had 90 roosters too many. The first thing that came to DiBiccari’s mind: a cock fight! No, he’s not talking about a shady underground gambling event—this is what DiBiccari calls a Food Fight. He got a group of local restaurants to run the rooster on their menu at the same time and branded it as a Cock Fight. The restaurants sold out of the rooster in two days flat, the farmer was able to move a difficult to sell product, and the chefs got people into their establishments.

In New York chefs get together for drinks and charity events. Chef Harold Dieterle of Perilla explains, “We’re a pretty tight group and we all see each other…because we’re all at the same events. We’ll talk about what’s going on and go out for cocktails and see what everyone is up to. I think that’s important. I like to go out and eat at other peoples’ places; we all support one another.”

Chef Franklin Becker of Abe and Arthur's in New York is deeply involved in the charity Autism Speaks and gathers chefs from across the country to participate in an annual fundraiser. "We've become the next generation of stars and therefore need to use our celebrity to help raise funds and awareness for important causes." He also believes that it's in chefs' natures to want to make people happy and be fraternal.

Why Make the Effort?
The reasons to get involved in the local culinary community are endless. Most importantly, it’s a way to learn and grow as a chef. Even if it’s just a group of chefs getting together for a drink, the conversation will inevitably turn to talking shop and ideas will flow. Chefs who work collaborative events together gain insight into how other chefs operate and what kind of food they are making. Getting together with peers help chefs work through their work issues (think of it as having a team of experts to discuss equipment, purveyors, and management matters.) as well as be a source of inspiration (for new ingredients, flavor combinations, plating styles to name a few examples).

For Chef Jason Knibb of Nine-Ten, who is a member of San Diego’s Cooks Confab, it’s a good alternative to staging. By doing events together, chefs get to see “how the other person cooks…how people run their places, how service flows, different aspects of everyone’s kitchens, what they go through, how to execute events, etc.”

Participating in events also gets your name and your restaurant’s name out there. Whether it’s at your restaurant or not, being involved in the community will draw attention and positive press your way. Chef DiBiccari says that “sometimes walking away from your restaurant to do other things is the best thing for your restaurant.”

Chef Orfaly has found that doing chef events is a great way to network with chefs that he wouldn’t necessarily see or hang out with otherwise. Working together also builds camaraderie, which is particularly important in an industry marked by egos and competitiveness. The more chefs stick together, the better everyone will do.

Who Has the Time?
Chefs already devote most of their waking hours to their job—it’s hard to imagine having any time to spare. But any chef who’s involved in their community says it’s worth the effort. Chef Husbands’ motto is “anything is possible with proper planning.” Having a well organized and trained kitchen staff is one way to ensure that if the exec steps out for an event the restaurant runs as smoothly as ever. Working on events in advance can also help make scheduling everything that much simpler.

It’s also easier to make the time for activities you enjoy. The members of Cooks Confab have fun doing the events together, schedule them for their days off, and encourage their families to participate so it doesn’t feel like a burden. In Boston, chefs sign up for events that interest them and aren’t committed to any particular club, charity, or event if they don’t want to be.

Taking Ownership, Creating Community
Not all cities have a tight-knit chef community. Chef Mourad Lahlou of Aziza in San Francisco laments, "the community of chefs in New York is so great, I only wish it existed in San Francisco. I've gotten nothing but tons of love from all the chefs I've known there, even the ones I've met for the first time."

For those communities that are more cut throat than inclusive, it’s up to the young generation of chefs to take on the burden and rally their peers. It can be as simple as going out to eat and meeting the chef, volunteering to cook at a charity event, or even having a few drinks after service with other industry folks. Whether it’s a formal chef club or an informal dinner at someone’s house, the message is the same: “Any time you can all work together and make each other better is better for everyone,” says Sinnott. It’s always a win-win situation.