Guest Post: Greg Kuzia-Carmel

(ed. note: Greg Kuzia-Carmel is a talented young cook from Albany, who is following a dream to be the best  chef that he can be. He is currently a stagiere at the restaurant Mugaritz in San Sebastien, Spain under the highly acclaimed chef Andoni Luis Aduriz. Mugaritz was ranked as the fourth best restaurant in the world in the most recent compilation of Restaurant Magazine. While I think it is silly giving a numerical ranking at that level of restaurant, it does serve to indicate its general level of quality and respect. Working in the kitchen of a restaurant like that is bound to leave indelible effects. I asked Greg, if he would be interested in writing an occasional piece on his experiences as he has the time and interest. This is his first submission. It isn't easy to make me blush, but he did. -JMS)

John Sconzo is a person of incredible and particular interest to me in both what I do professionally and who I am as a person (though, as I get older I find that these two areas vex over each other more and more).

You see, Doc’s passion for gastronomy on all levels and in all disciplines is unprecedented. In this day and age when it’s easy enough to pick up a copy of any of the mass distributed garbage tabloids, snatch some of the food world headline garbage, and call yourself a foodie, its wonderful to come across those few people who really know that there is more to this. Years of training, long hours, demanding clientele, cry-baby employees, fish guys who get stuck in traffic, etc., not all of us are trying to put together the best appetizer using potato chips to be a long shot for a $100k. We are interpreters of history, craftsmen, artists (per se), business people, interior designers, architects, mathematicians, scientists, athletes, and more and more it now seems, psychiatrists. It’s wonderful to follow Doc’s chronicles of the diverse human offerings in this categorically small but interesting world.

Doc interests me as well because he calls home some of the great land that I was brought up on, Upstate New York, an area I am intensely proud of and loyal to. The preface to Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine says in short that the one of the greatest ways to show ones love of their land is through gastronomy. This is certainly a feeling that I have come to embrace, and judging by Doc’s work with the slowfood movement in Saratoga and relentless support of his surrounding markets, I’m willing to bet he’s drinking this metaphorical koolaid too…

When Doc offered to let me write a guest blog for him, I couldn’t have affirmed quick enough. It has taken me a few weeks to figure out what I want to write here, and most importantly, deliver something with substance that I think would be interesting to Doc’s substantial following. So here’s what I got, a short tale of one young man who pretty much got dropped into a High School Culinary Votech class merely to fill an empty period in his sophomore year schedule and is now the only American cooking at the fourth best restaurant in the world, and what that transformation has become.

Ambivalent would best sum up my early high school inklings; sitting with a guidance counselor only left more questions unanswered. If I had a dollar for every teacher who told me that I was bright and intelligent but needed to apply myself to something, I would probably just forgo pursue any other source of making ends meat. So there I sat, first week of class, in a small “instructional kitchen” with a motley crew who had also found themselves with the burden of filling a single slot on their schedules for the forthcoming educational year. Thinking that this was probably a great way to get free brownies and make paper airplanes, they’d opted on Introductory Cooking and Baking skills. For me, all of the other electives I was interested in had been filled and at least this one sounded promising, so I signed up.

The instructor was chef-cum-restaurateur-cum-aspiring teacher named Ken Linden, who I learned later on, had run one of the more fun and well known establishments in town for years prior (Yates Street, located, guess where, in Albany) and after nearly working himself to death, charted a new course in his life to become an educator. Unfortunately for him, he found himself speaking to an audience where maybe three percent cared to remember his name. Fortunately, for both of us, one of those “three” was me. So it began as a never-ending quest to master conversions, circle back through the same repertoire of dishes we could afford to make on our shoestring public school budget, and make food accessible to me in terms that were interesting. At that time I had an affinity for music, an aspiring guitarist, I had shown interest in joining the Jazz Band at school though I could not read music (nor cared to, honestly) and was probably not disciplined enough stick to the focused performance curriculum that the school dictated.

Linden, turned out, was a jazz fanatic, an Emerson alum who could translate and transpose those passions in similar terms, therefore instilling in me an early passion for food. Over the three years in high school Chef Linden looked over me, along with Chef Paul Moyer, I transformed from the kid who couldn’t wait for the last bell to ring so he could sneak out to skateboard with his buddies into a young cook, learning the ropes and working in a local restaurant thereby affirming the lessons from class. By senior year, I was half good enough at what I was doing to be able to spend time in all of the best local kitchens. I went to a statewide competition and tested my skills against almost a hundred kids in similar programs from around the state, including NYC where several of the kids where actually working several nights a week in some of the best restaurants. To my greatest surprise, I came out second, and in that moment another dream that had before seemed impossible became a beckoning reality, a partial scholarship for an education at the finest culinary school in the world, The Culinary Instiute of America.

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I jumped in, rather belly flopped, into the CIA. From the early weeks, I found myself separated from a great segment of the student body trying to quench my insatiable appetite for information and experience (this isn’t to say I had no friends, however). As soon as I had figured out how to navigate the Metro-North Railway, I was down in the city as often as I could free myself and afford the round trip ticket. I would stage or simply just walk the neighborhoods packed with restaurants and try to pickup menu’s, business cards, matchboxes, take pictures, or do something to stamp into my culinary passport saying I had found this place. I certainly wasn’t dining out, being an 18 year old college student doesn’t afford us such luxuries generally. In fact, I hadn’t really had a meal/experience in a real big city restaurant until December 23rd, 2003, coincidentally, six years before today! It was on that night that I staged at Aquavit, outside of the theater district, the flagship of that years James Beard winner Marcus Sammuelsson. It was a brutally busy night, and with an extra hand on board, I was placed on the Amuse/Garde Manger station with a guy named Wesley. I just remember us getting our asses handed to us all night, and Nils Noren, Aquavits then Executive Chef, fishing us out of the weeds on several occasions. At one point, Marcus Sammuelsson himself had stepped into the kitchen just to check in on service, and was lending us a hand. My throat was in my jaw, I was so nervous, but I was in love with the feeling.

As service slowed down, Greg, the then Chef de Cuisine offered me several courses off the evenings tasting menu, capped off with a degustation of grass fed beef with pomme and a few shingles of white truffle. Game over. Stick a fork in me. I was done. As I departed late into the evening, I was handed a large deli container of warm and aromatic red liquid, Glogg, or the spiced wine concoction common in scandanavia around Christmas, or the winter in general I guess. That was the night I decided that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

I finished up my tour at the CIA, and on a whim, followed some friends who had already landed steady jobs out to Boston. It was a shot in the dark, it was a foul weathered January, but I was determined. I lucked out and landed in the kitchen, nay, cockpit of Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge. It was an awesome restaurant that redefined utilitarianism to the last letter. I was learning tons, but found myself just tiring of the environment and such. After just 3 months I found myself wondering if I had made a mistake somewhere, and decided to call it quits. I went home, regrouped and answered a craigslist ad for a line cook at a restaurant in Boston’s gentrifying South End, Toro.

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It was the restaurant that all of the guys said they went to on their day off, so I assumed it was good. After coming aboard, I learned the great significance of another great mentor, Ken Oringer. My initial interactions with Ken were mainly, hello and no Im not as in the weeds as it looks. His reputation and prowess alone scared me, but to me, he was humane and honest. In my nearly three years working for him, I developed a great loyalty for KO, would stake my career on his. Amongst the many evolutions I had, was the development of the idea of terrior and seasonality, which was first fostered to me at CSB. Don’t get me wrong, Ken means business and isn’t out to try to force some kind of culinary locavorism enlightenment, but he had such a ridiculous palate, that terrior was something he knew inside and out. He introduced me to new farmers, to fisherman, and to a woman named Eva, who grew just about every edible herb and flower you could imagine. When she first got into the business, Ken gave her a signed poster from Marc Veyrat with a whole spectrum of edible flowers, and said, here figure out how to grow these. You see Ken figured that Boston was on a similar degree of latitude as the area of Veyrat, and I in turn have figured that the Hudson Valley is on a similar area of latitude not only of Veyrat, but also of Mugaritz, where I am currently stationed.

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Anywho, I ramble, apologies. Here I am, just a few years separated from inner-city life of Albany, New York, and now working in good restaurants. Im growing more and more conscious of the culinary landscape, and in such, becoming aware of this influential culinary figure from my home-region, John Sconzo. Through eGullet and Docs accounts, I am able to visually and informationally digest great wisdom and experience from those leagues and years ahead of me. Culinary Anthropology via the internet has opened up this little inner city kids eyes to an entire universe of awesomeness.

So using our little time machine and the miracle of ellipsis, we are now fast forwarded to the present, I work a station at the number four restaurant in the world. Its intense. We begin at 10 am, promptly, and I will say that again so it sticks, promptly at 10 am. If you are ever somewhere on the east coast when your solar controlled cell phone clock strikes 4 am, you can assure yourself that I am half a world away lined up shoulder to shoulder with some of the best cooks (and people for that matter) on the planet. After a brief meeting, we begin the mad, but methodical, dash to begin gathering everything needed to bring together damn near perfect mise en place for the upwards of 55 guests who will be dining with us for our ‘lunch’ service. Every movement is calculated, considered and reevaluated. Finally, the felt cloths are stretched about the pass and the first tickets walk-in. “Marchand quarto menu mesa dos Caolin, Sopa, Camerone, Cardo, Gnocci, Txangurro, Kokotxa, Lubina, Foie, Ternera, Ciguela, Queso, Aponabo, Jabon”. Quickly, it begins. Plates outstretched on service trays, accompanying vessels and plate wipes at the ready. It’s a matter of sheer intensity the moment you hear “SALÈ”. There are two menu offerings at Mugaritz, the slightly shorter Sustraiak Menu and the more intensive Naturan Menu. However, when you sit down, you are not greeted with an in depth breakdown of the degustaciones. Instead, you select from two envelopes, submit 150 minutes or revolt 150 minutes. The menus are true reflections of what is available to us at the moment and while some of the dishes make standard appearances, the menus are essentially organically selected just moments before you, our guest, begins to receive your first bites of food. As my Australian buddy here told me the first day, you want to see hardcore, you got it right there.

The plates, while I am not allowed to photograph inside the kitchen, I can confirm that the plates are marvelous, and misleadingly simple looking. For example, one course is a tight ball of brandade of cod, with a thin skin of kokotxa (or cod chin) draped over it and a sauce of pil pil, or an oil emulsion using the natural cooking gelatin of the fish. It looks so simple, how little one would now about the labor it takes to make this dish, the kokotxas alone take the production team (6 people) over an hour to just prep enough for 30 covers. Peeling and processing maybe 20 logs of salsify for a dish that requires only one a piece, might only yield 3 good portions! Its not that its wasteful, the trim all finds a home, but what is acceptable is such a small portion of the whole, that you spend more time just classifying things than actually doing very much to them.

As each of the sections get finished (strategically layed out to operate in succession), break down begins, but unlike in other restaurants where breakdown can be a possibly sluggish, recovery mode experience, this is fast and it is furious. At any given time, a guest can come into the kitchen, and we need unparalleled cleanliness and order. If anything, its as hard cleaning here as it is cooking. Around 5:30 we are discharged for a short siesta (okay, this is downright awesome) and back on the station come 7:00 to prepare for the evenings orchestra. It was silly to me at first to see guys kinda lax at 8:00 on a Friday night, until it was explained to me that most often the first guests don’t often sit until almost 9:00 and the majority of the guests arrive between then and 9:30. Where one restaurant usually is hitting the back nine of their evening, we may not have even sent the first courses.

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This ballet happens 6 days a week, and sure enough, it changes you as a person. As arduous and demanding the work is, its absolutely phenomenal to meet the people you work with, you work under and then that you look up to here. Sure there is an expected standard of excellence commanded of each of us, but there is also a shockingly beautiful sense of humanity and grace displayed by the sous chefs and Andoni alike. The cooks here aren’t the hardnosed bastard wunderkinds that we’ve been predisposed to think they are, they more often are just like me. In fact, often enough so, they are younger than me and are curious about my world experience. The learning here is a beautiful two way street, an important fact to be noted, as it is not so of all restaurants of this caliber and at this level.

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So what has cooking provided for me, that kid from the high school votech program who needed to apply himself? Its my career, its my life, its my creative spirit, my free time hobby, what I dream about, how I construct my personally accepted philosophies. Its there with me at breakfast, sometimes it IS breakfast, it’s a way to bring people together, it’s a way to break ice with people who I don’t know and often times, as it has become with John Sconzo, it’s a simple link between people who aren’t very much alike. That, simply, is wonderful. Thanks John for all you do for us.

This entry was posted in Boston, Culinary Personalities, Food and Drink, Spain, Travel, Upstate NY and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Guest Post: Greg Kuzia-Carmel

  1. Trig says:

    Interesting that you’ve used the same metaphor as me, when I first worked in a top class Spanish kitchen. I called it the chef waltz. When you get into the zone, it’s amazing what you can achieve as a kitchen team. Like you, I want to thank John for his advice and support. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

  2. Jan says:

    I really enjoyed reading your story. Could you please explain what “Instead, you select from two envelopes, submit 150 minutes or revolt 150 minutes.” means?
    Thank you!

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