Chef Chat, Part 1: Erin Smith of Plonk Bistro, on Her Externship at Per Se
This is the first part of a three-part chef chat series. Look for Part 2 and Part 3 in this space Thursday and Friday.
There are just a handful of female executive chefs in Houston, and at 29, Erin Smith of Plonk Bistro is one of the youngest. She is also one of the most resourceful. She works out of a kitchen that has two small portable induction burners and finishes most of her dishes inside a pizza oven. It's not an ideal situation, but then, Smith is not your average chef. Her culinary training started in one of our country's most prestigious kitchens, which we'll learn about in today's chat.
EOW: I don't know much about you. Are you from Houston originally?
ES: I am from Houston originally. I grew up here, went to Stratford High School. I went to high school with Alex Saxenian, one of the sous chefs at Reef. I went to college at Texas Tech, and then my senior year, I traveled in Spain and studied abroad, and decided that I really didn't want to do what I'd been planning on doing, which was med school. So I went to culinary school in San Francisco.
EOW: Why did you go to culinary school in San Francisco?
ES: I did a lot of research before I selected it. My dad wanted me to be very clear on what I should expect when I graduated. So, the first place I went was LeNôtre in Houston, and I had this list of questions, one being the average salary two years out of culinary school, and it was $22,000. And this was pretty standard across the schools. I just remember my dad looking at me, not saying anything, probably thinking that it was all I needed to hear to go back to medical school. Instead I just looked at him, and I thought, "I know that won't be me, I know I'll work hard and I won't get stuck in that trap."
EOW: Ultimately, where did you go to school?
ES: I went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. This was in 2006. I was there for exactly one year. The course is 15 months, and the last three months are your externship. My sister was in New York at the time, so I looked into possibilities there, and one of the first things I saw was Thomas Keller's Per Se. Most externship interviews are like job interviews where you go and interview in person, but at Per Se, you submit through the school. The school had to recommend you and teachers had to write letters on my behalf. Two days after I put in my request, I got a call from one of the chefs at Per Se kitchen, and he asked if I could start right away. So I packed my bags and moved to New York, and I was living out of a suitcase on my sister's couch. And I loved it.
EOW: How was it?
ES: The first week I was there was really difficult. I was working 15 hours a day, standing up the whole time. I picked parsley, chopped. It was the tedious mundane, fennel fronds, chervil. I was just picking greens, blanching things, peeling tomatoes, not very glamorous. I remember thinking it was really hard and wondering if I could do it for three months, but I talked to my dad, and he said, "There's nothing you can't do for three months -- just know that there's an end to it." And that kept me going. After the second week, my body got used to it. I felt more confident, and I started going in earlier and earlier, and it just clicked. I started getting to know the chefs and they had so much advice.
EOW: Such as?
ES: Advice on techniques, advice like always having a sharp knife. At Per Se, I sharpened my knife on a whetstone every other day. Not a lot of people do that, but I do that because that's what everyone else did. The standard they hold is so high of themselves, so naturally the standard for Per Se was high, because everyone who's in there wants to be clean and professional and have great technique. That was my first real kitchen experience, and I think that was some of the most important things to learn.
ES: Great technique with knife skills is one thing. Like a brunoise, which is a type of knife cut. It took me an hour to do the first one, and I would hand it to them, and they'd just throw it away. "It needs to be smaller," or "It needs to be more squared," they'd say. So I did it so many times until I got it right, so small, like an eighth of an inch. It's just the extreme importance that they place on quality of things. Part of the technique is working clean and staying organized and working in your own space, so you don't take up the whole table.
EOW: So did you stay beyond the three-month externship?
ES: I stayed and worked at Per Se for another couple of months. I was actually helping in the PDR (private dining room) room, so I was working service with them. They do parties six or seven nights a week.
EOW: How many covers did they do at Per Se?
ES: In the main room, they would have probably 80 or 90 covers. However, they start early. People come in right at five, and they would typically stay for four hours eating, so there's not a lot of turnover, and there's definitely not a lot of tables.
EOW: How many people in the kitchen at a place like that? That's what I was wondering, because you look at these places, especially in New York, and you wonder what you're paying for.
ES: During service, there's less people because a lot of the prep cooks have gone and they don't want all the distraction and excess noise, so there's just the chefs cooking on the line -- probably about ten or 12. But during the day, there's an army of people of all level. You have the commis cooks, private dining room, chef's cook preparing for the line, the morning sous, night sous, executive sous. There were so many people all the time. Plus there's the bakery and there's an army of people over there. So it's an around-the-clock operation.
EOW: So when you report for your externship, who do you report to?
ES: In terms of who I went to every day to say, "What do I do?" they treated me like a chef de partie, and I would come in and shake everybody's hands in the restaurant. I'm talking everyone -- all of the staff in the kitchen, you would walk up to each person and shake their hand and say, "Hi chef," and they would come to me and say hi to me. I think it was a respect thing -- even the executive chef would come in and do the same thing. That's how you'd start the day. I would go to the sous chef in charge last, and he would tell me who to report to.
Check back with us tomorrow as we chat about Smith's work at Plonk.