A Day in the Life of a Chef
Cooking is just part of how they spend their time.
Any Hudson Valley chef will tell you that his or her job is much more than life behind the line: There are farms to visit, menus to plan, and deliveries to coordinate, among myriad other tasks. “It’s more than preparing a meal; you’re promoting your restaurant,” says Chris O’Brien, Executive Chef and co-owner of Farm to Table Bistro in Fishkill and Woodies in Cornwall. “There are so many hats that you have to wear. You hope to accomplish 25 percent of what you set out to do each day.”
O’Brien has been in this business for more than 40 years, and on any given day he might be visiting a farm to pick out fresh produce, zipping back and forth between his restaurants to make sure things are running smoothly, or deciding how to use a particular cut of meat his butcher is offering. O’Brien sources both of his restaurants locally and spends much of his time either visiting farms or talking to farmers. With those visits, he’s learned that timing is everything. “When it’s 100 degrees out or pouring rain you don’t want to bother the farmers, because they’re not happy,” he says with a laugh. With any luck, they’ll have what he’s after.
Francesco Buitoni — chef and owner of Mercato Osteria & Enoteca in Red Hook — is in his 11th year with this restaurant. He uses local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible, and understands that a chef must be adaptable. “You have to be willing to change right away,” he explains. Like O’Brien, his time is often spent working with farmers. Those visits can influence what Buitoni’s serving: If he hears there are great mushrooms available, for example, “then I’m changing my menu.”
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie; I hate that craziness,” confesses Buitoni, who spends about 14 hours a day, at least six days a week at Mercato. “My favorite part of the day is when I first come in and there’s no one here, and I can have that meditative time to think about what I need to do.” If his restaurant is properly staffed, Buitoni might have an opportunity to steal away for an hour in the middle of the day to see his family, take a bike ride, or just get some rest, but this precious free time is rare. For the most part, he’s dashing out to farm stands, placing orders, and finalizing menus. “I do this job to nurture people with food. I really love to cook for people,” he explains.
Juanita Rincon of Juanita’s in Cold Spring shares this sentiment, explaining that although running a restaurant means she often needs help with food prep, she prefers to do the cooking herself. She also enjoys interacting with patrons. “I love to meet the guests in our restaurant and say thanks to everybody. It’s very important for me to hear how you’re feeling and how you enjoyed my food.”
Though Rincon treasures her time in the kitchen — and can usually be found there — she’s also immersed herself in the lives of the local children. Haldane Elementary School students learn about food sustainability as part of their curriculum, and, during the school year, Rincon will go out of her way to buy their produce and cook with them. “The kids learn about where food comes from and how it ends up on their table,” she says.
Rincon also prepares healthy lunches for the students at The Manitou School twice a week. She enjoys being part of the students’ lives and familiarizing people with Mexican culture through her food. “I love to introduce dishes that are uncommon here in the United States, like home-cooked, healthy Mexican food that I can prepare with local produce.” If Rincon is not in the kitchen or working with the local students, she can be found with her own grandchildren.
At the end of the day, there’s a laundry list of tasks that go along with the position. “Chefs have to be handy,” explains Buitoni, who lists knowledge of basic plumbing as one example. He says that he has to be willing to do whatever it takes to keep the restaurant running smoothly. Whether it’s tending to a faulty toilet or a sustainable garden, these chefs are true Jack — and Jills — of all trades. Though food is where their passions lie, it’s not all glamorous. Buitoni’s restaurateur adage? “Nurture the restaurant the same way you nurture the food.”