The growing farm-to-table movement is a continuing boon to our graduates. As locally-grown, organic, and biodynamic foods increasingly find their way to restaurant tables, a lot more of our graduates are choosing high-end restaurant careers. I’ve been in touch with Chef’s Training Program graduate Steve Matkovich (2007), and I thought his burgeoning career as a line cook at Bouchon and Ubuntu in Napa Valley would be of particular and vicarious interest to our students interested in farm-to-table.
Following graduation, Steve returned to his hometown of Chicago and did restaurant line work for a year. All that time he thought about moving to Napa. “I was drawn to Napa Valley because of the quality of restaurants and the abundance of local produce. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can eat things grown within a 200-mile radius and not be restricted,” Steve says.
Steve sent out numerous applications and heard back from two renowned Napa restaurants, Cyrus and Bouchon. Each offered him a stagiaire position. Steve accepted both positions and drove himself out to Napa. Ultimately, both places offered him a position. He took the job at Bouchon, he says, “because of the Thomas Keller lure” and the cleanliness of the kitchen.
Steve began as Chef de Partie, working on the line and overseeing the work of the Commis (the person who helps prepare a station). “My first couple of weeks I was covering the oyster bar, getting adjusted to the kitchen. After a few weeks, I trained on garde manger, plating everything to desserts, cheese, salads, to sous vide fish. It can be over 20 different pick-ups when you add specials. Then factor in the 240+ reservations every single night of the summer.” Steve eventually worked both day and night shifts. Each shift generated 200+ covers on average.
Steve’s next promotion was to first course, the soups and hot appetizers. “This station has less going on but is less forgiving,” Steve says. “Searing foie gras or making an omelet in a Michelin star kitchen can be stressful.” From there, he moved on to learn the fish station. It was during this time that a friend told Steve about an opening at Ubuntu: “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity; it was the restaurant I wanted to work at the most. At Ubuntu we have a four-day work week, which is great. I was able to go down to two days at Bouchon and work four at Ubuntu. I still get one day off!”
Chef Jeremy Fox opened Ubuntu in 2007. It’s both a restaurant and yoga studio housed in a converted, “green” 19th century building. The restaurant serves a “vegetable-inspired menu,” sourced mainly from the owner’s biodynamic garden and other local farms, for which it has garnered critical acclaim (New York Times, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine) and a Michelin star. It’s everything Steve was looking for: “Ubuntu is a great restaurant. It’s pretty amazing to pick, wash, and roast beets in one day, then serve them on your station that same night. Chef Fox has said, ‘our menu is a living breathing thing’ and it is very true.”
Steve paid some serious dues in other restaurants and is now reaping the rewards at Ubuntu. In his words, “Ubuntu means humanity towards others, so it would not be fitting to have a dominant chef (like you tend to find in a French kitchen).” He also feels reconnected to his passion: “In the pursuit of wanting to cook great food, I got away from what got me in to cooking, that is, vegetables. At Ubuntu, you can cook exceptional food with vegetables as the star.”
Steve has some advice for students pursuing restaurant work: “Looking back, I wish I would have done more stages or trails while in school. No matter how inexperienced you are, people are willing to show you what they do if you are enthusiastic. Even if your plan is not to work in restaurants, it is a great way to see and try new things. Spending as little as one night in a kitchen, you will learn things. You will see things you don’t like in great kitchens and things you love in lesser known kitchens. It will help you develop you own style and help you realize what you want to do.”
What’s the future hold? Steve says, “We’ve all had our share of forgettable meals (or meals that are unforgettable in a bad way). My goal is to create memorable meals. I see myself having my own restaurant in the future, but I have also thought about being a private chef. I am going to see where cooking takes me.”