Welcome to the fifth installment of the Food Republic serial, The Worst Idea Ever?, in which chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan set out to open a restaurant in Houston, Texas as Pilot Light Restaurant Group. The serial will continue every Monday until they get a restaurant open, hopefully by the end of the year.
Eight years ago we moved to New York City. I dropped off my resume at Aquavit and started a week later. That was the easy part. The first day, I showed up at work and knew it was going to be a rough ride. Kazou Shimamura and Shinya Maeda, two Japanese heroes/hellions, spent the first four months of my life making me as miserable as humanly possible. These two chefs were fish experts and in charge of the station I had been scheduled to work at. I possessed no New York experience, and no fine-dining kitchen experience at all, and needless to say, they viewed me as incompetent and untrainable and they were not happy to see me.
Looking back on this experience, I recognize that the reason I was hired is mainly that Aquavit needed staff to start getting ready for the upcoming busy season. I had no clue what I was getting myself into. I had never seen a kitchen like the one at Aquavit before and I had definitely never met two bigger assholes in my life than Shin and Kazou. They mentally abused me in that kitchen like nothing I have ever experienced, and in the end, I can’t thank them enough for it. The Aquavit cookbook had just come out, and the restaurant was busier than it had ever been. Shin and Kazou spoke mostly in Japanese, and most of the time I was sure they were cursing me. But despite the language barrier and immense hatred they hurled at me, they taught me how to think about the kitchen as a moving organism with many pieces, and they taught me how to work efficiently. They were a huge part of helping me become the cook I am today.
Those earlier years at Aquavit I learned how to cook, but not what I wanted to cook. I learned technique and discipline. Respect for ingredients and the kitchen. Now faced with the burning question of what kind of food we are going to serve, we tell people that the answer isn’t exactly clear. We are two cooks creating a style together. This creative process will be continuous — although people still seem to need a definition.
We want to cook good food. We want to be passionate about our job. We want you to have a great meal. But we won’t be for everyone, and that in a way is the point. Different isn’t agreeable to everyone. We will draw from all our past experiences working and eating all over the world. We will support our community and our city as much as we possibly can. And, whenever I need to keep it all in perspective I return to what Marco Pierre White said in his book White Heat: “At the end of the day it’s just food, isn’t it? Just food.”