On tonight’s Chef Wanted, chef/partner Ryan Poli and managing partner Alfredo Sandoval were looking for a new executive chef to take over the reins of Tavernita, a tapas restaurant in Chicago. Since Chef Poli would be moving on to oversee more restaurants, he needed a chef with great technique who could work well and lead the current staff — and specifically they thought the restaurant would provide a good place in which a young chef could grow. Anne Burrell brought in four candidates for the job opportunity, but only one was offered the position. FN Dish has the exclusive interview with the winning chef.
In the end, Chef Priscilla Yeh from Great Neck, N.Y., was offered the position of executive chef. Initially the owners weren’t quite sure about her skills, as she wasn’t able to finish shucking her clams in time during her first test in creating a shared platter. But by the second test, she put out an impressive and flavorful trio of meaty small bites. When it came to dinner service, except for a few road bumps with returned dishes and extra fired ones, Priscilla was able to lead her staff well and put out a smooth dinner service, impressing the owners. FN Dish caught up with Chef Priscilla to chat about her time on the show and her decision to not take the position.
For your first test, you didn’t finish plating in time. Luckily your second test was better, but it seemed the owners weren’t yet convinced about you. When you found out you would be going on to the dinner service, were you surprised? What was going through your mind?
I felt more confident during my second test. Still, I was surprised and a little nervous to be moving onto the dinner service. It helped to think of it as an opportunity to share more of my food, meet the staff and challenge myself by running a service at Tavernita.
Except for a few extra fired dishes and a couple of returned ones, you had a pretty successful dinner service. Your confidence grew as it got busier and you were great at delegating and leading the staff. What was the hardest part for you? And when did you feel you had found your stride?
Some days, all your customers can arrive at the same time and really bury the kitchen. Other days can be more staggered and service is a cakewalk. That unpredictability is one of the most exciting yet difficult things about being a chef. Add to that training unfamiliar cooks to execute an entirely new menu in a single day. It was about halfway through service when we got into a rhythm and worked out any remaining kinks with the food. Then before I knew it, we were sending out the last order.
How was it working with Anne Burrell?
I enjoyed working with Chef Anne. She was hard on us and supportive at the same time. She had good suggestions about improvements I could make to my menu and food going into service. I felt she truly wanted all of us to do well.
What has the experience of doing the show taught you?
Being on the show really pushed my creative limits and challenged my leadership ability. I learned quickly to rely on my instincts to bring the best out of my food and my staff. The experience definitely gave me more confidence in my current abilities and potential as a chef.
What do your parents have to say about you winning the job?
My parents are proud of me but do not want me to move to Chicago. Even now, restaurant work doesn’t leave me much time to spend with them. They would miss me, and I would miss them.
Your started your culinary career much later than most chefs. Coming from architecture, what did you find most appealing about becoming a chef?
With the advancement of computer software, most of today’s architects spend their days sitting at a desk, clicking a mouse and designing something that will eventually be built by the hands of others. What I find most appealing about being a chef is the immediacy of cooking. It engages all your senses and forces you to really be in the moment every step of the way. You are working with knives, heat and real ingredients. Unlike a building, a meal can come together in a matter of minutes, hours or days, and you have something you can share right away with friends or guests.
Can you give us an update on your job at Tavernita?
Chicago certainly has a terrific culinary scene, but I have chosen to remain in New York for the time being. Chef Ryan Poli and I have kept in touch, and I would welcome the opportunity to work with him in the future.
What advice would you give to other chefs coming into Chef Wanted?
I would advise any chef participating in Chef Wanted to be genuine and true to yourself and to allow your personality to really come through in the food. At the end of the day, I believe it is most important for owners to see if you are a really good fit for them — and if you are able to manage the kitchen, and maintain both quality and cost of the food.
Watch Chef Wanted on Thursdays at 10pm/9c and keep coming back to FN Dish for updates with the chefs.