The new, hot culinary jobs
These professions are changing with the times.
Tue Aug 4 2009
Culinary careers haven’t always been so blistering hot. Before they were the object of magazine profiles and reality shows, chefs were considered little more than skilled laborers. In fact, it wasn’t until 1977 that the U.S. Department of Labor even acknowledged kitchen work as a professional, technical occupation.
Though toques long ago shook off their proletarian shackles, many of their industry brethren have only recently followed suit. Butchers, made nearly extinct by the rise of the supermarket, are unfurling their aprons again. Bartending, once the quintessential temp job, now attracts historians with a penchant for iconic style. And baristas, born of Starbucks but bent on rejecting it, bring a sense of global responsibility to what was once humble joe. Meet the new gastro titans.
There’s always a table at Minetta Tavern for Mark Pastore. The house welcomes him at Locanda Verde, too, where a tribute potato dish bears his name. At Marea, there’s a drink—the Pastore Shakerato—that contains his favorite liquor, Campari. That company recently approached him about posing for an advertisement.
In restaurant inner circles, Pastore, the face of West Village butcher Pat LaFrieda (lafrieda.com), is a celebrity. And in a climate of superstar chefs and cult farmers, that’s not as unlikely as it seems. Long before the age of boutique beef, butchers enjoyed a certain prestige. In fact, news articles from the late 19th century suggest that they were once perceived as prominent, even stylish, pillars of the community. An 1891 New York Times article lamented the “good old times, when butchers were both artists and aristocrats.”
The craft went into steep decline during the supermarket boom of the 1950s and ’60s, when meat counters offered cheap beef, prewrapped and portioned off-site. But in recent years, as New Yorkers have become more interested in the source and quality of their food, a niche for independent butchers has opened. “We never got the kind of publicity that we do now before,” says Pastore. “It came to us by doing special cuts and blends, and by sourcing out sustainable meats.”
Brooklyn butcher Tom Mylan has been dispensing sustainable, local meat at Williamsburg’s Marlow & Daughters (95 Broadway between Bedford Ave and Berry St, 718-388-5700) since last winter; on Saturday 8 he’s leaving to found another meat-related venture, set to open this fall. The gig cast Mylan as a unique master—and quickly made him a local celebrity. His butchering classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen (see sidebar) are invariably packed, and he regularly turns away would-be apprentices. He’s even the target of what he calls his “individual fan club.” “Women love a butcher,” he says.
Tell that to Nicolas Ottomanelli, whose Ottomanelli Brothers (nycotto.com) has been peddling meat since the early 1900s. “The perception was always that this was not a sexy job at all,” he laughs. “When people said, 'What do you do for a living?’ and I said, 'Butcher,’ they’d look at me like I still had the bloody apron on.”
Jake Dickson, who’s opening Dickson’s Farmstand Meats (Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Ave at 16th St; no phone yet) next month, has also noticed the growing cult status. “I got an e-mail from a butcher in the U.K. last week who said [he heard that] in New York, butchers are becoming celebrities. He said, 'Where do I send my application?'”
To New Jersey, perhaps. The Pat LaFrieda enterprise is moving to the Garden State later this year. Apparently, Pastore does’t think his prestige will suffer from a move across the river.
If you’ve had a cocktail in NYC in the past few years, you’ve probably noticed: You can’t get a good Red Headed Slut in this town anymore. The guy in the Misfits tee who kept you in vodka tonics during college is in med school now. The girl whose breasts cradled your last shot of Cuervo on your 21st birthday just made partner.
Your local bartender might have been any number of things back in your salad days—out-of-work actor, student on a summer hiatus—but a craftsman he was not. Now, cocktail lounges like PDT, Death & Company and Clover Club are producing serious bartenders equipped with a chef’s sense of ingredient worship.
“There’s no reason that being a skilled bartender is less dignified than being a financial planner,” says cocktail historian David Wondrich. But the profession is still recovering from the maligned status it acquired immediately before and during Prohibition. “[Before Prohibition], bartenders had a high status. The best ones were enormously impressive; they studied for years,” says Wondrich.
The relatively small class of respected professionals who tended to New York bars prior to the “noble experiment” got out of the game or moved overseas once booze was banned. In their place came an unskilled workforce willing to take the risks inherent in operating a bar between 1920 and 1933—such as getting liquor from illicit sources and potential raids by both the law and outlaws. “They were hired because they could deal with the profession,” Wondrich explains. The shoddy standards of these journeymen, combined with the lack of skilled workers to train new talent after repeal, set the tone for the cheap work-arounds (like prepackaged mixers) that defined drinking until the 1990s.
Credit Dale DeGroff with the change. The James Beard Award--winning bartender is renowned for reintroducing the fresh ingredients that distinguished pre-Prohibition mixology to the Rainbow Room in the early ’90s. He has acted as mentor to some of the city’s most celebrated bartenders. “[To my employees] I’d say: 'Be like a chef. Take a cooking class. Take a saucier class. Understand balance and flavor.'”
For a certain breed of barkeep, those are now the hallmarks of the job. But not everyone approaches it with such gravitas. “It’s very simple,” says Steven Zwaryczuk, who has been pulling taps at McSorley’s Old Ale House (15 E 7th St between Second and Third Aves, 212-473-9148) since 1973. “We’re not even bartenders for the most part, because we’re serving our own product—ale.” Despite his low-key approach, Zwaryczuk says McSorley’s isn’t immune to the renewed interest in working behind the bar. “Not a day goes by in the last year and a half that five or six people haven’t come in looking for work as a bartender,” he says. “They have no experience—they’re educated and overqualified...but if they watch and listen and follow the old guys they should do very well.”
Coffeeheads who understand the difference between a Chemex and a French press probably know of Sam Penix. She placed third at the second annual Northeast Regional Barista Competition this year, demonstrated latte art in a national commercial for Breville and is part owner of popular East Village coffeeshop Everyman Espresso (136 E 13th St between Third and Fourth Aves, 212-533-0524). Did we mention she’s only 24? “I didn’t have any desire to finish school,” says Penix. “I knew very quickly that I could make a career out of [being a barista].”
Penix represents a movement of geeky youth who flock to shops like Ninth Street Espresso, Caf Grumpy and El Beit—artisanal cafs where, for both brewer and buyer, coffee is more obsession than a morning necessity. “The whole coffee industry is driven by a lot of smart people, many of whom didn’t necessarily go to or finish college,” says Michaele Weissman, author of God in a Cup. “We are living in a moment when people are interested in exploring food. That creates job opportunities.”
Latter-day baristas are indebted to Starbucks, though they might cringe to admit it. “All over the country Starbucks acted as the wedge that moved in and created a market for expensive coffee in the ’80s and beyond,” says Weissman. “The top roasters would all say that Starbucks helped carve the way for them.” But New York’s artisan-minded coffee makers have largely disowned the mermaid’s approach. They’re more inclined to climb the ranks at the city’s handful of serious small-time coffee bars. There, they may become versed in the fashionable extraction methods that separate home-brewers from the pros, come to think of beans as seasonal produce, discuss the flavors of their brews in wine parlance, and develop relationships with roasteries and even producers in Africa, the Americas and beyond.
Barring the effects of caffeine, it’s been a while since coffee has quickened so many pulses. Prohibition gave rise to a spurt of coffeehouses in New York, as former boozers sought a new place to socialize. A 1921 New York Times story even likens baristas to barkeeps: “Serving coffee is, in fact, as much of an art as the lost art of shaking cocktails,” it reads. “The 'coffee rounder’s’ waiter is ambidextrous. He pours hot milk from a pot in his left hand while coffee comes steaming and black from the pot in his right.”
But by the end of World War II the bean had been industrialized, with canned, home-brew products like Folgers dominating production. And apart from the espresso bars of Little Italy, New York was a dark place for coffee until the ’80s. Oren Bloostein, who opened the first location of Oren’s Daily Roast (orensdailyroast.com) in 1986, helped to usher in the city’s bean revival. “When I first started up, we were just doing coffee,” says Bloostein. “People came in and said, 'This is all you do?'”
In 2009, it seems to be enough. Many hope to forge careers as trainers or roasters; for others like Penix, the goal is to have their own shops. But Weissman is unsure whether the industry can sustain long-term careers. “Everyone wants to get on the airplane and become the coffee buyer,” she says. “But will wages go up as respect for the craft goes up? That remains to be seen.”
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