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An Open Letter to Diego Cordosa

June 23, 2010 | Frank Bonanno

–Hunter and Pig

[Stage: pronounced “stAHj”—intense, brief training period, usually with no pay, to prepare on for work in one’s intended field (in our case, cooking)]

I’m calling Diego Cordosa this weekend to explain myself, and I’m using this blog as a means to organize my thoughts. See, I’m trying to place Hunter, from Luca, at Murano to stage, and chef Cordosa wants to know why. Why send an employed adult–a long-time cook, a graduate of culinary school, an already polished chef–all the way to London to work his ass off for two weeks with no pay? What are we hoping to get from such an experience?

I think about what I got out of those experiences, the ones I had my first decade or so out of culinary school—crossing the country, staying in the seediest motels and finding myself peeling and dicing quince for twelve straight hours, or breaching the tests of sea urchins until their spines and my hands were one. Filleting fish. Boning chickens. And there it is: as I write this, I remember those basic tasks vividly, perfectly, more so than the breakfast I had this morning. The most profoundly shaping moments of my career have been the short periods of time I spent totally immersed in someone else’s kitchen. It is time spent beyond prestige or money or titles. A working stage is purely about cooking. Watching cooking, listening to instructions on cooking, discussing cooking—actually cooking.

When I arrived at Fellicin and Sons, I was awed, scared, nervous—not least because I didn’t speak a word of Italian. It was o.k., though, because everyone there spoke Food. We began each morning making bread–in a kitchen with no measuring cups or recipes. Instead of following written directions, I learned what the dough should feel like pressed against the palm of my hand–how the elasticity and shine change with the humidity, and how a perfect dough should stretch and react when I touch it. That bread was beautiful.

I learned about the human machinery of a kitchen. When the time came to set up my own lines, I adapted the culinary-intensive systems I saw at Gramercy, Danielle, and Le Bernardin, systems in which each cook prepares by day exactly what his station will produce during service: a hot appetizer station, a meat cook, a saucier (stocks and butchering), a fish cook, a garde managr (cold apps, salads), a dessert cook, and a chef de cusisine (runs line and picks up a few items). At Mizuna, seven people cook dinner for a dining room that seats 50. For perspective, six people cook the line at Maggiano’s, which seats 200 people.

I am the chef I am–my restaurants are what they are–because of my time in those professional kitchens. Even at this point in my life and career, I work stages, and I would kill to spend time again at the French Laundry or Tailevent.

The system that has come back to me tenfold. I’m lucky that on any given night at least two stages are working to experience the Luca and Mizuna kitchens. Even better: I’m lucky enough that chefs at these venues go forth and test their own chops around the country and the world.

How awesome is that? Professionals who never settle on their own skill set–who continually want to see and be part of something new and different. Their creativity doesn’t die a sweaty death in a stale kitchen, because they feed it by exploring different techniques and flavors,venturing out and returning with an extra polish and enthusiasm that comes from witnessing different philosophies at play, different techniques in use.

This system is worth every penny and every mile and every moment to me, to the cooks who test it, to the restaurants who get those chefs on their lines, to the cities where those chefs will open their own restaurants.

But chef Cordosa knows all of this–he’s well familiar with the stage system. What am I hoping Hunter will get out of a stage at Murano? What am I hoping to get out of it?

I am hoping that Hunter will work even harder for you than he does for me. I am hoping that his time with you will re-affirm the time he’s spent at Luca.

I am hoping that Hunter will be tested, inspired, revived—and that he will return from London with an even stronger sense of pride for what we’re accomplishing right here in Denver. I am hoping that he will be inspired, that his inspiration will spread all through the Luca kitchen–

And right back around to me.