Distilled's Jennifer Walsh on Strong Female Mentors, Post-Shift Rituals and Ditching Microscopes for Tweezers
At Distilled (211 West Broadway, 212-601-9514) in Tribeca, chef Shane Lyons cooks a menu of inspired New American pub food from a gorgeous space in a landmark building. When the kitchen's cranking out plates of fried duck over waffles and the restaurant's signature gochujang-slathered wings, Lyons counts on sous chef Jennifer Walsh to help steer the kitchen to victory.
While training at Le Cordon Bleu, Walsh completed her externship at Dovetail with John Fraser, who then hired her. After spending time in kitchens including Le Cirque and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Perry St, she fell in with the Distilled crew and has since helped develop the restaurant's herb butter. She'll also oversee the upcoming spring brunch menu, adding a breakfast sausage that's ground in-house. Here, she talks about the narcissism of cooking, after-work rituals, and height-restrictive kitchens.
Where are you from? I was born and raised in the Bronx. Near 225th and Marble Hill. When I was 14, I moved to Greensburg, Pennsylvania. I moved as fast as I could back to the city.
How did you find your way to the industry? Honestly, I made it into this industry by trial and error. I wanted to be a scientist. I attended college for cellular and organismal biology prior to culinary school. I realized six-page equations and nine-hour labs weren't all I thought they would be. I then called my aunt, asked her for the application fee for Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh and began school the next semester.
What do you like about cooking? Cooking is my escape from the real world. Being around food, breaking down a fish or a strip, even brunoise 800 grams of shallots takes me away. My main focus is on the food and taking care of it, delicately creating cuts with my knife -- it's beautiful, soulful, and emotional. There is also the narcissistic aspect, where you receive immediate pleasure when someone enjoys something you've created. The gratification you get knowing you've made someone's day through with your food is special.
What is it like to execute someone else's vision? It's exciting. When you really understand your role as a sous chef, you're a partner with your chef and you're working toward the same dream. Working with Shane -- he's not one of those chefs who creates and throws it at you to re-create hundreds of times. He asks for my input on dishes. I'd love nothing more then to see Distilled continue to grow as a company, and I feel honored that Shane allowed me into his dream and has given me freedom to create and contribute.
What do you want to do eventually? What's your ultimate career goal? Eventually, I want to be a chef in my own restaurant -- but not for at least six more years.
What are your hours like? I work 65 hours most weeks. Sometimes I get lucky and pull doubles.
Are there any valuable lessons you've learned from working in kitchens? I've learned that to fix a broken emulsion you need something stable. I also learned not to get angry too fast, because things take time to be fixed and not everything can change overnight. Things take time. The biggest lesson I've learned is that I cannot hold everyone to the same standard that I hold myself to. This has led me to have more patience.
Who have been your mentors? Strong women have been my mentors, starting with my mom making holiday dinners. In my young career, Christina Towers has been the most influential person when we worked at Le Cirque together. She taught me a lot of things and helped me with techniques. Christina then became a sous chef at Bagatelle New York, and I followed her. At Bagatelle she continued teaching me to be a kick-ass female cook from fabricating, making jus, fixing sauces, roasting, and just killing it on the line. She pushed me to become a rock-star line cook, and I love her for that.
What's the hardest thing about working in a kitchen? Dealing with all the personalities. When it's just me and the food, I'm fine. You never know what kind of mood someone is in or what's going on in their personal life that can affect everyone's day. Also reaching ingredients and tools in the kitchen is a challenge, because kitchens are always built for giants. I've learned to climb.
Have you contributed any dishes to the menu? Right now, I am working on new brunch items, including a pork merguez that will be cross-utilized for the new dinner menu.
Is there a place that you and the staff like to go post-shift? We used to go to TriBeCa Tavern. It's right down the block, and they have pool, pitchers of PBR and hot wings. Recently, after I'm done for the night I usually find a seat at the chef's counter or the end of the bar to enjoy glass of wine or a craft cocktail made by one of our barmen. I usually spend that time checking my emails to see who's on the schedule for the next day and then head home.
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