What It's Like to Be Sous Chef at DBGB
Ian Vest (left) and John Spratlin (right) working it in the DBGB kitchen
Daniel Boulud's casual downtown spot DBGB (299 Bowery, 212-933-5300) is a large restaurant that caters to large crowds, and that demands long hours from sous chefs John Spratlin and Ian Vest. Despite the constant grind, though, each likes the job. We called them on was they were prepping for a massive Mardi Gras feast, when they were busily prepping a whole hog, cornbread, collard greens, and hurricanes. We talked about what it takes to make it on the line at DBGB, why it's important to express it when you don't like a new dish, and what they'd like to do eventually, which turns out to be much different from running a big restaurant.
What are you working on today at the restaurant? Spratlin: I'm actually doing some work. We're doing a Mardi Gras with a whole hog. We're doing some specialty stuff that, being French, we don't usually do. We're making Southern stuff so it's collard greens and cornbread along with some more traditional French stuff, so it's kind of an exciting kind of day for us. We're making hurricanes, so if we make them correctly, people will be falling out of the bar.
How do you make a whole hog? Spratlin: We kind have a process here. We're altering it slightly from our normal whole hog. We usually do a few different accouterments. We make cured meets and use a bunch of vegetables like Swiss chard, chestnuts, mushroom, and fennel. Some of that meat gets ground, and you make a log. We poach it and we roast it so that the skin gets nice and crispy. Then we serve it in slices so you can see huge pieces. It's an all-day event getting it where it needs to be.
What are your hours like? Spratlin: It depends, day to day. Theoretically, I'm a swing shift so I come in at 10 in the morning, and I assist the morning sous chef. We have different chef projects that certain sous chefs do. I'll make sure the cooks are maintaining their mise en place. We work 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., so our average work day is 13 hours long.
Vest: There have been nights when John has had to stay here until midnight after getting in at 10 in the morning. I've left at 3:30 in the morning.
When do you relax? Spratlin: When I stayed until midnight, I spent the last hour making a gumbo. It was actually really enjoyable. Once you're there for 12 hours, you kind of disconnect. When you usually have to do multiple projects, it's nice to produce one thing and you're just solely zoning in on it. That's an opportunity we don get too terribly often.
Vest: It's like cooking at home. We're still at work and we have to produce, but when you hit that mark and you're by yourself, you don't have to worry about it. You can't cook in New York apartments anyway.
Walk me through your shift. Vest: So I am the closing sous chef. I come in at 1 p.m. When I arrive, John has pretty much closed out his projects. When I come in, it's to finish projects and help the a.m. crew so the p.m. crew can set up and get ready for dinner service. Brunch and dinner are extremely busy during the week. Weekends are intense, and making that switch between meals is really crucial. The transition is one right into the other.
Spratlin: We don't close in between the two services, so the p.m. tickets come up when the a.m. stations are getting scrubbed. It's kind of a rush. Then I run the pass with Charlie with John. We kind of have an unspoken understanding that if one of us is here for 12 or 13 hours, we should do our best to get them out.
How involved are you with menu decisions? Vest: I think that Daniel Boulud knows what he likes DBGB to produce. Charlie [Foster] is our executive chef, and Boulud trusts him to put out quality food, and he does. So he'll come up with ideas and complete dishes and pass it to us. We taste and give feedback. A lot of times, we love it. Sometimes we don't, and that's really important, to have a team of people whose palates you trust.
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What are some things that have been on the menu since you started? Spratlin: What's interesting about this restaurant is our entrees change seasonally, however, I've worked here about two and a half years, and there are definitely the staples that have been exactly the same since day one. The sausage: There are some that have been on the menu and some that rotate in and out, and we have making those down. The burgers have been the exact same burgers since the restaurant opened. It's kind of exciting when we get the opportunity to do the staples. You have people rotating in and off the station producing the same exact thing so that can be enough of a fun challenge to make sure things get created.
What do you want to do eventually? Spratlin: Honestly, if I could absolutely do anything, I would want to wind up with a small store selling commissary stuff, something a little remote and quiet. That's a little more my speed. That's the beauty of the industry. There are so many options and so many trails. I've spent years where I am right now, feeling out that niche of a big time restaurant, so I'll enjoy doing that and taking it down a little in 10 to 15 years.
You could stay for that long? Spratlin: At this level, I think you can do it for as long as you really want to because the opportunity is definitely there. It depends on ultimately what your goals are as a cook. I didn't get into the industry because I wanted to be a chef. That's not what drew me to what I do. Where I'm from, growing up in Tennessee, [the industry is] for comfort and taking care of others. [A meal is] a day-long event get together that's ultimately about the people. I really enjoy working with my hands and producing for others and delivering what coalesces from all of that. Being a line cook in New York City is one element in the overall philosophy.
What are some of most memorable lessons you've learned? Vest: How to push yourself. It's really hard when you realize the next day is going to be harder, but keep trying to have a positive mental attitude even if you're not positive. The cooks are the first people who see you're stressed out so you need perseverance and stamina.
How do you communicate in the kitchen? Vest: It just becomes second nature. When the chef speaks, everybody is quiet. When you hear the executive chef give the order, or fire, no one else is talking. The information in our kitchen is passed via printers and voice, and it's very important to stay on top of it because we have a very spread out kitchen. Multiple stations could all be putting out items like burgers and pasta and multiple different courses at the same time so the timing is essential. If you're doing the raw bar, the grand plateau, you have to fire it so that the salad doesn't die in the window while you're shucking the last oysters. There's constant communication so there's little to no talking.
What's the most fun thing to make? Spratlin: Project-wise, one of the things that I really enjoy is the duck rolls. It's a duck confit with poached barberries, duck jus, chives, and parsley. It gets rolled into a cylinder and refrigerated and then rolled in plastic wrap, like in a long cigar shape, and we chill them and those get cut and wrapped and then fried. It's kind of fun and it has really nice ingredients and a really neat technique, and that's one I really enjoy doing.
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