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Recette sous chef Audrey Villegas likes to cook at 1 in the morning after the guests are gone. She has an edge-of-your-seat intensity when she talks about bean season; she got it from interning at Per Se when she was 24. After that, she toughed it out in the trenches at Gordon Ramsay and, briefly, Dovetail before she followed Jesse Schenker to Recette (328 West 12th Street, 212-414-3000), where she’s been for more than three years. Here, she talks about how Per Se’s intensity made her cry every day, how the torture at Gordon Ramsay made her stronger, and what it’s like sharing one burner on a busy night at Recette.
You started your career as an intern at Per Se. Is that like singing backup for Beyoncé?
(laughing) That’s line cook. It’s more like, let’s see you get coffee for Beyoncé’s backup. How’s that for a metaphor?
Weren’t you freaking out?
That was my first job out of California. I didn’t know anything about New York. All I knew was I wanted to be in New York so I packed up my bags. I found an apartment right away on 110th Street and Central Park North. I showed up there to meet the sous chef. It was a quick interview, and that’s it. When I started my job at Per Se, I hated it because I didn’t know that it was super hard. I didn’t know anything about how restaurants in New York operate. It wasn’t cultural differences or cultural shock because I grew up in a big city, but what shocked me was the restaurant industry. Per Se was a very intense place, so I guess being there was super good for me because my standards were high at the beginning and it just goes from there.
But yes, I was freaking out. First of all I was like, ‘Oh my god this kitchen is beautiful.’ The people are so professional. It’s intense. It’s quiet. It’s very, very clean. This was eight years ago. Everybody was great on the line, the line cooks were great, there were no weak people anywhere. Even with your family meal, if you cooked something that wasn’t good, it was, like, really, really embarrassing because you’re with all these great people. I was crying every day. I was doing 12 hours of work from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. and then two hours of cleaning. We scrubbed the floors. It was so intense for me, but at the same time, it was so great because it helped my appreciation for cleanliness and organization and teaching young cooks. That I learned from them. I learned my basic kitchen stuff from there, how you treat people, how you try to teach young cooks.
How did it affect you emotionally?
The thing is I didn’t have any friends and family here on the East coast. I would call my sisters and say, “Oh my god I don’t think I can do this.” I was thinking I shouldn’t be a cook anymore. It was really hard for me. I was living in this little apartment. I was sleeping in a twin bed and coming from Orange County, where you have a big house. Then you come here and you didn’t have anything. It was pretty hard emotionally, but it made me strong. Without those experiences I wouldn’t be as strong as I am right now.
What were the big cooking lessons at Per Se?
The sous vide and then the foie gras, the torchons, the terrines and stuff. I never really learned how to do this, but I watched them, and I’m a sponge. I see stuff and I know how to do it. If I see you do I it, I absorb.
You’re pretty intense yourself.
You need a sense of urgency, because without that, my goodness, if you don’t have sense of urgency, working in the kitchen? It would be a disaster. Well, it’s part of my life. I run Recette like that. You have to be alert and have a sense of urgency all the times.
Was working at Gordon Ramsay tough?
That was the most torture I experienced in my life, but it’s like, yeah, you can’t fuck with me, I’ve done this and this. I never really worked with him side by side, but seeing him treat his cook employees is magical. On a Saturday he would always make this shellfish stew for everyone — everybody was looking forward to that. He never says much, but once he talks to you, it’s great. You know those people, they don’t talk much, but when they do it’s really effective. Like that.
Was Ramsay nice to you?
He’s actually a great guy. Everything we see on TV is on TV. They want the asshole side, but he’s very sweet. He was there every month, and he says hi to you.
What’s the setup at Recette like?
It’s a small staff. We’re very hands on. On a busy night, I’m going to have one burner and four staff — two cooks on the line, me, and a dishwasher. It gets really ugly. It’s a small restaurant. It’s really tight. On a slow night like on a Tuesday, that’s when you feel the sense of what we really, really are, although I never really sacrifice the food even though it’s a busy night.
What got you to Recette?
I would help [Jesse Schenker] on my days off, and then when I quit Ramsay, I was on my way to another restaurant and I had three weeks off. He wanted to me to come to him and I said no; I thought I needed more experience. So I went to Dovetail because I was fascinated John Fraser’s way of thinking about vegetable dishes. Jesse kept telling me, “You’re going to come back to me. There’s nothing to learn, everything you learn is within you! This is how you do it: you do it yourself, you go watch stuff, and you already know how to do everything.” I told him to just let me go and let me make my own mistakes. Then I came back after four months. I said, “You’re right.” Of course he said, “I told you so.”
How’s Recette evolved in those four years?
Well you’re not a new restaurant; the neighborhood people love it and come back to us. We also get new people who haven’t heard of us before. We’re not as busy as we were years ago.
When do you come into your own?
I’m not a morning person, so I get really creative around 1 o’clock in the morning, and then my dishwasher hates me. I will work wee hours from 1 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. testing outside my comfort zone. I never wake up before noon.
What’s got you excited now?
I’m thinking spring is coming! I’m changing the menu, so I’m thinking about that, and I cannot sleep because I’m thinking beans, it’s bean season again.
What’s the vibe like in the kitchen?
We have music while we prep and during service even though we’re pumping like 100 covers. If I’m in the kitchen I’m going to bust out some Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé or John Mayer, and they hate me for that. Ed, who is one of us, likes hip-hop, so the Wu Tang Clan. When Jesse works, it’s grunge rock and roll like Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails outside the kitchen in the dining room. When I play Anita Baker everybody just yells at me and says, “What is this music?” But I like it.