Just Like on ‘The Bear’: NJ Chefs’ Real-Life Tales of Passion and Pain

These local chefs’ early cooking gigs were as harrowing as “The Bear."

Jeremy Allen White as chef Carmy Berzatto on “The Bear.”
Jeremy Allen White as chef Carmy Berzatto on “The Bear.” Photo courtesy of FX Network Productions

In Hulu’s hit series The Bear, now in its third season, climbing the kitchen ladder is both exhilarating and excruciating.

Here, a quintet of accomplished New Jersey chefs reveal their own shocking kitchen dramas.

AJ Capella, executive chef/owner of Summit House

“After getting my CIA [Culinary Institute of America] degree, I worked my way up the cooking line. I took a job as line cook for a well-known Chicago chef at his Manhattan restaurant. From this, I was taught how molecular gastronomy works, and how to manage 15- or 16-hour workdays. I was grateful for the knowledge but resolved that in the future I’d never work my own team that hard.

“I also survived a five-day [apprenticeship] at an extremely famous and expensive NYC place. The first three days they had me cutting romaine leaves into the shape of golf-hole flags. I figured they were for an event, but no, they were thrown away—to show me how unimportant I was.

“The fourth day, I was led to one of two gold tiles in the blue-tiled kitchen floor. I was told to stand on that tile, not to move or talk, and just observe. I had to raise my hand to use the bathroom. After four hours of standing like a statue, I was moved to the other gold tile. The next day, same routine. After hours of standing still, the chef at the station nearest the tile came to me and said, ‘Look, I’m wrapping these pork loins but I’m about to run out of twine, and if I leave my station I’ll run behind and screw everything up. Could you just run to that closet over there and get me a roll of twine?’ I told him, ‘I’m not allowed to move.’ He said, ‘This is for the good of the kitchen. Can you please just do this?’ So I did. And then the chef who had stuck me on the gold tiles came over and said, ‘You were instructed not to move. Now you can get the @!%# out of here.’ The chef who’d asked me for the twine whispered, ‘It was a test, dude.’ I was shown how cruel a kitchen can be, treating young chefs like robots. Yeah, just like on The Bear.”

395 Springfield Avenue, Summit; 908-273-6000

David Burke, founder of David Burke Hospitality Management, with nine restaurants in New Jersey

“Well, there was the night I was held at gunpoint and slapped around for hours by two thieves who thought I knew the restaurant safe’s combination. I was the executive chef at that place, not a chef just starting out, but I have some harrowing stories about those early years too.

“For my CIA externship, I got a very competitive placement in the kitchen of a brilliant and famous French chef in Dallas. The crew tasked me with dessert soufflés, which I did just fine. So they asked me to make their potato soufflés. Every table got some. They are amazing creations that I think of as potato pillowcases: fluffy inside with a shell outside. But they’re ferociously difficult to make; perfection is the only way they work, which is why you almost never see them any more. First you precisely fry chunks of potato in a pan of boiling oil so it puffs up from its water without exploding. You have to work fast and very close to the potato, so your fingers can’t help but get burned. Then you drop them in another pan for the deep-fry. Again, more hot splatters and finger burns. But I got it done, and the uncompromising French chef was happy. This experience drilled into me that to produce great food, perfection is your only option. When I became an executive chef a few years later, I’d show the potato soufflé technique to my kitchen crew, and they’d make them, with some safety accommodations.

“But back to my early career. While still at the CIA, I did a month-long stage at a three-star Michelin restaurant in rural France. Three stars is the most you can get, and the place had serious rules. I’d been told to bring a pair of black lace-up shoes. I showed up in a beautiful pair of black high-top sneakers. A manager told me I couldn’t wear them in the kitchen—even though no diners ever saw me or my feet. He ordered me to get some black shoes and come right back. But we were in the middle of nowhere, not in, say, downtown Morristown, where a shoe store is a five-minute walk. So I borrowed an extra pair of shoes that another student chef volunteered.

“Thing is, they were two sizes too small. I spent that long first day—ten hours—on my feet in this hot kitchen. I was in so much pain I could barely make it to my room, where I discovered my feet were raw, bleeding and oozing. I was dizzy from the pain and can’t remember how I got shoes in my size. But I did, and spent the next day working on my aching, stinging feet. My lesson was that where magic emerges from the kitchen door, a ton of hard work is behind it.”

Scott Giordano, executive chef/owner of The Poached Pear Bistro

“I got lucky. The chef on my CIA externship became my mentor: Hans Egg, who’s Swiss and founded Saddle River Inn, now owned by Jamie Knott. I ended up working for Hans for over ten years. Instead of forcing his cooks to learn by trial and error, he showed his crew the right way to do everything, and treated us like sensitive human beings. He was a combination leader and father figure. His faith in us and his support made us want to do our very best and soak up all the knowledge he put before us.

“But before I graduated, I had another cooking experience I want to forget, but I’ll tell you. It was at a traditional, red-sauce Italian place in North Jersey. Now, let me say that there’s often chaos in a busy restaurant kitchen, but it’s controlled chaos, and the crew gets into a fast-paced rhythm. But at this place, it was unpredictable, uncontrolled chaos. Everyone shouting, pots clanging, steam rising, cooks racing around. Honestly, I was afraid to move off my station, because I’d get knocked down. But Hans managed his kitchen sanely, and now I do too.”

816 Arnold Avenue, Point Pleasant Beach; 732-701-1700

Demetrios Haronis, executive chef at Tropicana Atlantic City

“Some of my best times in the hospitality game were the summers I spent in Spiro’s, the seasonal restaurant my father and uncle owned on the Wildwood boardwalk. Even as a grade-school kid I was there helping with little things. When I was nine, a line cook called in sick, and I worked the station as well as I could. I kept on assisting and soaking it up, and by high school I had hours and a paycheck. It was a blast to be with the crew and my family, and to spend my breaks in the boardwalk arcade.

“When I was 17 and got a car, I got a job outside of Cape May in an enormous, high-volume Shore seafood place. I wanted to see how huge, busy restaurants do it. I was the low man on the kitchen totem pole, and the cooks bossed me around. Early in my shift, they’d make me open two bags of clams. That’s 400 clams. Then I’d work the sauté station and sauté maybe 500 orders of seafood a night. The good part is that the hours flew by, and I absorbed so much. Not just recipes and technique, but seeing how a well-run restaurant can just hum along. Then I went to the Academy of Culinary Arts in Cape May and got officially launched.”

2831 Boardwalk, Atlantic City; 609-340-4000

Anthony DeVanzo, executive chef/co-owner of Bici

“I grew up cooking with my Italian family and went to the CIA. My first postgrad [apprenticeship] was a few days at an adventurous restaurant in Liguria in northern Italy. They served an unheard-of chef’s tasting dinner of 11 courses with wine pairings. It was absolutely fantastic and proved to me there are really no limits to what a chef can do or create.

“Then I spent two-and-a-half weeks at a modern Roman restaurant. The kitchen was very friendly and it really improved my Italian. This place was also amazing. The husband was the chef and the wife, the sommelier. You could feel the love they poured into their craft. When the seasonal fava beans came in we peeled them for days, and no one minded. And I was permanently inspired by the risotto, made with primo ingredients like those fava beans or spring peas, which tinted the risotto a beautiful green. Today, risotto is a star of the menu at my restaurant, Bici.

“My next stage was in Sicily, at a mountaintop restaurant where the view was the entire island and the Mediterranean. The food was classic Sicilian, with the sweetest tomatoes and eggplant, basil, spaghetti. The dishes were so simple but the flavors complex and deep. I brought home those taste memories and the Sicilian tradition of ‘Sunday supper,’ when you go to the markets in the morning, cook all afternoon and then invite your family and friends for dinner. Actually, you see a lot of that in New Jersey, and Bici has a ‘Sunday gravy’ entrée every day, rigatoni in a thick red sauce with meatball, sausage and pork.

“My so-so early cooking job was at a country club kitchen in Connecticut. I was on the breakfast crew. I had to be there at six and start making pancake batter and cracking eggs. The takeaway was ‘no more breakfast service for me.’”

61 Main Street, Ramsey; 201-962-9015 

Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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