Chapter 5- The Siena Hotel and My First Chef

April 25, 2017    » posted by: charlieredd

After I got canned at the bistro for sucking as a cook I picked up my sore beer-soaked head and started searching again for a place to cook. It needed to be the kind of place that cared about what they were doing but could teach me the basics. I found this and much more with Brian Stapleton at The Siena Hotel.

Brian was a chef. No doubt. He could cook any station, always had the answer, laughed while doing dishes next to Armando, and had a vicious temper if you weren’t focused or prepared for service. He balanced the team of cooks to keep them rolling through the large production we did at the hotel while keeping the menu as seasonal and progressive as he could. We always had to serve osso bucco and shrimp with angel hair pasta, but the dishes he created were top notch and contemporary.

Brian also was in great health. The chefs I had known and cooks I worked with were anything but. Overweight, smokers, drinkers, tired, and all around busted. He was thin, strong, quick, and happy. It showed in his stamina at work and drive in the kitchen. Every afternoon in the middle of his workday he would change and go for a run. It broke up his long day and gave us a break from his pressure and oversight. It also made us more responsible for our work considering we had to get it all done before he returned. He would run into the kitchen refreshed and energized as we went into dinner service and that gave all of us ragged line cooks a much needed boost or a fierce reprimand. That is until he would leave after dinner and we could finally go huff down some smokes.

I moved through the kitchen stations coached constantly by a tight team. Scotty, Rob, Todd, and Mike showed me all the tricks they knew while hammering home the basics. Work fast, laugh a lot, don’t talk too much or you’ll end up in the weeds and feel the wrath of the chef. Fear and respect the chef. Love the food. All lessons they taught you in school, but not really. Chef Brian had me call out the tickets and he went around working with the cooks, perfecting the dishes as only he could. He would guide the ship out of port, make sure it was sailing straight, then let the crew do their thing. A “good night” and “thank you” to every member of the staff then he hopped in his vintage orange Porsche and whizzed off to his beautiful wife and children. We were line cook pirates, but the captain was a real swashbuckler.

Brian Stapleton was a cook at heart, but taught me what a true chef is. He worked hard, while balancing when he was needed and where. Back then, it was popular for the chef to call orders and yell commands from afar to the cooks. Brian was working alongside you, teaching and nurturing the dish to its best flavor and presentation. He wasn’t hung up on what was trending, but what he felt was inspirational. His palette was strong and he could work any sauce or dish into something a little more special with his experience. His leadership was founded in experience and the ability that comes from that. When someone complained, came in unfocused, or started grumbling about the tasks put before them he would come back with a classic answer.

Chef-“Why don’t you take the night off and I’ll work your station.”

Startled lamb of a cook- “NO, Chef! I’ll be fine. I got this.”

Chef- “No, I want to see why you’re struggling so much with this. I’ll work it and we will talk tomorrow.” That’s when the Vader music would start to echo from the back prep kitchen.

He would, every time, slide into the station and begin to master it. The cook in question would sulk out the back door while the Chef would put on a clinic of organized prep, set up, and execution of the work in question. Flawless, every time. He would finish the service, look down the line, and say “Remember what you saw and tell ____ how I ran this station tonight.” Then he would do his rounds of thanks and peel out, triumphant. The next day, the cook in question would return to a sit-down in the office and a play by play of how bad they sucked and how he got it done. They would then go back to work where all your co-workers were telling you how much better the Chef was then you and how easy he made it look. Lead by example. Nurture by leading. Constantly leading by challenging yourself and your team. Lessons to live by.

The hotel gave me the foundation I had been looking for, and I found my first professional mentor. Brian showed me what a chef was, and what I would need to do to become one. He taught me the ways of the kitchen and also set the path for where my career needed to go. The whole team gave me the skills to hustle, taste, critique, and just cook. He reminded me I was young and to nurture and enjoy that freedom. He faced me to The West and the emerging farm to table movement. He kicked me in the ass many times, and every time made me a better man and cook. I graduated from the hotel ready to continue in my chosen craft and begin to learn the nuances and art of what cooking could be. I use him as an example daily in driving myself for success and bringing my team along with me. He is why I taste, push, teach, read, lift, ride my bike fast, and dream of owning a vintage Porsche.