By Lolis Eric Elie
I’ve never worked for Enrico Brulard or anyone like him. I like to imagine that if some boss tortured me the way Brulard tortures Jeanette Desautel, I’d stage a cook’s rebellion. But in the restaurant world, people not only work for bosses like Brulard, many seek them out. For those not in the world of restaurant kitchens, it seems like a strange psychology.
I figure the people who can best interpret Brulard are the two real-life New Orleans restaurant chefs who play line cooks on ‘Treme,’ Alon Shaya and Adrienne Eiser.
Alon grew up in Philadelphia. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, he moved to Las Vegas and worked with Jean-Louis Palladin and Watch Chunpol, a celebrated Thai chef. Years later Octavio Mantilla, the managing partner of John Besh’s New Orleans-based restaurant group, recruited Alon to the city. He served as chef at Besh Steak in the Harrah’s Casino. Then he partnered with Besh and Mantilla to open Domenica in 2008.
Adrienne Eiser grew up in Montreal. She also went to school at the Culinary Institute of America. After cooking at various restaurants in western Canada and New York City, she moved to New Orleans about two years ago. She’s worked at several of the city’s best restaurants including Stella! and Gautreau’s. But her first love is charcuterie. She’s been working as a chef at the best cheese and charcuterie shop in town, St. James Cheese Co.
I asked Adrienne and Alon whether they’d ever experienced the Brulard treatment.
“I had experiences like that in Las Vegas for sure with Jean Louis,” says Alon. “He was a very passionate, passionate chef. I remember somebody on the garde manager station put out a salad and one of the leaves was slightly wilted. Jean Louis walked up to the cook and just started screaming at him. Everyone in the kitchen was always on edge. Nobody wanted to mess anything up because if you did, he would come after you.
“But he was an amazing chef, a genius. You would be scared working there, but you knew it was going to make you a better cook.”
“I had a chef once throw a plate at me,” Adrienne said. “He missed me and it crashed through a glass-fronted fridge and he said ‘Be glad that wasn’t your head.’ That was in Canada. When you are working in a kitchen that is that temperamental, the word will spread when the chef gets there. It’s like ‘Daddy’s home. Get your station in order.’
“You tend to internalize a lot of that. I’m nervous about my chef catching me doing something wrong, so I’m constantly monitoring everything I do. Everything has to be perfect. It may not be the best way to handle your employees; but it certainly is effective.
“Anybody who commits to work in fine dining sort of expects to deal with a chef like that. You stay because the food is that good and there is so much to learn. In first episode there’s a scene that’s really telling: Kim Dickens is in her apartment in New York and they are chatting and saying “He’ll f**k with you just because he can. Great cook though, right?”
While there are still chefs out there torturing their line cooks, that mentality seems to be changing. “When I was coming up, it was expected. If you were going to work with one of the best chefs in the world, you knew what you were getting into before you went to work there. It seems like these days that mentality is kind of going away,” Alon said.
Last week, I was on set talking to Donald Link, the chef owner of Herbsaint and Cochon. He’ll be making a cameo appearance later in the season. He echoed Alon’s sentiments: “We try to have an environment where people are mentored and taught and not yelled at. I’m not saying I never have done it. But it’s been a long time. I tell my sous chefs, if somebody’s bothering them that much, maybe that person shouldn’t be working here.”