Blackberry Farm’s award-winning chef lauds her ‘University of IHOP’ education – Chattanooga Times Free Press

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Blackberry Farm’s award-winning chef

Cassidee Dabney has one of the more coveted jobs in her field: executive chef of the Barn at Blackberry Farm, an award-winning restaurant, both luxurious and deeply connected to the land, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.

But she got her start, and a certain prestige, at an Applebee’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In her town, she said, “telling people you work at Applebee’s was like telling them you worked at [acclaimed New York restaurant] Per Se.”

That job, making salads and french fries while she was in high school, has shaped how Dabney runs her kitchen at Blackberry Farm. She has also hired a number of employees with similar experience.

Dabney, 40, is one of several acclaimed chefs who prize the lessons they learned — many as teenagers — in the scaled-up, streamlined world of chain restaurants. They include Stephanie Izard, the executive chef and co-owner of Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner in Chicago, and Kia Damon, formerly the executive chef of Lalito in New York and now the culinary director of Cherry Bombe, a magazine that focuses on women in the food world.

Influential Southern chef Sean Brock loves eating at the Waffle House chain so much that he took Anthony Bourdain to one for Bourdain’s television show “Parts Unknown” and explained how much the restaurant had taught him about hospitality. Even Jacques Pépin, the French chef best known for his TV cooking shows, values the 10 years he worked in research and development for a signature American chain restaurant: Howard Johnson’s.

Chain restaurants are often accused of a sterile uniformity and a lack of attention to quality ingredients, nutrition and the environment. But for anyone trying to enter the restaurant business, they have particular attractions: formalized training, efficient operations, predictable schedules and corporate policies that claim to discourage the kind of abuses that have come to light in the #MeToo era. The pay is sometimes better than at independent restaurants, and the Affordable Care Act requires companies with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance.

They also have the jobs. In 2017, the number of independent restaurants in the United States fell by almost 11,000, to 346,100, from the previous year, according to an analysis by the NPD Group, a market research company. But the number of chain restaurants rose by almost 1,000, to 301,200.

At the same time, enrollment in culinary schools is declining; at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, for example, enrollment dropped to about 300 in 2017, from 800 in 1999, according to The Associated Press.

As chains claim a larger slice of the restaurant business, they may become an increasingly common, and far more accessible, path to a career as a chef.

Dabney graduated from the New England Culinary Institute. But before that, she learned a lot from the environment at Applebee’s. There wasn’t a strict hierarchy, she said, because the kitchen wasn’t centered on a chef, as in many independent restaurants.

“There is this understanding that every person is important to making the restaurant run smoothly,” she said. “Nobody thought the dishwasher was a lower status than them.”

It’s the kind of culture she has tried to instill at Blackberry Farm, where all kitchen employees are expected to help out in the dish pit if the dishwashers are falling behind, she said.

One of her line cooks, Tony Genova, worked for Applebee’s as well. “You can totally see the difference between him and someone who hasn’t” worked in a chain restaurant, Dabney said. “It’s his movements and getting twice as much done.”

She added that people in her kitchen who have worked for chains “are not in it for the Food Network or the fame,” as people who come from fine-dining restaurants often are. “They are in it because they genuinely love cooking.”

As a short-order cook at an IHOP in Houston and Beaumont, Texas, from ages 15 to 19, Tiffany Derry, the chef and an owner of Roots Chicken Shak in Plano, Texas, and the yet-to-open Roots Southern Table, in Dallas, said she learned “how to be quick, have a good memory and know the timing of everything.”

“Chain restaurants have a playbook for every position,” said Derry, 36. “There is no guesswork.”

She also acquired the business skills needed to open her own restaurants — how to cost out a dish, do inventory, make revenue projections and input invoices — and now teaches her employees the same.

Several chefs pointed to the rigorous customer-service standards of the chains where they worked.

Izard, 43, of Girl & the Goat, can still recall the four mottoes she was taught as a host and server at Olive Garden. (She worked at the Tucson, Arizona, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, locations from ages 19 to 21.)

“Hot food hot. Cold food cold. Money to the bank. Clean restrooms,” she said. “It’s all still very true and straightforward. I go to our restrooms all the time, and someone is cleaning them every 15 minutes.”

She has even tossed around the idea of bringing a version of the Olive Garden birthday song (which she can still recite by heart) to Little Goat Diner.

Some chefs said they keep their eye out for people with certain chain restaurants on their résumés.

Derry, the Dallas chef and restaurateur, said she liked working with people who came from Pappas, a family-friendly chain that started in Houston, because of its rigorous training. “You spend a week on the grill, a week waitressing, a week in financials,” she said. “You know every aspect of that restaurant.”

But Derry doesn’t look back fondly at every part of her chain experience.

“I cooked the same food every day,” she said. “It was a lot of defrosting this, mixing this batter together, and boom, that is your day.” When she stepped into her first fine-dining kitchen, she wasn’t familiar with many of the more expensive ingredients, like monkfish.

As a contestant on the TV show “Top Chef” in 2010 and 2011, she felt pigeonholed by her chain background. Despite her several years working at independent restaurants, she felt she was labeled the chef from IHOP.

As she moved on from chains, Christina Machamer — a personal chef in Napa Valley, California, who worked at a Red Lobster in St. Louis as a teenager — said she sometimes had to make sacrifices: lower wages or forgoing pay while training.

“I worked at an independent restaurant that is no longer around, where it took me too long to run food to my table so the chef threw a potato and it hit me in the head,” she said. “That kind of stuff doesn’t happen in a chain restaurants because of corporate structure. You tend to be treated more fairly.”

Machamer, 37, believes that the demanding conditions at many independent restaurants could be contributing to the labor shortage in the industry by discouraging workers from staying. (Statistics on restaurant pay are hard to come by, but wages for cooks appear to be fairly uniform, on average. TDN2K, a restaurant analytics firm, said the average hourly wage for line cooks at full-service chain restaurants was $13.75 in the third quarter of 2019. The average hourly wage at both chains and independent restaurants was $13.26 in May 2018, according to the federal Department of Labor.)

After working for chains, some of these chefs continued their education at culinary school, while others went straight to higher-end restaurants.

Damon, who did not attend culinary school, said a chain experience can be just as valuable as schooling, especially considering the high cost of education.

“You have people teaching you how to sauté and store foods, and it is strict because there is a whole nationwide system,” Damon said. “And a lot of the curriculum in culinary school is not reflective of what is going on in the everyday world.”

Machamer is still paying off her loans for culinary school. “And when you graduate and work for that Michelin-star chef, you aren’t going to make enough to be able to pay your loans.”

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