What It's Like to Be Sous Chef at DBGB
Daniel Boulud's casual downtown spot DBGB (299 Bowery, 212-933-5300) is a large restaurant that caters to large crowds, and that demands long hours from sous chefs John Spratlin and Ian Vest. Despite the constant grind, though, each likes the job. We called them on was they were prepping for a massive Mardi Gras feast, when they were busily prepping a whole hog, cornbread, collard greens, and hurricanes. We talked about what it takes to make it on the line at DBGB, why it's important to express it when you don't like a new dish, and what they'd like to do eventually, which turns out to be much different from running a big restaurant.
Ian Vest (left) and John Spratlin (right) working it in the DBGB kitchen
What are you working on today at the restaurant?
Spratlin: I'm actually doing some work. We're doing a Mardi Gras with a whole hog. We're doing some specialty stuff that, being French, we don't usually do. We're making Southern stuff so it's collard greens and cornbread along with some more traditional French stuff, so it's kind of an exciting kind of day for us. We're making hurricanes, so if we make them correctly, people will be falling out of the bar.
How do you make a whole hog?
Spratlin: We kind have a process here. We're altering it slightly from our normal whole hog. We usually do a few different accouterments. We make cured meets and use a bunch of vegetables like Swiss chard, chestnuts, mushroom, and fennel. Some of that meat gets ground, and you make a log. We poach it and we roast it so that the skin gets nice and crispy. Then we serve it in slices so you can see huge pieces. It's an all-day event getting it where it needs to be.
What are your hours like?
Spratlin: It depends, day to day. Theoretically, I'm a swing shift so I come in at 10 in the morning, and I assist the morning sous chef. We have different chef projects that certain sous chefs do. I'll make sure the cooks are maintaining their mise en place. We work 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., so our average work day is 13 hours long.
Vest: There have been nights when John has had to stay here until midnight after getting in at 10 in the morning. I've left at 3:30 in the morning.
When do you relax?
Spratlin: When I stayed until midnight, I spent the last hour making a gumbo. It was actually really enjoyable. Once you're there for 12 hours, you kind of disconnect. When you usually have to do multiple projects, it's nice to produce one thing and you're just solely zoning in on it. That's an opportunity we don get too terribly often.
Vest: It's like cooking at home. We're still at work and we have to produce, but when you hit that mark and you're by yourself, you don't have to worry about it. You can't cook in New York apartments anyway.
Walk me through your shift.
Vest: So I am the closing sous chef. I come in at 1 p.m. When I arrive, John has pretty much closed out his projects. When I come in, it's to finish projects and help the a.m. crew so the p.m. crew can set up and get ready for dinner service. Brunch and dinner are extremely busy during the week. Weekends are intense, and making that switch between meals is really crucial. The transition is one right into the other.
Spratlin: We don't close in between the two services, so the p.m. tickets come up when the a.m. stations are getting scrubbed. It's kind of a rush. Then I run the pass with Charlie with John. We kind of have an unspoken understanding that if one of us is here for 12 or 13 hours, we should do our best to get them out.
How involved are you with menu decisions?
Vest: I think that Daniel Boulud knows what he likes DBGB to produce. Charlie [Foster] is our executive chef, and Boulud trusts him to put out quality food, and he does. So he'll come up with ideas and complete dishes and pass it to us. We taste and give feedback. A lot of times, we love it. Sometimes we don't, and that's really important, to have a team of people whose palates you trust.