Commitment is an interesting word. How difficult is it to truly understand what is implied by this term? Are there degrees of commitment or is it simply a finite word? We use the term very loosely: chefs are looking for committed cooks, teachers try to encourage young people to aspire to it, employers insist upon it and guests tend to expect it. Can any of those who promote the need for commitment clearly describe what they mean? A quote that I have often used tends to sum up what most assume that it means: “when using the breakfast meal as an example; the chicken is INVOLVED while the pig is COMMITTED. (think about it for a minute)” Is this really what we are looking for in individuals?
Parents are committed to their children, spouses are committed to their partners and best friends are committed to another, but what does that really mean? There is no question that chefs work excessive hours, work in physically demanding environments, endure the emotional and mental stress of a demanding public and tight timelines, but are they committed? Can there be degrees of commitment?
Michael Jordan was truly an intense, extraordinary basketball player who worked incessantly at his craft, but was he committed? Jordan still had balance in his life. Thomas Edison was a brilliant inventor who was known to avoid contact with others, go days without sleep or food, all for the purpose of focusing on his craft. Both individuals were extraordinary but was one committed and the other simply involved at a high level?
I have worked with many chefs and managers who invest a significant portion of their lives to their profession. Some work 80 hours a week and still stay up at night thinking about food, planning events, working through problems and dreaming about the next great concept. Some who even when they take a day off are still reading about food, visiting other restaurants, sketching out ideas and working on recipes at home. Are they as committed as the pig in the breakfast analogy? Is total commitment even something to aspire to?
I admire all in the food business who dedicate their time, talent, passion and energy to what they do. Some are very involved and others go beyond that. They choose to dedicate whatever portion of their lives to something that they believe in, something that is an extension of who they are. One such chef is Tim McQuinn. I have known Tim since he was a student of mine many years ago. I have had the pleasure of teaching him, working with him in kitchens, discussing food with him and following every step of his career in restaurants. He has agreed to this interview so that others might understand what it means to demonstrate commitment and prepare them for the rigor of life behind the line.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in the kitchen?
“My story doesn’t begin at home in the kitchen with my mother or grandmother or having always been cooking since the age of 10. That’s not to say that I wasn’t always curious about it at a young age, or trying to help out when mom was making Sunday dinner or baking cookies. But by the age of 16 my parents issued me two options; College or the army. I think they were only half serious but I understood the importance of a college education. What I lacked was focus. I was on the wrestling team all throughout high school which meant cutting weight; a lot of weight. I’d watch the Food Network to help satisfy my cravings. I’m not sure why or how it worked but it did. This was way back in the beginning of the “Essence of Emeril” days. So I guess I sort of gravitated towards Culinary Arts. Fortunate for me, I fell in love with the kitchen.”
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“I’ve been lucky in my career to have learned a great deal from cooking with a lot of great chefs and cooks in several kitchens. Chef Paul Sorgule has been my mentor from the start of my career and continues to be a tremendous influence on me to this day. First as the Dean of Culinary Arts/Hospitality at Paul Smith’s College, then as Executive Chef at The Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid, NY, and now as the President and Founder of Harvest America Ventures, he has always taken the time to teach me lessons in life and in the kitchen. Chef Tony Maws, Chef/Proprietor of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA and The Kirkland Tap and Trotter in Somerville, MA helped me to develop the ‘no compromise’ attitude within kitchens and myself I’ve managed since working for Chef Maws. And the relentless quest for doing things only one way, the right way. Chef Ranveer Brar, Senior Executive Chef at Accor in Mumbai, India; formerly Executive Chef of BanQ Restaurant in Boston, MA gave me my first Sous Chef position which later turned into a Chef de Cuisine position. Chef Brar taught me much about management as well as underlining principles of food and presentation.”
3. What style of cooking best portrays your passion?
“When I cook for guests, and family for that matter, I try to keep things simple. Combinations that make sense to their palette but also trying hard to create for them something they haven’t had before. Some sort of little twist in there that keeps them guessing and coming back for more.”
4. Do you have a food philosophy that drives your menu decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“For me the guest is the ultimate motivator that drives any menu decision. The menu needs to reflect the food that our guests are looking for. Common sense, right? With that in mind, I can create a menu that can both distinguish our restaurant from others and give the guest what they are looking for. Obviously we need to believe in the food and love what we are cooking, or we could be in big trouble as a kitchen and a business. At the same time, we need the guest to want to come through our doors, sit at our tables and spend their hard-earned money to eat our food. It can be tricky at times.”
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
“I spent the summer of 2001 doing a stage in the kitchen of Chef Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance in Saint Pere sous Vezelay in the Burgundy region of France. It was like all the romanticized stories of traveling abroad- the food, the wine. All absolutely amazing. It was my epiphany and I definitely need to go back.”
6. Who are your most valuable players in the restaurant where you currently work?
“It is without a doubt the line cooks and prep cooks that are our MVPs in the kitchen. They are the shock troops, the frontline soldiers, and the ones kicking grenades in the trenches, giving all the blood, sweat and tears. Without them and their commitment to the their job, getting the food out during service, or prepped before service, none of it is possible, and therefore the business would not be possible.”
7. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks looking to make their mark in kitchens, what would you tell them?
“Cooking is all about attitude and commitment. You will never know it all, there is always more to learn and room to grow. Have a pen (and a sharpie for that matter) and notepad on you at all times and use them. Remember, humans are creatures of habit; routines are hard to start, but easy to maintain. That way you can avoid short cuts by developing good habits and stopping the bad.”
8. When you hire people to work in your kitchen what traits are you looking for?
“Attitude and commitment. You can always teach new skills and train employees the ways of the kitchen. But it’s much more difficult to develop the right kind of attitude in someone. It’s all about the attitude they bring to work – the desire to learn, that no job is too small. They also need to show initiative. Taste everything, see how the chef makes his or her sauces, purees, vinaigrettes, but take it upon yourself before someone asks you to taste it. This tells me you are thinking for yourself; you’re already ahead of the curve.”
9. If you were not cooking, what would you choose to do for a career?
“I have no idea. I’ve always thought about it and I’ve never really came up with anything. Maybe journalism? I don’t know why. Sounds like it might be interesting. Could be possibly exciting at times.”
10. What would you like people to know about your current restaurant and the food that you produce?
“The Merchant hasn’t opened just yet but Executive Chef Matt Foley has also worked at Craigie on Main and brings that “no compromise” approach to cooking and strives for the best food possible. It’s going to be a lot of fun and exciting. “
Tim McQuinn is one of the most technically accomplished cooks that I know. He is truly a committed individual who, since his first time holding a French knife, knew that he was meant to work with food. He was an exceptional culinary student, participated in a French cooking internship, has worked with many accomplished chefs and stood beside me as my benchmark Chef Tournant at the Four-Diamond Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid. Tim spent time at BanQ Restaurant in Boston, Craigie on Main in Cambridge, The Tailor and the Cook in Utica, and the North Hero House in Vermont. I know I look forward to the opening of Merchant and hope to be one of the first in line to experience his food.
Although the Merchant website is not yet up and running, the following article in EATER-Boston will shed some light on what is to come.