When I was doing a food podcast, I would start worrying I was exhausting my listeners if an interview with one chef pushed past the ten-minute mark. Yet for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to a podcast called In the Weeds in which a chef named Ben Randall talks with his friend Steve Kadwell about places he’s worked—for an hour to two hours in each episode, of which there are 30 so far. That’s like the equivalent of Breaking Bad in running time, and I’m nearly as hooked.
Admittedly, I may be something of a special case in terms of my interest in the subject, but for anyone who liked the original dirt-revealing Anthony Bourdain of Kitchen Confidential, Randall—who says he’s worked 24 different places, mostly in Chicago and all pretty midlevel (this isn’t about the Michelin-star world)—offers a similar brew of here’s how it’s done, here’s what can go wrong, and here are the dysfunctional humans you’ll meet in the kitchen. (If you want one to start with, episode 29, “The Seven People You Meet in Hell,” covers that last topic.)
Randall currently runs an institutional kitchen at a south-side grad school, and seems to have found contentment (and family-friendly hours), but some of the places he worked in the past (pseudonymously dubbed things like “The Dirty Duck” or “Restaurant B”) have taken on dramatic lives of their own via podcasting. As much as these are true stories, they’re also shaped by Randall’s literary sense—characters are adroitly sketched, and at least once per episode he’ll whip out an aphorism worth jotting down (“In a slow restaurant everybody’s scared; in a busy restaurant everybody’s angry”). We met at Portage Grounds, a coffee shop near his house in (you guessed it) Portage Park, to talk.
Michael Gebert: Why did you start your recording your stories and making them into a podcast?
Ben Randall: The reason I record came from listening to other podcasts and thinking, that’s something I can do. It cost me about forty bucks to get started. I have a writing background, I’m trying to reconvince myself that I can write a novel—I have a full time job and have a podcast and two kids, so we’ll see. But I realized that I was losing those memories—take the Dirty Duck, I realized I couldn’t remember what my station setup looked like. So I thought, I’ll write all this stuff down.
I mean, there’s Anthony Bourdain and the guy who wrote The Soul of a Chef, but it didn’t seem like anyone was doing ground-level stuff. So I thought I’ll write it all, and then, I had been listening to a number of other podcasts and I thought, wait a minute, writing sounds like it would take a long time. I don’t have any agenda for this other than I quit drinking a couple of years ago so this is a way for me to blow off steam. I don’t believe in therapy. I don’t feel that I need to hire somebody to be my friend and listen to my problems. That’s what I have Steve and the podcast for. The podcast is my way of working though and sharing the stresses of this job and, to a greater extent, this life.
I brought my buddy Steve on because he’s a nice foil, not having a kitchen background he asks a lot of audience questions. He’s done a lot of service jobs, but only front of the house. Steve’s background is that he’s trained in theater. He’s in Chicago, partly because I told him to move here. We’ve been friends since college, and he’s taking classes and trying to get into theater here. It’s a great theater town if you’re in it, but really tough if you’re trying to get in. Because of that he has that background of a lot of service jobs, delivering pizza, this kind of thing. This brings two things to it: he can help with the narrative because he knows shows and at the same time he gets to ask questions that force me to be clear about stuff that I assume everybody knows.
Yeah, it’s a lot like hanging out with somebody who’s a great storyteller, but it’s also better shaped and thought out than that. How do you come up with the plan for an episode?
Well, one of the next episodes is going to be with a friend of mine, he doesn’t believe he’s a lifetime bartender, but he’ll get out and then he’ll get back in. I kind of want him to lay into me, as a cook. Because if you’re not an owner, bartenders and cooks are the two sources of power in the restaurant. A sous chef behind the line and a bartender, they operate equally within their realms.
Because they control the supply line?
It helps for having stories to tell that I’ve intentionally tried to hop around as much as I could. And I’ve known a lot of people—let’s say you turn over a third of your crew in a year and I’m there for a year at 20 restaurants. I’m seeing a crew plus a third at 20 restaurants. And every single one of those people has a story and a bizarre interaction. It’s also a very insular community—I think I talk about that in the Restaurant B episode, where you will go as a crew to another restaurant for a drink afterwards because you don’t know anyone else on that same schedule. So there’s a lot of opportunity for stories.
Also, being the guy in the middle [expediting], you have to keep the wheel running, keep up a certain amount of infield chatter. Just to keep everybody engaged, make sure you know what’s going on. That becomes a place to tell stories too. The classic joke is, how many chefs does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One—and four others to tell you how they did it at their last job. I’ve been doing this, and not recording it, at every job I’ve ever worked.
What are some of the other main characters that you talk about?
If you’re looking for generalizations . . . the felonious and half-drunk dishwashers, the notoriously unreliable and easily replaced dishwasher crew. When I was at the Creole place in Houston, INS came through and cleaned us out of prep cooks and dishwashers. And we had the whole area restaffed with busboys and bussers’ cousins in about half an hour. And it wasn’t necessarily any different—they were selling drugs and stealing stuff and snatching drinks within about an hour. It’s rare to come across a dishwasher you can trust, and if you do, you just keep them close. There’s an echelon of 45-year-old guys who’ve been clamped onto by a chef who says, “I’m going to take care of you because you’re the best dishwasher I’ve ever known,” and you train them to do some prep and give them all the days they want off and keep them close, because they’re a diamond in the rough.
You’re always going to find a strong division between, like, old time line cooks who are just sort of done with it, they do a good job but they don’t offer up specials, they’re not terribly good about cleaning their station—they’re a cog and they know it, but they’re good enough at it. And then there’s the “I’ve watched the Food Network too much” 19-year-old kid who comes in with the hat and the knife roll, and those two will always clash. Because the old guy’s looking at the young kid going “Naaah . . . you’re going to be me in 30 years,” and the young kid’s thinking his next job’s going to be executive chef somewhere.
At my age, or at least in my role, it’s really fun to watch that clash. Because for a young kid like that, you’re going to have jobs that they won’t do. The older guy is like, if potatoes need to be peeled, that’s what I’m going to do. If there’s a big spill, they’re going to help clean it up. But the kids will come in with this, “Oh, I don’t hard boil eggs” attitude.
Andrew Zimmerman at Sepia told me that one of the first things he has to tell them is, no, you will not be butchering $500 worth of expensive lamb on your first day. You’ll be peeling fava beans.
Exactly. The sous chef is the one who butchers out that whole salmon, one because it’s expensive and he wants to make sure it’s portioned right, and two, because he doesn’t have to move. He gets to stand in one spot for an hour, which is great. I jealously guard butchering, and my guys assume it’s because it’s expensive, but it’s also because I can’t do anything else while I’m doing that and I get to hang out in one spot.
Have you worked at any really high-end restaurants, and is that different from the more everyday places?
The difference in the group that’s working, whether it’s a deli or a high-end place, doesn’t really change all that much. I worked in a couple of high-end hotels and it’s still the same and fairly democratic. You’ll get more of those 19-year-old kids out of culinary school who are real excited, but they get chewed up pretty quickly and turned into grizzled veterans by the time they’re 20.
But there’s a core base of mid-30s to mid-40s Latino guys, and all restaurants in the world run on the backs of these guys. They’re the prep cooks and the line cooks and the grill guys—when I was at the wine bar, our grill guy, Jorge, I never saw any food be sent back to his station, ever. Zero. Even if the customer ordered it wrong.
I’ve never done anything like Alinea or Next, that level of precision. The Creole place was high end, but it was old-school high end. But the only thing that you’ll find is that those guys kind of want to be worse human beings because then there’s even more of a division between, Yeah, we’re making this extremely pretty plate—but look at how horrible a human being I am.
There’s definitely a locker-room mentality to most kitchens, and there’s hazing. You show off your burns, you show off your knife scars, like that scene in Jaws. It’s as much “see how many 40-pound cases of veal bones I can lift” as “see how perfect my brunoise is.” That’s the same level of bro status in the kitchen. It’s kind of a fun dichotomy to play with in your head, that no matter what level of food you’re getting, the same kind of folks are basically putting it together.
Ultimately, why do you think people are interested in what goes on in restaurants now?
Well, it’s the Food Network, isn’t it? I’ve always said that the Food Network has done a lot of good and a lot of harm to American culinary. I mean, you can get lemongrass at Jewel now. Ten years ago, even, you weren’t getting galangal root at Jewel. The industry is now flooded with those idealistic 19-year-old kids, and I make fun of them, for good reason. But there is that thing of pulling away the curtain. More restaurants have open kitchens. More restaurants are attached to a celebrity chef. And it’s turned the industry into a bit of a game show, where it really should be more of a circus or a pirate ship, something to be scared of. It’s not as welcoming as the Food Network would like you to think it is.