Chef Bruce Kalman was brought up “Old School” in his culinary career. The chef-owner of the renowned Union restaurant in Pasadena, CA toiled on the line for years, heard all the yelling, endured the obligatory hazing and even lived in Cleveland. So you can’t pretend the struggle hasn’t been real for him. Now, as he reaches the top of his profession, he’s trying to right some of the management wrongs he saw while coming up in the industry. But that doesn’t mean he has patience for millennial cooks who want too much too soon and come into his kitchen fresh from culinary school with a sense of entitlement. And he thinks the $15 minimum wage is another outgrowth of that culture of entitlement.
At Kalman’s recently opened Knead Pasta Bar in LA’s Grand Central Market, we discussed the kids these days, bringing a “New School” management approach to the kitchen and how the $15 minimum wage will change the restaurant industry.
What got you started cooking?
My first memory of food, cooking, was with my grandmother when I was nine. I grew up in a Jewish household—this is her meat grinder [points to his forearm], I got it tattooed here. I remember being up on a stepstool and I was grinding chopped liver with her. I thought it was fun. Then my dad’s friend opened a pizzeria when I was 13, so my dad said “Get your ass to work.” So I got to work and I loved it. How were kitchens different back then compared to now?
That was definitely an old school time, when there was lots of front of the house and back of the house problems, you know, screaming and yelling constantly in the kitchen, all that kind of stuff. That’s how I was taught as a cook. It’s a different generation now. They go to college and the get out and they want to be a sous chef. I’m like, no, you’re not ready. I was a line cook for 15 years before. Of course, I was like, “I’m ready, I’m ready,” and the chef’s like, “no you’re not, no you’re not.”
I listened. It’s about building a solid foundation, which a lot of people try to rush. If you build a house too fast with a shitty foundation, it’s going to crumble. I find a lot of cooks are in such a rush.
Since we’ve opened Union in the last two years I’ve noticed there are cooks with good attitudes. At Union we cycled through so many cooks and chefs through the years. It’s insane. But I have very high and very specific standards. If they’re not met, people aren’t okay with it. They’re not okay with having strict standards like that. Eventually I found the people that did. The scales tipped positively in my direction. The more people you have in the kitchen that have that mentality the less amount of time you waste having people coming through that shouldn’t be there.
Like when you have three or four people in the kitchen that have a shitty attitude it’s like a cancer. And you can’t keep good people. So it’s swayed the other direction, we’ve got a lot of really good people, and they’ve kind of squeezed out all the shitty people. We don’t want you here, your attitude sucks, we don’t want you here.
Is the kitchen an unexpected grind for people?
It’s a state of mind. This generation is “I want it all now, I don’t want to work very hard for it, I just deserve it.” It’s an attitude of entitlement. It’s a very different mindset. The kitchens I worked in growing up, you walk in and they say, “Here’s how I do it. You do it right or you get the fuck out of here.” That’s it. You have two choices. You don’t get serious hardcore training.
I worked with David Burke in New York, the Park Avenue Cafe in like ‘93 or ‘94, and I walked in and they gave me a notepad and they were like, “okay, write all this down right now, that’s your training. Go. Figure it out.” You figure it out. To me that builds a lot of character. It makes you better at thinking on your feet and organizing yourself and it makes you stronger.
Are there old school things you went through that you’ve ditched?
Hazing cooks. I think it’s stupid. I’m older, more mature. It’s fun to tell the stories, if they want to do it to each other that’s fine, I don’t care. But I’m not going instigate it.
I am on this mission right now to get old school results with new school thinking. While I am very tough, I’m not telling everybody “shut up, keep your head down and work or get the hell out of here.” Which is the environment I grew up in as a cook. Back then there was no joking, there was no talking, there was no whistling, there was none of that. You were not allowed to. I want them to have fun, you know? But when fun gets in the way of performance and product’s not coming out, if they’re making the pasta and it’s not right, I’m going ask them to all stay focused. I think there’s a way to get results without having to be an asshole all the time. You have to be a little bit of an asshole, as a chef, in the regards that you can’t waive your standards because somebody else is having a bad day. To me everything’s very cut and dry. It’s supposed to be like this, do it like this every time. There’s no reason for it to be emotional. That’s it.
But when you’re a young cook today in major cities, it’s much more expensive to live. Could that be a reason young cooks are pushing to get ahead so fast?
I think the thing is, as a line cook, for me and my generation you expect that. You are a line cook—you’re going to be broke. It is what it is. You do it, it’s an art. I pay my staff pretty well because I don’t want them to come in here and be miserable. So I want them to be able to pay their bills and go out on their days off. My chefs, right now we’re working a ton of hours opening this place. I tell them, give me five days a week 12 hours a day. 60 hours is a totally awesome chef schedule to work. I give them two days off in a row, if possible. Because I want them to have a balanced life; I want them to be well rested. Because otherwise they’re going be useless. So that’s part of my new school thinking.
Old school thinking is you’re a chef, you need to be there all the time. You need to make sure everything’s happening right. You need to be there yourself, do everything yourself. I totally disagree with that philosophy. It’s dumb. Union runs like a charm. I haven’t been there for six months, consistently, for service. I used to be. I don’t need to be. I developed these guys. I stop in and check in on them and see how things are going and I work the floor a bit but I don’t have to work a station or expedite. I have an awesome team there. That’s the only way you can expand and do something else.
A good manager needs to empower people.
For me, it’s like it always used to be you’re working a line and when some VIP would come in the chef would come back and kick you off the station and be like, “I’ve got to make this myself.” How does that make you feel? I don’t do it good enough? So I don’t ever do that to my staff. I let them cook it. I make sure it’s right, but I let them cook it. That’s a big boost. It’s little things like that, where I come from, that I hated as a cook or as a sous chef. I don’t do. I hate being micromanaged, so I don’t micromanage these guys.
The old school is not 100 percent out of me. But I give them the tools to be successful and then I step back. To me you have to let people fall down and pick themselves up. Otherwise you’re just babying them. You’re creating bad habits. It’s like I tell the chefs, you can’t come in and start setting up a cook’s station for them every day because then they’re going to expect that that happens. Then the day it doesn’t happen is the day they’re going to be really behind, the day you don’t do it for them. So you can’t be a crutch. You have to teach people how to be successful. Teach them how to properly set up that station and be ready on time.
What’s the problem no one’s talking about in the industry?
California labor laws really suck. The staff I have don’t want to go on break, they want to stay late. California labor laws don’t allow that. It’s tough for the restaurant industry to maintain that.
Does the $15 minimum wage worry you?
Yeah. It worries me a lot because what I do is fairly labor intensive. We make everything ourselves. It makes me feel like I’m going to have to compromise what I’m doing. It definitely worries me.
Is the economic model of restaurants just screwed up, especially with it’s reliance on paying people through tipping? I remember as a server walking home with wads of cash and the cooks in the back didn’t take home shit.
Yeah, they’re like, “fuck you” in the kitchen. I feel like it’s definitely counterproductive in a lot of ways. One, when you make the minimum wage of $15 an hour I could never give a cook a raise. I could never give a dishwasher a raise. It empowers this behavior of entitlement. When I would interview cooks out of culinary school over the last few years a lot of cooks, I asked what they were looking for. They said $15. I can’t pay you $15, because you don’t know anything. Now that’s going to have to be what I pay them. And it’s messed up. Plus, it’s messed up because how are we going to survive as restaurants? It’s a tough thing to get a grasp on.
Obviously restaurants have to raise prices to survive. So people are going to have to pay more for food because labor is higher. I don’t know how it’s going to work. It’s going to really screw the economy.
Do you think it will just be hard in the short term and you’ll adjust, or will it outright break the economic model of the industry?
I think it’s going to break the model. You see where everybody’s going. It’s all fast casual. All quick serve. And we’re heading in that direction too. Ultimately, what I’ll probably have is a commissary and then everything in the space will be just prepped. You will have a few people that work for that.
So you have runners instead of servers.
You open the kitchen in the dining room, people come to the counter to pick up their food.
What other changes have you seen in the L.A. food scene since you’ve moved here in 2011?
The food scene’s morphed quite a bit. When I got here I couldn’t find anywhere good to eat. It was a lot of bullshit hipster food. A lot of the molecular gastronomy and all that stuff. I shouldn’t knock it, I just don’t do it and I don’t have any desire to go out and eat it. I want to say in the last two and a half years, there are a lot of people opening places similar to what I do. Simple rustic food people want to eat everyday. It’s not all like that, and it shouldn’t all be like that. But for me, that’s the kind of place I like to eat. I typically don’t like to go to super-high-end restaurants anymore. I’m not interested. A lot of them lack soul and I like soulful food. I cook food that gives you a big warm hug when you eat it. I don’t think everybody should cook like that, because then it would be a really boring world. And I respect what other people do, even if it’s not something I agree with. But it’s definitely changed quite a bit. There’s a lot more of that style of cooking going on. If you look at Portland restaurants. Very basic, simple, awesome. I love the Portland restaurant scene. Love it.
I’m sure you read that recent New York Times review of Per Se, it almost felt like a rejection of fine dining that you’re describing.
I still remember—I haven’t given Michael Voltaggio shit about it—but when he was dogging Kevin Gillespie when they were on Top Chef together. They were asking a question about Kevin’s style of cooking and Michael goes, “Yeah, that’s the kind of food I cook when I am at home. I would never cook that in my restaurant.” That’s kind of a fucked up thing to say. Now when you look at Top Chef everybody’s cooking food like that. That show is a good gauge on what direction food has gone. It’s no longer about how crazy and creative and weird your food is. It’s like, how does it fucking taste? That’s all that matters, that it tastes really good. Keep it simple, keep it really good. That’s the direction a lot of places have gone.
Last year I went to a high end fine dining restaurant and felt almost uncomfortable, as if I was quietly and respectfully dining in a cathedral of food. The next day I went out for tacos and beer with friends and had way more fun for much less money, but still ate good food.
When you go to those high end restaurants it’s like they’re putting on a show for their ego almost. “Look at all this really cool stuff I do.” Who gives a shit? Honestly.
I’m not knocking it, I am just saying I would rather open a bunch of neighborhood spots that people really fricking love that are fun, cool, and inviting; that serve really good food and are really hospitable. To me that goes a lot longer way, people can do it every night of the week. It’s not just special occasion. Union’s probably special occasion for some people. But not the mass majority. Knead Pasta bar definitely is set up so you can eat here every day.
What do you think drove the change in LA you’ve seen?
I feel like a lot of chefs, right after I arrived, moved here from San Francisco, Portland, and elsewhere. That brings a lot of diversity. I think if a handful of chefs are doing that kind of food it gets noticed. Then you get younger chefs coming in and they’re trying to imitate that. Which is how all those trends start. They see what other chefs are doing and get inspired, they try to pull it off. Hopefully they do. I feel like that’s how trends really sway. Again it’s what people want. It’s about cooking food that people want to eat. Every day.
Do you think L.A. diners have changed?
The consumers are so educated now about food. Kids come to Union and I say, “Do you want me to send out a spaghetti with tomato sauce?” They’re like no, they’ll eat the squid ink garganelli with lobster. This kid devoured this whole plate of pasta with lobster. Kids used to never eat that kind of stuff.
Serving kids lobster is how the youth get entitled, Bruce!
[Laughs] No, no. They’re educated.