I'm pretty sure I've found the smartest thing any chef has ever said. And I found it, oddly enough, on CNN. On their food blog,


How CNN, Houston, the Waffle House, Moonshine, and Former VVM Restaurant Critic-Turned-Restaurateur Robb Walsh All Come Together in a Single Post

I'm pretty sure I've found the smartest thing any chef has ever said. And I found it, oddly enough, on CNN. On their food blog, actually. You know that CNN has a food blog, right?


Well, that's okay. Neither do lots of other people. But suffice it to say that CNN does (it's called Eatocracy), and it was where my unusual voyage of discovery began--where so many different left-field bits of information all came together to form one blog post about the most solid piece of wisdom ever handed down by a working chef.

The chef in question is Bryan Caswell--a guy who's well known in and around Houston for running three very good restaurants (Stella Stola, Reef and his burger place, Little Big's, which is maybe the most recognizable), being nominated for a James Beard Award this year, and being named as one of Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs in 2009.

But for all those who keep a weather eye on the comings and goings of American restaurant critics (a group which must literally number in the tens of people), one of the other things Caswell is known for is being the newly-minted partner (along with Bill Floyd) of ex-Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh. The three men recently announced that they would be working together to open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston. What's that you say? Isn't a former restaurant critic opening a restaurant of his own kinda like your alcoholic uncle deciding that he's going to open a bar down the street? Yes. It is. And the whole thing is fraught with a heavy potential for irony and schadenfreude, but that's not what I'm talking about here.

See, I knew Robb. While he was working for the Houston Press (which is a sister paper to Seattle Weekly) and I was still behind the desk at Westword, I considered him my arch-nemesis--a really good and talented writer who'd once screwed me but good (in a completely hilarious, prankish way) during my first months on the job and so, therefore, needed to be destroyed. I never did anything about it, of course. But because I am a man who needs enemies, for years I considered him to be Lex Luthor to my Superman--a worthy adversary against whom I might do battle, even if only in my own head.

Needless to say, even though he's gone from his post now, I still try and keep tabs on him. And keeping tabs on him currently involves keeping tabs on Caswell and Floyd as well. So when I saw Caswell's name pop up on Eatocracy late last week, I clicked through to see what he'd done to warrant an interview slot and found this: A video listing his five reasons why you ALWAYS hire a cook that has a stint at Waffle House on his resume.

And that, my friends, is some serious wisdom and may very well stand as the smartest thing any chef has said in recent memory.

The reason I'm so convinced of Caswell's brilliance? Because I'm one of the guys he's talking about. The very last professional cooking job I ever had--after all the bistros and brasseries, the trendy cafes and giant hotels, the fine dining restaurants and Italian trattorias and freaky Chinese restaurants--was as a short-order night cook at the Waffle House on Central Avenue (the old Rt. 66) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I worked that job while concurrently writing restaurant reviews for the local alt weekly (the Weekly Alibi, a fantastic little paper that I still remember with inordinate fondness) and was, perhaps, the only French-trained chef and working food writer ever employed by that legendary temple to waffles, grits and hashbrowns scattered, smothered and covered.

All the things that Caswell said about Waffle House cooks? Absolutely dead-on. As far as training houses go, it doesn't get much better, in terms of an early education, than standing alone in the teeth of the bar rush, working those grills and listening to the waitresses shrieking out orders in the peculiar cant of the Waffle House line. Doing time at the House makes a cook fast. It makes him accurate. It trains him to work clean and to fear nothing. It tempers him against heat and stress and crazy-eyed drunks as he works within stabbing distance of those he's serving. If I was still making my living cooking dinner for strangers, I would absolutely give preferential consideration to any grill-scarred and swaggering veteran of the Waffle House who came to me looking for a job. Like Caswell, just seeing the House on some kid's resume would probably be enough for me to bring the kid on without us ever having to discuss anything else.

"Hmm... You did time at the French Laundry. You worked with Boulud and Ripert. You built your own time machine to go back in time and learn how to cook fish from Careme. But yeah, fuck all that, dude. Which Waffle House was it that got you started?"

My only complaint about the Caswell video? It wasn't long enough. So here's some more reasons why ex-Waffle House cooks make the best employees.

  • Waffle House cooks can not be frightened by anything. No rush, no hit, no customer complaint or massive party descending at five minutes before closing will ever throw off a WH veteran because they have already seen worse. A Waffle House can go from dead-empty to completely full with a line out the door in ten minutes sometimes, and facing down that kind of thing with no help and no hope of rescue (Waffle House lines are one-man affairs, for the most part) gives a cook balls that weigh twelve pounds. Each.
  • Like guitar heroes, test pilots and hit men, Waffle House cooks work best alone. Show them what to do, explain how to do it, then just walk away. Spend any significant amount of time working those waffle presses and the idea of needing any kind of hand-holding just burns away.
  • Cooking in a professional capacity is all about doing things the same way, a thousand times in a row. No one learns this better than a Waffle House cook. After six months of solid shifts, you could take a WH cook, remove his or her forebrain, stick him or her back into the slot on a Friday night and his or her work would not be altered in any noticeable way. After the 100th or 1000th order of eggs over, grits and toast, it's all reflex.
  • Cooking in a professional capacity is not exclusively about doing things the same way, a thousand times in a row. What tends to break good cooks most often is the night when the carefully organized systems by which they serve hundreds of people in just a scant few hours totally fails, leaving them scrambling to improvise. And no one improvises quite like a guy whose faced down a crowd of screaming, hungry drunks in a Waffle House experiencing a sudden power outage, or maybe a guy who's had to cook and serve straight through a shift because his semi-homeless night waiter decided to show up for work ripped to the tits on moonshine and mouthwash, or maybe a guy whose had to send a regular across the street to the grocery store with 50 bucks of his own money to buy eggs when the delivery truck was delayed but the Sunday church rush was not.
  • No matter the conditions of the job you're asking him to do, a Waffle House cook will always be happy. Because no matter what it is, it's not having to stand another shift at the Waffle House. As great a job as it can be, it is also one of the most demanding straight cooking gigs in an industry full of really fucking demanding gigs. You do your time, you make it out whole and, for the rest of your life, you carry within you the secret knowledge that you survived the worst any job could throw at you and came out the other side still standing. That's a powerful strength for any cook to have, and Waffle House cooks have that in spades.

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