While chefs capture the limelight, sous chefs and line workers are the unsung heroes of the dining kitchen. They're second or third or fourth in command, providing a role that can simply be described as workhorse. They too often don't get the love they deserve, which is why we sat down with six of them to talk about their jobs, their careers, their relationships with their restaurants and chefs, and more.
Ryan Bennett, Sous Chef at Grove Hill
In the kitchen, timing is everything. And that's never been clearer for Ryan Bennett as he works alongside a seasoned chef like Tim Bando, who has spent decades in the restaurant business long before he opened Grove Hill (25 Pleasant Dr., 440-247-4800, grovehillchagrin.com) in Chagrin Falls.
It was Bando who gave Bennett his first break as sous chef at the Tremont bistro Theory after he graduated from the Culinary Institute of Pittsburgh. Years later the two reunited in the kitchen, with Bennett joining Grove Hill this year as Bando's sous chef.
Much like Grove Hill blends antiquity with the modern, Bennett has observed from Bando that time and time again perfection comes from meticulous practice.
"He just never stops," Bennett laughs. "In the past, we'll make something, and for weeks he'll think about it and make little tweaks until it's the way he wants it."
It was a lesson he carried with him long after Theory when he landed at Marigold Catering. There he became acquainted with chef Ben Bebenroth, who was using Marigold's facility for prep work. Bennet soon joined Bebenroth's Spice of Life Catering as executive catering chef.
"Meeting and talking to Ben was the first time I got a real understanding of what farm-to-table really meant," he says. "I just think it's the best way to do things. You're keeping money in the local economy and you're using real quality produce from people who pay attention to it."
After years of the deep-rooted practice becoming ingrained in him, it's no surprise that Bennett's favorite culinary techniques these days are those steeped in tradition.
"Making charcuterie and terrines is something I've always been interested in," says Bennett. "They're the kinds of things which I feel at one time were dying out but are coming back around."
Also among the experiences he'll carry with him from his Spice days is his passion for foraging. It was with Bebenroth that he went on his first forage for ramps.
"You can just go out into the woods and get these amazing fresh ingredients whether it's chanterelles or morels or chicken of the woods," he says. "All these things are right here in Ohio and you have great access to them."
Bennett's return to working with his former partner at Grove Hill, much like the Earth-to-plate cycle he built his career on, signifies that with time everything comes full circle.
"Something's never completely done," says Bennett of what he's taken away from Bando's attention to food. "There are always things you can learn from it."
Sous Chef at Blue Point Grille
Sometimes the greatest inspiration comes from finding your way home. It's been a long road back to Cleveland, but in talking to Angela Dighero, you'd never guess the Flats-dwelling sous chef at the downtown seafood institution Blue Point Grille (700 West St. Clair Ave., 216-875-7827, bluepointgrille.com) ever left.
Dighero always loved cooking and trained formally as a pastry chef. Then, in her young adulthood, she set out for the South and ended up working her way through Florida kitchens for a decade.
"It was a lot faster paced," Dighero recounts. "Like two different worlds."
An ambitious newcomer on the dining scene, she barreled ahead in her culinary career, receiving her first promotion to sous chef at age 24. Focusing on her passion for seafood, she began at Perry's in Aventura, where she met a chef who taught her the ropes.
"I helped open the restaurant and I was supposed to be their pastry chef," she says. "All of the sudden, an employee left and I got moved to the hot line, which I had never done before. He taught me this is how you sauté, this is what you do for the grill."
She worked in restaurants throughout the region until life led her clear across the country to Colorado. It was there that she landed at an Asian fusion restaurant that continues to influence her tastes today.
After returning to Cleveland four years ago, she transitioned right into her role as sauté cook at Blue Point. Since becoming sous chef, she's been putting her own touch on daily specials, especially drawing on her Asian-cooking stint in Colorado.
"I like the fact that we can get such a different variety of seafood and ingredients that come in for specials," says Dighero. "We're able to play around and see what we can come up with."
Part of that, of course, is Blue Point's dedication to sourcing fresh and sustainably.
"I talk to our suppliers every day," says Dighero. "Now, you can pull up the information on who the fisherman was. It's something a lot of places don't see very often."
When Dighero is at the reins, it's not unusual for her to create dishes like a shrimp paid Thai made with brown sugar. A lobster pho complete with a sashay of garlic, onion and black peppercorn is also known to grace her menu.
Though Dighero is a Clevelander through and through, her passion for seafood fostered in Florida and experiences with cuisines throughout the country shines in the center of the city.
"I think I've brought back a little bit of what I've learned from everywhere," she says.
Managing Partner at On the Rise
In bread making, as in life, contentment has never been an option for On the Rise (3471 Fairmount Blvd., 216-320-9923, ontheriseartisanbreads.com) executive chef and partner Brian Evans. For those like Evans, waking before daybreak to chase the perfect loaf through all its subtle variations is the only satisfaction.
"Each day you get a chance to try to recreate, or create, something better than the day before using just the same four simple ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast," admires Evans.
Though he found an early home on the line at Fire Food and Drink even before graduating Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, Evans soon began coming in at 7 a.m. to try his hand at making bread for the restaurant. Between morning and night shifts, Evans immersed himself in the weekly North Union Farmers Markets right outside Fire's doors in Shaker Square.
He would return to sell bread at the Market after being recruited for his bread-making talents by the original team of Dim and Dem Sum food truck. But as his passion for baking grew, advice from friends all pointed him in the same direction.
"Everybody I talked to said if you want to learn, the place you go is On The Rise," says Evans.
Under the guidance of owner Adam Gidlow, Evans' ambitions were fast tracked. Together, they introduced lunch for the first time in On the Rise's 14-year history, with Evans taking the lead.
Evans relied heavily on the farmer connections he cultivated while shopping at the Market for Fire. For example: the roast beef sandwich served on a baguette, one of the most popular items, uses grass fed beef from Miller Livestock. Before it's roasted in house, it is rubbed down with a peppercorn blend and served with horseradish aioli and pickled shallots.
"I want us to be able to educate our customers as much as we make sure they enjoy what they're getting," says Evan. "I love hearing from the farmers that someone was in here, had a sandwich and found out we were getting our products from them and then they turned and around went to the farmer's market and bought some of their meat from them."
For as much as he revels in simplicity, Evans is always up for the next great challenge. It's why his favorite bread to work with is sourdough, made with only a trio of ingredients. His next challenge is helping On the Rise make a transition, when it takes over a neighboring space for sit-down service and an expanded menu.
"Since I've been here five years, every day we're trying to do something just a little different," says Evans. "Maybe we start things five minutes earlier or try the oven being hotter. There is no complacency."
Line Cook at Batuqui
As the son of a mother who was both Brazilian-born and lived a substantial time in Italy, Daniel Tobin spent his formative years in the kitchen reconstructing meals from his mother's past. So when the young chef was offered a line position at the new Brazilian restaurant on Larchmere, Batuqui (12706 Larchmere Blvd., 216-801-0227, batuquicleveland.com), he brought with him ingrained experience passed down through generations.
"She was proud I was discovering part of who I was through cooking," he says of his mother.
Tobin fondly remembers nights around the dinner table sharing feijoada, a beef and bean stew once considered a peasant dish that's become a national tradition in Brazil. Years later, he now makes the popular entrée daily at Batuqui.
"Every culture has a dish like that, where you take the throwaway parts of the richer folks and the cheaper cuts left over," he says. "It becomes transformative."
It's that ingenuity through resourcefulness that Tobin embraces most in his new role.
"When you're given these ingredients that are more difficult to work with, where people might look the other way, to turn that into something anyone can enjoy, to me, that's real cooking," says Tobin.
It was after work one day when Tobin began experimenting with ingredients laying around that he made his first dish that became part of the menu, Pasta de Mariscos, a seafood pasta with mussels and squid in a tomato and cream sauce.
Still, it's the less common ingredients that most engage Tobin. One of his favorite dishes is Batuqui's moquecca, because he gets to work with the less frequently used items like palm oil and coconut milk.
Working in the small kitchen, the staff has become family and a constant source of knowledge and support as Tobin develops new recipes. He remembers watching executive chef and co-owner Gustavo Nogueira's mother Ana, who was visiting from Brazil, spending hours making perfect little fried snacks by hand, each coming out uniformly.
"One thing I like about this restaurant is it involves a lot of intensive work," says Tobin. "Everything is made in-house. You don't see that kind of work that often in commercial kitchens these days."
Tobin finds guidance in the industriousness that surrounds him at Batuqui. Thanks to the diverse influences of Brazilian food, which draws from Africa and Eastern Europe, the chef's work is never repetitive.
"It would take a lifetime just to master the cuisine of one state, let alone a whole country," says Tobin. "I learn new things every day."
Chef de Cuisine at Flour
Long after Joe Lang first had his eyes opened to scratch cooking at Mom's Diner in Orange Village, his culinary training at Loretta Paganini School of Cooking led him to an apprenticeship at Boulevard Blue, where chef Matt Mytro was leading the kitchen. It was then and there that Lang learned that the right partner is indispensable.
It took little time to feel the synergy between one another. So it was no surprise that as soon as Mytro landed an executive chef role at Flour (34205 Chagrin Blvd., 216-464-3700, flourrestaurant.com), he called Lang to join him. Now cooking together for nearly a decade, they've become one of Cleveland's most dynamic duos.
"First and foremost we're friends," says Lang. "We don't have to talk to each other much about things because I already know where he's going with everything he wants to do. It's so important to have someone you're comfortable with. There's that trust."
It was while working with Mytro at Boulevard Blue that Lang began fostering his passion for butchering, especially seafood. And when Mytro moved on to become executive chef at Paladar Latin Kitchen, Lang followed as his sous chef, where his skill and appreciation for the workmanship of butchery grew even deeper.
He built on those experiences when the two traveled to Florida to open Red, The Steakhouse in Miami Beach. Today, at Flour, he's mastered the technique, a skill he shows off in the porchetta, a labor-intensive dish that consists of a pork loin wrapped in pork belly that's been cured and brined over three days.
"I was immediately drawn to breaking down the big stuff," he says. "The skill involved is just unbelievable. The simplest factor of just having a sharp knife is so important. It really boils down to the basics."
That regard for the fundamentals was gleaned from Flour chef-owner Paul Minnillo, who Lang admires for his attention to detail down to the straightforward practice of ensuring a fine olive oil rests on every table.
"I've learned the most from Paul and I guarantee Matt can say the same thing," says Lang. "I get to pick his brain every day. Paul's become like a father to me."
And Lang has good reason for soaking in his mentorship. One day he hopes to follow in the footsteps of restaurateurs like Minnillo and others like him.
"These guys are putting their entire livelihood into funding and getting these places going," Lang says. "I love learning about that because one day that's what I want to do. I love cooking, but I'd love to have a restaurant of my own."
Pasty Chef at the Butcher and the Brewer
Sometimes all it takes is stepping up the plate to find your true calling. Such was the case for Mariah Dobies, who while working at her first job at Blue Door Café and Bakery in Cuyahoga Falls was asked by then-chef Jimmy Pintiello to execute the desserts for a 50-plate party.
As surely as opportunity knocked, doors flew open for Dobies, who had been studying science-related fields at Kent State University when she decided instead to pursue culinary training at the Western Reserve School of Cooking. The night of the party, Dobies realized that she was on the right path, one that eventually would lead to her current role as pastry chef at East Fourth Street's Butcher and the Brewer (2043 E 4th St., 216-331-0805, butcherandthebrewer.com).
Though she grew up surrounded by a family who loved to cook, Dobies needed that push from Pintiello to get rolling.
"At the time, I didn't know anything about 'The French Laundry' or 'Charlie Trotter's,'" she says of the classic cookbooks. "He was wonderful with always recommending cookbooks and lending his own."
She soon moved on to Hudson's Downtown 140, where as pastry chef she worked alongside chef Jim Blevins, who would become instrumental in shaping her career. Next up for the ambitious young chef was Lola, where she landed a coveted pastry position. There the former science student built on her knowledge of chemistry while learning about making ice cream, sorbet and petit fours.
Though she eventually left to enroll at Cleveland State University, Dobies again found herself working on East Fourth Street and working with chef Blevins when he beckoned her to join his team at the Butcher and the Brewer, where he was executive chef.
"I don't have to force anything to match his flavors and style," she says. "He'll know when I start working on a new dessert menu and he'll come up with an idea I had just been thinking about the day before. We'll have similar ideas on where the pastry department should be going without needing to sit down and have a meeting. It just naturally goes in the same direction."
Inspired by her first cookbook from famed pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, Dobies plays up familiar flavors of nostalgia while staying seasonal. For example, a peanut butter cheesecake is topped with concord grape, caramel and homemade Cracker Jack. And with chocolate flying out the door at Butcher, a pairing with peppermint is sure to come.
"Getting a dessert should be an experience," says Dobies. "And it's a lot more fun when it reminds you of something. That's the last thing someone's going to eat in the restaurant; it has to be memorable."