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Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010 01:29 pm

How chefs with families get both their jobs done


Five-year old twins Mikos and Myles Pappas get an early education at their dad’s restaurant, Yanni’s Gyros.

When I called Curtis Duffy, the 2010 Hope School Celebrity Chef, to arrange an interview, I assured him that I’d work around his schedule. But Duffy, executive chef of Chicago’s Avenues restaurant and the youngest four-star chef in America didn’t see a problem. “I’m at the restaurant by 10 every morning, so anytime before service is fine,” he told me. Did he leave in the afternoon for a while? “No, I’m here from 10 until the end of service,” he told me. That means that Duffy’s average workday lasts more than 12 hours.

He has two small children.

Chefs and professional kitchen staff work notoriously long and crazy hours. They labor over their stoves and ovens on holidays and weekends. My youngest daughter, Ashley, works for a Chicago caterer, Big Delicious Planet. When she’s in charge of the food backstage at large events, such as the recent Crossroads Guitar Festival, her workday can start at 5 a.m. and finish the following morning at 1 a.m. or later.

But the only ones missing out on time with Ashley on those days are her dog and her boyfriend. How do chefs with families cope? Are they doomed to be parents in absentia?

That’s something that Lawrence (Chip) Kennedy, executive chef of 5Flavors Catering has been struggling with ever since his first child, Lawrence IV (Lane), was born June 29. “Lane was born right in the middle of our busiest season,” he says. “Last week we had 18 gigs. Sometimes I’m working from 4:30 a.m. until 10:30 or 11 at night.”

Fortunately Kennedy and his wife, Shelly, who teaches Spanish at Jacksonville High School, have lots of family support on both sides. Chip and Shelly take turns getting up at night with Lane: “I don’t get a lot of sleep, as it is,” says Chip. “So it’s working out OK.” Most frustrating is that he’s busiest on weekends, which, of course, is when Shelly is home, so what’s really become rare is time for the three of them to be together. Before Lane’s birth, Shelly occasionally helped out, but at least for now, that’s not possible.

On the plus side, Chip’s irregular hours mean that sometimes he can get away during the day to spend time with his newborn. “I really feel for people who are on salary and have a 9-5 job,” he says. And, he says, having Lane has helped him focus even more on making 5Flavors a success: “Before, I didn’t have a care in the world. But now I’m thinking about the future every day, and how I can build the business.”

Patrick Groth, chef/owner of Incredibly Delicious, and his wife, Bitzy, have what could be considered the ideal way to combine family and professional chefdom: They live above the shop, on the top floor of the incredibly beautiful, historic Weber Mansion, with their three children, Samuel, 9, Isaac, 7, and Aj, 3. I first understood – and envied - how wonderful their situation was years ago, while observing Groth making croissants in the pre-dawn hours. (More information about Groth’s croissants is available online in my 3/7/07 RealCuisine column at illinoistimes.com.) Suddenly I realized there was someone else in the kitchen: Samuel, quiet but awake in his umbrella stroller. Bitzy, then pregnant with Isaac, had fed him, changed him, and then brought him downstairs in order to catch a few more minutes of sleep – clearly a routine requiring no words. As workers arrived, Samuel was cuddled, passed around and addressed in French by his father.

There can be drawbacks, however, such as the time recently when three-year-old Aj got downstairs and ran through the dining rooms during the middle of the bustling lunch service. Overall, however, Groth treasures his ability to combine the bakery/restaurant with family life: “We always have dinner together,” he says. “And I try to make everybody breakfast.” Groth is very clear about his and Bitzy’s priorities: “Work is very important, but the family comes first. Work doesn’t encompass our family, our family encompasses the work. Bitzy and I ‘divide and conquer.’ We’re very much a team.”

Samuel and Isaac are old enough now to help with such tasks as folding towels and cleaning tables – not an official part of the homeschooling curriculum that Bitzy teaches them, but an invaluable learning experience nonetheless. There’s no better way to instill a sense of responsibility and a good work ethic in children than for them to grow up in their family’s restaurant, whether or not they live on the premises.

Just ask John (Yanni) Pappas, chef/owner of Yanni’s Gyros. His parents, Pete (Petros) and Kim, owned several Springfield restaurants, including The Sirloin House, The Olympic House, and Dealer’s Choice throughout Pappas’ early years. “I grew up in the restaurants,” he says. “I was washing dishes by the time I was 10.”

Pappas plans on passing the down that heritage to the next generation. During a recent Saturday lunch at Yanni’s, I was intensely scrutinized by four young eyes. I looked over and smiled. “They’re wanting their dad to introduce them,” said a woman who I learned was their mom, Tiffany. Obviously they’d been instructed to not bother customers, but once Pappas formally introduced me to his 5-year-old twins, the floodgates opened: “Wow, we were in the back watching Dad cut up onions. They made my eyes REALLY burn!!” said Mikos. “Yeah, it was AWFUL,” chimed in Myles, rubbing his eyes to prove the point. The twins attend Ball Charter School during the week, but help their dad open Yanni’s every Saturday, filling salt shakers, napkin holders and catsup bottles.

“Eventually, when they’re old enough, we’ll have the bus drop ’em off here,” says Pappas. “It’s a sure thing that they’ll grow up here at the restaurant,” adds Tiffany. What lucky boys!

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Five-year old twins Mikos and Myles Pappas get an early education at their dad’s restaurant, Yanni’s Gyros.

Real Cuisine Recipe
5 Flavors signature house potatoes 

Chip Kennedy’s signature potato gratin recipe proves that the best preparations are often the simplest. “One of my cooking class students came up to me not long ago and said, ‘That potato recipe has changed my life!’” he says. You could gussie it up with a little minced garlic, a sprinkle of freshly grated nutmeg, or chopped herbs such as rosemary, but why gild a perfect lily? This recipe serves 10, but can easily be halved – or doubled, for that matter.

Serves 10

  • 10 lbs. medium russet potatoes, approximately the same size
  • 1qt. heavy cream
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, preferably white
  • Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Peel potatoes. Cut a small slice off both ends so that all the potato slices will be about the same size. Place a peeled potato on a folded, slightly dampened kitchen towel; this will hold the potato so it doesn’t slip. With a sharp knife start at one end of the potato and cut into slices approximately 1/8-inch-thick, making sure that the potato stays in its original shape; however the potato should be completely cut through into individual slices.

 Grab the entire sliced potato in your hand to keep it intact, then place it in one corner of an ungreased baking dish large enough to hold the potatoes when they are spread/shingled (see below). Repeat with the remaining potatoes. Carefully spread and pat the potatoes with your hand to make them shingle (spread out but still overlapped) all in the same direction. Heavily season with kosher salt mixed with pepper to taste. Pour the heavy cream evenly over potatoes and place in 350º oven, uncovered for 1 hour or until cream turns very brown and is thick and bubbly, and the potatoes are cooked through. Test for doneness by inserting the tip of a sharp knife into the potatoes; it should pierce them with no resistance. Take out and let cool for at least 10 minutes, then top with freshly grated, good quality Parmesan cheese and serve.

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