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Three local chefs dish on what back-of-the-house careers are really all about

Culinary civilians don’t often get the opportunity to grill their favorite chefs about life in the kitchen, what it takes to make it big in the cutthroat culinary world or the politics of restaurant hopping, even though they have plenty to say on the matter. It seems that those who feed us, intrigue us.

To find out what the kitchen heat truly entails, we sat down with three local top chefs who don’t mince words.

Movers and Salt Shakers

At a downtown Appleton coffee shop on a late summer afternoon, Paul Heintzkill, executive chef at The Kensington Grille, Peter Kuenzi, executive chef at Zuppa’s Cafè, Market and Catering, and Dylan Maass, head chef at Bella Vita, discuss their past lives as coworkers, which colleagues are rolling sushi where and who’s left the restaurant scene altogether. Listen to these three culinary big-hitters and suddenly the dining scene feels really small.

Heintzkill, for one, wasn’t born reducing port wine and cutting vegetables brunoise (French for “ a very small dice”). Ask him, or any chef for that matter, and he’ll say his success is due to ongoing education, hard work and the right connections.

A chiropractic college drop-out, Heintzkill returned to the food industry which had helped pay for his schooling in the early 1990’s. After graduating from New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and working several restaurant jobs around the country, the De Pere native returned to the Fox Cities looking for work.

A chance meeting with Peter Kuenzi, who was executive chef for The Seasons at the time, gave Heintzkill the “in” he needed.

“I went to eat at The Seasons and Peter came out to ask how our food was,” Heintzkill recalls. “We started talking and he said he was looking for someone. I gave him my resume a couple of days later and I was hired [as a sous chef] not long after.”

In the chef world, networking isn’t about khakis, business cards and happy hour. When crunch time starts at 6pm, that’s not an option. Networking happens a little more subtly, but with stronger gustatory impressions: a chef’s strongest networking tool is the food he prepares. A visit to another chef’s restaurant is one way business connections occur, a fact to which Heintzkill can attest.

“If a chef goes to eat at a restaurant they should be honored, because we could make what we’re eating for ourselves at home. They know we can,” Heintzkill says. “But it’s supportive and good to see what other chefs are doing.”

Bella Vita’s executive chef, Maass, has made industry connections that helped him advance from his early days as a restaurant dish washer. Having climbed the ladder at establishments such as Timber Lodge Steakhouse, Buttes des Mort Country Club, Cannova’s Pizzeria and IL Angolo, Maass knows first-hand how working with the right people can provide not only vital experience, but a little more job security as well.

“I’ll keep in contact with chefs that I’ve worked with,” the 30-year-old says. “You can always call up your buddies in the industry and they’ll find something for you to do.”

The reality is that’s how most chefs secure jobs, by calling old coworkers and seeing what’s available.

“You don’t see a lot of [chef] jobs posted,” Heintzkill says. “A lot of it is what and who you know.”

Birds of a Feather

Not uncommonly, when a head chef moves on to a new restaurant many of his former coworkers; front and back-of-house staff included; follow suit.

“It’s pretty common in this industry. If the staff likes you, when you go to a different job you usually take a good portion of the staff with you,” says Kuenzi. “Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s a matter of creating a comfortable working environment.”

From a staff point of view, the head chef has the power to set the tone of a restaurant’s work environment. A calm, clear-headed chef makes for a more pleasant work experience than, say, a Gordon Ramsay in the kitchen.

Maass points out that given the amount of hours a chef spends with his staff (anywhere from 50 to 70 hours per week), when the right team forms, it’s nearly impossible to let go.

“When you work well with someone it’s kind of like a dance. You learn to dance with someone and when you go to another kitchen it’s nice to have a dance partner you can rely on,” Maass says.

Heintzkill sees the same chef teams working together time and time again at different establishments. Being no exception, Heintzkill points to the latest example of this phenomenon which he experienced personally with the August opening of The Kensington Grille.

“One of my friends, Scott Sams from Carmella’s, called me up and said ‘Hey you got a position? I really want to work with you again.’ It was easy for me to say yes, because I had worked with him for three years at Riverview Country Club so I knew him and his skill sets,” Heintzkill says. “I took him in a heartbeat.”

From the outside looking in, it seems that the constant movement between restaurants among chefs might result in some hard feelings on part of the restaurants being left in the dust, but apparently all is fair in love, war and restaurant hopping.

Kuenzi sees the occasional change of scenery as career growth for which no apologies should be made. Leaving one restaurant for a position with more responsibility is simply professional advancement to be applauded.

“Some [chefs] are more ambitious. When I was younger I wanted to accomplish things by a certain age and I would move jobs when I needed to in order to accomplish those goals,” Kuenzi says.

And it’s not just restaurant employees who follow their favorite chefs, customers do too — Kuenzi’s strong food groupie following gave him the confidence to open Zuppas in 1999; Heinzkill’s reputation for good eats has kept his restaurants full and customers satisfied throughout his career.

“People ate my food at other places I have worked and know that I make quality food,” Heinzkill says. “I earned it.”

Recipe for Success

These rock star chefs prove that networking your way up from the dish pit to executive status is possible and while the culinary field isn’t for the faint of heart, it has immense rewards (more than just some seriously tasty end-of-night leftovers).

They may say they are regular people just trying to earn a buck, but it’s hard to overlook that these chefs are three of the lucky ones who have turned their passion into careers: their eyes light up when discussing which local produce suppliers offer the best microgreens and the most impressive hydroponic tomatoes (chef tip: when it comes to gardeners, trust those with dreads); their dinner plans put yours to shame (Morel mushroom risotto and perfectly seared cuts of beef, no joke); they work upwards of 60 hours a week not because they have to, but because they feel personally responsible for every dish that leaves the kitchen.

But tenacity and networking aside, a good chef really only has to be two things, according to Heintzkill.

“Organized and insane,” he says with a smile.

—By Amelia Compton Wolff

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