Word of Mouth

Fit to be fried! An interview with Steve Lerach

Steve Lerach wrote Fried: Surviving Two Centuries in Restaurants as his thesis as he prepared to become a culinary instructor in Minnesota. Because of its academic orientation, the book includes historical accounts of cooking intertwined with Lerach's own experiences in the kitchen over the decades – and even a few shockers.

Lerach will be reading from the book at the LoDo Tattered Cover at 7:30 p.m. on October 16; I reached him in advance of his appearance to ask a few appetite-whetting questions. His answers follow. -- Tyler Nemkov

Westword (Tyler Nemkov): It’s clear you’ve had a lot of culinary experiences. What was more fulfilling to you, the rigor of the smaller restaurant or the large-scale cooking later in your career?

Lerach: I would have to say that the latter part of my career was the most fulfilling, but hardly the most fun. Perhaps because I really had no formal training in cooking, I don't think I ever fully appreciated the craftsmanship it takes to produce a great meal. Also, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a great meal was mostly fairly uninspired, anyway, as ingredients and techniques (and customer preferences) were somewhat limited. Working the line was exhausting, but often a lot of fun. There's immediate satisfaction for you and the customer every time a meal goes out of the kitchen. An adrenaline rush. I hope that comes across in Fried: Surviving Two Centuries in Restaurants.

As my career progressed, I found that what I really enjoyed was the operational minutiae of running a kitchen, or even several kitchens. Writing menus, purchasing supplies, and training and supervising a really diverse staff. As an executive chef I had more responsibilities, but also more control over my situation. The title was cool, too. Still, I recall a customer asking me what the difference was between being a cook and a chef. I replied that cooks hardly ever have to work in the dish room.

Westword: Building on that, now that you’re a chef at a culinary school, how do you compare this to the kitchen?

Lerach: My favorite comparison is that when one of my students doesn't show up for class, I don't have to work his station! Another thing I feel obligated to do is give them as much of a taste of reality as I can during class time. So many of these kids have grown up watching chefs on TV and they see all the glitz and glamour. Certainly a small proportion of the students will attain something like that, but to get there they will need to work hard in hot, stressful situations, perhaps for years. They need to realize that.

Westword: What is your view on the future of the culinary world, based on what you’ve seen in your students?

Lerach: I think we're already in a golden age of cuisine here in the United States, and it will only get better. So many people from all over the planet have contributed to our restaurant scene, and by that I mean all of the newcomers to the country as well as our local growers and producers. One thing the explosion of food subjects in the popular media has done is raise customer perceptions and expectations. People have also figured out that there is a direct correlation between what you ingest and your health and longevity. As far as my students are concerned, I see them excited about entering the culinary world and making it their life’s work. Things will only get better because of their passion and professionalism.

Westword: The golden age? For every French Laundry and Alinea, top restaurants in the country, there are about 10,000 Chilis and Macaroni Grills. How “golden” is that?

Lerach: The “golden” part is that you don't have to go to Mac Grill or Chilis, because there are so many cool alternatives. In 1976 my girlfriend and I went backpacking in Europe. When in Paris, one of the few places where we could afford to eat was a little Vietnamese restaurant. I remember loving the food (still do) and wistfully asking her if, by any stretch of the imagination, she thought there might be a Viet restaurant in our hometown some day. Now there's half a dozen Viet fusion joints here in addition to the countless traditional places. Don't get me started on Mexican. The point is that we've got choices that never existed just a few years ago. On the other hand, it really saddens me that 50 percent of restaurant meals are fast food. One of the missions for culinarians is to educate the public about how much is available, and maybe get them to take more chances with the unfamiliar.

Westword: Regarding the last decade of restaurants, do you think there is a need for knowledge in the history -- or at least classical preparation -- of the culinary world?

Lerach: Absolutely. We're all connected to the past, and I don't think anybody can face the future without a grounding in the tradition and lore provided by those who went before us, whether in Paris in the eighteenth century or American suburbs during the latter half of the twentieth. That's one of the main themes in Fried: the continuity of the culinary world.