This week in our career-advice column, we learn about the gruelling effort it takes to become the head chef at a popular Toronto restaurant.
Name: Jeff Claudio
Job: Head chef at Yours Truly (229 Ossington Ave.)
In 30 seconds or less, tell me what you do all day at work.
We’re inspired every day. I feel very lucky; it’s not like other jobs. It’s very creative and there’s lots of freedom. It’s hard, though. It’s long days and lots of stress every day but, all in all, it’s a very gratifying job.
When did you first become interested in cooking?
I was 17, and golfing a lot. I wanted to be professional golfer, so I was working at a golf course, washing dishes and cooking very simple stuff. But then you graduate high school and then things get real, and you need to figure out what to do with yourself. Cooking seemed like the easiest choice; my cousin is a chef in the Philippines, so it was always in the back of my mind that it was a nice profession. She’s very successful and has a great life, so I thought maybe I’d try that.
What were the first steps you took to start your career?
I didn’t go to culinary school. After I graduated from high school, I went and stayed in the Philippines for a year, and trained at one of my cousin’s restaurants. She has three restaurants that are very classic French, so it was a great. I started at the bottom, just making salad dressings. I think when I was younger I didn’t have much of an attention span—I wasn’t very good in school, so it’s kind of good that I didn’t go to culinary school. Doing something practical was one of the best things for me. It takes a few years for the passion and love for the job to really develop. Those first few years were tough, but I was working with great chefs. It all depends on where you work—some chefs are really good and are aggressive towards you because they want to push you to be better, but other chefs just try to break you. I’ve worked in good restaurants with good chefs, but you still have to deal with the aggression in the kitchen. A lot of us chefs start out as just kind of uneducated guys that liked acting crazy. But, as much as possible, I don’t like to be like that now.
When you returned from the Philippines, what did you do next?
I was really lucky—there was this little French restaurant in the town where I grew up—Ladner, B.C.—run by Bruno Marti, who is a master of French cooking. He’s developed a lot of the chefs in Vancouver and Canada. I worked there so hard for three months, for free—I just kept showing up and asking if there was any work that day, saying I would do whatever they needed. It has a great reputation, and eventually the timing was right and someone was leaving, so I was able to actually start there. It was the hardest three years of my life. I had never experienced something that felt like life and death in that way. You try to live up to a standard every day, no matter what happens during service—you can never let your standards drop. I think that’s where the pressure comes in, and it gets ingrained in you the more places you work at a higher level. It’s crazy how serious some places take their food.
How has your style of cooking evolved over the years?
My foundation of cooking is very classic French. There were periods were I learned different styles, like when I worked at a place called Rockpool in Sydney, Australia. I had moved to Australia and was working another job, which was like 90 hours a week. There were two restaurants at that time in Sydney that were world-famous, and Rockpool was one of them. I would go there and peek in the windows, and eventually I found a back entrance, so I just walked in with my CV and asked to talk to the chef. I told him my story, and I got the job. I spent three amazing years there. It’s fresh cooking—super-light, and acidic—with lots of Asian influences: lemongrass, Kaffir limes, all of which grow in Australia. It was working with a lot of amazing produce and seafood, and definitely broke the mould I had in my head.
What’s your current culinary philosophy?
It changes by the day! But, right now, I don’t think about dishes too long; I just make them. It’s spontaneous. I try to make food as simple as possible, and try to eliminate garnishes. I try to focus on the ingredients that are already in the dish. We try to cook seasonally, and we enjoy cooking in the winter here—it’s kind of the most challenging time. It forces you to be more creative. If we gave in and just used stuff from Peru, it would stop our creativity. It’s nice to have to wait for certain ingredients. Even if you can get this stuff all the time, if you make yourself wait for the season, then it’s like a present.
How did you hear about the job at Yours Truly?
I was at Scarpetta, and I was working on my J-1 papers to work at Per Se in New York. Then I came back to Scarpetta again, and my girlfriend and I started thinking about moving to Paris. We were about to buy our plane tickets when she was looking on Craigslist one day, and found this place and told me to check it out. When I first came down, it was all a construction site. I met the guys and thought they were really nice, and cooked a bit for them. Concord grapes were in season, so I made a dish for them with burrata and grapes and smoked bread. Everything was in season then, so it just happened to work. Originally, the idea [at Yours Truly] was to do a bar and just have snacks, and then we decided to start a tasting menu, and everything grew from there. I brought a team in—all the guys that used to work with me at Scarpetta—and we work really closely together. My sous chef John Vetere is a huge, huge help to me. A lot of the credit in the kitchen goes to the team here—I have five great guys who all devote so much to this place.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a chef?
I would say try to find a foundation for your work. It’s best to find the right chef, and don’t just spend a year with them—spend three years. Then you can work your way up, and develop a good relationship. That’s my advice for someone just starting out: If you’re really serious, take your résumé to a good restaurant in the city, and devote yourself to that restaurant for at least two years. I think you need to be somewhat crazy to be a chef [laughs]. You have to like working a lot, and be a bit obsessive-compulsive and somewhat of a perfectionist. It’s good to be thinking five steps ahead. You also have to be sociable and kind, and like treating people well; generosity is important. That’s what we do everyday—it’s about trying to give the best thing you can to the customer.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of what you do?
The one thing that I don’t like is that while I always want to work harder, it can affect your health. If you’re working 15 or 16 hours everyday, over time the stress can be damaging. I know down the road it’s inevitably hard on your body. It’s hard to feel healthy in this job. I would love to be running and biking and swimming every day, but you can’t really do that because your days are consumed with this. My favourite part is that I get to come in and work with my cooks, who are great guys. We work with amazing suppliers and great products, and I love the freedom of this workplace. I get a lot of joy from just coming in and cooking and creating dishes every day.
Think your job could be somebody’s life? Email Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy.