Winnetka’s Jack Flaharty has been working in the kitchens of some of Chicago’s best chefs since the age of 14. He’s been behind the scenes at Moto, iNG, EL Ideas, BOKA, Alinea and GT Fish & Oyster, to name a few. Flaharty takes time out of his busy schedule to share his unique story with Sheridan Road and dish about learning to cook, dealing with doubt, and the side of cooking most patrons never see.
When did you get your first job?
The first restaurant kitchen I ever worked in, Moto, had a “guest chef for a day” program where if you donated to a certain charity, you could help prepare for one night’s service in the kitchen. My dad set this experience up for me and on August 11, 2012 I showed up at Moto to help out for the day. After introducing myself to the chef/owner Homaro (Omar) Cantu at the end of the pre-shift meeting, he invited me to help out at Moto’s sister restaurant, iNG. I happily obliged and after helping out for about an hour, he invited me to stay for service. Service went great, and I learned a bunch. Afterwards, Omar told me I was welcome back at either restaurant anytime.
After returning time and time again, I used my growing resume to ask other chefs if I could help out in their kitchens.
Tell us a funny story about your experiences in a kitchen.
One night in the middle of service at Alinea, chef de cuisine Simon Davies told me to run downstairs and get a container filled with ice and water. “Go as quick as you can,” he said. Having no idea what it was for, but noticing the sense of urgency he had, I ran down and came back within a minute. He proceeded to thank me and drank the water. I was extremely surprised. I thought he needed it for a dish! This lighthearted joke actually taught me to always have a sense of urgency in the kitchen. No matter what, the customer comes first and a cook’s job is to ensure that they are served as well as possible.
What are some lessons you learned in the kitchens?
Through the many times I was at iNG and Moto, I learned countless lessons from Omar such as one of my personal favorites—I was cutting cucumber spirals one day for one of the cooks (Hugo Guadarrama) and when I was done I spoke to Omar about just how difficult it was. His response was, “Why don’t you just screw off the spiral cutter’s handle and replace it with a power drill? There’s one in the storage room, you should use it next time.” As funny a response it may seem it taught me that there is always another (easier) way to do things. The key is to not let the quality suffer. Ever.
On another occasion at iNG, Omar said to me, “You always gotta be thinking about the next thing you’re going to do.”
I’ve never heard better advice about how to work in a kitchen. So short and to the point, yet so insightful. If you’re not thinking about what’s next when you’re cooking, you’re going to crash and burn. You will get yelled at, the customer will suffer, and the whole kitchen’s rhythm will be thrown off by your lack of preparation. So, stay prepared and think ahead.
What goes on in a kitchen that patrons would not suspect?
I think a lot of people don’t understand the level of stress that takes place behind the scenes. Everyone is struggling to multitask, to know the exact order that is coming through and to understand when they need to send it out. Everything has to be timed perfectly so things aren’t getting cold. It’s a very stressful environment, but it’s one of the things that makes it great.
What makes a good chef?
A good chef has to be a great team player. A lot of chefs are very introverted. They aren’t the friendliest or most outgoing people but they’re all great minds and they’re all very creative and they all know what they’re doing. They have to be original and willing to work with and create a functioning team.
What are reliable sources for reviews?
Yelp is fairly unreliable. Any person with a phone considers himself or herself a restaurant critic these days and that’s the issue with Yelp. I personally like Michelin….as well as a website called eaterchicago.com, and I’d say about once a month they release a list of the 38 best restaurants in Chicago.
What advice would you give to a young aspiring cook?
Stay with it. As a young chef, people will doubt you, but it’s about overcoming that and sticking with your passion and showing true dedication to what you want to do.