Instead of ‘Top Chef’-style glamor during my summer stint at Colicchio & Son’s, I found an Iraq War vet who survived six explosions before flourishing on the chopping block.
In the basement of Colicchio & Sons, a fine dining restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan, there is a butcher block where, each day, some fifty lobsters meet their end.
“I used to put them all in the walk-in freezer, you know, to numb them a bit,” Jack says. “But now I’m just fuckin’ heartless.
Jack, who asked that his real name not be used in this story so that he could talk freely about his past, stands behind the block, partially obscured by two industrial sink-sized containers. The container on his right is empty; the left one is teeming with lobsters trying to extricate themselves as if from a mosh pit. Jack puts on a pair of thick rubber gloves and begins ripping the lobsters apart, piece by piece: first the claws, then the tail, and finally the abdomen, head still attached. The exoskeletons make a dull “thunk” as he tosses the first few into the container, but the sound is muffled as the lobster parts accumulate. The feelers and swimmerets still move, back and forth in a synchronized tempo like cogs in a Swiss watch. If lobsters could bleed, there would be blood dripping off the counters.
“A lot of chefs think that stabbing the lobster in the head is a better way of killing them,” Jack says, pushing his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose as he looks up from his work. “But actually they have a different nervous system than we do — something with ganglia or some shit — so it’s actually just like stabbing them in the leg.”
At thirty-two years old and five-foot-nine, with a round face and a semblance of a goatee, Jack does not immediately appear intimidating. He is affable if he likes you — he’ll just ignore you if he doesn’t — but when he focuses on whatever animal is lying on his cutting board, ten-inch blade in hand, he gives off the air of a man who knows precisely what he’s doing. He grimaces slightly as he works, and his arms sometimes strain when he comes across a particularly tough crustacean. But each one yields as quickly as the next; he takes fewer than ten seconds per lobster.
Jack used to be the only butcher at Colicchio & Sons. He has been working in Colicchio’s kitchen ever since the “Top Chef” head judge rebranded Craft Steak in 2010 to introduce a broader, more refined menu. But Jack’s path to this acclaimed New York restaurant never looked like the glamorous thrills of “Top Chef.” By all accounts, Jack really should have been killed before he turned twenty-six.
* * *
At the beginning of last June, I emailed six prominent chefs in the Manhattan area, explaining that I was an avid cook who was interested in seeing firsthand what goes on in the kitchen of a top tier restaurant. As a sophomore in college looking for a summer job, I didn’t expect a reply, but Colicchio & Sons responded the following week. The restaurant is located directly across from Chelsea Market, adjacent to Mario Batali’s Del Posto. A two-story glass prism that holds the restaurant’s wines bisects the spacious dining room, divided between a taproom and a more formal space. When I went there for my interview, it was the middle of lunch service. Chris Lavey, the young but weathered chef de cuisine, appeared from the kitchen and offered me a seat. Our conversation lasted six minutes.
“Well, look, we can always use extra hands,” he said.
Chef Chris told me that he would have to pay me because of labor laws. He saw me smile.
* * *
Pushing past the swiveling double doors at the rear of Colicchio & Sons’s manicured dining room is like peaking behind the curtain at a ballet. The kitchen, industrial and sterile, hums with a sense of urgency, every plastic cutting board, every stainless steel countertop a salute to practicality. After my interview, I became a part of the controlled chaos behind the spectacle—working part-time from ten in the morning until four, not knowing exactly what my job would entail. Lavey didn’t come in until two, so I went downstairs to join the prep cooks. The main kitchen was deserted in the morning, but below there was a team of five men who had already been working for two hours. I set up my cutting board across from Jack, who looked up from his work to introduce himself. I explained that I would be joining him for a few weeks.
“Cool, I’m Jack.” He plugged his iPod into a speaker on the shelf above his station.
“What kind of music do you like?”
I gave a generic answer—all kinds. The lugubrious tones of a Bach cantata filled the room. “I hope you like classical music, ’cause it’s either that or gangster rap.”
The head prep cook, Wilmur, brought out a container about the size of a twelve-year-old, filled with what looked like tiny green tomatillos and placed it on my station.
“The yellow chickpeas are dry. These are fresh,” he said in a thick Puerto Rican accent.
He popped a green chickpea out of its husk and ate it, gave me an empty container and pointed to the four-quart line. Within the first hour of my shucking process, my eyes began to glaze over. Jack placed his knife on the cutting board and looked at me.
“You gotta keep your back and neck straight, man. You have to learn to look down with just your eyes. When I first started out, I was always looking down, and one morning I couldn’t get out of bed ‘cause my back was so fucked up.”
Jack was working on a creature that looked like an alien from “Independence Day.” He skinned it in a matter of seconds, leaving what resembled an amorphous ball of whale phlegm. He made a few cuts and removed the slimy casing to reveal the surprisingly normal-looking flesh of a white fish.
“Ever had monkfish?” Jack smiled.
It clicked. Poor man’s lobster, as monkfish is known, is one of the least attractive fish you can Google. Jack wrapped the fish and put it in the walk-in refrigerator. He glanced at the clock and took off his gloves to get lunch.
One of the sous chefs called me from upstairs to make an espresso rub for the short ribs. After rummaging through the spice pantry for eight different spices, I went to the barista station directly outside the kitchen to get the coffee. The grinder began to sputter like an old man trying to catch his breath, and my quart container was only half full when a sous chef walked by.
“Umm…if you want an espresso, I made some coffee for the prep cooks downstairs.”
“Oh no, it’s OK, this will be fine,” I said.
“Yeah…look, this is really good shit,” he said, explaining that the espresso I was grinding was reserved only for drinking. “The restaurant spends $87,000 a year on this coffee.”
By the time I had pleaded for forgiveness and found the cheaper beans for the rub, Jack had already returned to his station and trimmed thirty skate wings. He reached for his iPod.
“I’m done with classical music for the day, I think it’s time for some Biggie.”
“Why is that funny? Biggie is my idol. I grew up in Queens,” he said. “My entire high school had a moment of silence when he got shot.”
Jack, I realized, was not born into the world with a chef’s knife in hand. To me, it seemed he could have been butchering monkfish behind that same counter for decades. But Jack was once a teenager, too. Looking at him now, it would be hard to guess that he was born in Korea. His voice, relaxed and unremarkable, is tinged with a New York inflection. He occasionally turns his cap backwards. Jack grew up in Pusan, South Korea’s second largest city after Seoul, where his mother worked as a provider for restaurants — even in her third trimester. She went into labor on her bicycle while trying to deliver an order of squid.
“She’s the hardest working person I know,” said Jack. “Everything she did, she did for us. She broke her back trying to provide for us.”
He revealed that his father was the C.E.O. of a television manufacturing company, and that he constantly traveled for business. His father started borrowing large sums of money, and eventually got involved with the wrong people. One night, his mother woke young Jack and told him to grab his things. She scraped together all of her savings and, without his father, took the next flight to New York. Jack was five years old.
“I had no idea what was going on,” said Jack. “I just remember that my mother told me that our lives were in danger. So I packed forty “Dragon Ball” comics into my bag and we left.”
Jack’s family moved to Flushing, Queens, where his mother, uncle, and grandmother could establish a more stable home. His father was still hiding somewhere in Korea when his mother got a job working at a nail salon in the nearby neighborhood of Jamaica washing feet for two dollars an hour.
“After about a year of working in that nail salon, she finally earned enough money to buy me a Spiderman lunchbox for my birthday,” said Jack. “It was the coolest thing ever. I didn’t realize how precious it was at the time, but that lunchbox was sweat and blood for my mom.”
She also moved to a new nail salon in the Astoria neighborhood and, only three years after fleeing Korea, had saved enough money to buy out that salon, and eventually turned it into a popular franchise. Jack says that his work ethic and his thirst for achievement is a direct result of his mother’s dedication to her family.
“She had a knack for business. She was so passionate about it — not about doing nails themselves — but about making enough money and working for her family, working to feed us. It didn’t matter what she got for herself. I know how cliché it sounds, but that’s the American dream.”
Growing up, Jack’s diet consisted of rice and spam — his mother couldn’t afford vegetables. Now, he’s working with meats that cost more per pound than his mother used to make in a day.
During my stint, he would come into work around nine in the morning and finish dinner preparation before five, reasonable hours that are virtually impossible to find in the restaurant industry. His first task was to receive and sign for deliveries — fresh skate, monkfish, whole pigs — and check them off his list of ingredients for the day’s menu. Most mornings, he started his day preparing the beef tartare. He places a hunk of aged prime sirloin on his cutting board and draws his slicing blade across it to make quarter-inch-thick shingles. He pounds them thin, stacks them, and then cuts the layered beef lengthwise and widthwise to make vermilion cubes. The work is tedious, but the result is exceptional.
It’s a far cry from washing feet, but Jack says that he still strives to be like his mother and to find her kind of dedication—and he’s certainly on his way. At thirty-two, he has premature arthritis from using his hands every day.
* * *
As a boy in Flushing, Jack was surrounded by other children who were a lot like him: young, afraid, and angry with their parents for having uprooted their families for reasons too complex to understand or explain. Jack’s father eventually managed to join his family in New York, but neither of Jack’s parents was around much by the time he was a teenager. They gave him an allowance, but he had to look for family elsewhere. He joined a gang of likeminded teenagers who were also looking to form close ties, but it was not long before his friends got involved in fights with other gangs, drugs — “a lot of stupid shit.”
Jack’s parents were too overworked to pay attention to their son’s behavior until he came home bragging about a particular fight he had started.
“I almost killed a kid. I was just trying to show off,” Jack said. “My dad didn’t understand how to teach me, and his only way of showing it was by hitting me. I’m not into hitting, but I can’t say that it was a bad idea. He had everything in Korea, and now he had nothing,” he admitted. “He wasn’t the best father figure.”
The gang violence became so serious that his family decided to move out of Flushing. Jack’s mother had earned enough money from her franchise that she could afford to rent property on Long Island. For the first time in his life, Jack made white friends, and they were impressed by his toughness. His studies, however, suffered, and he was placed in remedial classes.
In his senior year of high school, Jack was enrolled in a social studies class taught by a former Army shooting instructor. He was a strict and diligent teacher, and Jack found himself wanting to impress the man. Jack was high during his classes more often than not, but this course was the only one for which he was consistently on time.
But one day Jack was late, and his teacher could tell that he had been smoking marijuana. He took Jack out of the classroom and slapped him, hard, on the back of his head.
“I realized I had to be doing something wrong. [He] was my father figure. He completely turned my life around.”
* * *
One day I finished peeling the suitcase-sized quota of fava beans — my newly assigned ingredient — an hour ahead of schedule, so Jack gave me a few pounds of skate wings to trim and portion. Skate that is no longer fresh, he told me, gives off a bacterial odor that smells like ammonia. The fish Jack handed to me — which thankfully smelled only of saltwater — had two pectoral fins with slender segments of pink flesh that radiated outward like a fan. But before the wings could be seared in brown butter and served with capers and local cauliflower, the iridescent white sinew had to be trimmed, and the fins had to be folded into six-ounce portions, with the darker flesh hidden from view. Jack impressed upon me the importance of minimizing waste while trimming the fish. Most of the sinew was located where the fin would meet the body of the skate, but some portions had more than others, and some of the gristle was particularly stubborn. To make matters worse, the knife that Jack handed me started slipping.
“How long did that take you?” he asked me after I handed him thirty portions of the trimmed skate. I hazarded a guess of an hour and fifteen minutes. “How long does it take you? Twenty minutes?”
“Ten,” he responded, “You always gotta time yourself. Right before you start, look at the clock and see how long it takes you. It’s all about learning how to do something well, and then going faster every time you do it. You’ll know you’re getting good when you can only shave seconds off your time.”
Jack says he started learning how to apply himself in high school. After his teacher struck him, he stopped smoking and started focusing more in class. To his own surprise, he graduated and received a scholarship from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Jack was struggling in college but still working towards his dream of being an FBI agent when the World Trade Center fell, killing his close friend’s older brother, a photographer whom Jack looked up to a great deal. His studies lost their relevance, and Jack wanted revenge.
One day, an Army recruiter came to his door, dressed in blues.
“He was the best salesman ever,” said Jack. “He read me like a book.”
Jack says that the recruiter sympathized with his desire for vengeance, and suggested that the Army could not only provide an outlet for his anger, but also a spot on an FBI recruitment list. Jack agreed to join the Army on one condition.
“I wanted to shoot. I wanted to kill people.”
Jack spent seven months training for Iraq at Camp Greaves in South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone. He excelled in boot camp.
“If I was doing pushups, I had to do thirty more than everyone else. If I was running, I had to go an extra mile more than everyone else,” said Jack. “All that discipline I needed from my father, I got a little taste of it from [my high school teacher], and then when I got into the Army, it was like this is what I need — a system. You give me an order, I’ll follow it.”
The discipline Jack found in the military shows in his work. The kitchen environment — flames, knives, egos, pressure — begs for chaos, but Jack remains calm. Frenzy, he said, simply doesn’t belong in a restaurant, and neither does squeamishness. As I looked up from my station, I saw that he had just split a pig in half with a band saw and was preparing to teach his apprentice how to fabricate it. The room began to smell like a dentist’s office as an acrid cloud of bone dust perfumed the air. Jack picked up one half of the pig’s skull and examined it like an MRI scan.
“Mmm…maybe we can make sweetbreads,” his apprentice said.
“Sweetbreads aren’t pig,” Jack said, “they’re not brains either…shit, I forgot what it’s called.”
“I think it’s the thymus gland of a baby cow,” I offered.
Jack pushed his glasses up past the bridge of his nose and stuck his finger in the air.
“That, sir, is the thymus gland, yes indeed,” he said playfully as he placed the pig skull back on his board, brain-side down, and started playing a Jay-Z album.
“You don’t really like music, do you?” he asked.
“No, I do…” I wondered whether I should bring up that I sang in an a cappella group at school. He had continued to ask about my musical tastes since my first day, but I kept waffling, saying again that I had grown up with all sorts of genres.
“Then who’s your favorite artist?” he asked more insistently.
“I really like Beyoncé,” I finally confessed.
“I like her too.” The next time I came to work, “Single Ladies” was reverberating in the prep kitchen.
* * *
Jack was deployed as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2005 — one of the most violent years of the war. Jack said that, within the first four months of his tour, thirty of his fellow soldiers were killed in an explosion. Three committed suicide. Most men called their parents before they went on patrol in the particularly perilous delta sector of Route Michigan — one of the most dangerous highways in the world — to say what were potentially their last good-byes. One day, Jack’s friend fell ill during his shift, so Jack offered to exchange patrol duties. He came back to the barracks to find a bomb squad outside of his room. A mortar round had broken through his window and landed on his bed. It was a dud, but if Jack hadn’t taken his friend’s shift, it would have crushed his chest.
Jack’s luck ran out after his sixth explosion. After an IED detonated while he was patrolling the delta sector, he suffered a head injury and received a medical discharge. At his debrief in Colorado, he collapsed during a sprint and slid down a hill on the right side of his face. He woke up in the hospital three days later — his doctors believed he had been in a coma. They ran an MRI and found particles in his brain that they could not identify, but it was clear that he had experienced a traumatic brain injury and was suffering from post-concussive syndrome.
Jack was soon released from the Army, only to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His nightmares got worse, and one night he woke up with a broken toe after kicking a wall. His psychologist prescribed him a range of drugs to treat his post-concussive syndrome, including Percocet for pain. He began to question why he went to war at all.
“Why was I trying to kill Saddam Hussein instead of Osama Bin Laden?” he asked, as if he were expecting an answer. “All the kids that we left fatherless, they’ll all become terrorists. They hate Americans. The only positive outcome I got from Iraq was for myself.”
Jack moved to Las Vegas and tried his luck at poker. He started losing money, so his parents cut him off financially. One night, he was watching television when an advertisement for Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts caught his attention.
“I’m a man of uniform,” he said. “When I went to check out the school, I see a bunch of cooks walking in uniform, everyone in unison. Everything’s systematic.”
An admissions officer brought Jack a freshly baked apple pie from the pastry department and, like the Army recruiter, sold him. Jack’s veteran status allowed him to enroll in culinary school for free, and he flourished. For most, the difficulty of culinary school is not in the food but in learning how to adhere to a methodology. But Jack was already a natural, and he graduated with a 3.9 grade point average.
After working for Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas, Jack moved to New York in 2009 and secured a position at the Museum of Modern Art’s restaurant. The chef at the time, Sandro Romano, asked Jack about his passion. He told Romano about his family, and that he wanted to make his mother proud. Romano hired him on the spot. He stayed at the Modern for two-and-a-half years until the executive sous chef left to work at Colicchio & Sons and asked Jack to come with him. He’s been there ever since, and can’t see himself doing anything else. Last fall, he achieved his goal of becoming sous chef, but he tries not to think more than a few years down the line.
* * *
On one of my last days, I was assigned to peel the woody exteriors off three bunches of white asparagus, a treasured and expensive ingredient that requires careful handling. It was one of the more passive-aggressive vegetables I had worked with — it has to be peeled twice, but get too confident and it snaps. So I took my time, and perhaps one or two more hours than I needed. After I finished, a sous-chef pulled me aside and provided a gentle reminder that the restaurant depended on the efficiency of every cook — including me.
“A lot of people think they could be chefs,” said Jack. “They wanna use caviar and make shit with chemicals. Learn how to peel a carrot or cook a piece of meat —that’s the stuff that doesn’t come easy.”
And he was right — it didn’t come easy. I spent six weeks at Colicchio & Sons doing the most honest work — shucking chickpeas, cleaning turnips — but the perfectionism that was clearly both cause and manifestation of Jack’s dedication never came to me. In a restaurant with a menu that looks like an art collection and reads like haiku, it can be easy to forget that professional cooking often has just as much to do with discipline as it does with passion. And for some foodies, seeing a magnificent meal as an assemblage of small jobs might strip it of some of its magic. But for Jack, cooking has always been about putting his head down, being organized, and constantly bettering himself or learning something new — either from a fellow chef or from a dishwasher.
“If you volunteer for everything, you learn that much more, because you care for it,” he said, describing how he once took on a sixteen-hour shift to help prepare 600 pounds of pork belly at a food festival called “The Great GoogaMooga.”
“I don’t have to ask how much I’m getting paid…It’s really about focusing everything that I have—everything that I have right now—to learn everything I need to learn…to be like my mom,” he said. “I start from scratch.”
And so on my last day in August, I stepped out of the kitchen because I could, disappearing into the din of Tenth Avenue and leaving behind the carrots and fava beans for someone who deserved them, instilled with the utmost respect for a man who found redemption in a root vegetable.