Life of a West Loop chef

09/12/2012 10:00 PM

By BILL MOTCHAN

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Chef Aaron Kolitz has been a cook at Girl and the Goat and Sepia.
BILL MOTCHAN/Contributor

Stephanie Izard. Graham Elliot. Grant Achatz. You don’t even need to add the word “chef” before their names to recognize them as Chicago’s kitchen royalty. Here’s one more name that even hardcore foodies haven’t heard of: Aaron Kolitz. I predict he will be a top chef someday.

He goes by the handle Chef AK, or simply AK, and he doesn’t own a restaurant. He’s not featured regularly on The Food Network. He doesn’t have a publishing deal. But AK clearly has the chops and the desire to be one of the next great chefs.

Right now, you can find AK working the line as a prep cook at Sepia. Before that, he spent two years at Girl and the Goat. He was a member of the kitchen crew that launched Izard’s iconic restaurant and helped put the West Loop on the culinary map.

Working at a restaurant of this caliber requires some serious skill, and AK is no slouch around a molybdenum steel paring knife. He earned a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and has worked at some of the best dining establishments in Chicago and in Europe. At this level of cooking, a chef works with the finest seasonal ingredients. Dinner for two can easily exceed $300 with wine and gratuity.

One of the rewards for a chef working in a high-end kitchen is to learn new techniques, and to pay homage to history — AK has a soft spot for Georges Auguste Escoffier, the chef and writer who codified French cuisine. It’s AK’s respect for the legacy of cooking and motivation to develop his own restaurant that convinces me he will succeed where so many have failed. (Experts suggest only about 20 percent of new restaurants survive their first year of business.)

For now, it’s still dues-paying time. Working the line as a chef is neither glamorous nor easy. In fact, it may be one of the most physically demanding jobs a person could choose.

Consider this scenario: You spend nearly the entire work day on your feet, often hunched over. It’s incredibly hot. Your shift ends and you have burns, cuts, abrasions and bruises. You’ll constantly be on a weird sleep cycle, getting home from work after 1 a.m. Your boss could also be an abusive, egomaniacal lunatic. Sound like fun so far?

The amazing fact is few chefs would trade the life for an eight-to-five office job.

“You’ve got to be ready for a little pain,” AK said. “It’s not an easy life. It’s really tough on your body.”

He’s had two surgeries on his wrist, one on his left knee and he needs work on his right knee. His back and neck often ache — he’s been to several chiropractors. I began to wonder if I was talking to a chef or a Bears lineman.

Open the refrigerator in AK’s West Loop apartment and you won’t find truffles or foie gras. There’s a bagel or two, some butter and a few condiments. In the freezer, some Morningstar veggie burgers.

The schedule doesn’t lend itself to a normal social life, either. Your friends will naturally want to go out on a Saturday night, but if you’re a chef, you’ll be at work. Relationships don’t tend to thrive when one — or worse, both — partners work in a kitchen.

Charlie Trotter has claimed that it’s not difficult for a chef to achieve a good balance of work and personal life, but the schedule, stress and physical toll makes you wonder if that’s realistic. So why pursue a career in chef’s whites when an office job might be so much easier?

“I love food and cooking,” AK said. “It’s one of those things I figured out when I was just 16 years old. I had a high school statistics class where I learned 72 percent of the population goes to work every day unhappy. I told myself, I’m not going be in that 72 percent.”

The path to working in world-class kitchens started for AK in his hometown of San Antonio. He started out as a dishwasher in a burger joint. He had a good attitude about the work and showed an interest in learning more, so he moved up to food prep. After high school, he spent one year in the hotel and restaurant management program at the University of Denver, then transferred to the Culinary Institute of America.

Midway through his training, AK moved to Chicago, where his sister and brother-in-law lived. He got a job at a now-defunct restaurant called Powerhouse, but while interviewing around town, he met and impressed Giuseppe Tentori. That proved to be a good move, because Tentori called AK and invited him to join the staff at Boka.

Eight months later, AK decided to hit the road and backpack through Europe. He worked at some of the best restaurants he could find, like The Fat Duck in London and Noma in Copenhagen. He also worked at a butcher shop in Tuscany. Then, it was back to Hyde Park, New York, to finish his culinary education at the culinary institute, and finally to Chicago in 2009, when he was hired by Stephanie Izard.

“She was unbelievable to work with — so attentive to detail and taking care of customers,” AK said. “And, the entire kitchen staff was a real team. It was fun going to work every day, one of the best jobs I ever had.”

I was curious why he would leave such a dream job after only 18 months. AK shrugged.

“It’s the nature of the business,” he said. “If you’re not moving from one restaurant to another, you’re really not learning and growing. Right now, working for Andrew Zimmerman at Sepia, I’m learning new things all the time. What I like to do is spend at least multiple seasons with a chef to learn techniques for using seasonal ingredients. I want to absorb as much knowledge as I can, so I’ll be successful owning my own restaurant.”

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