One of the most enduring myths about the food industry is that it is always a creative endeavor. I mean, we know it's hard work too, but the creativity is what keeps us captivated. How do they do it? All the improbable combinations of flavor, technique, color, fragrance, concept?
One way they do it is with good help. Really, really good help. See also: Meet the Chefs Busting the Myth of Midwestern Blandness
"It's so hard to get good help these days." It's a phrase that once illustrated a spoiled or petulant heiress dissatisfied with life in general. It's also one of the most oft-heard phrases in the restaurant industry right now. Too bad they all can't carbon-print Jason Bush.
Shish is like Grand Central for hungry Macalaster college students, parents, and faculty, and in fact that's just what they've named their sister restaurant, a hybrid bakery/deli/coffee shop/bar located a few doors down: Grand Central. The places are a constantly revolving door at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and study time, which is all the time. And this being graduation season, the action will not stop, because they cater, too.
Leo Judeh is owner and executive chef, and he's as big a personality as the flavors, portions, and presence of Shish. Everyone knows his name, and he knows theirs, even if sometimes they're just Honey. "Hello, Honey!" he shouts to everyone, "And this must be Dad! Hello, Dad!" And Honey and Dad are happy as they take delivery of their gargantuan Belgian waffles and Jerusalem breakfast (they serve both Middle Eastern and American favorites at Shish).
He must run 17 miles a day between the cellar and upstairs kitchens of the two spaces, plus getting back and forth between the two buildings. It's simply not a job for one man.
Enter Bush. When I ask what his title is, he swivels his head around a few times before answering: "Chef?" He's clearly looking for Judeh, a man who you wouldn't want to mess with -- think of him as a kind but firm father figure. Do what you are supposed to and you'll be fine. But step out of line, and look out. He's a retired boxer, after all.
"Me and Leo just pretty much tag team everything," he explains. And that everything is an awful lot, indeed.
He works 12 to 14 hours six days a week, and is one of the few chefs who's not chomping at the bit to discuss what he would like to do for himself, one day, at his own place, because you know, that's the dream.
"I want to see this project through with Leo." He says the two of them see eye to eye when it comes to culinary outlook: "Comfort food. Grandma's kitchen. Whether it's in Lebanon, or Georgia (where he grew up), or Sweden. We just want you to feel like you're back sitting in grandma's kitchen."
By way of example, we sample a breakfast dish of Chaksuka, a deep, thunderous, umami braise of red bell peppers, caramelized onion, tomato, and garlic, offset by the bright brine of Kalamata olive and then draped with a sunny side egg. It's a several-times-a-week breakfast, and sometimes dinner, all over the Middle East, and one that Judeh's family dined on constantly in his hometown of Jerusalem. Bush is grateful to have learned the recipe.
"These are family recipes that predate [Judeh]. This is a really personal, family restaurant, and therefore my favorite kind of restaurant."
He's cooked most of his life, having grown up in a Southern family that cooked all the time. Like all the chefs he admires most, he learned at his grandma's apron strings. Making pimiento cheese and lots of pickling, that's what he picked up from her.
But he doesn't clamp unrelentingly onto his own experience. He's worked "everywhere," he says, from Italian to Mediterranean to sushi to family-owned holes in the wall to 500-seat powerhouses. "There's something to learn from every place. Including from the dishwasher."
These are phrases that are music to a chef's ear. This kind of help is very difficult indeed to find these days. He's 35 years old, he's been around the block, he's already learned all of the important lessons, he's got a mature mind and a young man's body, and he's willing to apply it all to someone else's vision, at least for now.
But it isn't like he's a martyr. He admits to hating the long hours, the fact that he's only got energy to either wash the dishes or do the laundry but not both. That he's single because there's no time for a relationship, that his nieces and nephews only know him from afar.
"It's a blessing and a curse that cooking is an all-consuming passion. But it's the only reason to do this."
But why this? Why cooking?
"As human beings living on the planet, it's the one thing we all have to do. Eat. It's the one thing that binds us."
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