‘Why I don’t hire Skinny Waiters’

Peter O'Brien

I HAVE AN ALMOST KNEE-JERK DISTRUST OF ANYONE who has not been dismissed from their job at some point. Peter has cheffed for and then left several well-known Santa Fe restaurants. There may be reasons for that, but they cannot have anything to do with talent and skill, his work product. An entrepreneur is someone who thinks they can do it better than the boss. The successful ones are right.

You see why Peter might feel that way. He is mischievousness incarnate, a culinary Puck. He is steeped in Culinary Institute of America training. He knows the rules of the game. He has the authority, the temperament, and a second-nature delight in breaking them.

It is not surprising that he hates recipes. They imply there is a right way. Every meal he prepares is a little different. It has to be. He is a performance artist who insists on improvising, as a matter of principle, conviction – and a love for the love he gets from a happy majority of people he serves.

One more thing – he won’t hire skinny waiters. At least in principle. Because anyone who isn’t willing to taste his work – consistently, perhaps even maniacally – cannot tell the customer what they want or don’t want.

Peter loves every single part of preparing a meal. He loves The Bear-like insane drama, the always idiosyncratic kitchen staff, the required holy focus, the dishing, and other stuff that I can’t even fathom. But he is most happy when he ventures out to join the audience in the festivities – eating, drinking and being very merry.

He has started a promising catering business, High Mountain Cuisine. He is his own boss. I am sure he always was.

You have been a chef and a caterer. What’s the difference?

In a restaurant, you’re in the zone and it’s just this jamming. And when you’re catering, it’s up and down. It’s like, hurry up and go and hurry up and wait. A lot of times, you’re like rushing, rushing, rushing, you get to the event space, and then you’re waiting, waiting, waiting. So it’s a whole different kind of mindset and the way you focus your energy and time. Both are super fabulous.

And so, what happens next?

Things get really quiet. You look at your grill guy and he nods, like he’s ready for the next four tickets. And you might be doing four tables at a time. But then when it comes down to putting the food out for the servers, it all comes together, boom, boom, boom, boom. Because you want everything to go out seamlessly. It’s like chaos over on one side of the line. And then it needs to get into symmetry. Like just dialed out, so that when the food goes to the table, that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. Yeah. The whole thing is not just cooking food, the whole thing is really when they walk out the door.

So how do you make sure that every little plate, everything is set up and the servers have two plates? I don’t come from the world of carrying five plates. It’s two plates, each server, and they go to the position numbers and the food gets laid down, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then almost the same symmetry that plates get cleared, and then the dessert goes out.

How do you get to that? How do you take everything that’s just chaotic over on one side – and it’s not necessarily chaotic, to some people it may seem incredibly chaotic, but there’s a lot going on. So you have a grill guy with five items, you have a sauté, a hot apps guy that might be doing 14 items, and they’re all kind of working together. And then, oh my gosh, we’re out of duck. Go! We gotta get some. And either it’s prepped or it’s not prepped. All the speed bumps that come into play. Man, no problem. Everybody’s calm.

Why is that?

Everybody’s calm ‘cause they know what they’re doing. For me, a lot of that has been luck. I walked into the Anasazi kitchen and the sous chef had been there 20 years, and half the guys had been there a dozen years. So I came to the sous chef, and said, This is what I plan on doing. And I’m all ears for how you think we can pull it off. And they knew. They’re just like, This is how we’ll pull it off. Let’s do it. And I feel like some of the better chefs in this world give it up to their guys. Like, You know what? Here’s what I think, this is what I see on the plate. Let’s do it.



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