Assistants help four well-known chefs shine

Meet the chefs who help four well-known chefs shine

Staff WriterMay 27, 2011 

Iron Chef Walter Royal of the Angus Barn in Raleigh. James Beard award-winning chefs Ben Barker of Durham's Magnolia Grill and Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill's Lantern. Or Amy Tornquist, the energetic Durham chef who parlayed the success of her catering company, Sage & Swift, into her own restaurant, Watts Grocery.

Those chefs are well-known among diners and foodies who avidly follow the Triangle's restaurant scene. But not as well known are their sous chefs, who work tirelessly behind that kitchen door.

The reality is that when a chef becomes a boss or restaurant owner, it's less likely he or she is to be behind the line, cooking the food you eat. Chefs in those positions are more often directing the kitchen staff during dinner rush, writing schedules, ordering wine, shopping at the farmers market for ingredients, and making sure their staffs know how to carry out their vision.

We decided to profile the five people who serve as the second-in-command for those four previously mentioned chefs. (The Angus Barn is such a large operation that Royal has two sous chefs.) Now you will know who you should also thank for that well-prepared meal.

Angus Barn: Jimmy Alfano and Jim Long

Jimmy Alfano, 55, grew up in Long Island and at an early age became his family's de facto grill boy. If there was a family cookout, Alfano was manning the charcoal grill. But he didn't think about going into the restaurant business; he hoped his athletic ability on the baseball diamond would take him to the major leagues. When that didn't work out, Alfano enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America.

He and a friend ended up working for, and eventually owning, a 70-seat northern Italian and French restaurant on Long Island. After selling the restaurant in the mid-1990s, Alfano moved to Raleigh and got a job at the Angus Barn. Alfano soon became one of two kitchen managers and the chef who ran the restaurant's wine cellar dining room, which features high-dollar dinners and special events.

Meanwhile, Long, 50, has worked at the Angus Barn for almost 20 years. After many years cooking in restaurants without any formal training, Long decided to enroll in the Wake Technical Community College culinary program to create a better future for himself and his family.

When he graduated in 1992, he went directly to the Angus Barn and has never left. Royal credits Long with training him when Royal came to the Barn 15 years ago. While Long concedes he showed Royal the inner workings of this Raleigh institution, he says, "If you want to know the truth, Walter trained me to be a manager." Long, now the executive sous chef, describes the staff at the Angus Barn as a family, noting that he was hired back after leaving for two years to spend more time with his family.

While he acknowledges that most sous chefs hope one day to move to open their own restaurants, Long points out that he and Alfano aren't youngsters but battle-weary chefs happy to be second-in-charge. "We like to think we're the left and right hands of Walter," he says.

Plus, Alfano says, their jobs are always challenging, from preparing a buffet for 1,000 people to cooking a five-course gourmet dinner in the wine cellar to smoking a pig in the barn's Pavilion, a 400-seat special events space. "You can never get bored," he says.

Lantern: Miguel Torres

Miguel Torres, 31, came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 18, knowing very little English, and with only an uncle's promise of a dishwashing job at a Chapel Hill restaurant. The restaurant business was not new to Torres, whose mother owned a restaurant that served workers in an industrial area in Guanajuato. After school, he would take the bus to the restaurant to wash dishes and prepare food.

Six months after Torres arrived in Chapel Hill, chef Bret Jennings took over the restaurant, turning it into Elaine's on Franklin. Torres climbed the fine-dining kitchen's hierarchy: dishwasher, prep cook, line cook.

When Lantern opened across the street in late 2001, Torres got a second job there working as a pastry assistant. Torres worked 80 hours a week, splitting his time between Elaine's and Lantern. Eventually, Reusing offered Torres more money to come work for her full time and he left Elaine's.

Along the way, Torres realized food could be more than just a livelihood. He was inspired by the fact that Reusing was so successful despite never having gone to culinary school. He says he thought: "I can do this."

Three years ago, he was made Lantern's chef de cuisine. This year, Reusing won Best Chef of the Southeast from the James Beard Foundation, which not only reflects her skill but the ability of her staff - and especially Torres - to execute her food.

Watts Grocery: Sunny Gerhart

Sunny Gerhart's father spent 27 years in the Marines. So Gerhart's childhood was spent moving from one military base to another. Eventually his father's military career led the family to Camp Lejeune, where Gerhart graduated from high school. Then he attended East Carolina University, but Gerhart didn't graduate because, he says, he couldn't settle on a career.

Instead he slid into the kitchen via a job at a wine store in Greenville. The wine shop position got him work at a California winery, and he developed an interest in food and wine. When his father died unexpectedly eight years ago and he moved to Baltimore, where his mother was then living, he decided to try culinary school. It felt like the right decision from the start.

"I knew that's what I wanted to do from the first couple days," Gerhart says.

After a year working at Willow, a well-regarded Arlington, Va., restaurant, Gerhart returned to North Carolina, hoping to finish his degree. But work opportunities interrupted. He interned at the now-closed Enoteca Vin in Raleigh, then followed former Vin chef Ashley Christensen to her new restaurant, Poole's, and finally ended up working for Tornquist at Watts Grocery, where he's been since last summer.

Tornquist acknowledges that her life as a mother, wife and owner of two businesses with her husband makes it impossible to be in the kitchen at Watts Grocery every night. "It's such a group effort," she says. "Sunny is a really creative cook. He's a really strong worker. He cares deeply about what he does."

Magnolia Grill: Amanda Forsyth

Amanda Forsyth, 33, entered college at UNC-Chapel Hill to study political science, thinking she'd one day become a lawyer. Eventually, she decided law wasn't for her. A summer spent cooking at home in Charlotte for her parents and herself made her decide to become a chef.

She enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America and landed an externship at Durham's Magnolia Grill. The restaurant is owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team Ben and Karen Barker, who have both won James Beard awards. Ben is the executive chef, and Karen is the pastry chef.

Forsyth has spent a decade at Magnolia Grill, except for one break. She and her husband sold their house in 2007 and lived for six months in Tulum, a coastal town in Mexico. Forsyth describes that time as "bikini, cookbook, beach."

When she returned, the Barkers wanted her back. During her tenure, she worked her way through the various stations in the kitchen: prep cook, plating, dessert, salad, roast, grill, and became chef de cuisine three years ago.

"I love this restaurant. I love the food we do here. I admire the quality that Ben produces, that we produce," she says. "It's kind of like my home. I don't want to work anywhere else."

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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