Ben Braxton's baby face stands out among the tattooed white-coated cooks in the kitchen at Pazzo on a recent Saturday night.
Wearing a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, Ben is manning the salad station. As the sous chef barks instructions, Ben grabs a slice of beef carpaccio from the freezer. He carefully lays the thin slice of beef on a white plate. Another chef heaps dressed arugula on top, and Braxton finishes the dish with shredded Parmesan cheese and fried capers. Ben looks to the other chef, gets a nod of approval before handing the salad off to the waiter.
That scene repeats itself several more times until Braxton has to clock out at 7 p.m. before the dinner rush really even starts. But those are the rules when you're 15-years-old, a lesson that Pazzo's chef-owner Seth Kingsbury has learned the hard way.
Kingsbury took Ben under his wing two years ago, taught him the skills of the kitchen and saw the boy improve his grades and even get off his ADHD medication. But despite Kingsbury's good intentions and results with the boy, the chef was unknowingly violating child labor laws. He has been fined almost $8,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor.
So Kingsbury, 37, is talking publicly about the experience to help educate his peers in the restaurant industry, many of whom, like himself, started in the business at the same age that Ben did or younger.
"Maybe one person can learn from my mistake," Kingsbury said.
Two years ago, Ben's parents were regular customers at Pazzo, two restaurants in one in Chapel Hill's Southern Village. One side is a sit-down Italian restaurant touting local ingredients on the menu, and the other is a casual pizzeria.
While his parents dined one night, Ben, then 13, parked himself in a seat with a view into the kitchen. Watching Kingsbury caramelize crème brûlées, Braxton asked to go back into the kitchen. Kingsbury agreed and showed Ben how he used a small torch to make the dessert's signature sugar crust.
Eventually Ben asked if he could hang out in the kitchen on a regular basis. Kingsbury knew that the boy had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was struggling in school. So Kingsbury laid out some conditions: Ben had to listen to the chefs, get A's and B's on his report card and mind his parents. Any sass or less-than-stellar grades meant no more kitchen time.
Ben was soon peeling potatoes, washing dishes and plating salads. He had his own white chef's jacket. He became a little brother to the kitchen crew; they gave him the nickname, "Little Chef." For Christmas, he asked his mom for a 10-inch Shun Ken Onion chef's knife, a gift that cost more than $200, and then the young man saved enough money to buy three more knives to make a complete set.
"He has nicer knives than anyone in the kitchen," Kingsbury says.
Adds his mother, Beth Braxton: "He won't let me use them."
At school, Ben thrived. During his freshman year at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough, he took three honors courses and got a 3.6 GPA. He used his time at Pazzo toward 400 hours of a food service internship to earn a national certificate. He talked about attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Ben's mother noticed a change in her son: "There's just a maturity about him."
Letters to Labor
Last winter, Kingsbury realized Beth Braxton had never obtained a worker's permit for her son. Kingsbury also realized he might have run afoul of the child labor laws, including a provision that doesn't allow a child under the age of 16 to work in a restaurant with a liquor license. He self-reported the violation to the N.C. Department of Labor, which started an investigation.
Beth Braxton petitioned state Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry for a waiver to allow her son to continue working at Pazzo.
In her letter, she wrote: "The structure of the kitchen environment has helped Ben with his ADHD. He hasn't take his Adderall in almost a year. And for the first time since the third grade, he did not have to take an (end-of-grade) test over because of a low grade. He was so proud and said he had 'finally broken the cycle.' "
His mother's sentiments were echoed in letters to Berry by her son's doctor and a school official. In May, Berry allowed the teenager to return to work at Pazzo with restrictions, such as no cooking over an open flame and no handling of alcohol. Kingsbury was fined $300.
Vodka on fire
At that point, Kingsbury thought he was out of trouble. That's when a writer for Our State magazine showed up at the restaurant to take photos of Ben for a profile of the young chef-in-the-making. In what Kingsbury now acknowledges was "an incredible lapse of judgment," he helped stage a photo showing Ben making penne a la vodka with one hand on a flaming pan and the other holding a bottle of vodka. What the photo didn't show was Kingsbury standing right behind Ben and having done all the work before the teenager stepped in for the photogenic moment.
The reaction to the story published in the May issue was mixed. Ben got fan mail, including from U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, who wrote: "You are an outstanding example of how our youth in North Carolina are going to lead the way into the future and make a difference for our communities." But the photo's obvious violations of child labor laws caught the attention of federal labor officials, who started an investigation.
In August, federal officials fined Kingsbury $7,975. He appealed and decided to go public. Still, Kingsbury acknowledges that it could have been worse: He was facing up to $11,000 in fines.
Kingsbury said that he worked jobs in kitchens in violation of the child labor laws when he was a teenager, first in Florida and then in Durham. At 14, he was starting work at 6 a.m. to do the restaurant's baking or leaving at midnight after working on the hot line; both in clear violation of the law. Kingsbury says his path is not uncommon among chefs: "We all worked in violation."
While Ben Braxton is now legally allowed to work in Kingsbury's kitchen, worker's permit and waiver from state officials in hand, Kingsbury has certainly learned a lesson, one he hopes will help his peers.
"Look at how much trouble I got in," he says. "You don't want to be me."