"When you walk away from a great meal, you don't just feel that the food was great. You feel that life is better."
—Chef John Eisensmith
Competitive cooking shows celebrate an image of the maniacal master chef, a person so driven by the need to be rich and famous that little else matters. Screaming at staff and other bad behavior is portrayed as the right of these veritable kings of the kitchen.
Not everyone is like that, of course. On his PBS series Avec Eric—and even as the guest of renowned bad boy Anthony Bourdain—Chef Eric Ripert demonstrates a Zen-like calm befitting of both his Buddhist beliefs and his earned acclaim for Le Bernardin, his flagship restaurant in New York City.
Chef John Eisensmith aspires to a similar state of enlightened balance at Six Plates Wine Bar, where he's been mindfully shaping the menu and building a staff since March 2010. He credits his Buddhism as much as his culinary training for the Durham restaurant's success in delivering an evolving menu of seasonal courses with creative wine pairings.
"I try to walk the middle path," Eisensmith says, referring to the trail to liberation ascribed to Buddha. "Degrading someone is not the way to get them to do their best. We stay calm in the kitchen. I hope that shows in our food."
Eisensmith recalls receiving harsh coaching when he was working his way up. "When things go wrong in a kitchen, chefs yell," he says, adding that the screaming image of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey is more common than people might imagine. "Excuse my kitchen language,'" he adds, "but I've been told things like, 'Get your head out of your fucking ass!' You answer, 'Yes, chef,' put your head down and work even harder."
Eisensmith admits he lost his cool once and yelled at a cook in his service. But he regretted it immediately, apologizing openly and again privately. "When you are completely out of control, you have a tendency to recreate things you've seen before, which is what I did," he says. "But the fact is, if they're falling behind, then I didn't do enough to get them prepared.
"What I should have done then, and what I try to do now, is to find positive ways to support people," he adds. "Offering help and reminding people that they have the strong skills helps everyone get back on track."
Eisensmith's ability to let go of stress in the kitchen has freed his mind to focus on the harmony of each ingredient's role on the plate. A recent shared meal of items from the eatery's updated menu—which always features six seasonal dishes with suggested wine pairings, plus a handful of "classics" demanded by regulars—matched layered, complex flavors with eye-pleasing presentations.
Eisensmith's positive energy is echoed by his staff. They're all on board with the chef's position that being motivated by doing the right thing is the way to achieve personal and professional success.
"The most amazing part about John is his investment in the people in his kitchen," says owner Matt Beason, who convinced Eisensmith to come to Durham from Nantucket, Massachusetts, to take the Six Plates job. The two are business partners here and at the casual Mattie B's Public House. "As great as John's food is, his attitude towards people and life are that much better. It's what makes him so good at what he does."
Eisensmith deflects such praise, saying he views the restaurants as an extension of his home.
"I want people to relax and enjoy themselves," says Eisensmith, who uses a stock pot and colander that belonged to his grandfather in the Six Plates kitchen. "When you walk away from a great meal, you don't just feel that the food was great. You feel that life is better."
Eisensmith says the reason Six Plates recently overhauled its menu was to improve diners' experiences. They dropped the term "small plates," which had been used to describe the generous, tapas-like courses.
"There was a misperception that you could not have a 'full meal' here, or that we are 'too fancy' for an everyday meal," he says. "We're trying to do fine dining that's accessible to people."
Most courses cost between $9 and $12. Current options include the standout crispy calamari with peanut aioli and spicy Thai cabbage slaw ($10) and grilled sirloin with roasted cauliflower puree, broccolini, horseradish whipped cream and roasted red pepper cream puff ($12). Indulge in the must-have starter of chicken liver mousse with crostini ($7) and try to save room for desserts. Consider a baby carrot cake with raspberry cream cheese, toasted orange meringue and butterscotch ($6) and house-made chocolate truffles in such flavors as blackberry lavender and pink peppercorn with sea salt ($2 each).
Eisensmith describes such choices "refined comfort food with a wow factor." With his round belly and serene smile, perhaps even Buddha would agree.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Kitchen calm."