A Sweet Deal in a Stuffy Place

Corporate cooking culture

So you're a chef. You've trained at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the most respected culinary institutions in the United States. You have interned in a variety of foreign lands, including Israel, Hong Kong, China, Japan, France, and Italy. You've cooked your way up the ranks at a number of exclusive national establishments, such as Tatou in Beverly Hills and Picholine in New York City. Locally you were the first executive chef at Tantra, where you worked to firm up the aphrodisiac concept that has made the eatery a South Beach destination for the rich and infamous (and seductively flirtatious). Where do you go from there? Easy. Next stop corporate flunky.

Except that Michael B. Jacobs, who has traveled this very path, wouldn't define his present position as executive chef for the law firm Ferrell Schultz Carter Zumpano & Fertel (try saying that three times fast -- or even once) as particularly corporate or flunky-ish. He may cater, but he certainly doesn't grovel. He wears the identical uniform he would as an executive chef in a restaurant: a white chef's jacket with his name emblazoned on the left breast. His staff of three and his superiors -- those partners and their exclusive clients -- all call him by the same title, simply, Chef. He does the buying of everything from the All-Clad pots and pans to the china to the snacks he stores on the shelves for the lawyers when they get a craving for a handful of dried fruit or nuts.

In fact he probably has even more responsibility than an executive chef in a restaurant does. He and his staff take inventory every night and are responsible for cleaning the linens that he puts on the tables in the conference rooms that double as dining venues. They maintain four pantries scattered throughout the offices, stocking them with coffee, tea, and related items. They polish the silver, including what Jacobs calls the "coats of armor" that disguise the coffee pots, every two weeks.

Jeremy Eaton

In his kitchen, a beautiful if somewhat oddly designed space where the staff lawyers eat lunch while Jacobs prepares the repasts for the higher-ups, he is scrupulous in his mise en place, arranging everything from the herbs he stores in the Sub-Zero refrigerators and aligning the juice extractor and the Cuisinart. He has no sous chef or prep cooks, so he infuses his own vinegar (perhaps kumquat today), toasts his own spices, and strains his own stocks. He even logs a restaurant-style reservation book on the computer where he stores his menus (and which only he and the receptionist can access). That way he can track which lawyers make what reservations and who pulls a no-show. "Not that that ever happens," he chuckles.

Indeed the only input (i.e., culinary interference) he gets from the people he cooks for comes via the boxes he has on the menu: Check here if you'd like sauce on the side; write it here if you have an allergy or dietary preference. But after cooking for Ferrell Schultz since 1999, when he was hired and the firm moved its offices up to the penthouse of the Miami Center building (think 360-degree views of Biscayne Bay), he doesn't even really need those boxes. "I know when Mr. [So-and-So] is scheduled to dine; he wants his salad with the vinaigrette on the side. I'm the only one who cooks here. Unlike in a restaurant, I plate everything. Nothing's ever been sent back, but if it were, I'd know who to blame. When you work for the same people every day, you eliminate the bad experiences."

Since he can't necessarily rely on straightforward feedback, Jacobs checks the garbage to see which dishes were successful and which ended up in the trash. To hear him tell it -- and to observe it -- the extra details he needs to oversee are a welcome tradeoff for what he gains. First and foremost there's freedom of expression, which seems almost ironic in a place that many industry people who like odd work hours and screwy people could see as a plush prison. "I don't have a set menu the way I would in a restaurant," Jacobs explains. "So every day I get to cook something different, according to what comes in fresh from the purveyors. There's no master plan. It's like Ready, Set, Cook," he says, referring to the TV Food Network game show where contestants are given a pile of ingredients and instructed to make something delicious.

Then there's the lighter workload. At a restaurant Jacobs would be serving 300 covers per day; currently he is preparing about one-sixth of that per week. Granted he's designing four-course luncheons complete with amuse-bouches and homemade cookies for dessert, but he rarely cooks for more than twelve folks at a time. He also handles private parties for the senior partners, assumes culinary duties during cocktail hour on Mr. Ferrell's 85-foot motor yacht, and does some mini-catering for extralong meetings like real estate closings. Use Ferrell Schultz and you're almost guaranteed some finger sandwiches to strengthen the deal.

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