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.

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.

Jacobs will even make dinner reservations for partners and/or clients who are too busy to linger on hold, acting like a concierge and using his connections at old-haunt Tantra or other en vogue eateries like Norman's or Astor Place. But all in all, he estimates he works 50 to 60 hours per week, as opposed to 18 hours daily behind a hot stove. Best of all he never has to cope with a lunch or dinner rush and is never, as we say in the industry, "in the weeds" with too many orders and too many things to do.

"My social life has improved 100 percent," he adds with a grin, and for a young single chef, that's pretty important. When you work all night every night, chances of scoring a date are limited to who you might meet in the restaurant or while dawdling at the bar. Now Jacobs is welcome to the nine-to-five scene the rest of us have been so anxious to leave: the dating world of happy hour and singles bars. Still, Jacobs says, "I get to visit my friends who are chefs. I get to go to their restaurants for dinner. Before, I'd have to meet them for lunch." And he hasn't given up a high profile. He still has a publicist, and, hey, profiles speak for themselves, I'd imagine.

The benefits for the law firm also are immense. Time management and convenience vie for top billing. Also consider the hush-hush meeting, which might formerly have taken place over lunch at a very public restaurant. Now the partners can stuff their faces in secrecy with their clients, and they don't have to bother to lower their voices and perhaps compromise their authority during negotiations over wasabi-ginger-crusted salmon with shallot-chive beurre blanc or soy-pineapple-marinated sirloin with eight-hour black beans. The presence of Jacobs raises the level of this prestigious international firm even higher, the way the demeanor of a butler or valet in a private home signals wealth and prestige.

And lest you think all at Ferrell Schultz is whisper-soft air conditioning and high-tech rooms with multiple ports for laptops in the center of the tables and videoconferencing capabilities, know that Jacobs, like most chefs, brings his own likable personality to the fare. "Lunch is serious business, and I'm glad they [Ferrell Schultz] have brought it to this level," he declares. But that doesn't stop him from educating with humor the people who are "too busy reading torts to make them."

One particular attorney, as it turned out, wasn't quite used to fine dining and asked Jacobs why he never serves any so-called normal food. "I took advantage of that opportunity to play a little practical joke. The next time the attorney was scheduled for lunch, instead of something like [vanilla-maple marinated prawns], I served him a hamburger and French fries from Burger King, garnished with one packet of ketchup and a sprig of rosemary," he recalls. Jacobs's service staff was appalled and wouldn't present it, so the chef himself brought it out, covered with a dome like the other meals, much to the delight of the other attorneys present who were in on the joke.

"I never would have done it in front of a client," Jacobs says. "But everybody in the room knew the situation." After the laughter was over, Jacobs brought out the real meal but left the burger on the table, giving the attorney the option of "being adventurous or being a meat-and-potatoes kind of person." And while the attorney wouldn't, in the end, tell Jacobs which plate he actually preferred, according to the chef, "suffice to say both meals were eaten."

Next week: Joey Ramos and Chef Du Jour.

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