Out of the Frying Pan

A defining moment in the education of Sharon Feldman occurred during an autumn afternoon in 1987 in the Montparnasse district of Paris. Less than a year out of the New England Culinary Institute and eager to cut her chops on the famous kitchen lines of Paris, the 21-year-old novice chef put aside all fear and walked into Le Dome, one of the city's finest seafood restaurants. She wanted a job. "This maitre d' in a tuxedo looked at me," Feldman recalls, "and said, Americans don't know how to cook. Especially not women.'"

Feldman's physical presence didn't exactly command respect. At five-foot-one and barely 100 pounds wet, with impressively big hair, she looked more like a high school cheerleader on a field trip than a determined chef-in-training. Furthermore, she spoke only a few words of French. But the maitre d's sexist attitude didn't surprise her: until recently, the upper echelons of chefdom in Western countries -- especially France -- were virtually closed to women.

Still, the snooty matire d' did go to the trouble of fetching the chef from the kitchen. "He was this big, jolly guy who basically said, very patronizingly, Sure, show up,'" says Feldman. "When I arrived with my knife bag and opened it up, they were, like, Wow!' I don't think the chef actually thought I'd come back." Feldman joined thirteen chefs and two sous chefs -- all men -- on the kitchen line. She quickly endeared herself to them not only through her quickly acquired skills, but also, she says, with her novelty. "I was a woman and so young and so small," she recalls. "I was this little bubbly thing that came in and broke up their monotony. In the back of their heads they probably thought I was going to go back to America and have babies."

Even though she only stayed two months -- the position was unpaid and she soon ran out of money -- the experience gave her a tremendous confidence boost. The Sharon Feldman who returned to the United States was different from the one who had walked into the New England Culinary Institute in 1984. Interested in "doing something art-related," her decision to go to cooking school had come after she'd weighed other options such as acting and graphic arts. When she enrolled, her only restaurant experience had been waitressing and tending the griddle during the graveyard shift at the Bickford's House of Pancakes on Route 1 in her hometown of Sharon, Massachusetts. "I was pretty overwhelmed," Feldman admits of her first day at the school. "I cut my small finger during knife assessments on the first day."

"I remember when she first came to visit the school," laughs Michel Le Borgne, founder of the eleven-year-old institute in Montpelier, Vermont. "I told the program director, What is this?' I have nothing against size because I'm not tall myself. But she was fragile. She was a doll." After the two-year, $18,000 program, which included internships with a fine-foods caterer in Boston and a four-star restaurant in California's Napa Valley, Feldman had risen to the top of her class. Le Borgne, who has kept in touch with the star pupil, ranks her in the top ten of the 1000-plus graduates of his school, which is widely regarded as one of the top half-dozen culinary programs in the country.

After graduation, Feldman worked for a brief time at Michela's, one of the best Italian restaurants in the Boston area, but left to take a job at a one-star restaurant in Brittany, France. Whimsy carried her to the regal doorstep of Le Dome, where equal portions of courage and luck landed her in the kitchen.

Back in the United States in 1988, she returned to the kitchen of Michela's as sous chef. And when the executive chef resigned, management tossed around her name as a possible successor. But coincidentally, her boyfriend, a Miami attorney, proposed. Marriage meant moving to Florida. "I left my job, my career, my family, my hairdresser," says Feldman, dropping her head into her hands. "That was very, very, very hard. And people were saying that the only places worth working at in Miami were Mark's Place and Chef Allen's. I panicked!"

In Miami, Norman Van Aken, who had built a national reputation as the chef at the renowned Louie's Backyard in Key West, hired Feldman as his grill cook when he opened a Mano at the Betsy Ross Hotel in Miami Beach in the spring of 1991. He then offered her the top post at the Stars & Stripes Cafe, located in the same building.

The fourth chef in two years at the cafe, Feldman stepped in with a difficult, self-imposed mandate to stabilize the business. She proceeded to overwork herself so much, she says, that her weight dropped to 90 pounds. And despite the accolades and loyalty of a small, diehard clientele, her efforts were unable to compensate for nonexistent publicity and advertising, not to mention proximity to the aura of Van Aken's a Mano. "I think part of the problem at Stars & Stripes was that I took the burden of the restaurant into my own hands," Feldman concludes. "Norman was concentrating on a Mano and I didn't get much support from him."

In addition, Feldman says, owner Novel Penabad wanted her to downscale the menu; it didn't make sense for Stars & Stripes's cuisine to compete with a Mano for customers. Feldman refused to stoop to the level of soup and sandwiches. Citing irreconcilable differences, she resigned and turned her attention to a catering business she was starting. (Stars & Stripes has since closed.)

Several months later, David Bracha, the 29-year-old former beverage manager for a Mano and Stars & Stripes, asked Feldman to become the consulting chef at 411, a restaurant he was opening in South Beach. She would help outfit and stock the kitchen, design the menu, and assist in hiring an executive chef. The restaurant would retain her as a consultant for all menu changes.

Feldman accepted the offer and brought along virtually her entire kitchen staff from Stars & Stripes. The crew, she says, had developed an unusual sense of unity and loyalty to her. "When I left Stars and Stripes," Feldman recalls, "two of my staff started crying. You're not going to find that anywhere on the Beach, believe me."

Unable to find anyone who could competently take over the kitchen, the Brooklyn-born Bracha, his 27-year-old Italian partner Roberto Bianchi, and Feldman agreed that she would stay on as chef. But she made one steep demand: that she be permitted a flexible schedule on slower days. She wanted to spend time with her husband and maintain her catering business. "I told them I wasn't willing to give up my life for the restaurant," she says. The request, she knew, was unheard-of among chefs: If you want to get anywhere in the business, you can expect to spend most of your life in a kitchen. Twelve hours a day, six days a week is the rule of thumb. Nevertheless, the owners accepted her condition.

The 104-seat restaurant opened in October, earned a highly favorable review from New Times restaurant critic Jen Karetnick a month later, and began doing brisk business: more than 100 dinners on weekdays, 200 on the weekends. Bracha says he succeeded in his intention to create a fashionable establishment with a relaxed atmosphere and creative, fine foods at reasonable prices. T-shirts and suits mingled in the cool ambiance of what had once been a high-ceilinged hotel lobby. Specialties, Feldman recalls, included duck confit with mustard greens, sweet and sour beets, grilled fococcia, and ricotta; a softshell crab sandwich with red pepper remoulade on focaccia; and sauteed salmon with shredded hearts of palm and a mustard dressing.

As for Feldman, she was finally able to explore her creative bounds. Intense and focused in the kitchen, personable when she mingled among the tables, the chef says she "treated that place like I was an owner."

That, the owners now say, was an insidious problem. "On Saturday nights she would spend a lot of time in the dining room -- I mean an hour or two -- talking about her catering, herself," Bracha says, digging a heel of one of his lightweight hiking boots deep into the carpeted floor of 411's business office. "If she were an owner, then . But she was an employee. We felt she was neglecting her duties as a chef."

Bracha and Bianchi also admit they were jealous of the attention Feldman was getting. "I've spent every single penny that I've ever earned in this restaurant, and I've sacrificed every day in the past eight months," Bracha complains. "After the New Times review, people came to me and said, David, does Sharon have a partnership in this restaurant?'

"It was like this," Bracha continues, putting a telephone to his ear. "'I'd like a reservation for four at seven o'clock. Is Sharon working tonight? No? OK, then I'll come another day. Bye.' I don't begrudge her this success, but Sharon was very good at promoting herself. I don't need to be a star, but yes, I want people to know I created the restaurant. The bottom line is that it's our restaurant, I work very hard at this, and me and Roberto deserve to be written up in the articles." (The New Times review, in fact, did mention the partners, and praised their ability to create "such a perfect mating of the visual and the sensual.")

In addition, the owners wanted Feldman to devote more hours per week to the restaurant and streamline the menu, which, Bracha says, was "labor intensive." Feldman resigned in mid-December, even as more reviewers were praising 411's arrival on South Beach. "I never cried so much in my life," says the chef, who still refers to the restaurant's kitchen staff in the first-person possessive: "my dishwasher," "my prep cook."

But Feldman says she wasn't willing to give up her life for a project in which she was not financially involved. "It got to a point where my husband asked, Can I have one home-cooked meal a week?'" She shakes her head at the futility of trying to balance a new marriage with the tireless commitment required of a chef. Several potential investors, she says, have encouraged her to open her own place. "But talk is cheap," she adds.

"When David [Bracha] and I sat down [before the falling-out] to discuss whether I had a future here, he said to me, Why do you want to work here? You don't need to work here, because your husband's a lawyer,'" she recalls. "Obviously it's not for the money. It should be obvious that I'm doing it because I love it.


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