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Kitchen Confidential

One Job: Sparking passions and putting out fires

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In the slide show above, Kevin Madden, kitchen manager for MET’s Food and Wine Programs, shepherds culinary students through two days of butchering and braising.

Day in, day out, nearly 10,000 people show up at Boston University—not to go to school, but to go to work. Often unsung, their efforts make everything possible. This is one of a series of stories about jobs on campus and the people who do them.

“Probably not many BU offices double as storage for wine glasses and white coats,” Kevin Madden says from his desk at 808 Commonwealth Avenue. A huge portrait of the already-larger-than-life Julia Child (Hon.’76)—cofounder of BU’s culinary program—stares back at him from the opposite wall. “Isn’t she great?” he asks.

As the kitchen manager for Metropolitan College’s Food and Wine Programs, Madden wears many hats: counselor of would-be cooks, handler of high-profile chefs, overseer of a bustling kitchen, keeper of BU’s most exotic and exhausting grocery list.

MET’s offerings range from one-night cooking classes for children to corporate training seminars in the kitchen to its renowned 14-week Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts. Madden oversees them all, coordinating with a rotating cast of guest chefs to prepare ingredients, equipment, and recipes for their lessons. Today, Madden has procured a 59-pound lamb, minus head and hooves, for the culinary program students to butcher with Charles Grandon, executive chef at the Winchester Country Club. The student chefs file into the kitchen. Madden has taken care of the mise en place, or daily preparations, earlier that morning.

Grandon is brusque as he lectures the class on food safety. “If you’re gonna butcher, prepare to have the health department up your rear end,” he says. He directs the students to copies of The Meat Buyer’s Guide Madden has left out on a counter and quizzes them on an endless list of cuts. “It’s kind of like medical school—it’s that detailed,” he says.

As the students hover over the carcass, Madden flits around the room taking inventory. Next week, students will make dishes from the cuts of lamb they’re working on today. Madden will have to call vendors, such as Russo’s, a produce supplier in Watertown, Kinnealey Quality Meats in Brockton, and the little-known Winestone liquor store in Chestnut Hill, to get what he needs. “I’m always going back and forth, making lists,” he says.

At times the job sounds more like that of an EMT than a kitchen manager. “We’ve had fires, lots of fires,” he says. “I’ve seen stitches, burns. When it happens I just say, ‘Get in my car!’ and take them to Student Health.” He laughs. “I’ve had so many wacky days where I’m like, I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

On other days, he plays detective. One morning, a Japanese chef’s last-minute request for a “square-shaped omelet pan” had him driving frantically around town. “I had never seen one in a store,” he says. “I had never heard of it.” He ended up at the aptly named Reliable Market, a supply store in Somerville owned by a Korean family. “They had not only one, but two different sizes of these square pans!” he recalls.

While he’s not paid to cook, Madden’s job, in part, is to act as a head chef. After all, says Rebecca Alssid, MET’s director of lifelong learning, in a professional kitchen the head chef must be able to place food orders, have an intimate familiarity with the recipes at hand, and be a constant guide in the kitchen.

“A chef is really a consummate teacher,” she says.

But if Madden’s job comes with many of the responsibilities of a full-time chef, it lacks one major perk: the chance to flex a world-class ego. With a new guest chef commandeering the kitchen every day, Madden is content working in the shadows.

“His people skills are outstanding,” Alssid says. “He makes everyone feel calm, and he’s so helpful and positive.” A soft-spoken Minnesota native, the 32-year-old Madden had no professional kitchen experience when he signed up for the Culinary Arts Program in 2005, but he quickly became the unofficial kitchen assistant. Alssid was impressed and hired him when the previous kitchen manager left.

“He’s with us all day long, checking in and giving a word of advice,” says culinary student Courtney Bowen. “He knows all the chefs and teachers, their different personalities. He knows when to say, ‘No, you just need to do it their way.’”

Madden approaches the topic of kitchen egos diplomatically. “Chefs often have different opinions on the same topic,” he says. “It’s good for our students to see that there can be so much variation.”

For example, he says, “some chefs are very precise about wanting exactly a teaspoon of this and a quarter-cup of that. The other philosophy is doing it based on the size of the pan, tasting it—does it need more salt?—adjusting from feel instead of being so strict from the recipe.”

Calm does not reign the following week, as students toil under guest teacher Jean-Jacques “J.J.” Paimblanc, former executive chef at Legal Sea Foods. He is an improviser. “You followed my directions too close!” he admonishes a student at one point. The menu of lamb curry, ratatouille, osso buco (Milanese veal shank), beef brisket, and ham-wrapped Belgian endives—braising day—is Madden’s favorite of the semester.

“It’s not hot enough!” Paimblanc shouts good-naturedly at a student hovering over a skillet of curry. “I like to see it smoke!” As students clean up a few hours later, Madden sniffs out a burning pot left over dangerously high heat, another potential crisis to file away under “averted.”

At the end of the day, the class arranges each dish and lines them up before Paimblanc for tasting. He is pleased with the vegetable ratatouille, but complains that the lamb is too tough, the curry too dark. The kitchen had apparently run out of heavy cream. As students trade notes on what they substituted (sour cream, coconut milk), Madden acknowledges, “That one was my fault.”

“I’ve always got to be thinking one step ahead,” he says as he pulls out plastic containers for the leftovers.

Madden has been taking classes toward a master’s in gastronomy at MET through BU’s employee tuition remission program. To finish the degree, he now must write a thesis. “I’ve been thinking about an idea, but I can’t get it to work: a culinary-school curriculum,” he says. To his knowledge it’s never been done, but he “wants to compile everything that we do here.” A high-school foreign language teacher in his prekitchen life, he can’t shake the desire to educate.

“Cooking’s something you can’t stop learning, so each semester I learn more and more,” Madden says. “After a day of cooking here, I go home and cook more.

“You’re pleasing people, making them happy,” he continues. “Cooking for others is what it’s all about.”

Across the desk, Julia smiles approvingly.

Katie Koch can be reached at katieleekoch@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter at @katieleekoch. Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @kcornuel.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Kitchen Confidential

  • Anonymous on 02.03.2010 at 10:33 am

    What a great article! I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kevin as both a student in the Culinary Arts Program and in the Gastronomy office, and he is an absolute joy to be around! This article totally captures how amazing and essential he is to the kitchen… Kevin is the bomb.com!!

  • Anonymous on 02.03.2010 at 10:47 am

    Kevin ROCKS and this article perfectly conveys that! His job is awesome and he does it amazingly (so what if we sometimes run out of butter… that happens in “real” kitchens too!)

  • Anonymous on 02.03.2010 at 1:38 pm

    Nice story. Really makes you think about the possible career opportunities!

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