Second part of three parts, please start here with Part 1
A brief overview of Chef Kevin Meehan’s career entwined, and then liberated from this culinary corporate structure (with it chef’s straight jacket) helps illustrate this insurgence of young chefs now doing their own respective things on their own respective terms.
Though right after high school. Kevin Meehan attended Johnson and Wales in Providence, Rhode Island, culinary school didn’t inspire him. Not until Charlie Trotter’s books came out, while still enrolled, did he realize what kind of cooking he wanted to do. Trotter’s books with their macro photography, menu combinations, froths and other “chorizo crazy shit” aroused Meehan’s passions for food and fine dining.
Pursuing this passion, after his junior year of college, Meehan backpacked across Europe and then returned to extern for 6 months during his 2nd semester his senior year to the Michelin starred L’Alban Chambon at the Metropole Hotel, under Chef Dominique Michou in Brussels. Here initially speaking no French, Kevin first peeled potatoes and shucked oysters before eventually working his way up to the vegetable and fish stations. Eventually he learned enough kitchen French, as well as curse words, to function getting the menu out. The head Chef Michou, one of the top chefs in Brussels, wasn’t hands on, so direction came from the sous chef and other line chefs in this large operation.
In Brussels, like elsewhere in Europe, everything was farm to table. There really wasn’t any other option. There were no Sysco deliveries. Eggs never saw refrigeration. This was all new to Kevin as was butchering a whole animal that needed to be broken down to move onto the next kitchen task. Without any distractions, Kevin was always first in and last out of the kitchen. On weekends, when he was off, he traveled by train to Paris, London, Amsterdam running up his credit card bills eating out all the time.
Not being paid, when Kevin finally arrived back in the states, Kevin’s credit card debt meant he moved back in with his folks on Long Island rather than with all his just post college aged buddies in Brooklyn. So rather than work in Manhattan, Kevin went to work at the best place he could find close to home: Mirabelle with Chef Guy Reuge running the back of house, and the chef’s wife running the front two dining rooms of a converted house. Here the focus was on the food with around seventy five covers a night. Reuge is simple and works hard. During the two and half years Kevin worked at Mirabelle, he also had the occasion to stage at both Le Bernardin and Daniel in New York City. Though in comparison to Mirabelle, Kevin noted how tough people were at these larger prestigious restaurants that operated like machines.
However rather than eventually move to a New York City location after Mirabelle as Kevin had always intended, visits with his best friend in Los Angeles put Meehan in a California state of mind. So before long he informed Chef Reuge of his desire to move west. Chef Reuge, in turn, placed a called to what was at that time the best French restaurant in Los Angeles L’Orangerie and spoke to that restaurant’s fellow country man Chef Ludo Lefebvre in French. And before long Kevin was on another Los Angeles vacation for a week and a half to stage at L’Orangerie and two other restaurants for two days each. Those two other restaurants were Melisse with Chef Josiah Citrin (prior to receiving its Michelin stars) and Patina which at that time was under the direction of Chef Walter Manzke.
Meehan was most impressed with Ludo’s youth and intensity for to Kevin chef Ludo was “rock ‘n roll” and “the California dream.” So after giving a month’s notice to Chef Reuge, Meehan joined Chef Ludo’s kitchen and stayed for the next two years until Ludo helped Kevin land his next job. This help occurred when the then soon to open chef at Bastide Alain Giraud came into measure L’Orangerie’s Montague range. Giroud shared a staff meal with L’Orangerie’s crew, told Ludo he was looking for help, and the next thing got Kevin a job as the chef de cusine at this new restaurant.
As it turned out Giraud was more interested in PR than cooking, so being so hands off, this gave Kevin a huge opportunity that resulted in large part, due to Kevin’s efforts, Bastide getting a four starred review. However this abruptly changed when Kevin was informed by Bastide’s management that Giraud was being let go. The management wanted Kevin on board while management searched for a new chef to replace Giraud.
Well as it turned out, the replacement chef was none other than his former and soon to be again future mentor Chef Ludo, who had had a blow out with L’Orangerie’s management and thus needed a new job. Kevin describes these events succinctly as “no one ever wants to do boot camp again.” Despite these words, being the good soldier Kevin stayed aboard Bastide’s staff for another year and a half. He couldn’t leave Ludo hanging after these changes in that kitchen. Kevin was there when Bastide received its single star review, which he describes as “one of the worse days of Ludo’s life.”
The sommelier from Bastide left to go work at Citrine, making Meehan’s aware of Kevin next opportunity and destination. Here in what’s currently Michael Voltaggio’s Ink, things didn’t go as promised, and then one of the owner brother partners suddenly and unexpectedly died causing the surviving brother to pull the plug on the operation. This is when Joachim Splichal hired Kevin and his entire crew to go work for the Patina Group at the flagship Patina Restaurant.
Over the next six years with the Patina Group, Kevin worked at two other locations, Paperfish and his last stop Café Pinot. At Paperfish, Kevin replaced the opening chef who got a bad review, however utilizing a lease clause for performance; Splichal pulled the plug on this location rather than invest more money into to trying to make it work. Café Pinot was a sideways move, with changes made to the menu to keep Kevin engaged.
In general though, the top down managerial style of Patina with layers of directors, lots of rules and many interactions via email with people he never even met was the antithesis of what he enjoyed at Mirabelle on Long Island. Unlike Mirabelle, Patina wasn’t a passionate environment. Everything was run by the numbers with goals given to cut labor and food costs it always seemed by yet another percent. And this was despite people already working long hours six days a week, and most food not being sourced at local farmer markets.
Ultimately Kevin got out of Patina what he wanted to get out of this group especially regarding understanding how to run a business, but when he did leave, he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do next. He knew though that he didn’t want to return to this corporate rat race. He wanted to have a life.
That life included a long vacation to Japan and Korea. Despite having a Japanese wife, he had never been to his wife’s homeland due to his long hours in the kitchens of all of his prior positions.
This trip and a movie were transformative, and prepared Kevin for his next venture Kali Dining. A venture that Kevin “fell into” without fore planning that Meehan equated with being like the first time some one meets the woman that they’ll eventually marry.
End of Part 2; please click here for Part 3 to continue