So here we are in 1974, in Toronto. The Hyatt Regency hotel had just opened and it was the place to work, so I applied for a cook’s job. The chef was Fred Reindl, a six-foot-four hulk of German origin. At this time, most chefs were of European origin, and all were men. Chef Reindl (one always called chef by his title not his name, but more of that later) was a well respected professional who made Truffles, the signature restaurant, a Toronto landmark in fine dining at that time.
At an interview, usually one is asked for a resumé and references, but Reindl was different. An onion was requested. I was told to chop the onion. I did this perfectly, but nervously, and was hired. Reindl had the theory that knife skills were a sign of a professional, and could not be disguised in a resumé.
It was nice to be back in a large hotel kitchen. The energy and excitement in a hotel is like no other aspect in cooking. There is 24-hour service with fine dining, casual dining and banquets. The staff is a wonderful cross-section of breakfast cooks (the hardest job in the world), fine dining divas, and the money-makers in banquets. I was a cook in banquets, working with a Scottish cook and a German sous chef. One thing you learn pretty quickly in a kitchen, especially a male-dominated kitchen, is that you have to prove yourself. A kitchen is dependent on everyone doing his part and the weakest link won’t last long. I lasted five years, and it was the best of times.
As executive chef, Reindl would usually go home first. Before leaving, he would go through the kitchen and say goodnight to all the cooks. They would of course respond “Good night, Chef.” Then one evening a single voice said “Good night, Fred.” A hush went through the kitchen. Of course it was Richard, our class clown. What was going to happen next could have gone one of two ways. Chef could have had a meltdown and it looked like this might happen. But instead, he went over to the steam table, took a fingerful of mashed potatoes, and sticking them in Richard’s ear said “Good night, Richard.” Masterful!
Reindl was the single biggest influence in my career. He showed that not only did you have to be a good cook but you also needed to be a good human. In another classic, he had a bunch of cooks gathered around a pot of stock. He would make like he was tasting it with his finger — not correct, but it happens — and would ask, “Is it chicken stock, or veal?” Much discussion would follow. It turned out it was dish water he had put in the pot. Fred Reindl, mentor, chef and prankster, where are you now?
David Chapman has been a creative and respected fixture on the London restaurant scene for over 20 years. He is the proprietor of David’s Bistro. www.davidsbistro.ca