This is part one of Robin Wheeler's Chef's Choice interview with Christopher Lee of Cafe Ventana, Sanctuaria and Chuy Arzola's. To read part two, click here. Part three, a recipe from Chef Lee, is here.
"In the beginning of your career, you're so consumed with it. You eat, drink, sleep to the point where -- I remember one year for Christmas I was like, 'I don't want any more food-related stuff. I want, like, Scrabble and a trash compactor.'"
As he nears a quarter-century in the food industry, Lee has moved beyond the burnout stage by moving up.
Starting as a dishwasher at Ponderosa Steakhouse and doing the required high school stint at McDonald's, Lee moved on to Caleco's. He wanted to cook but instead was put to work as a dishwasher required to do major deep cleaning in the kitchen. "It really instilled in me attention to detail," Lee says. "Yeah, you may be a good cook, but if you've got a filthy kitchen.... You're only as good as the cleanliness of your kitchen and your surroundings. So I went into the navy and learned all about attention to detail in great depth."
Post-navy, Lee returned to washing dishes at Caleco's. Within a year he was managing the mini-chain's outpost at Verizon's Wireless Amphitheater before moving up to the regimented world of French cuisine.
Seated at the bar next to the coffee urns at the impeccably turned-out Cafe Ventana, Lee chooses his words, pausing thoughtfully to mull what he's going to say before saying it. It's a discipline borne from seven years of working in the local French restaurant kitchens of Jean Claude Guillossou (L'Auberge Bretonne) and Marcel Keraval (Cafe de France) that colors his ability to manage three restaurants.
"I was told from day one that we play French baseball: three strikes, you go home. I still believe in that. We have to get things done. We have to get them done in a timely manner. At the end of the day I still know that it's my reputation at stake, and not some twenty-year-old dude who's ICP-ing it up or whatever he does in his spare time."
It's a lesson Lee learned firsthand. Seven years in French kitchens left him so exhausted that he left the industry and spent two years installing cable television. "I had a lot more money than I'd ever had. I had a lot more freedom," he says. "And I hated it. It wasn't me."
So he returned. Chase Park Plaza, Kirk's American Bistro, and Melange -- a venture with his father and stepmother -- where the effects of the chef lifestyle hit. "My hip would start giving out on me. I'd get on the line and I'd just fall down. It wouldn't support any weight. I had avascular necrosis, which was brought on by years of binge drinking.