Christopher Lee of Cafe Ventana, Sanctuaria and Chuy Arzola's

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Christopher Lee of Cafe Ventana, Sanctuaria and Chuy Arzola's
Robin Wheeler

"I grew up in kitchens in the '80s. After work I could drink a bottle of beer in a couple of seconds, and it was encouraged. Back in those days we were like pirates. I worked with a lot of criminals, drug addicts, drunks, you name it. I was told from day one that you work hard and play harder, and we usually played harder than we worked. And we worked pretty hard."

He stops again to choose his words. "I think that was one of those defining moments, when that came about. A lot of shit had to stop. I wasn't progressing anymore; I was going back downhill.

"It was really hard and there was a lot of difficulty, but I'm coming out on the other side of it. It still bothers me from time to time. I'm not allowed to bungee jump or parachute, which kills me. I usually think twice about doing a lot of things. I've always mountain biked, snowboarded, skateboarded, all those things. Now I think I want to back off a little bit.

"But at the same time, I haven't drank or done any drugs in four and a half years. I operate three restaurants. I have a house, I got married. I can look at it as a minus, but there are so many pluses on the other side, for sure."

Experience has allowed Lee the opportunity to step away from the brutality of the business and focus on restaurant success with Dr. Gurpreet Padda, who owns the restaurants Lee oversees. "More than anything, it's about all these guys." Lee waves toward the bustling staff behind the counter. "I'm not here every day. I can't be here every day. They all do a hell of a job. At Chuy's and Sanctuaria, it's the same thing. There's a lot of reliance on those guys to carry the torch. If they need anything, they can just call me and I can fill in the blanks from there."

But does he miss the rush of being on the line? "Honestly, I love cooking. To actually bake any more of my mind and stand on that line for eight hours and go through someone yelling at me to put up food? Yeah, I'm pretty much good on that. Becoming a Chef really talks about the guys who go through the brigade system. By the time they make it to sous chef they're so burnt out and tired they don't want to cook anymore. I laugh because at that time I didn't really want to cook anymore. And I didn't. I worked installing cable for two years. I still love it, though. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Now that family and friends have gained priority, Lee's perspective on chefs has changed. "I think people put so much stock in chefs and cooks -- what they're interpretation is, what they should be, but at the end of the day we cook food for a living. And everyone eats. To put that much energy and responsibility on somebody, I don't think it's unfair, but I think it's kind of lopsided.

"I think a lot of people get caught up in the stardom factor of it and forget that this is the service industry. It's not about me. It's about the people who come in and eat."

{To be continued...}

Cafe Ventana 3919 West Pine Boulevard 314-531-7500

Sanctuaria 4198 Manchester Avenue 314-535-9700

Chuy Arzola's 3701 Lindell Boulevard 314-644-4430

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