Ben Hulsey has always seemed like a badass cook to me.
I first really noticed him when the second quarter culinary students would
‘receive’ a first quarter student to help them get through their assigned
station for the day. Ben is tall – I recall a funny image of him doing an
awkward wide-legged stance to try to get lower and closer to the food he was
prepping without having to curl his back over all day. He’s also quiet – he
takes his assigned prep dish and works silently and diligently until the task is
done, and it’s done well. As a first quarter trying to absorb the second
quarter student experience and knowledge, Ben was a quick learner. He’s a sharp
thinker, and he’s creative.
We worked together at Modernist Cuisine.
Background: A few weeks before my Third Quarter ended, a
chef instructor and friend, Chef Sarah Wong, told me about a prep cook
opportunity the MC had posted on Craigslist, and she encouraged me to apply. I
did, and I started prep cooking at MC just a week after the quarter was done. Eventually,
I was able to work on a few recipes for their MC follow up book, and I
transitioned from focusing on prep to doing some recipe development. A few
weeks later, the team had an opening for another prep cook, and I thought of
Ben immediately. We cooked together at MC for the rest of the summer, during
the promotional dinner series that they hosted for Modernist Cuisine at Home.
After the summer at MC, we went our separate ways. Chef
Jason Wilson hired Ben to cook at Crush and to do some R&D. I moved to
Sugar Mountain to do product development for them. Ben and I lived a few blocks
from each other in Capitol Hill, but we really never saw each other, except
spontaneously at a Ferran Adria Town Hall session. When I started reaching back
to cooks and chefs I knew when I was a culinary student, Ben was an obvious
person with whom I would like to catch up. I recorded our phone conversation,
but I haven’t been able to splice and post it yet.
Ben’s pathway as a cook has been challenging. He spent time
on ships working as an Able-bodied Seaman. That description is apparently a
recognized title. While on ships, he thought that he should have gone to
culinary school, so after finishing the current season, he enrolled in culinary
After Modernist Cuisine, Ben worked at Crush. He wanted to
do some R&D for Chef Jason, but with such a small restaurant like Crush, he
soon also line cooked there. It wasn’t his passion, and he was frustrated with
management and leadership. Restaurants operate with slim margins, and
oftentimes, labor is the place where shortcuts are taken. Ben said that
eventually, proper prepping of the cook’s stations weren’t provided enough paid
time, and he was quick to recognize that the expectation for excellence also
meant that he was expected to work for free. He left that job.
Ben moved to Whole Foods to do butchery. That seemed like a
logical, corporate style job with benefits. It started that way, Ben said, but
soon, labor costs became something that the management wanted to more closely control.
Instead of bringing in sub-primals to be broken down by in-house butchers, the
management began buying cut pieces from a central meat fabrication location
that serviced a variety of grocery stores, not just high end stores. The
disappointment in his voice was evident, because he felt that his view behind
the butcher counter exposed the priority of profit over quality. Not that the
quality of the butchery is lower at the central location but that the meat was
not special, in his opinion, but that customers were still paying premium
prices for a service they’re not receiving – in house butchery.
That was his last straw. Although full-time employees
receive benefits, efforts to control the numbers of benefitted employees
resulted in having larger teams of folks, most of whom were just shy of
full-time employment. Coming from a blue-collar background wherein employee
benefits are a key positive benefit to the physically taxing work in ships and
shipyards, Ben quickly recognized the injustice. He left Whole Foods,
disappointed in his experiences and in the management of resources.
Ben is now training to become an electrician. It’s a five
year apprentice-to-journeyman process, punctuated with competency evaluations.
It’s also paid, and he is finally making just under what he made as a seaman.
Once he gets through his training, he’ll make a good income. Electricians are
valuable and can charge a pretty good fee. The work is benefited and operates
better hours than food service and retail do.
Ben doesn’t feel disappointed with his culinary experiences,
but I could hear the disdain in his voice about the allocation of resources and
lack of sharing of profits in the food industry. He looks at the restaurants
where he cooked and store where he butchered, and it seems that the few on the
top get some great money, but the rest of the cooks barely make it.
Cooks aren’t paid enough to really get far away from debt,
even when they’re saving and spending frugally. Without health benefits, they
are also at risk of suffering worse damage from untreated conditions. The hours
are terrible – literally every time their friends and loved ones are available
to hang out, they’re cooking. The work is physically draining and can be
mentally disinteresting, especially once a dish is mastered.

When I caught up with Ben, I realized that we have such
distinct and unique kitchen and culinary career experiences. My observations of
kitchen life aren’t too different from Ben’s, but I went into the culinary
world knowing it was a development stage for me to move closer to my goal. I
didn’t have the quick recognition of employee rights issues. What’s a fifteen
minute break??

Next week: the uncut conversation.