What’s Cookin? Chefs’ Recipes to Success

Melissa Block

As the serrated knife slices through the thick meat, fat is tossed aside onto the stainless steel counter, sometimes landing onto the floor. Soaking wet mops quickly sweep up the scraps as they move around the kitchen floor, dodging the hurrying feet of the waiters and chefs. Orders are shouted through the kitchen over the sound of dishes clattering and muted chatter from the diners. There isn’t a second to spare, as customers impatiently await meals prepared by the well-known local chef Ron Siegel, father of sophomore Kelsey Siegel.

Although this environment may seem too chaotic for some, Siegel is perfectly at home. He graduated high school in Palo Alto in 1984 and later attended California Cooking Academy in San Francisco. With many years of experience, Siegel is bringing his culinary background and knowledge into a new business venture—his own restaurant, Madcap, which will be opening in San Anselmo in August of this summer.

“I loved the dysfunctionality of [the kitchen]. I loved the late hours of it. The craziness of it. I loved everything about the restaurant business—and I still love it. I’m still hooked, it’s been a great ride for me since the ‘80s,” Siegel said.

The frenetic pace of the cooking business inspired his restaurant’s name.

“I couldn’t sit still, that’s not the way I work. And that’s how the name Madcap came about, meaning frantic, crazy, a little bit off the cuff, just always moving,” Siegel said.

Dedication and an ability to endure physically challenging conditions are vital to success in the culinary industry, whether success manifests itself in satisfied guests or a near-perfect plate.

Freshly baked bread cooling off in the kitchen of Rhoda Goldman Plaza
Freshly baked bread cooling off in the kitchen of Rhoda Goldman Plaza

Siegel exemplifies what many aspiring chefs desire to achieve. He won Iron Chef Japan in 1998 and then went on to work in many restaurants in San Francisco. Siegel has worked as a cook, a sous chef and a chef at French Laundry, Charles Nob Hill, Masas, the Ritz Carlton and Michael Mina.

Since the age of 14, Siegel has held a variety of positions in various restaurants, giving him the necessary skills to open his own restaurant, the culmination of his career.

“I was washing dishes, breaking down boxes, scrubbing down meat counters, cleaning maggots out of meat saws. I loved it, as crazy as it was. I made four bucks an hour at my first job,” Siegel said.

Similar to Siegel’s experience, many teenagers have a turbulent experience working in the restaurant industry, which is the largest employer of teenagers in the U.S. economy, according to the Pew Research Center.

Senior Robert Schwartz has been working at Pig in the Pickle, a local Southern-style BBQ restaurant in Corte Madera, since September of 2015.

“In the front of the restaurant you have to deal with people in a calm manner. Some customers can get a little worked up. Most of the time I just need to make sure I’m remembering everything I need to get done,” Schwartz said.

Although Schwartz isn’t seeking to enter the restaurant business, he has gained valuable experience related to customer service during his time as a waiter and busboy.

Kelly Dame, the executive chef at Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco, is still experiencing the grueling physical conditions and daily chaos of the restaurant industry despite her leading position.

“There’s always a lot going on. I feel like everyday there’s one sort of catastrophe or fire that needs to be put out…maybe not a literal fire, but something can go way wrong,” Dame said.

Regardless of the challenges and pressure that may be present in the kitchen, a sense of calmness rewards chefs when they pull off a new dish.

Preparing the entree at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, Dame perfects the plate before it’s served
Preparing the entree at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, Dame perfects the plate before it’s served

“You’re trying to achieve perfection, which is an elusive goal because it’s never actually achieved. You’re always pushing yourself and multitasking like crazy,” Siegel said.

Siegel knows his employees are under pressure, and as the head chef, he has consciously avoided playing into the stereotype of the intense and intimidating boss in order to let them do their jobs well.

“I run the kitchen differently than people that I worked for. I’m not big on necessarily screaming at people, or throwing pots or plates. It’s a little hard [for my employees] to function,” Siegel said.

In some of his past positions, Siegel was on the receiving end of more harsh directions.

“You learn to brush it off. I enjoyed it. I kind of liked that, but I didn’t necessarily believe that’s the way I wanted to be as a chef when I got to that level,” Siegel said.

Siegel still maintains high expectations for his employees.

“I always like to hire people who go home and read cookbooks, because they’re dedicated. Calling in sick is not an option, and the only way you wouldn’t come in was if you were dead. Those are the kind of people you want to surround yourself with,” Siegel said.

Dame faces additional challenges with her staff of 17. They all come from various backgrounds and for many English is their second language, making communication more difficult. The loud environment of the kitchen, in addition to the language barrier, has created the need for her to be especially emphatic when instructing.

“My staff is pretty loud, but I’m the loudest. I just need to be heard. It’s not really shouting but it’s [about] being heard. You can’t be timid,” Dame said.

Hiring the right staff isn’t a problem unique to Siegel or Dame. According to Toast, an online restaurant management system, 46 percent of all restaurateurs in a survey listed hiring, training and retaining restaurant staff as their number one challenge.

When Siegel opens Madcap, he hopes for a smaller staff in which he can create a more intimate environment for both the employees and the guests.

“You want everybody to be passionate about what they do, and to find 50 people that are passionate is very difficult, but to find two or three is a lot more doable,” Siegel said.
During the hiring process, Siegel doesn’t seek out culinary school graduates, but workers who already have some real-life experience in the restaurant business.


Dame's staff works to clean the kitchen at Rhoda Goldman Plaza.
Dame’s staff works to clean the kitchen at Rhoda Goldman Plaza.

“The skill is [in] your hands, and it’s about using a knife and being able to focus, and cooking things, and multitasking. Going to school doesn’t necessarily give you that,” Siegel said. “I was always more impressed by those who came to me with a college degree, because that shows a commitment.”

Dame attended culinary school in New York, but similarly to Siegel, she doesn’t find it a necessity. She believes that it makes the transition from school to the restaurant industry easier.

“You can do it without a formal education, but [culinary school] just streamlines it,” Dame said.

As an alternative preparation to entering the industry, prospective chefs are able to learn the basics of the industry through media like YouTube and cooking shows, which can provide techniques and knowledge of a kitchen before ever stepping foot in one.

“The game’s changed a little more, the people coming into the business are much more educated than we were. I love their passion for it, and their knowledge,” Siegel said. “Cell phones, TV, the internet and videos have changed the business dramatically. You can watch videos of cooking all day long. You can watch videos of technique, and you can learn a tremendous amount from the internet.”

In spite of the long hours, chaos of the kitchen and complaints from the customers, both Dame and Siegel receive satisfaction from their hard work.

“It’s really great to make something or to see a full dining room of happy people. That feeling can’t be beat. Especially when it was my own restaurant, walking through a happy dining room on a weekend night when it’s full – it really doesn’t feel any better than that,” Dame said.