In a restaurant, you’re only as good as the people you work with. Even those in top positions rely on their peers to get through service and put up show-stopping dishes. Creating a collaborative environment starts with the executive chef and trickles down to head chefs, sous chefs and everyone else in the kitchen. It’s an ethos that should be present in every venue and is one that is put into practice by Curtis Stone.
The Australian chef and TV personality is arguably one of the most recognisable names in the industry. Since opening the doors to Maude in Los Angeles eight years ago, Stone had reached the pinnacle of success and earned a Michelin star. It’s an achievement that took years of hard work and resulted in valuable lessons along the way.
Stone talks to Hospitality about helming the ever-changing culinary direction at Maude, how quality uniforms boost staff morale and why you can’t be anything but a team player in the kitchen.
Curtis Stone has lived in the US for more than 10 years, racking up multiple achievements in the kitchen and on the small screen. The chef has made appearances on shows such as Netflix’s Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend but has remained ever present at his three fine diners; Gwen in Hollywood, Georgie in Dallas and Maude in Beverly Hills.
Maude was a springboard for Stone to get back into his whites after working in TV, and the chef made his return in a big way. For the first four years, the restaurant changed its menu every four weeks. “We did 12 different menus a year and it was super intense,” says Stone. “We were on a creative treadmill we could never get off.”
The team would move on to the next menu after releasing each iteration, but the concept soon became a double-edged sword. While it kept the team on their toes, it was inevitably stressful. “It was a massive challenge,” says the chef. “It’s super fun and you get to work with cooks who learn an incredible amount in a short time, but it’s probably not the most sustainable pursuit.”
A decision was made to slow down and adjust to a quarterly menu revolving around a different region. “We still change every dish, but we just do one or two a week,” says Stone. “It really allows you to dial things in.”
Maude is described as an “experimental space” where everyone gets to contribute ideas to the menu. Collaboration is at the heart of the restaurant, and it has been that way from the jump. “It’s really important to involve everyone in the creative process, so we do and we always have,” says Stone. “It doesn’t mean everybody’s dishes make it to the menu, but there’s no bad ideas. If you’re in your first year in the kitchen, we still listen to you.”
Guests rarely see the same dish served twice at Maude, and Stone is always keen to venture outside the box. “People ask about a signature dish, and we’ve purposely never had one because we don’t want to rely on it,” he says. “It’s like a band having to play the same song for the rest of their career and we never wanted to be that; we always want to come up with something new.”
Despite not wanting to re-run dishes, several plates have resonated with diners. Recently making the rounds is the nopal soup made in collaboration with Chef de Cuisine and Mexican-native Osiel Gastelum. The main ingredient uses cactus which reflects the natural desert landscape of Baja California. “We took the cactus paddles, brined them and served them poached and raw,” says Stone. “It’s like a play on texture and you get to talk about the desert and what grows there.”
Stone also makes mention of a raviolo dubbed ‘duck duck goose’, which saw pasta stuffed with duck mousse and topped with garnishes. “We took the yolk of a duck egg and salted it until it was hard like Parmesan cheese and then grated it over the top of the raviolo,” the chef explains.
“We then smoked goose fat and made a finger lime beurre blanc. It was rich because of the duck and smoked goose fat, but had a real brightness.”
Staff shortages have long been an issue in the hospitality sector, with much of the discourse now revolving around how operators can retain employees. Stone has always been a team player and is of the belief that providing valuable experiences go hand in hand with good working conditions. “I can tell you 10 moments that happened to me early on in my career that made me fall in love with being a cook and none of them had to do with money,” says Stone.
“I’m not suggesting we don’t have to fight to pay our staff and treat them more professionally – we absolutely do. But I hear a lot of chefs complain about having no access to cooks and it makes me go, ‘Are you the kind of chef who makes someone want to come work for you?’ You need to create something special and that’s what I instil in my team.”
The sentiment is demonstrated by Maude’s farm trips where staff members are given the chance to learn about produce from the source. The outings are educational for everyone and remind Stone of his time on Surfing the Menu.
“I got to go out and meet all these farmers,” he says. “I worked in Michelin-star restaurants for a big part of my life, but I had no idea where half the ingredients came from. Suddenly, there’s an organic mango farmer who talks to you about what the perfect growing conditions are, the different varieties and the levels of ripeness and your mind is blown.”
The trips have certainly had a positive impact on the Maude brigade, who take the inspiration back to the kitchen. “We’re always a team, we’re never a person,” says Stone. “If you were just a person, running service would be impossible. You need to rely on the people in their stations to put the food up each night. You also need to have fluidity throughout your team, so you all sing from the same hymn sheet.”
Keeping morale high isn’t just about leadership, it also covers something as simple as a high-quality uniform made from top-notch materials. In addition to being a seasoned chef, restaurateur and TV star, Stone has worked with Australian brand Cargo Crew to develop a new chef wear range that is both visually appealing and highly functional.
Stone’s go-to item is a thoughtfully designed work shirt that, like all the pieces in the range, has undergone multiple wear tests in commercial settings. “It’s got little details like a button back that keeps my apron in the right place,” says Stone. “It gives you a little bit more reach because we’re constantly reaching for things and lifting things up.”
Uniforms contribute to the broader restaurant experience and Cargo Crew are putting out products staff are proud to wear. “When chefs get dressed in the morning and put on a uniform, it’s what sets your work apart from anyone else’s,” says Stone. “It’s what makes you unique and gives you the opportunity to create. I’ve always loved the moment where I put my chef’s uniform on, and no matter what it is I’m going to do, I’m there already.”
Stone has had a fruitful career that has involved everything from competing in iconic cooking shows to putting regional produce on the map at his restaurants. When asked about his next step, the chef says he’s content to keep following his own path.
“I genuinely love what I do and I’m lucky because it’s not one thing; it’s not just restaurants and it’s certainly not just television,” says Stone.
“I get to work in different parts of our industry and that’s exciting. I don’t wish it was different. I don’t wish I had 20 restaurants, I’m very happy with what I have. I might open another one, but I wouldn’t do it for no reason. It’s important to have a vision and be true to it. My vision is to have wonderful people around me who I care for and respect, and I want the same from them.”
Image credits: Cargo Crew, D’Agosto, Sonya Teclai and Ray Kachatorian