July 19, 2006
A Day In The Life: Stirring The Pot: The Chef
By Mariah Quinn
As a child, Carl Von Holfelder didn't show much promise in the culinary department. "The first meal I ever cooked was pork chops for my dad, and it was like pork jerky by the time it was done," he said. "I remember him banging it on the plate and asking me to never cook for him ever again."
Things have changed. Now the executive chef at The Publick House in Southampton, Holfelder has worked in some of the most popular restaurants on the East End — Indian Cove, Bobby Vans, The Driver's Seat — before joining The Publick House eight years ago. Starting out as a part-timer, Holfelder worked his way up to sous chef and was promoted to the executive chef position three years ago.
As he stood in the restaurant's kitchen on Saturday afternoon preparing flounder fillets stuffed with crabmeat, the Hampton Bays native said he truly learned his skills on the job. "Every place I've worked — you can always learn something from someone," he explained. But the learning curve wasn't always smooth — in fact, it was downright fiery at times. "My first night cooking I burnt my hand so badly — oh man, that hurt — sautéing a pan of roasted new potatoes," Holfelder said. He declined to go home after the injury, perhaps to the detriment of his short-term health, but to the betterment of his long-term career. "They said, 'Alright, he can stay,'" he recalled with a laugh.
For Holfelder, the artistic license that comes with cooking is one of the best aspects of the job. "I can create whatever I want, whenever I want," he said. He reads cookbooks, tests out new dishes when on vacation and draws on past experiences to keep himself supplied with new ideas. "I've worked with so many different people that you learn a little bit from each person, and after a while you start to mix and match," he said.
Take regular crab meat stuffing, for example. "There are probably 50 different recipes," he explained. "After you make it a few times, you pretty much know what you want to add to yours." His trick? "Adding cream cheese, it's delicious." He makes use of the restaurant's in-house beers — and sometimes the malt and hops — to make sauce and dressing. "The beer is always fun to cook with because it's fresh," he noted.
Spending a career in the kitchen requires the ability to create a sense of order in a sometimes chaotic environment. "You have to have everything in its place because if the bell rings, and you're not ready, you're in trouble. Once you fall behind, you can't catch up," Holfelder said. Good deductive skills help as well when it comes to determining what the collective palate will demand on any particular night: "It's a guessing game. Some days you're right on, sometimes you come up a little short," he explained.
But the satisfaction that comes with knowing that hundreds of meals have been served and enjoyed in the course of a single day is not small. "When a night goes really well, or a day goes really well, at the end you're like, 'Well, that was great,'" Holfelder said.
And even though he spends the majority of his waking hours in a kitchen, he doesn't mind slaving over the hot stove at home, too. He and his brother Ken eschew takeout in favor of their own creations. "With the both of us knowing how to cook, we usually can't just cook for two since we've been doing it for so long, so there's always a couple of people that stop over, and we say, 'Hey, we've cooked dinner again,'" he said.
As for his parents, who moved from Hampton Bays to Florida last year, they've relented when it comes to allowing their son near the stove. "The last time I went down to see them, I think I cooked every meal for them, so hopefully I made up for those pork chops," Holfelder said.