The image of the chef as temperamental, egotistical, effete tyrant is well established in the public perception, however unfair it may be to more congenial kitchen artists. And the celebrity chef, complete with cookbooks and TV shows, is a cultural fixture.
So meeting Brian Canipelli, the executive chef at Asheville’s Savoy Cucina Italiana, is something of a shock. Not only is he none of the above, but Canipelli has guided the 9-year-old Merrimon Avenue eatery into the largely uncharted waters of nonhierarchical culinary teamwork.
Canipelli, who has been Savoy’s kitchen boss since January, explains, “I wanted to take the kitchen in a new direction: build great relationships in order to cook great food and get the staff to stick around.” High turnover is the norm in restaurants, as anyone who’s worked in the industry can confirm. “I think that’s because people are assigned to one task and do that day in and day out,” he observes. “They get bored — there is no opportunity for creativity.”
The team-kitchen concept seems a sure-fire cure for boredom. By cross-training all of the dozen or so staffers and moving them through various tasks, everybody’s ready to pitch in when a hand is needed, and no one is likely to slide into the doldrums. Any team member can propose a dish to be offered as a nightly special. And if it catches on, it may jump to the regular menu.
Sous Chef James Ducas, whom Canipelli calls his “right-hand man,” helps train new employees; he also makes sauces, butchers meat, and works on menu development. “This is a great team,” says Ducas. “Everybody has lots of freedom to express the way they think food should be — it lets us do our heart’s desire.”
Lunch Chef James Clark, who makes many of the desserts and is creating a new seasonal menu, says, “I like the team approach very much — working lunches, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to express myself in my dishes.” Clark also appreciates the flexibility this system provides, compared to the way most restaurants are run. “You know, this is so different from a chain restaurant. Those of us who work in kitchens do it because we love food, we love to cook, and here we have the freedom to do that.”
The multitasking continues with saute chef Arturo Luna (who also turns out a diverse array of cheesecakes) and baker Donnie Silvers (who comes in at 4 or 5 a.m. to bake bread but also steps in to prep veggies and peel shrimp, as well as handling maintenance).
“The team spirit,” Canipelli notes, “extends all the way to the dishwasher, Guillermo Pino. He took it on himself to organize his work space and then the rest of the kitchen; he put up racks for implements and even painted the whole place. He knows he is part of a team.”
Throughout the team transition, the restaurant has continued to deliver the kind of food that diners rave about. “The chocolate-raspberry torte is to die for!” one of this writer’s friends enthused lately. “The best place in town for a hot date!” said another.
Besides delightful seasonal menus relying entirely on fresh foods (the only freezer in the place is a small one that holds ice cream), the Savoy is also known for its eclectic wine list. Owner Eric Sheffer, who’s had the restaurant for four years, is a member of the New York Times Wine Board and a guest wine expert at StarChefs.com, bringing both depth and enthusiasm to his cellar. “Wine to me is an adventure,” Sheffer told Xpress. “You make it fun, you make interesting wine accessible and affordable, and you continually educate the public and your staff.”
Educating staff means bringing them up to speed about the food as well as the wine. Savoy waiters have not only tasted all the dishes on the menu, they’ve discussed them with the chefs. As Canipelli puts it: “We depend on the wait staff to describe the food accurately to the patrons, and they depend on us to prepare and present the food artfully. We are in this together.”