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This busy chef has a lot on his plate

When chef Michael Brunson of Solea heard about the recent aqueduct breach, he began ordering his staff to boil water before the order was even issued.

“I put on my emergency hat and coped,” says Brunson, who says that his staff jokes that no matter what the task is – plumbing, electrician, and in this case, “water boy” – he’s up to the challenge. Such is the day in the life of a restaurant chef, dealing with crises, whether it’s a sudden dinner rush – or boiled water order.

With the boil water order on, Brunson grabbed all the large pots and pans on hand and boiled up to 100 gallons of water, which he stored in his coolers. He prepared coffee in small batches with the pre-boiled water, purchased ice from a distributor, and offered bottled water for purchase instead of free tap water to customers, who were surprisingly unsympathetic to his plight.

“They were disappointed they weren’t getting free water,” says Brunson.

Brunson is the head chef at Solea Tapas and Wine Bar in Waltham, a 200-seat restaurant where he lends his talents to its Tapas concept. He oversees a staff of 19, including a sous chef, five prep cooks, eight line cooks, dishwashers and more.

“My workers are like my hands, while I’m the head and mind, keeping track of everything,” he says.

With a menu of over 50 items, ranging from stuffed wrapped dates to poached lemon sole, running the kitchen requires a lot of preparation, organization, and constant training and supervision of the staff, whether it’s writing down a list of vegetables that need to be chopped or discussing the day’s special with the wait staff.

“A good chef looks at the kitchen as a whole and understands what needs to be done in the course of a day,” says Brunson.

Like many a chef, Brunson paid his dues the old-fashioned way, working his way up through the ranks. As early as 13, he spent all his free time at his grandfather’s local Italian restaurant, starting as a dishwasher and then moving up to prep and line cook.

“I’ve always had a fascination with food,” says Brunson.

Q: I’ve read that one chef said that this profession is for the crazy. Do you agree?
A:
Because of the long hours and hard work, you do have to be a little strange to work in this industry. The restaurant comes first, before personal or home life. It’s a very selfless job and I have the bumps and bruises to show for it.

Q: Are these the scars of initiation?
A:
I guess you could call them that. I was a butcher’s apprentice back in college, and I lost my fingertips, because when my mouth was moving, my mind wasn’t on the knife. And on busy Saturday nights, we run a six to seven man line and that’s a lot of people in a small, tight space. The kitchen is hot, everyone is moving super fast, throwing around pots and pans, and often you inflict yourself with burns just as much as others.

Q: Do you enjoy reading the latest crop of tell-all chef memoirs such as Kitchen Confidential (by Anthony Bourdain)?
A:
I have no interest in reading those books or watching the food networks. I find it frustrating more than anything. It gives people the wrong idea about the profession. This isn’t a glamorous profession – it’s a tough gig.

Q: Do you wear a white chef’s hat?
A:
No, that’s not my style. I wear a black skullcap and pinstriped black pants. That’s my uniform.

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