Chef Deborah Gorman‘s passion for food knows no bounds. After training at some of New York’s finest restaurants, she’s worked as a private chef, started her own catering company, and is the co-founder and Executive Chef of Gourmet Sorbet by the Sorbabes.
Sandi: Welcome to another edition of The 51%, Conversations with Creative Women. I’m Sandi Klein. I make a mean grilled cheese, and an impressive omelet; I’m not bad at cutting up fruit, and that my friends, wraps up my culinary skills. My time in the kitchen is spent cleaning up after my husband who happens to be, thank God, a creative chef who loves to experiment and basically cooks all of our meals. Our two sons inherited those genes. I may not like, or want to cook, but I certainly appreciate good food, whether dining in or out and that’s why Deborah Gorman is my guest today. Unlike me, Deborah knew she wanted to be creative in the kitchen spending most of her free time growing up watching her grandmother work her magic. Despite her passion for food, Deborah began her post-college career as a graphic designer and an ad agency producer; but just like acid reflux, the desire to be in the kitchen kept coming up. So, against all odds, Deborah landed a line cook position under Dan Barber, executive chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester, then came a line cook stint at Manhattan’s A Voce Restaurant where she focused on pastry. That was followed by time spend at executive chef Gray Kunz’s two elegant restaurants: Grays’ and Café Gray. Deborah’s accomplished a lot in her thirty-three years, working as a private chef, spending summers cooking for the rich and famous, both in the city and in toney East Hampton Long Island. In 2008 she founded the Good Knife, a catering company. Two years later, she was a finalist on the Food Network hit Chopped. In 2011 Deborah moved to southern California, becoming the pastry chef at L&E Oyster Bar, and in 2012 began testing sorbet recipes; not long after, she signed on as co-founder and executive chef of Gourmet Sorbet by the Sorbabes. She also consults for restaurants in the LA area. Well, have I wet everyone’s appetite? Let’s not waste another minute, and meet Deborah. Welcome.
Deborah: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Sandi: Explain how against all odds, you managed a coveted line cook position at impressive Blue Hill.
Deborah: Well, it’s actually a funny story because I; you know, coming from Washington University in St. Louis, I had this degree that had nothing to do with culinary arts; but I think because Blue Hill is kind of an interesting place where it’s a very conceptual environmentally driven atmosphere where there’s a lot of educated people that have an approach to food that’s not only about the art of it, it’s also about how food takes place in our society today and politically what food means for us and then attaching that to the kind of culinary brilliance that top chefs will do in fine dining restaurants.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I think that, luckily I kind of had an interesting background for them. They saw that I had a little bit of culinary experience from sort of assisting people working on the side. I’d worked nights at restaurants just to kind of learn a few things and I started working there, and I think what happened, was in the very beginning they told me to be there at ten a.m. and I think I thought it was nine a.m., so every morning, I would get there an hour early. It was funny, I didn’t realize it until like two months later when they offered me a job, and then they were like, oh you don’t have to be here until ten a.m. I was like, oh, okay. I really was that dedicated but I think it was just kind of funny because I think that was part of their, you know,
Sandi: Wow, what a hard worker.
Deborah: She’s such a great worker, and I did, I worked my tail off and I also was instantly, you know, being in a restaurant and cooking was just second nature to me. It didn’t…
Sandi: Did you start off in Tarrytown in Westchester, because they have a restaurant in the city.
Deborah: I did. I did. They do. I like the restaurant in Tarrytown because I like that, when I first trailed there which is when you go in and you kind of, you just do a try out for the job, and you just, obviously we follow around another chef and help them all day and they kind of see how you work and they work with you, and that’s like the first day. They were like, okay, we need some more basil. I said, okay, I’ll go into the refrigerator and get the basil. They’re like, no, you need to go outside and pick it.
Sandi: And pick the basil.
Deborah: I was like, oh. In that moment, I was like, I want to work here. I don’t care how hard it is, I’m going to get into this kitchen and sure enough, it sort of lucked out that I worked hard, I got there early every day, and I happened to impress them and they gave me a position when somebody left, they’re like, Deborah’s here, you’re up.
Sandi: So, for how long were you volunteering there?
Deborah: Only about two months, I think maybe it was less than two months; which is rare. People will volunteer, I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard how it takes to get into some of the top kitchens, but people will trail or stage it’s called, it’s a French term.
Deborah: Stage. It’s like you basically work for free.
Sandi: It’s like this free-stages
Deborah: [Laughing] Yeah. But not as funny.
Sandi: [Laughing] Okay.
Deborah: A lot of hard work and a lot of torture but it’s what you do to kind of prove yourself and also to learn before they give you a coveted line position where if you mess up it could mean a lot of terrible things for the restaurant.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: So, you have to prove yourself and also learn about the style.
Sandi: Were you intimidated?
Deborah: Oh, totally. Every day I came in; I’d get up and I’d sleep a few hours, cause I’d work, we worked like ninety hour weeks at the restaurant, because we’d farm chores and then we would work on the line and then we would clean up, we would actually scrub the kitchen every week, so it was a very, very great training experience but also intense because it was all new to me. Everything, the terminology, I’d had never worked on the line, as a line cook before. I didn’t know anything, and they throw me in and I just sort of have to, it’s either sink or swim. Some days I sunk, and some days I swam and other days I would sort of just tread water. [Laughing]
Sandi: Did you even know what a line cook was?
Deborah: I didn’t know, I kind of got it, like, I’d read Anthony Bordain’s book.
Deborah: And I’d understood what that meant, but all I knew was what; I had to work in the best restaurant I could get myself into and work as hard as I could and instead of going to culinary school. So, I’m sort of self-taught, but I don’t like that term because I feel like I really was taught by these great chefs that I worked under. Something I didn’t know, I would investigate and learn it and if something, a term came up I know or understand what it was, I’d look it up and watch a video online. Luckily, the internet, that’s all available, so I kind of taught myself in that way, but I really learned most of my skills from the great chefs I worked with.
Sandi: Well, how many Deborah Gorman’s for example, were at Blue Hill when you were there?
Deborah: Other stages, or other women? What are you?
Sandi: Oh, well that’s a good question. How about both?
Deborah: There were probably about four or five stages that were working there.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I think, I guess I did have; most of them had graduated from culinary school and it was part of their culinary education to do a stage.
Sandi: To apprentice.
Deborah: Yeah. To apprentice, right. So, they were on like a track where they had to be there for this amount of time versus when I came in, I was like, I’m volunteering my time, no one else is telling me to be here, I just want to do this.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I think that was actually to my advantage at that time; which just seems odd because if you go to culinary school you could get it, you could catch it, but I mean, culinary school is awesome, I just happened to learn from my grandmother how to cook. I think I felt really confident in the kitchen, so for me it was easy to just jump in and learn. The funny thing is when you, I talked to another person who had a similar experience to me at Blue Hill is they put you in the Amuse-bouche, amuse-bouche station which means you are a part of the Garde manger, which is part of the salad station; but the Amuse-bouche is the very first thing you get when you sit down. You know those little things, little cute, sample
Sandi: Oh. Right. Like token…
Deborah: Right. Right. Stuff they just give you when you go to a restaurant.
Sandi: Right. It’s called Amuse-bouche?
Deborah: Amuse-bouche, it’s a French term to amuse your palate.
Deborah: Amuse your mouth.
Sandi: Oh. Okay.
Deborah: So, that was my station. I was the very first impression of every guest who came in.
Deborah: Which is crazy, and you get hit so fast, so as soon as things start, you get like ten orders and then VIPs are showing up and you have to do like, ten, you know multiples and you have to come up with all this stuff and every day I would, it was really stressful. I actually came up with an Amuse-bouche one day because we ran out of one thing and I switched something else.
Sandi: You invented?
Deborah: I invented one. I was [00:08:06] what do you think of this and he was like, okay, run it. I was like, oh my gosh! Okay! That was my exciting moment. I was like, oh wow, I can do this. After that, I burnt out actually after a year there because it was ninety hour weeks and it was intense. I think, as much as I loved it, it was a little bit too intense for not having any experience to work in probably one of the toughest kitchens in New York City. It was a little bit like, at some point, I was just sort of okay, I need a little break.
Sandi: Does he have a reputation? I mean obviously he’s skilled and really talented.
Deborah: He’s really intellectual. His idea of food was very much like farm. He brought farm to fork to the East Coast. That restaurant was probably the most amazing experience for me and what I learned the most from and I still use the techniques and styles and what I learned just from observing everybody in that kitchen in my cooking today.
Sandi: If you were working ninety hours a week, what the hell was your hourly salary? I mean,
Deborah: You didn’t get paid for all your hours. It was sort of expected that you sort of volunteer for the additional hours.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: Because part of it was, you were being a part, there was no possible way they could pay you for all those hours.
Sandi: Of course.
Deborah: But also The Rockefeller Foundation did help fund that restaurant, so that restaurant had an interesting relationship with financing. Most restaurants, labor is the most expensive cost and that’s why, I mean, I worked in restaurants for so many years and I kind of see it as my education but after that, I realized my salary cap was fifteen dollars an hour.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: Unless I was the chef, or the guy with the name on the door or the woman with the name on the door.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I was limited to what I could do, or how much money I could make. So, I didn’t get paid nearly enough for those hours, however, they did take care of us. There were a lot of perks to the job.
Sandi: They fed you. [Laughing]
Deborah: They fed us, we ate very well. Family meal at that restaurant was incredible. We would eat amazing produce and amazing protein from our different, and just incredible stuff. That experience just like, but the funny part was, I hardly ever had time to eat family meal because I was so rushed, that to take half an hour out of my day to sit down and eat lunch or eat your meal was like unheard of, so I would always end up eating…
Sandi: On the run.
Deborah: [Laughing] On the run.
Sandi: Like fast food.
Deborah: It totally was. So, you’re surrounded by all this amazing food and you’re starving and you’re like oh my God, this is just wrong. But it was amazing, I mean the experience was incredible and as much as I was tortured and sort of loved it and hated it; I just knew, in hindsight it was the most incredible thing I could have done.
Sandi: So, how old where you during that stint?
Deborah: I was twenty-six, I believe.
Deborah: And I was old. I was one of the older people in the kitchen.
Deborah: Which are line cooks in the kitchen. Most people were in their early twenties.
Sandi: Then it was time to sort of big Blue Hill bye-bye.
Deborah: Mm Hmm
Sandi: You headed back into the city and you went to A Voche, right?
Deborah: Mm Hmm
Sandi: Describe the contrast between the two.
Deborah: It was; I had changed positions, so I actually; and Dan Roberts suggested maybe that pastry, like when I was working with him, he was like you might be better at pastry. Not that, he like, you’re a good line cook, but I can see that you, that might be something that you…
Sandi: That’s the more creative…
Deborah: More creative way for you to work.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: The funny part; and this is partly because I’ m a woman; being a pastry chef, women always sort of end up in pastry and it seems like, I’m not sure why maybe it’s the heat of the kitchen, I think because I’m such like a rebel in some ways;
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I didn’t, I always kind of attract careers; I was like, I want careers where I have to prove myself or do something. I think that, not careers, but I guess in the culinary world I’ve always sort of ended up in scenarios where I’m not going to do what’s expected of me, I want to do more.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: So, part of me was like oh of course, he’s going to tell me I should be a pastry chef because I’m a woman, and that was my first thought. That’s sort of a stereotype. In reality, I think he was right in some ways because I do enjoy the meticulous science of pastry and understanding and measurements and that; and that’s something I utilize now. When I went to A Voce, they happened to have a pastry position open.
Sandi: And you applied for that job?
Deborah: Well, I just applied for a line cook position and they saw; they were like, you can get in through pastry and you can end up on the line, why don’t you start with pastry and see where that goes because that’s where we really need someone right now. I thought, well, okay, this might be the perfect opportunity to explore this part of my culinary education. I never really, most chefs are either savory or; in the deserts or in the savory side of the kitchen.
Sandi: What does that mean?
Deborah: If you’re a line cook, you’re usually doing meat, vegetables, you know there’s all different stations that you work in and they’re not sweet. Meat or, you’re doing all the salty food.
Sandi: Right, so it’s either sweet
Deborah: Either you do the savory side or sweet side.
Sandi: And the savory is everything but sweet.
Deborah: Yes. Exactly.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: So, that’s sort of, there’s a divide there and most chefs don’t sort of go back and forth.
Deborah: And that’s something that, I guess I’ve been, people have always been impressed by my skills is that I do have equally strong skills in pastry as I do in savory dishes.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. But A Voche and Blue Hill obviously, for people who don’t know, and I shouldn’t say obviously, are very toney restaurants.
Sandi: That are very expensive. How else would one describe them?
Deborah: The year that I was at A Voche, it won best new restaurant by Time in New York.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: It had, it was a new restaurant, it had gotten a lot of acclaim, it was hot, and it was technically a great restaurant. I mean, they had, and it still is; so that was a really great experience to work.
Sandi: So, you cut your teeth on pastry “chefary” at A Voche.
Sandi: And that’s when you sort of decided I’m going to focus in on that?
Deborah: Yes, and no. I liked it, but I was also still torn at that point.
Deborah: So, when I went to Café Grey, and actually, I was kind of recruited by that team to start their new restaurant; I was always excited about starting, I’m an entrepreneur at heart, so the idea of starting a restaurant was really exciting to me and I’ve always wanted to see from the ground. Seeing something built up. Built from the ground up.
Deborah: Mm Hmm. So, when I went to Café Grey, I ended up on the savory side again and I sort of was open to either or, but that’s kind of like, I was; at that point I was sort of looking for good opportunity and this happened to be an interesting one. They had a good position for me there. I ended up eventually in their catering department and kind of being involved, in charge of some of their catering events because they had a big event space. That actually was my favorite thing. Once I got to that, I realized I liked being a line cook but the pressure of a line cook is, you’re like a robot. You’re just basically making the same things over and over and over again. When it was the catering department, it’s like, we know we have to make a hundred of these and twenty of those and the speed was still rushed, but it was a different experience.
Sandi: Not maybe as frenzied.
Deborah: Yeah. It was a little more organized, and that to me was, this is more how I want to cook. I realized after that, that my time being a line cook was; I learned a lot, it was a great experience but I sort of needed to move on to the next stage of my career which ended up being catering and then private chefing and then doing events.
Sandi: So, what did it kind of average out to be? A year here, a year there?
Deborah: Yeah. I think that’s something very unique to the culinary world is that people who are learning or want to just gain experience don’t spend too much; you not making very much money and you’re working these crazy hours, so you have an expiration date unless you decide that’s the restaurant you want to be with the rest of your career and you work your way up and stay in that restaurant. A lot of times chefs kind of jump around and it’s expected to sort of learn from different people to kind of create your own vision of what you…
Sandi: So, you’re moving on?
Deborah: Yeah. So, you kind of learn as much as you can or you work as hard as you can at that place and then you, at some point, it’s the same food over and over and over again unless some chefs do change things up often. Most restaurants, you don’t change the menu that often, so you’d have to wait a year or two before the menu changes.
Sandi: Good point.
Deborah: Then, you’re learning things, but not at the speed that most people or some people would like.
Sandi: And an executive chef, for example, is not interested in your contribution so to speak.
Deborah: Yes. It’s much about, they understand that they’re; it depends on the environment. Every kitchen is very different. Some restaurants do take a lot of time to mold their employees to, but most restaurants, I think it is, you’re like a machine. You’re working, you’re trying to get as much out as quickly as possible and you don’t have a lot of time to be creative and work on things, it’s more about gaining the skills and doing the same thing over and over again until it’s perfect.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: And then making it that way.
Sandi: And what it’s like to work in that kind of environment. That high pressured environment.
Deborah: Yeah. It’s intense. Sometimes.
Sandi: I bet it is. A Voce kind of turned you on to catering, and is that…
Deborah: Actually Café Grey.
Sandi: I meant Café Grey.
Deborah: Café Grey turned me on to
Sandi: And that’s what led to The Good Knife? So, how did that come about?
Sandi: When you decided it was time to leave Café Grey?
Deborah: Yeah. Well…
Sandi: For each one, you knew when to go kind of.
Deborah: Well. Café Grey closed.
Sandi: Oh. Alright.
Deborah: So, it was
Sandi: So, you had no say in that.
Deborah: It was 2008 and it was, the economy was turning and unfortunately, Café Grey is, was, is still in my mind because it exists in Hong Kong, so Grey Kunz had taken his visions elsewhere, but unfortunately in New York at that time frame, it wasn’t that economic environment, Café Grey was not going to survive. So, they closed their doors, it was as very sad day because it was kind of like, in some ways I felt the end of super fine dining with that sort of vision of excellence and maybe it was the end of an era in New York.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: Everything seems to be, now, much more casual and people are not expecting white table cloths and the same sort of service that they used to receive.
Sandi: But you’re still spending a lot of money if you’re not expecting white table cloths.
Deborah: Exactly. Which is kind of, it just sort of; it was an interesting; it was like a shift in people’s trends and what was expected.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: So, when Café Grey closed, I kind of a little bit realizing maybe this is my time to try something different. Not be in the; I wanted to not work on the line anymore and try, see where else my culinary skills; or how else I could apply them.
Sandi: But it would be ironic to think that the times, the economic times are tough and now you’re going to start a company?
Deborah: Which was, [Laughing] in hindsight, maybe not the best time, however, private chefing, there’s always a market for that. People do hire people to do their events and people don’t often cook in their own homes as much as we wish they would. I ended up working every summer in the Hamptons as a private chef for one family who basically gave me [00:18:08] to come up with these incredible meals and they would invite all their friends over. They entertained constantly and we would have these incredible dinner parties. In combination with that job, plus my catering company which was, hung in there for a while and we still occasionally do events, but it wasn’t the greatest time to start a catering company, I’d say. [Laughing] It was a tough time.
Sandi: Obviously, to hire a private chef, you got to have a lot of bucks. Did you cook for them three meals a day? Or, were you on call all the time, or were these just for dinner parties?
Deborah: No. No. Most, it was a little bit of both. It was, it’s funny, I’ve never been the kind of chef that’s always on call, and maybe to my demise, because certain jobs, like, I kind of see myself as an artist and I, a lot of my clients hire me because they know of my skill set and they appreciate super elegant dinner parties and at events. The lunches, and the, I never; like brunches…
Sandi: So, you’re not making grilled cheese.
Deborah: I was; occasionally, you can find yourself, there was a lot of funny things. Like, occasionally kids would come into the kitchen and hate everything that was for dinner because of course it’s this fancy beautiful and they want plain pasta. So, you could find me in the middle of a dinner party whipping up some [Laughing] grilled cheese or some plain pasta with butter for the kid who’s like, I don’t want to eat it.
Sandi: Mm Hmm. Right.
Deborah: Working as a private chef is, it was a lot of fun for me and I think you have to have a certain temperament to do it and sort of…
Sandi: Did you live with the family?
Deborah: I, yeah. We had like a separate little annex where I lived. I lived right on the beach so it was pretty wonderful. It was a great location.
Sandi: So, it was really only you in the kitchen so to speak? You didn’t have a staff did you?
Deborah: Well, they had a staff.
Sandi: Oh geez.
Deborah: So, I would pull from the staff occasionally so I would have assistants. On dinner party nights, almost everybody just showed up in the kitchen and I would give everybody a little job and I’d have them plating and helping me, so that was kind of interesting to see myself, like after I’d worked for so many chefs who had yelled and screamed and went crazy, all of a sudden I find myself screaming at some poor lade who doesn’t cook for a living but she’s plating too slow and…
Deborah: And I’m like, oh no.
Sandi: Like she knows what plating too slow means.
Deborah: It was pretty interesting experience. I loved it. I happened to work for wonderful, wonderful people who I respect and adore.
Sandi: Did you only do that for one summer? For them?
Deborah: No, it was five summers.
Sandi: For them?
Deborah: Five summers.
Sandi: So it was like a second family for you.
Deborah: And then, yeah. Yeah. Five summers, and then I would be working on The Good Knife during the rest of the year. We did all kinds of fun events. We would do these monthly dinner parties. It was, the catering company; setting up a catering company in New York is difficult because kitchen space is really expensive. Having a good work force, and you have to be really big because you do it well, so we did these really fun, we were kind of like a floating catering company where we would…
Sandi: Who’s the we? How many we were there?
Deborah: There was me and there was two of us, plus like some other chefs that would jump in and we’d all sort of work together on different events and occasionally we’d bring our own clients to the table and we’d kind of due events together. It was a really fun way to bring another level of cooking to New York. It was casual and we’d do those fun dinner parties and people would just, random people would come. It was kind of like an underground supper club which was really hot.
Sandi: Would that be at different people’s homes, or?
Deborah: Mm Hmm. Peolple’s homes or at event spaces or galleries.
Sandi: Oh. Right.
Deborah: We did all kinds of interesting events that we would just show up at. Some like really crazy events.
Sandi: Can you share one?
Sandi: And drop some names? Gold faced names at some of those events?
Deborah: The craziest event I’ve ever done, it was for an artist who’s, Lanie Doby [00:21:30], is her name; and she basically served a meal on her body. She was naked. [Laughing] And she had other people and she wanted me to put different food that would be effected by the temperature of her body and people at it off of her.
Deborah: [Laughing] I was like, you know, I’d had other crazy things that people would ask me to do. Someone asked me to cater a placenta party.
Sandi: [deep breath]
Sandi: Oh, not another placenta party…
Sandi: Right. Let’s go back to Lanie. So, what are people, I guess it’s mostly canapés, right?
Deborah: Yeah. I did, it was actually, I think we did all desserts. One was actually made of gelatin, so when it hit her body it started like melting, which is crazy.
Sandi: Oh. That sounds appetizing.
Deborah: Yeah. Another one was a chocolate, was like a chocolate tart, and then I did one that was, it was like a little mini one, it was a little square tart and then I did a piece of watermelon with some fetta, it was like a little mini fetta salad on a little watermelon.
Sandi: Anybody just use like a knife and fork on her?
Deborah: No. No, they actually had their hands tied behind their back too, so they had to physically lean over and eat.
Sandi: [laughing] That’s nuts!
Deborah: And it was so funny because it was just a bizarre, it was one of the most, and she was actually applying, she had it all videotaped too, so I would be coming around putting these things on her body and I’m just like, this is awesome.
Deborah: [Laughing] I don’t know why.
Sandi: Because you had to keep refilling her.
Sandi: So to speak.
Deborah: And she’s like this incredible artist who’s totally just an awesome woman who is crazy, all into sexuality and love and she just has this really interesting way.
Sandi: How many people were at that event?
Deborah: There were about ten or fifteen people.
Deborah: It was small.
Sandi: So, you were making a living, earning a living.
Deborah: Yeah. I was actually, that, those years, I did really; I did very well. It was actually it was incredibly well compared to what I was making as a line cook and then all of a sudden I just realized how much I could charge. It’s funny, because being a line cook you just don’t expect to make very much money ever.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: And it was a hard thing to realize at that point in my life because I went to this great college and I had this wonderful education and I’m like, how do I make this into a living? How do I actually pay my bills in New York City with what I chose to do?
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I think that’s sort of been a challenge ever since I started, but I sort of crave challenges. I don’t do well with something that people say is easy, I’m like, no, I don’t so that. [Laughing]
Sandi: You ought to try easy. There’s a lot to be said for easy.
Deborah: Maybe someday.
Sandi: But speaking of the opposite of easy, now we have to get to something really seminal in your life.
Deborah: Mm Hmm
Sandi: You were on Chopped!
Deborah: Yeah. That was crazy.
Sandi: How did that happen and were you also not in competition with one of your former bosses?
Deborah: I was. I was.
Sandi: Why don’t you tell that story? That was in 2010, right?
Deborah: So, actually, yeah. So, they had approached me.
Sandi: This is the Food Network.
Sandi: Called, hit I suppose you could say.
Deborah: Yeah. The Food Network approached me in 2010 to be on their show because they knew about The Good Knife and they knew my background. I was like, yeah, why not, this seems like a good opportunity. I’m like why not, it actually sounded really fun because I like challenges. [Laughing] Crazy thing.
Sandi: So you said?
Deborah: So, I was like, let’s try this. I’m actually prepping a party in my, in the kitchen that we’re working at the time for a Good Knife event. I hired one of my old co-workers from Café Grey, and we’re talking and she goes, oh, did you hear that Martin’s going to be on Chopped? I was like, that’s interesting. I’d already had my date booked and all that stuff.
Sandi: And who’s Martin?
Deborah: Martin was my old chef.
Sandi: At Café Grey?
Deborah: Café Grey. So, he was my boss and good friend. I was like, oh really? Do you know what the date is? All of a sudden in my head, I’m thinking uh-oh. [Laughing] Sure enough, it was the same date that I was competing and it’s funny because this is all supposed to be confidential. You’re not supposed to talk about this and so I call him up and I say, guess what, like we’re competing against each other on Chopped.
Sandi: Isn’t that wild?
Deborah: I was like, whoever wins takes the other person out to dinner. Like, that’s it. Let’s have fun with this. It’s for TV, it’s not for; it’s like, it’s not really real.
Sandi: But there is a dollar prize connected to this.
Deborah: Yeah. You win $10,000. Fortunately or unfortunately. It was his birthday that day so I came into this competition being like, the guy who has, who I called my boss for so many, for such a long time and I respect and who has probably ten or fifteen years of experience on me, I’m competing against. So, it didn’t help as far as me playing to win.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: There’s this respect level in kitchens where you treat your chef like, you know…
Sandi: A God.
Deborah: He’s a God.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: You treat him with utmost respect and you do whatever he asks, no matter what, so to be put in competition with person was really like a mind-bending moment.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: It was hard. So, I just went in with, I went into it with, alright, I’m just going to have fun and try to win and we’ll see what happens. No expectations. After the first round, I wanted, I was like, please chop me!
Deborah: It was like twenty minutes, they’re in your face every second with these cameras and you’re like, you’re just trying to cook as fast as you can. You have to come up with…
Sandi: Did you know what you were doing?
Deborah: No. You’re not even, you’re like in memory mode. You’re just, I know how to cook, I see these ingredients, I got to make it into a dish.
Sandi: That’s so absurd.
Sandi: What, pig’s feet and what, and sorbet or something insane.
Deborah: Insane. So, I mean, luckily when I saw, when I got there I saw an oyster knife sitting on the side of the basket, and I was like oh…
Sandi: What did you think, I can stab myself with that?
Deborah: Yeah, right. That was one of; that was my second thought.
Deborah: My first thought, was like, okay, there’re oysters in there. I’m like, I can’t do oysters on a half shell, I got to something different. I got to something different. That’s like my whole mantra in life.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I got to be different. I got to do something exciting and new. So, I made a salad with like marinated oysters. The judges were impressed. They were like, oh, that’s, I would never have. The other three contestants all did oysters on a half shell with some sort of minuet like topping, which was expected. So that kind of got me past the first round. The salad came out good and actually had nice spice and I was actually impressed. It was a little overdressed, but that was actually because it sat in a room for too long. After that round, I was like, Oh My God, I made it to the second round. In the second round they gave me the worst ingredients I could ever imagine.
Sandi: But they gave everybody the worst ingredients.
Deborah: Yes. But, for me, I’m Jewish.
Sandi: Uh Huh.
Deborah: I grew up not eating pork and they gave me a whole pork loin, and I’m just looking at it like, eh. It doesn’t even look appealing.
Sandi: MM Hmm
Deborah: It’s like, it’s just this… and
Sandi: What do I do with this?
Deborah: What do I do with this? And then they gave me jackfruit in a can.
Sandi: I don’t even, what is jackfruit?
Deborah: It’s like the stinkiest most disgusting fruit and that’s what they gave you in a can, and then the third ingredient was buttermilk.
Deborah: So, I just looked at it going… I was kind of like, I tried my best, but I actually plated it going, if I win this round this is totally rigged and I don’t, there’s no way.
Sandi; Did you love the experience?
Deborah: It was great. It was really fun.
Sandi: And what we see on TV is what we get?
Sandi: That’s sort of what goes on behind the scenes also?
Deborah: Yeah. I mean, they’re trying to get drama. I mean, the whole time they’re asking questions. But actually, the fun thing about, I respect Martin, I actually respected the other two guys there too because they were; I tasted, we would go around and tasted their food and they were like, no body’s ever done that before. We, because Martin and I had this; I was so comfortable with him, I didn’t actually see it
Deborah: I’m like, I’m going out and having a good time and whoever wins, wins.
Sandi: Did he win?
Deborah: He ended up winning.
Sandi: Oh. Well, that’s nice.
Deborah; He should have been judging it. He is such a talented chef.
Sandi: Maybe he was the ringer.
Sandi: Why did you leave New York City for the West Coast and if you can just tell us how Gourmet Sorbet by the Sorbabes (which is just ingenious) was born.
Deborah: It was in 20011.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I, my season… my life is a little seasonal so every summer I’d work really hard into the fall and then somewhere around January, no more events, catering kind of dies off.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: And then I have,
Sandi: You crash
Deborah: Kind of just crash for a few months, but then from January to March, there’s very little activity in my world. It’s kind of nice, but I was sort of, I was feeling like New York City was not right for me at this point in time. I felt, to keep up with New York. New York is a hard city to live in, I’ve grown up there, I never felt totally at home there, here, there. I decided, I’ve always sort of dreamed of living in California and our friends happened to have a sublet available in their building that was cheap. It was very cheap and my husband who at the time was my boyfriend, decided that he wanted to leave his job and I was like, I’ve always wanted to cook in California. I always feel like that’s where all the best produce is, it’s beautiful year round, you can get green ingredients. The winter in New York City is depressing to me and it was just like, no, you go to the farmer’s market and all you see is potatoes and a few apples that have been sitting in storage for a few months and it’s just like, everything’s flown in from California.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: So, I decided, I’m like, let’s just try California for a while and try that lifestyle, see where it goes. We happen to love it. So, I started right away working at a restaurant called Animal, which is an interesting restaurant in L.A. because it’s all about pork and fatty foods, where in a culture like L.A. people…
Sandi: Are thin.
Deborah: Are thin and are obsessed with being; dieting and
Sandi: Nothing. Eating nothing.
Deborah: Yeah. Plastic surgery. Turns out that California, especially in Los Angeles, the food environment is really changing and people are wanting more and excited about new foods. Similar to what’s happening, it’s happened in New York, it’s been always a part of New York lifestyle. It’s happening in California. I was just excited about having such, going to a farmer’s market and having this incredible bounty of produce. So, I started working at that restaurant and then I started working at, I helped open L&E Oyster Bar when they opened. I became their pastry chef and then moved on to consulting for them. While I was there, I got a call from a connection through the family I worked in the Hamptons and she was working on this Sorbet Company and she’s like, can I commission you to make recipes for me? I said, okay. Sure why not.
Sandi: Had you ever made sorbet before.
Deborah: Yeah. I had.
Deborah: When I was at A Voce I learned how to make sorbet.
Deborah: I was like, yeah, great. I love it. Love the science of it. It’s so cool. We started working together and we had this great report and event; over the course of a month or so, I came up with all these fun ideas and she was like, do you want to be a partner? Do you want to be in it more than just, she was going to offer me a small percentage per recipe, she was like, I want you to be my 50% partner. Like, let’s do this. I was like, okay, let’s try it. Why not? So Gourmet Sorbet, she’d picked the name Gourmet Sorbet and weren’t the Sorbet of Seattle. We came up with all these recipes, I moved, I came to New York for the summer because we decided we would, I was actually working for the same family that summer. So, I’d come up with the recipes and we figured out how we would do production and we sold to these different farmer’s markets. At night we would make our sorbets at an ice cream shop in Brooklyn, so we would go into the shop at like, eleven o’clock at night and we’d use their machines because they have these giant batch freezers with compressors in them to make ice cream. When we get there, they’d somehow dubbed us the sorbabes. They’re like, oh, the sorbabes are here! We thought it was…
Sandi: Oh. So, you didn’t come up with that?
Deborah: We didn’t come up with it.
Sandi: Well, that’s still a great name.
Deborah: Actually, I give credit to the manager at Ample Hills Farm. Amples Hills Creamery actually, and he came up with the name and he just kept calling us sorbabes. We’re like, we started telling people and they, everybody just loved it, they thought it was hilarious. It took be awhile actually, to be comfortable with it because…
Sandi: I understand.
Deborah: It just, you know, and we didn’t and my partner also, it was just, she’s beautiful and both of us, we’re like we don’t want to just be known for the way we look or who we are.
Sandi: Of course.
Deborah: Or just being a woman.
Sandi: but, your reputations precede you.
Sandi: It’s very clever and it’s something that sticks in people’s head.
Deborah: Yeah. People remember it and it’s also fun. I think we’re kind of reclaiming that term babe because people use it all the time, like for friends. Like, hey babe what’s up.
Deborah: So, it’s not, it connotations no longer just a sex symbol, it’s more of a term of endearment.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I think that’s what we’ve come up with and we think it’s great and people love our flavors.
Sandi: Name some of your flavors.
Deborah: Yeah. We do a cucumber/white wine/ mint, which is incredibly refreshing. Our probably most famous flavor so far has been our organic pistachio with sea salted caramel, and it’s made with just pistachios and purified water, sea salted caramel and that’s basically it. Like, it’s not. It’s got no dairy, no dairy alternatives in it, but it has this incredibly creamy texture.
Sandi: Uh Huh.
Deborah: So, it, it’s really interesting. People have been amazed. Oh, thi9s is not sorbet, and we’re like, sorbet is a non-dairy frozen desert and this is sorbet but we’ve kind of taken a twist on it. Now, we came up with a peanut/banana with spiced chocolate, which has been selling like crazy. Like, we can’t keep enough of it in stock. The other ones are coconut/chi/macaroon,
Deborah: And we have a passion fruit/veeche and we have a strawberry/rhubarb crumble. I’m working on two flavors actually today, I’ll be going to my test kitchen and working on a, we’re calling it a fall harvest crumble, so it’s going to have apple cider, pears, and also like a gluten-free crumble. So, all the flavors are dairy-free and gluten-free. They’re kind of, we just working on that. You wouldn’t miss the dairy or the gluten because they’re so incredibly satisfying on their own. It’s been a fun process.
Sandi: So, this is what you’re focusing on now?
Deborah: Yeah. This is my main focus. I still do events and it’s kind of fun to do these events every once in a while because I put that other hat on. Like, this summer, I did two or three catering events this summer in the Hamptons. It was just hilarious because people hire me, they’re like, we’re having twenty people for dinner and the day before the woman’s like oh yeah, thirty people are coming. Actually, I think it’s going to be sixty people.
Sandi: Oh God.
Deborah: I’m just like, are you kidding me?
Sandi: Oh wait, lest we forget, there’s also the Golden Skillet. Talk to us briefly about that.
Deborah: The Golden Skillet was a project. Actually, I’ve changed the name just recently to Grandma’s Golden Skillet because it gives it a little bit more of
Sandi: Going back to your roots, huh?
Deborah: Yeah. My grandmother taught me to cook and I realized after she passed away how many recipes I didn’t document. How many traditions I lost, or my family lost, and I call different people in my family and they say oh yeah, I don’t remember how she made that. I try to recreate it but it was never right and it just made me realize how much, how there’s a wealth of culinary knowledge out there that’s not being done by chefs. It’s mostly grandmothers in their kitchens who were in the 40s, 50s, and 60s were the primary cooks in the family.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: And their craft, you know, really is an art. So, these women are also hilarious and I’ve met them and had great conversations with them and I decided to start a video project where we would go into their kitchens and actually watch them cook. A lot of time they will give you a recipe and its like, yeah, a dash of that and three teaspoons of this, but it’s actually ten teaspoons.
Sandi: As you’re watching them do this.
Deborah: Yeah. Watching them do it and you really have to see them cook to get the full experience and get the full recipe. So, I started the project with another, a friend of mine who’s also a good cook as well and she and I have been going around to different grandmothers’ kitchens and interviewing them and getting the recipes on film.
Sandi: So this is history.
Sandi: You’re collecting history. Culinary history.
Deborah: Collecting history. It’s also hilarious. If you go to the Golden Skillet, there’s a video that I did of my great aunt, who’s my grandmother’s sister. She just, the way; at one moment, she like Oh! Don’t take this. Oh, I messed up! You see her pulling things out and switching them around and you capture, you capture these hilarious moments on camera. The personality and how incredible these women are and they’re still cooking into their nineties and that’s the kind of; that inspires me to grow old and become a grandmother and share my culinary knowledge with the next generation as well. This project, I’ve had to put it a little bit on hold because of my other, my business right now.
Sandi: The other things you’re involved with?
Deborah: But it’s something that I’m hoping to get back to this year and create more documented videos of other grandparents.
Sandi: So, what is that, thegoldenskillet.com?
Deborah: Yeah. Its thegoldenskillent.com
Sandi: Alright. We’ll look for that. Deborah, it sounds like the world is (no pun intended) your oyster. It’s so exciting and everyday it’s something new. You’re really on a great trajectory.
Deborah: Yeah. It’s exciting. I think that I’m learning every day and I think that’s what keeps me motivated is that everything I do is just another learning experience. Another way to, it’s also helping, I think, the world in some ways. I love thinking of making better food makes people happier.
Sandi: Mm Hmm
Deborah: I love the moment when people look at me and they go, oh my God this is incredible. That happiness that people get from eating something that tastes so good.
Sandi: That you created.
Deborah: That I created. That’s what I love.
Sandi: Oh. Wow. Very exciting. It’s been nothing short of my pleasure to sit and chat with you today.
Deborah: Thank you so much, it’s been wonderful talking to you.
Sandi: I’m Sandi Klein, join us for another edition of the 51% Conversations with Creative Women.
Narrator: Thanks for listening to The 51% Conversations with Creative Women. For show comments and suggestions please follow us on Twitter at #sandikleinshow. You can also find us on Facebook at The 51%. The show is produced and recorded by Chad Dougatz at the Hangar Studios in New York City. Sandi Klein is our executive producer.