Chef Jonathan Kavourakis is the Chef de Cuisine at the Lower East Side’s sexiest restaurant and lounge, The Stanton Social. Hailing from Livingston, NJ, Chef Jonathan was born to cook.
Kavourakis grew up in restaurants and diners, spending every spare moment from childhood through his teens assisting his father in preparing baked goods for several restaurants in his hometown. He attended both Towson University in Baltimore and later the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. Chef Kavourakis’s mantra is “No one in my kitchen will work more than me. No one in my kitchen will work harder than me.”
Kavourakis is known in the Beauty/Stanton family as a chef who will get his hands dirty. In the 4 years since he completed culinary school Jonathan has worked in such acclaimed kitchens as Danielle’s Feast and Fette and Commerce in various line and prep positions and served as the Sous Chef at Beauty and Essex prior to his latest move to Stanton. Total Food recently chatted with Chef Kavourakis in this month’s Chefcetera.
What influenced you to start a career in foodservice? Where did you study?
I don’t know if it was any one person in particular who influenced me to start my career in the food service industry, or if it was my surroundings growing up that inspired me to get into the business. My father was a baker, so I grew up working in Diners, and just loved the atmosphere and loved the people. I studied at The Broadway Diner in Baltimore, Maryland for 5 years. I learned everything about restaurants there both front and back of house. I then moved back to NYC and attended the Culinary Institute of Education.
Has working in NYC helped you achieve a full scope of culinary skills?
NYC is amazing, and has definitely helped me rise in the ranks a lot faster than maybe other chefs and cooks have. NYC is kill or be killed. If you aren’t gunning for your superior’s job you are in the wrong city. You need to hustle to make it here, and you need to be ambitious and want to grow.
There is so much talent and so many people gunning for the same job. If you want to land it, you don’t always necessarily need to be better than the other person, but you need to work harder, and always be willing to do the things maybe other people wouldn’t want to do. Working in NYC made me work harder, and helped mold me into the chef I am now because of all that.
You competed and won on Season 2 of The Food Network’s 24-Hour Restaurant Battle. How do you get involved and how has that experience helped your career?
I was scrolling through craigslist looking at all the job postings and saw an ad for the show. I called my brother (Alexi) in the room (who I live with), and said we could definitely rock this show. My brother grew up working FOH in the diners, and knows his stuff. We sent in our application, and were called in for an interview. Gave them our background, and our vision of opening up a diner, and the producers liked it. It was a great experience and was a lot harder than it looked. I don’t really think it helped my career all that much, but it was nice to get a little exposure and be in front of a camera.
Besides being located in a trendy area of Manhattan, The Stanton Social has become a celebrity hot spot as well as a favorite for local artists and hipsters. What spin do you put on your dishes that make The Stanton Social so alluring to them?
The Stanton Social, and Chef Chris Santos have been putting spins on dishes well before I came to make the restaurant what it is today. I’m trying to keep the trend going, and keep us running strong in that department. Stanton has such a great vibe, and is a fun place to eat with delicious food. What separates us from other restaurants is that we make things that can be very easily shared, and we try and make sexy intimate food. At the end of the day, if the ladies love it the guys are going to take them there, and the majority of our cliental is female. So when developing dishes I try and “channel my inner woman” and make something that sounds, looks, then tastes great.
How big is the kitchen staff and how important is each member to achieve the end-result?
We have a pretty big staff, about 10 line cooks on the busier nights. At the end of the day, you are only as strong as your weakest link. We have a monster crew here, starting from our prep team all the way up to the top. Everybody respects the food, kitchen, and takes pride in everything they do and are all equally important to achieve a perfect end result. We have a dozen kitchen employees who have been working here for 6 plus years, which speaks loudly to the camaraderie of our kitchen.
Walk us through a typical day at work and what are some of the challenges you face each day?
I usually come in around noon. Greet all the morning prep crew, and get with the AM Sous chef to see how he is doing and if there is anything he needs before I get started with my prep. Then I check in with our events coordinator Natalie to see if we have any large parties for the night and go over any dietary restrictions, or special requests they may have. Next, I get started on my prep work for the day, which includes mostly butchering and making the more delicate items on our menu. While doing this I keep in touch with Tommy our purchaser, to go over orders for the next day, and any repairs, or equipment needs I have.
I finish up with the prep around 4pm, which is when the line cooks come in. At this time, I make sure all heads are counted for and that they are fully prepared for that nights service. Around this time is when I can encounter some challenges. Dishwashers, prep cooks, or line cooks can no show. The dish machine, or a water pipe can break. These are all minor issues, that if not resolved right away can lead to a really rough service night.
What role does the vendor community on both the equipment and food supply side play? And in your opinion, is today’s salesperson providing the level of service you need to succeed?
We have a really good relationship with all of our food and equipment vendors. We have service contracts on all of our equipment and machines, and if we ever have an issue they normally take care of it that day. Our food vendors are great, we get all deliveries early morning every day, and they are really good with giving us samples and letting us know about any special deals they have, or any new product that is arriving.
The restaurant industry has a very broad range of foods…what’s your buying approach? Do you go out to bid on a regular basis or do you look for loyalty from vendors?
It is a little bit of both. We have had the same vendors since I started working here, but we have 3 different produce vendors who we bid out daily and order from everyday. And we do the same thing for proteins and fish.
On the equipment side, do you have pieces of equipment that you like to use that makes your job easier preparing dishes? The most important piece of equipment for me are my knives. Nothing makes a chef’s job easier than good, sharp knives. I also recently got a meat grinder after I tore through 3 of the pastry chef’s kitchen aids grinding hundreds of pounds of meat. I like it a lot.
Do you feel that the restaurant industry suffers too much from Zagat, Yelp, and other consumer review sights? Are consumers depending too much on review?
No. I think that all review sights, and publications are great. They are a good place for us to learn from. I read all our reviews, and take some with a grain of salt, and use others to fix things that I either missed or am unaware of. We cook for our customers, and if they are unhappy, or disappointed on the service we give them, I want to know about it and do my best to fix it.
Whether good, bad or a mix of both, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in our industry over the years?
I’m not sure if it’s good or bad, but I feel like the industry and most restaurants are turning more corporate, and you have to be more sympathetic, and not as hard on employees.
When I was coming up in the industry it was no holds barred in the kitchens I worked in. A lot of screaming and yelling, pots and pans being thrown, and a lot of hazing to newcomers. Some people can take it and some can’t, but the screaming and yelling, and all of that stuff put a lot of pressure on me and pushed me to be perfect. The hazing and messing around brought us closer and there was always a family feeling to the kitchen. It’s not that I condone that kind of behavior all the time, but when it is necessary, it’s nice to have workers that understand and feed off of it.
What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
My advice to young chefs coming out of culinary school, or just starting in the business is to put your head down and say, “Yes chef!” You don’t know better than the people that have been doing this for years just because you just finished culinary school. Do the job nobody else wants to do… get dirty. If somebody isn’t doing their job, pick up the slack don’t tell on them. I promise somebody will notice, and that will create opportunities for you! Just be hungry, be the first one in and the last one to leave and keep that work ethic and attitude even when you are on top.