Laid-off Restaurant Critic's Plan B? Cook

Editor's note: Today marks the debut on Serious Eats of Leslie Kelly. Leslie was most recently the restaurant critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which eliminated its print version last month--along with Leslie's position there. Now she's cooking. Leslie will show up periodically to report on her transition from the pen to the pan.


Photograph courtesy of Serious Pie

Talk about the tables turning. After more than 15 years reviewing restaurants for newspapers in Spokane, Washington, Memphis, and, most recently, in Seattle, I now find myself in a very foreign place: working in restaurant kitchens for Tom Douglas, a nominee for outstanding restaurateur at this year's James Beard Foundation.

My journey from critic to cook began shortly after getting the gut-wrenching news the paper in which my reviews have appeared the past two years--the Seattle Post-Intelligencer--would soon be toast. The last print edition rolled off the presses March 16, a sad day, mourned over with seemingly endless rounds of drinks at a pub not far from the paper's iconic neon globe.

But in the weeks leading up to my final review, I doubled back to a few of my favorite places, just to beef up those last expense reports. Serious Pie, the latest entry in the Tom Douglas's eclectic lineup of restaurants, was at the top of the list. This wicked-fine pizza place won me over with its intensely flavorful crust and luxe toppings: Italian truffle cheese and chanterelles, pancetta and clams, salami house-cured by sous chef Tony Catini and line cook Kenan Fox.

While having a solo lunch, getting lost in the roasted Yukon gold pizza and a glass of Sangiovese, I asked the server if I could buy one of the shirts he was wearing, a cocoa-hued tee with a whimsical logo. Sorry, he said, you have to work here.

Oh. Really?

Fast forward six weeks and I was pulling a Friday night shift: sautéeing calamari, slicing salami, shucking clams, even throwing some dough, all under the patient guidance of chef Gray Brooks. And, yes, wearing my new shirt.

When I initially approached Douglas about being an apprentice, he asked if I had any experience. Gulp. Well, no. There was that week-long intensive course at the CIA in Napa Valley, but I had never worked in a professional kitchen.

After a couple of weeks, I'm still not sure I can cut it. The experience has changed my life in one dramatic way, though. I've developed a foot fetish. Or, that's what it feels like. Standing for eight hours straight sent me scrambling for suggestions on what were the most comfortable shoes. Birkis? Danskos? Plain ol' sneaks? I'm open to any and all advice.

In the meantime, I'm going to spend the next couple of days facing up to my flour-phobia while taking a turn in the bread department. The place where they make that incredible pizza dough. I'll fill you in on how it goes next week.