Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Tribute to a Mentor (Part I): Chef Marshall Lyons

(From 1995: Jim (the potwasher), Chef Marshall Lyons, and I pose for this photo at Phillips Exeter Academy before the dinner meal goes upstairs to the diningrooms above. Marshall always said 2 things constantly: 1. "You can always add more in, but you can't always take it out if you add too much", and 2. "A good Chef knows how to make good dishes; a great Chef knows how to rectify a potential kitchen mistake." ).

With the chilly months of New England Winters comes a kind of reflecti0n in the stillness of its quiet evenings. Gone inside are the children in town who rode their bicycles in Summer, or the boy down the street who practices bouncing and shooting his basketball every night after dinner. The waters of Long Lake, which I can see from my office window, have slowed from the cold and turned, ever so slowly, into a solid stage for snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.

Last year I celebrated 30 years in the hospitality field. While to many it was an accomplishment, some classified it as a sign of commitment to a passion and lifestyle. No matter how any of these years are defined, they have been borne of a blending of sacrifice and love. Every day in hospitality is truly different. From the ever-changing faces of guests, to the product you might be selling, to the influence of the weather on the entire atmosphere in which you serve, the learning that is available is endless.

Many mentors have dotted my career in these thirty years. These individuals stay in my head and in my heart. Perhaps more so recently, the economy has tested my own confidence and has brought me to a place where I re-visit these past teachers of mine. All have formed the professional who is writing for you now. During my many hours of baking and cooking I sometimes smile at them in my memories, express a silent smile of gratitude, and hope that they are proud of me carrying their legacy forward.

Marshall Lyons was the First Chef at Phillips Exeter Academy. When I got the second interview at P.E.A., the Assistant Director of Food Service told me that out of the 25 candidates that applied for the Second Cook's position, I had the least amount of actual cooking experience out of all of them. I looked at him and asked: "Then why am I here at a second interview?" The Asst. Director explained that I had an outstanding degree and that my honed Front-of-House experience was excellent. "We can teach skills, it is your attitude we like," said the man who was to become my boss. He explained that sometimes kitchen employees lose perspective on anything outside the kitchen door...that the idea of actual people and their opinions and feelings are out there, waiting to be served, impressed, and excited. "You have that perception of what a guest wants...and we need you to bring that standard into our kitchen," he said.

Only having a few Food & Beverage courses in my hotel degree, it was like running a marathon in the first few months of employment. The day crew buzzed around us on their meals while we started the dinner meal. After they finished at 3pm, the kitchen took on a wonderful quiet where Marshall always took my questions with a certain responsibility. He knew I was out of my element in the Back-of-House and yet would play teacher every chance he could. He would test me on cooking techniques, or come over and arrange my prep station so food would "flow" more easily towards its completion, or ask me to fill out the next day's production prep schedule.

Marshall was not the healthiest chef I had met. Years of kitchen work, which I knew deep inside his heart he loved, took its toll on the Chef. Eventually, his work schedule was dwindling and he became less and less reliable. I had gotten used to almost working without him and there were dinner meals where I remembered his words from the last time we did the meal in the "cycle" (which rotated back every 3 weeks or so).

Marshall cared about the skills involved in preparing food. He was adept in his best moments, worn down and needed a little more help (than he would have liked to admit wanting) at less shining times. Still, he took me under his wing and delighted in my curiousity. Maybe he knew I would someday take his place as Lead Dinner Chef. That was eventually what came to be.

Chef Marshall Lyons had a fierce sense of humor. We called him the "Redd Foxx" of the kitchen. He could take the jibes as well as dish them out. We would roar with laughter as we prepared our meals. Those happy moments and lessons remain with me today. Marshall passed away when I was in New Orleans. Even over 10 years later, I talk to him in my head in the inn's kitchen. He deserves that show of respect...that nod...for helping me become a better servant in hospitality today. And, I think...well, I hope....he is somewhere looking down...feeling proud of the student I still am.

Keith A. Neubert, Innkeeper-Chef, The Inn at Long Lake, Naples, Maine