In professional kitchens around the world the rule has always been, there can be only one head chef. The word chef, in French, means chief. And having two seems as harmonious as having two kings (remember the War of the Roses: two kings, one crown, much bloodletting?)
So when Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr announced they would be co-chefs of Balthazar in 1997, it caused many a raised eyebrow in the culinary world. It was a powerful mix: two possibly volatile chefs, one small New York kitchen, and many sharp, heavy and hot objects that would make good projectiles.
Yet two head chefs in the kitchen is a trend, albeit a small one: there are about a dozen such teams in New York, and a scattering around the country. It all started back in 1981, when Border Grill's "Two Hot Tamales" Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger opened their first caf in Santa Monica, California. Today, the women seem more like sisters than co-workers. And since then, duos of every stripe have teamed up in the kitchen, including husbands and wives, non-romantically involved male and female teams, and teams with two males.
The timing of this trend is telling. As the job description of an executive chef continues to grow beyond the kitchen - building restaurant empires, pitching television shows, writing cookbooks - a handful of chefs are finding that sharing the glory as well as the toil can be a mutually beneficial exchange.
That is, for the right pair of chefs with a realistic agenda (micromanagers and control freaks need not apply). Co-chefing is not simply a matter of two people sharing brilliant culinary insights while stirring the same pot. When it works, it's a complicated balancing act based on mutual respect, compromise, a clear-eyed assessment of both parties' strengths and weaknesses, and a whole lot of trust.
When it doesn't, well...
In the case of Dan Barber and Alex Urena, ex-co-chefs at Blue Hill, deciding to be co-chefs instead of hiring a sous chef went hand and hand with deciding to open a restaurant in the first place.
``I wasn't really sure I wanted to be in the restaurant business,'' said Mr. Barber, who also owns a catering company. ``This was a catering space when I got it. But it became apparent that it would be a great restaurant space and Alex was looking to be an executive chef so we started talking.''
Sharing the kitchen duties worked well for Mr. Barber, who was able to divide his time between the restaurant, catering, and planning other projects. Mr. Urena, however, left after a year to become the executive chef of Marseille restaurant. Now Michael Anthony fills the slot.
``I learned a lot working with Alex,'' Mr. Barber said, ``and I can now apply that to working with Mike.''
One key lesson learned was communication; as in any good relationship, the more of it the better. This means being open to criticisms and suggestions when creating dishes, and taking the other's feelings and ego into account.
``I'm a little sensitive,'' Mr. Barber acknowledged. ``If Mike's forgotten to tell me that he put yellow watermelon in the tomato coupe on my night off, and I come in the next day and find out from one of the cooks, it stings me. I think, `What did he go and change it for?' But ultimately if it improves the dish, we both win.''
Patricia Yeo and Pino Maffeo, of the new Pazo in Midtown, are the most recent pair of co-chefs to hit the restaurant scene. Mr. Maffeo worked as Ms. Yeo's chef de cuisine at AZ. She promoted him when she decided to open Pazo.
Mr. Maffeo, however, remains leary.
``The whole thing was her idea, and I go along to support her," he said, ``but I don't like to put myself out front, at this point I'm happy helping to propel someone else's career."
But Ms. Yeo prefers to give credit where credit is due, unlike many of her peers, who simply hire chefs de cuisines or sous chefs to run their kitchens when they are not there.
"Anyone who thinks they can run more than one restaurant at a time is either kidding themselves, or they just aren't there," Ms. Yeo said, "The sous chefs do all the work but don't get the credit''.
For Diane Forley and Michael Otsuka, co-chefs of Verbena and also husband and wife, sharing credit was never an issue. The part that gave them pause was whether their marriage could survive the stress.
"That's the first thing people say to us," Mr. Otsuka said, "I could never work with my husband, we'd be divorced in a year, but it's been good for us."
The best part, for them, is coming up with dishes together, bouncing ideas off each other, and melding their two distinct styles. In their signature gravlax, the cured salmon is something Ms. Forley has made for years but the blinis now have buckwheat flour at Mr. Otsuka's suggestion, along with a very Ostsukian garnish: shredded Daikon and tobiko caviar.
``That dish is a perfect example of our two styles complementing each other,'' Ms. Forley said. ``But we don't go overboard with that. We're not going to put soy sauce on ratatouille just to prove a point.''
Since beginning their restaurant collaboration two years ago, they've divided up the duties, each one taking on the things they are best at. This is another recipe to happy co-chefdom: separate but equal spheres of responsibility.
For Ms. Yeo and Mr. Maffeo, she comes up with the dishes, and he executes them. He's also `the enforcer,` firing people if need be, and making sure the kitchen's workings are as smooth as creme fraiche.
In the case of Mr. Otsuka and Ms. Forley, he mostly works in the kitchen during service, doing the prep lists and ordering. Ms. Forley trains much of the staff, takes care the phone calls, the press, events, and, as of late, the couple's six month-old daughter, Olivia.
However, neither would agree that being co-chefs gives them more free time.
``Now, we are actually able to see projects to completion,'' Ms. Forley said. ``Before, we tried to do everything at once and there was always something we would have to let drop.
Mr. Otsuka added, ``We're not necessarily working less, but we are getting more done.''
Mr. Barber noted that ``Most people would think it's easier to work with a co-chef because you would only have to do half the work. But it doesn't actually happen that way. When you're working by yourself, you can quickly make all the hundreds of decisions that need to be made everyday without having to stop and discuss every little thing. It takes more thought and energy than working by yourself.''
Not all co-chefs share this view. Part of the appeal for Mr. Hanson and Mr. Nasr is being able to have a life beyond the kitchen and still get the job done. They both work only five days a week instead of six like many chefs, giving Mr. Hanson a little more time to spend with his wife and daughter, Maya. He even had time to bake her a cake for her first birthday. `It's a very stable, sane way to work in a kitchen,` he said.
For Milliken and Feniger, collaborating isn't about sharing the work; it's about sharing the experience and having fun together.
``We clicked ever since we first met working in a Chicago restaurant in 1978,` Ms. Milliken said. ``For some reason my weaknesses and her strengths and vice versa were very compatible, and it felt natural to work as a team.''
Since their humble beginnings at a tiny, under-equipped cafe, the two have opened five restaurants, cooked on more than 400 half-hour television shows, and written five cookbooks. Both credit their partnership and close friendship as the major force in their success.
``She's persistent and positive and hopeful,'' Ms. Milliken said, ``and I get discouraged and am skeptical and worry a lot. She helps get us through that way. But she's also pretty disorganized and scattered and I'm a little better that way. I think neither of us separately would have built what we have together, nor even half of what we have.''
That they can work so closely and still remain such good friends has caused many people (themselves included) to wonder if their co-chef relationship borders on co-dependence. After all, Ms. Milliken married Ms. Feniger's ex-boyfriend, and Ms. Feniger was in the delivery room when Ms. Milliken bore her first child.
``I'd characterize our relationship as sisters more than anything else,` Ms. Milliken said. ``No matter what happens, what tensions arise, we work it out.`
For them, working it out can sometimes mean couples therapy, which they've done on occasion over the years. ``We are in California,'' Ms. Milliken said.
But even therapy can't save every partnership. Raphael Lunetta and Josiah Citrin had been best friends since they were ``teenage surfer dudes,'' but after three years as co-chefs at Jiraffe in Santa Monica, Calif., more than their restaurant was at stake. It was unclear whether their friendship would survive.
``It was tough when we realized it wasn't working,'' Mr. Lunetta said. ``There were a few big blowouts. Once I threw a piece of medium rare salmon right out of the frying pan and onto the wall behind him, and he probably threw some salmon back at me, but it never really got violent.''
The two have since made up, with Mr. Lunetta remaining at Jiraffe and Mr. Citrin moving onto his own restaurant nearby, Melisse. Now, they are even godparents to each other's children.
``It was a great thing to have done,'' Mr. Citrin said. ``We were best friends who wanted to open a restaurant together, so for us it was a childhood dream come true. But I don't understand why anyone else would do it.''