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Chef profile: Old South Mountain Inn chef says restaurant ownership isn't for everybody

January 24, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Chad Dorsey is executive chef and co-owner of Old South Mountain Inn. Dorsey has worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years, and says every night is a new experience for him.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series of profiles of local restaurant chefs.

Chad Dorsey is executive chef and co-owner of Old South Mountain Inn at the top of South Mountain east of Boonsboro. He has worked here almost all his adult life, and maintained the reputation of top-quality American-style dishes passed to him by his predecessor.

Dorsey, 40, said tradition is important at the inn. Customers favor the classic dishes of 20th-century American fine dining.

"If people were here 20 years ago, they can come back and it's the same New Yorker (steak), or it's the same beef Wellington, or it's the same filet (mignon), and those are all my staple items," he said.

Dorsey took time last week to chat with The Herald-Mail in his kitchen before the dinner rush.

How long have you worked here?

I've been here 21 years. I started here as a bus kid back in 1990, and was working out front for a couple months. All my buddies worked back in the kitchen. So I came back to the kitchen. Started as a dishwasher. Went to prep cook. From prep cook to line cook, line cook to sous chef, sous chef to (executive) chef to owner. So I've done all the gamut.

I have no culinary degree or anything. People ask me (what school I attended), I say "I went to the school of hard knocks."

What gave you the idea you wanted to be a chef?

I really didn't want to be a chef. But you could give me the crappiest job, whether it was pulling weeds, whatever, I always gave 110 percent. The chef that was here, Larry Dawson, took a liking to me. Larry was formally trained at (Culinary Institute of America)-Hyde Park. The guy knew his stuff. He just wasn't a people person. He was one of those chefs people were like, "Ain't no way I'm working for that guy."

But he showed me the basics of cooking — what a mirepoix is, how to cut this, what this dice is. And he was showing me his recipes that he had really instilled in the restaurant, and had really built up a good reputation. He was not giving them to anybody else. My buddies were like, "I don't know why he's taking a liking to you." I knew, because Larry knew I was going to give that 110 percent. I just took it from there.

Most chefs have a degree.

Most guys who went to culinary school (who) I've had work for me did not last long, at all. They can't distinguish between school and the real world. In school, you've got an hour to get it done. Here, you gotta get it done now.

How would you describe the Old South Mountain Inn's food?

It's considered American haute cuisine.

You wouldn't have sushi here, because it's not American haute cuisine.

I've tried it, and the clientele ... If I do sushi here, I'll call it carpaccio or ceviche. You gotta change it up a little bit. My clientele is coming from Frederick (Md.) and Rockville (Md.) and Baltimore and (Washington,) D.C. They want something different than they can get there.

So people come from far away?

There was a couple on Sunday. They're from Annapolis. She basically Googled "inns." She just happened to find us, and she raved to me for 20 minutes down at the bar. Said ours was the best filet she's ever had. I always love hearing that.

This guy in the beginning of December — he drove all the way up here from South Carolina. Just to eat my escargot. He ended up getting three orders of escargot. Within an hour. And then he proceeded to have dinner. And then he came back the next night and did the same thing.

How busy do you get?

I put out 323 dinners on New Year's Eve with just three line cooks — me, my sous chef and my line chef. All a la carte. That's a lot of dinners. It would normally take at least six guys to do that many. And I worked two stations by myself.

But that's what I love to do. When I've got 30, 40 sauté pans going, and everybody knows when I get that busy, I get quiet. People are like, "Why are you shutting down? Why are you mad?" I'm not shutting down. I'm concentrating. I need to know I've got three New Yorks in the top oven, two of 'em are medium, one's medium-well. I've got four filets. I'm constantly thinking.

What do you think about cooking shows on TV?

I always say I wish customers could come behind the scenes. I love (the TV reality show) "Hell's Kitchen." (Host Gordon Ramsay) doesn't hold anything back. The stuff that goes on — the language — that's exactly how it is.

I've got feedback. I've lost a friend (whose son worked with me). He said, "My kid said a couple people were using a cussword." I said, "It's a restaurant kitchen."

Is it tough running a restaurant?

Every day I walk through that back door, it's always something different. Especially being the owner. I've got to deal with either a pipe being busted, and I've got to get a plumber. Or a piece of equipment breaks down, and I've got to get that (repair) guy on the phone.

 I still check all my food when I get it in from the purveyor. Everyone who comes in that back door knows I'm going to check everything. They're like, "Some restaurants don't even check their stuff."

That's what I like about it. I need that. I had an office job once, and that lasted nine months. It got too monotonous. Here, I can create, take my breaks whenever I feel like it, do what I want.

Then, each day we do different prep work. We have it done by Friday. So on Friday, all I'm doing is basic cooking. On Saturday, basic cooking. And on Sunday, there's no food left in the house.

And your wife runs the front of the restaurant.

My wife, Lisa, she does all the administrative, all the accounting, the payroll. People say, "How can you work with your wife?" There's days, I'm here eight hours, and I might see her for 20 minutes.

What was food like for you when you were a kid?

My parents worked. I was 12, 13 and I didn't want the normal frozen dinner my brothers were eating. I would take raw elbow macaroni, put it in a cup with hot water and butter, put it in a microwave and cook it, take it out and add cheese to it, and to my mind, that was homemade macaroni and cheese.

What were your favorite foods?

I watched my mom make her meatloaf. To this day, I absolutely love her meatloaf. Any time I have a party at my house, I make her meatloaf, but I make it into hamburgers. I get people all the time saying, "Please tell me you're going to make them hamburgers." They're fabulous.

And with my dad, we used to make french fries. Almost every day. There was always a pot of oil and a fry basket on the stove. And to this day, I love potato chips and I love french fries.

Was there anything you didn't like when you were a kid?

No. That's strange. I have a 10-year-old, Chase, and a 7-year-old, Ciara, and I tell them, "Always try something before you say 'Yuck.'" They are very good about that. We went out last night and they were eating oysters on the half-shell. (The) kids love sushi. We eat sushi once a week. And it's not like the normal sushi. My son likes the octopus.

When you have time off, what do you do for food?

I could go for the normal, everyday food or the top-notch food. I'm from the low to the top. We try to go out two to three times a week. And there are some nights, I get stuff from here and go home and make a gourmet meal.

Do your kids cook?

It's nice to go home and be able to cook dinner with my kids and they can help out. The other night we had tacos. That was great. We had fun. The kids were able to cut stuff up.

My kids have great knife skills. Better than some people coming from culinary school. My daughter, she likes to come back in here.

Do you want your kids to work in the kitchen?

I'm not going to force my kids to work here. But I tell them, when you get out of school, you will have to have a job. It might not be here, but you will have a job.

Got any advice for people who think they might want to be a professional chef?

Time and dedication is key. Time as in hours. This isn't a normal, 8-to-5 job. You may work 14 hours one day, you may work four the next. And dedication — my sous chef and I, we can do literally do 150 (entrees), just her and I.

I've actually said to people, "If you want to go into culinary school, I suggest you come up here on Saturday night at about 6, 6:30, and you stand for half an hour and you watch what goes on, and you may think different." 'Cause this business is definitely not for everybody.

Some restaurants have a table in the kitchen, so people can watch the chef in action.

I haven't done the table thing, because of the language. But  — I did this maybe 10 times last year — I had what I called chef for the night. I had people actually pay 85 bucks to work two hours with me. They could order an appetizer and an entree and a dessert (and help prepare them).

I didn't make 'em (really) work, but I said, "You need to stick by my heels." My being 6-foot-5 and long-legged, I'm everywhere. I'm in that (cooler), I'm over there making sure the salad guy's doing his job, or making sure the desserts look good. I'm down there making sure the wine order I received is stored properly.

At the end of that two hours, they're spent. A lot of them were thrown back. They said, "I didn't realize it was this much work."

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