SCRUBBING hundreds of pots, boning an avalanche of fresh fish, and plucking the feathers from dozens of game birds launched Susan Weaver-Flori on her way to becoming the executive chef of a large hotel. Only 10 years ago she was washing dishes at a restaurant in Corsica. Now she's turning out $350-a-plate dinners at the Inn On The Park, a Four Seasons hotel in Texas.
The only female executive chef in one of the world's largest luxury hotel and resort companies, Ms. Weaver-Flori first made an impact in the culinary field back in 1987: She was the only woman competing in the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon, France. She placed in the top ten in a field of 26 chef-finalists from national contests around the world.
The next year she won another prestigious award in the Prix Culinaire Internationale Pierre Tattinger competition in Paris, the first female finalist in the prize's 22-year history.
``It's not that I like competing in contests,'' she says, ``but male chefs often don't take a woman chef seriously. I needed to prove my professional ability, to show I could compete with men on an equal level.''
With her tall chef's toque securely positioned over her long, blondish ponytail, she adjusts her chef's coat and relaxes a bit for an interview.
What's it like, cooking in a big hotel kitchen?
``It's fun, it's exciting, but it's very fast moving,'' she replies. ``It's hard work for women. It's hard work for men, too,'' she adds. ``When you're on the line in the kitchen, you work fast. Get it right the first time. Pay attention. Push it through, and on to the next job,'' she says. ```Boom ... boom ... pow!' is our kitchen motto. It's a constant push,'' she adds.
``A woman needs to be better than most men in this work. If she's good, she'll get an equal chance. We can't expect more,'' she says. Ms. Weaver-Flori is in charge of food for two dining rooms, poolside, lounge, room service, private parties, and banquets.
The Boston-born chef's career began with a two-month pre-college vacation in Europe that turned into a two-year expedition. To pay for the extended stay she took a job washing dishes in a restaurant on the French island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. She fell in love with food and with her future husband, now a sommelier in Houston's Confederate House restaurant. From Corsica she went to Boston's Park Plaza Hotel, where she worked under head chef Fernand Guitierrez, who became her mentor. After stints in Houston (at the hotel where she is now executive chef) and more culinary training in France, she worked at Chicago's Ritz, again under Mr. Guitierrez. From there she took her present job in Houston.
``My days at the Chicago Ritz were vital,'' she says, ``a very important part of my learning. I got excellent training, being on the staff of a big hotel with a top-class executive chef, and working my way through all the different stations, from cold foods to sauces to desserts and pastry. This is one of the very best ways to learn this profession.''
Paperwork is a big part of being an executive chef, but Weaver-Flori says it's ``all connected with and involved with the whole creative process - the purchasing of produce and provisions and planning menus.
``Then there are schedules to do, and many other details. A big kitchen needs a militant structure to keep all daily routines in order. I try to cook every day to keep in practice, often doing special dishes requested by customers,'' she says.
Her day usually starts with a brainstorming session with pastry chef Darryl Gilbert and one of the three sous chefs. Then new products are sampled, conferences are held with the personnel director, work is done on inventory and payroll. She's on her feet constantly, supervising a staff of 44 that may prepare up to 2,000 meals a day. Ninety percent of her staff is Latino, mostly in their 20s and 30s.
She learns from her staff: ``Often they show me a way of cooking certain dishes that is the way their mothers cooked at home,'' she says, ``and it is valuable to me.''
ALTHOUGH the duties of a large hotel chef are numerous, Weaver-Flori says the variety allows for opportunities to be more creative than when cooking in a small restaurant.
``Here I can plan formal, upscale Continental cuisine for the Grand Menu of our La Reserve restaurant, casual dishes for poolside and the Black Swan Pub, special delicacies for tea served in the Palm Court, and there is all-day dining at the Caf'e.''
She describes her cooking style as New World cuisine, a blend of classic European dishes acccented with regional ingredients and creative seasonal menus. Signature dishes at La Reserve include Medallions of Veal and Quail with Strawberry Vinegar; Lobster and Crab in White Wine and Shallot Sauce; Medallions of Venison with Pear Vinegar and Chilled Swiss Chard; and Rack of Lamb with Moroccan Couscous Seasoned with Harissa with a Ratatouille Sausage and Vegetable Brunoise.
Pastry chef Gilbert complements the meal with desserts in the classical tradition: Pear Souffl'e with Vanilla Sauce, Caramelized Vanilla Ice Cream Napoleon with Chocolate Sauce, or a Honey Nougat Glac'e on Fig Compote with Raspberry Sauce.
The breakfast menu includes a Mexican breakfast with guava or orange juice, poached eggs on flour tortillas, tomatillo sauce, and saut'eed panela (a popular, semi-soft, white Mexican cheese). There's a Southern-style American breakfast with country potatoes or grits, and a Japanese breakfast - to cater to the influx of Japanese businessmen here - with miso soup, steamed rice, grilled salmon, and green tea.
From haute cuisine in the La Reserve restaurant, Weaver-Flori switches to cooking for galas and banquets, which she especially enjoys. ``Some are formal and traditional, but some give the kitchen a chance to have some fun and maybe do something whimsical,'' she says, such as an Asian-influenced barbecue:
``The brisket is cooked in a typical barbecue sauce plus Chinese ingredients such as plums, ginger, apples, and garlic,'' says Weaver-Flori. When the meat is done, it is cut into small pieces and wrapped in thin Chinese pancakes - the ones used for Peking Duck. (See recipe at left.)
Today the kitchen is preparing special dishes for the annual rodeo: Pot Chili, Black-eyed Peas and Cornbread, Bar-B-Q on a Bun with Cole Slaw, Chicken Fried Chicken with Sawdust Gravy, and T-Bone Steak with Fat Stock Potatoes. Desserts include Chuckwagon Cheesecake, Aunt Ethel's Peach Cobbler, and Shoo Fly Pie.
``Game seems to be more popular here than in other cities, and we serve wild boar, axis deer, antelope, small game birds, squab, and venison,'' Weaver-Flori says. ``Another popular dish is our Gulf Snapper with Pico de Gallo Tomatillo-Cilantro-Lime Juice Sauce and Saut'eed Panela Cheese.''
Susan Weaver-Flori's cooking is colorful and substantial, but also light. She avoids ``frills and excesses,'' she says; everything is on the plate for a purpose. Her healthful but flavorful and emphatically seasoned dishes put her among the pioneers of the New American Cuisine.