Eli Kirshtein is 25 years old. He wears t-shirts perhaps a bit too tight for his frame. His white clogs, were, well, once that color. He runs awkwardly, like a newborn foal. His hairstyle is somewhere between Crash bandicoot and the Wisconsin badger. He lives in his parents’ basement. And his comedic presence: a ratio of three parts “I’m smarter than you” and one part “I just put my foot in my mouth” gives him a very George Costanza-esque television personality.
That’s what most of you know about Eli. In reality, I know him much better.
Eli showed up at my doorstep, as an aspiring chef, when he was 17 years old. At a time when I was just figuring out how to run a kitchen, a time when no one knew me from “atom.” Before molecular gastronomy was even a term used, Eli wanted to learn from me. He was my first. That sounds weird. But he was the first person I ever hired that was there to work for me … not a paycheck.
That first year was memorable.
Most notably, was the time we were cooking for a critic we identified in the dining room, and Eli almost sent out some badly cooked shrimp. I’d never yelled at anyone before or since like I yelled at him that day. So much so, that a manager wanted to send me to the hospital because veins were visibly pulsing on my neck for many minutes even after the moment passed.
And speaking of hospitals, one afternoon while I was in the office, Eli came in sucking his thumb, mumbling something. Turns out he was mumbling about cutting his thumb. I put him in a car with a blood-soaked towel with one of our captains and sent him off to the ER. As they were pulling away, he told me to check his cutting board. Odd? But there amongst some chiffonade red-stemmed Swiss chard lay the tip of his thumb, nail, flesh and all. Not knowing what to do, I put it on ice and in the fridge on his station. Hours later, when he finally came back, I think I dared him to eat it.
And while he didn’t take me up on that dare, I once challenged him to down a shot glass of fish sauce. He slurped it back like Patron, while the rest of us gagged.
And when I got my first executive lesson in corporate downsizing, it was Eli, the youngest and most capable of absorbing the loss of his job (he was in high school) that I had to let go. I told him the decision was strictly business and about labor cost. That it had nothing to do with him, or certainly his passion or skill.
I’ll see you tomorrow, Chef. Unpaid. Tomorrow, turned into years. Paid of course.
From there, the story gets much better for Eli. He heads off to the Culinary Institute of America. He works, unpaid again, in any New York City restaurant that will have him. Alain Ducasse, Daniel, Le Bernardin. And he returns to Atlanta to become a leader in the town he loves. But winds changed and Eli followed me on the worst career move of my life, to work with me in Miami. He sleeps on my couch, or wherever bourbon lays him down that night. My career is half a mess but Eli is always there, right by my side.
For our daily lunch at one of our restaurants he would ask me to name a chef and a year and he would make a dish they would have produced, during the time frame. Tower of portabello and duck confit: Alfred Portale ’91. Short rib on celery root puree: Colicchio, Gramercy Tavern, ‘98. Poached halibut in a nage of chanterelles: Eric Ripert, ‘94. “Pre Gilbert LeCoze’s passing!” He would exclaim.
Did I mention Eli was, maybe, 22 at this point?