By Francine Silverman
Tim Dempsey, the executive chef at the Royal
Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., would rather be in the kitchen
than sit for an interview. At least that's the impression I got while chatting
with him in the hotel lobby. Though
friendly and open, he probably hasn't changed from his youth when work was his top priority.
Dempsey grew up in a small town outside of Burlington, Vermont, the youngest of four boys. Sporting a black eye from a Christmas accident, he joked that they punched him. His interest in food began in his mother's kitchen. He described her as a "simple cook," who was more creative than she realized. Irish immigrants, unlike Italian immigrants, lacked the fundamentals, he said, (the proper way to braise, roast or poach, for example), "but it was enough to inspire me."
Dempsey's parents had good friends who owned the largest hotel in Vermont, the Sheraton in Burlington. His brothers were working, carrying golf bags on the golf course near their home and he was envious. So Dempsey started at the hotel as a dishwasher at age 14, and worked various jobs, ending up as a line cook six years later. "I was doing everything," he recalled. "I was anxious to make money."
After that he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. "My interest was always work," he said. "I had a short attention span. I was better working with my hands." Dempsey had no difficulty getting into the school at age 19 because, unlike most students - with better grades - he had practical culinary experience. Dempsey described the 18 month program as an expensive "residency." He said if you don't put in that nitty gritty time, "you're going to fail when you get on the road."
Dempsey worked 30 or 40 hours outside while going to school, at one eatery 15 or 16 hours a day during the week."Drive has always been there," he said, noting that his father's father had died when he was very young and his father managed to graduate Columbia University with a masters in the 1940s. "He wasn't going to give us anything. He is still thrifty."
After graduation, Dempsey worked as a line cook for six or seven months to "learn what I could." He then flew to California with his bike and bag, riding from San Francisco to Monterey working in restaurants along the way. "Anything new and interesting, that's what I was after," he said. "That's why I went to California. Santa Cruz was an earthy community. Coming from Vermont, I fit in. Everything was very natural, all organic. People took pride in their work, especially back then in the mid 80s."
He had no specific goals at that point, only to absorb all he could. "You need to focus on product, technique," he said. "If you are only focused on creative it's not beneficial." The most important thing, he stressed, is to understand cooking methods. "Before CIA, I was exposed to chefs who weren't able to explain proper cooking methods. You have to know how to apply cooking methods to whatever operation you are working on."
Feeling the need to return to school, Dempsey enrolled in Florida International University in Miami and got a bachelor's degree in hospitality management. He was 25. Prof. Charles Nichols had been an instructor at CIA but became Dempsey's mentor in Florida. "He really molded me," said Dempsey. "He opened my eyes to a lot of what was going on in the industry. At last I started applying myself." Prof. Nichols introduced him to prominent figures like John Y. Brown, the former governor of Kentucky, who was marketing Chicken by George, named for his wife, Phyllis George. "I developed all the marinades. I would fly to Arkansas and work in the poultry plants, 1000 pounds at a time."
Noushig Hagopian, food and beverage director at the Royal Sonesta, has been Dempsey's supervisor since he came there in 1990. She has worked with other chefs, but thinks he's special. "Tim is honest," she said. "He'll just say it the way it is." Although he sometimes gets cranky, she added, "he doesn't have the temperament associated with the position. He's great at taking feedback and a great team player."
Dempsey has five full time managers, 25 full time staff and 25-30 part time staff. He's responsible for menus for the restaurant (Gallery Cafe and Patio), room service, dinners, and conference breakfasts. The hotel has 20,000 square feet of conference space and breakfasts can accommodate 600. When we met in early December, he had prepared dinner for 800 people the night before and had 75 bookings scheduled for Christmas week. Asked how he predicts how much staff he'll need on any given day, Dempsey said that prediction is not so much a science as "the luck of the Irish."
As to food preparation, Dempsey uses local produce and is known for his light-hearted approach. "Many of us are into healthy eating," said Hagopian. "Our customers feel the same way. They don't want to feel they have to take a nap after eating." However, "if they want rich and heavy we'll do it. Sometimes people want cream soup." Dempsey, she said, "is extremely creative. He has a willingness to try anything."
Francine Silverman is a New York City-based freelance writer, specializing in profiles and travel. Email: FSilver767@aol.com
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