A Candid Conversation with the Chefs of El Che

Thinking about a career in the kitchens? Curious about what it takes to be a chef? I recently sat down with El Che's Chef de Cuisine, Brian Szwaya, and Pastry Chef, Marianna Reynolds for a heart to heart on what it's really like.

On discovering their love for feeding people

"I've been cooking since I was a little kid", Chef Brian began. "Me and my old man used to smoke pigs and hogs in our backyard. We welded a box together at my dad's machine shop to build a contained open fire with a hanger to hang chains of meat and just hang out. I also really love using a knife and cutting into meat. After I got out of high school, I went to culinary school and then started working at a diner after that. Always kept trying to push to be better."


Chef Marianna's journey began at a later age. "One Christmas, I was home from school and my mom wanted to get Chinese because she didn't want to cook. I didn't like that...If anyone's going to be cooking for the family, it's going to be me." And that was that.

Chef Marianna ended up working at Whole Foods for five years in their savory department and then went to pastry school. "I thought I'd go into bread baking but I fell in love with desserts. They're so fun. You can use so many different techniques, combinations, ingredients."

For both chefs, it was an area in life that they both really excelled at. "My mom pushed me down this route when she noticed I was being a troublemaker in school," Chef Brian explained. "I've been good at a lot of things," Chef Marianna chimed in, "But I've never been great at anything. And then I found cooking. It took me a long time to find what I really wanted to do."

On the easiest part of being a chef

"Training people is the easy part of the job," Chef Brian said as he indicated towards the El Che kitchen. "Everyone wants to be a badass but our kitchen is really good at weeding out people quickly—it's hot, it's busy, and it's hard."

For Chef Marianna, its about the emotional satisfaction. "I love my job. I wake up. In the morning and I'm tired and my body hurts. And I love it. There's nothing like going into work and be happy."

On the note of happiness, Chef Brian brings up a point that other chefs have touched on in past interviews. "It's a selfish job too. I constantly want to challenge myself and do things I want to do. [For Cochon Volant] I brought in the pig because I wanted to break down a pig."

Chef Marianna agreed. "I don't have to do this. I just really want to...I love the feeling that I get when I make someone food."

On the hardest part of being a chef

It's a good thing that they love the job so much because it does come with its fair share of challenges. Both chefs acknowledged that the financial compensation of being a chef is low.

"The financial thing is very difficult," Chef Marianna said, frankly. "I choose to be poor. It's a choice. It took me ten years of low wages, no social life, always working weekends and holidays, to get to this job. It's not easy."


For Chef Marianna, there is also the battle of the sexes when it comes to being in the kitchen.

"Sometimes there'll be only one female cook. It does get demoralizing. Everywhere you go its all male. Now I feel like a badass because I've proven myself but not always on a day to day basis... If you are the only female, they're always weatching you and you cant let anything slip."

Chef Brian nodded. "[The kitchen] does slip into a gym locker situation at times."

At the same time, Chef Marianna embraces this higher standard for women. "I know its going to make me a better chef to never cut corners and to keep your personal standards high."

On inspiration

Chef Marianna runs not one but two pastry programs singlehandedly—El Che and their sister restaurant La Sirena Clandestina. She's constantly experimenting with new, seasonal recipes, priding herself on never using artificial colors or flavoring ("That's cheating...those charlatans!"). Her path to inspiration comes from sharing ideas with fellow pastry chefs.

"Inspiration is not linear...I'm very non competitive when it comes to my recipes. I think ideas spark off each other. My contemporaries being successful makes me better. Pastry is only going to get better in the city when people are doing new stuff. I'm inspired by other people's success."

For Chef Brian, it's all about being a constant learner. "You've been through so many kitchens and done so many dishes, sometimes you can just forget stuff." And that's where attending seminars or traveling and discovering new techniques and flavors all comes into play. "We just attended a dry aging seminar and now we're doing some small dry aging tests."

"That's another thing I like about this career," Chef Marianna chimed in. "There's always something new to learn. You always have another product to work with or find another way to use an old product. Watching what other people do kind of keeps that curiosity alive."

On seasonal cooking in Chicago

"I really feel for us," Chef Brian shook his head. "We have to go through the dredge of the winter and be super creative with dry beans, carrots, beets, celery root, pumpkin, rutabaga...You know how hard it is to make that taste good when you deal with it for so long?" [Insert a joke about all the purees here.]

Chef Marianna added, "Sourcing has been a headache. Products that you love you can get maybe once and never again."

On what to expect when you choose a life in the kitchens

Chef Marianna: "Expect to get real close, real fast. You really bond over your roles."

Chef Brian: "Every day is different. It could be a six hour or a 16-hour day. Fear of failure and anxiety of losing is how you push through those 16-hour days."

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