Luke Bergman Just Wants to Put a Smile on the Judges’ Faces
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA team-selection finals on February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the finalists as possible.]
There’s no shortage of chefs who began cooking in their family’s home, but there aren’t many who started for reasons as downright noble as those that first pulled The Modern’s Luke Bergman into the kitchen. The Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, native has two younger brothers, one of whom was born with Down’s Syndrome. To help his single, working mother pick up the slack around the house, he learned how to cook for the family. “The day I turned sixteen,” Bergman recounts today, “I had my car, had a credit card to go to grocery store, and right away I was shopping for whole family.”
Though it was pragmatism that motivated him initially, Bergman wasn’t lacking for kitchen mentors. His mother was a good cook, and as a young boy he studied her moves around the stovetop. His grandmother was a culinary Francophile who would go Gallic when she visited from Washington, DC, and he fondly remembers thir housekeeper, Dorris Williams, a Jamaican who schooled him in the flavors and techniques of her homeland, such as how to make jerked meats.
Bergman wasn’t terribly interested in college. After winning a contest sponsored by the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, he matriculated there. He attended for four months, while working at La Veranda restaurant in Pompano Beach full time. His home schooling had served him well–he liked his work more than his classes, but didn’t immediately think to become a chef. (He remembers watching Food Network personalities like Emeril Lagasse, but “nobody knew it was going to be as big as it is now.”)
During a family vacation in Colorado, Bergman’s mother picked up an air of malaise about her son.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Mom, I love cooking,” he told her. “I didn’t know I was going to like it so much.” He felt he was learning more at La Veranda than he was in school.
“I want to go to the best cooking school in America,” he told her, referring to the Culinary Institute of America. (Telling the story today, he says that he “had a vision that I needed to go there.”) She was fully supportive and when they got back to Florida, he withdrew from the Art Institute. His mother brought him up to New York City and then up to Hyde Park. A month later, he was enrolled. “Then it was on,” he says.
When you hear Bergman tell his story, it’s almost as if that moment was a rebirth–the guy loves cooking and it seems like he’s barely stopped to take a breath since he committed to his calling: While studying at the CIA, he worked weekends at a French restaurant (initially for no pay), making classic preparations from sauces to ice creams. Eventually, he spent his weekends at the restaurant, crashing on a bunkbed above an old farmhouse and earning a C-note per weekend for his efforts. But it wasn’t about the money: He was a sponge, soaking up valuable exprerience at various stations.
When externship time rolled around, he moved in with his DC-based grandparents and worked two jobs: as the grill man at DC Coast by day, after which he’d hop on his skateboard and cruise over to Ten Penh, a French-Asian hybrid where he worked the saute station.
After that, it was back to the CIA to wrap up his classes, including a wine course. His mentor, Xavier Le Roux, asked him if he wanted to become his fellow. This was shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and with the depressed job market in Manhattan, Bergman was only too happy to sign on. He had a ball, teaching students, and continuing to learn, honing his craft with terrines, confit, and other classic French techniques. (Not a bad Bocuse d’Or foundation, by the way…) Le Roux then told him it was time to move on. His most recent fellow was leaving Jean Georges to stage in Asia for three months and offered him his Manhattan apartment for a mere $900 a month. Sold! Bergman reloated to New Year and ran around distributing resumes to everywhere from Le Bernardin to Oceana. As he was leaving Aureole, then-chef Dante Boccuzzi emerged from the restaurant and, resume in hand, asked him if he could start the next day.
After a year there, he heard about a new Danny Meyer restaruant, The Modern, planned for the Museum of Modern Art. He took two interviews with executive chef Gabriel Kreuther, who ultimately asked him where he wanted to start. Eager for experience, he asked to start “at the bottom, the fish station,” and that’s what he did: after two weeks cooking vegetable (entremetier) at the fish station, he spent six months doing the same at the meat station. He then took over as the fish chef de partie for four months, and meat for a year. Then nine months as the chef of the private dining room and then back to the line as sous chef, where he remains today, five and a half years after he first arrived. “A great journey,” he calls it.
Bergman first heard about the Bocuse d’Or from an old friend and Restaruant Daniel veteran who had been the commis on a Canadian team in the 1990s. He’d tell Bergman stories about the Bocuse d’Or, whcih piqued Bergman’s interest. One of the lines the guy used still rings in Bergman’s ears: “It’s a beautiful thing. Just go with it. The stress is a wonderful experience.”
It was Kreuther, acting on a call for applications from Daniel Boulud and his colleagues, who suggested that Bergman apply for the 2010 Bocuse d’Or USA. At first he thought Kreuther was joking, but then he thought, “Man, this is my chance. I could really take advantage of this.” (He had a starter supply of confidence from a small-scale cooking competition he participated in during culinary school – a mystery basket excercise in which he finished second in the Northeast region.) He says the support from Kreuther and his entire “family” at The Modern has been complete, though they sometimes rib him, chanting “Bocuse d’Or, Bocuse d’Or” when he passes them on the line, providing a human drumbeat to the mounting pressure as the January 6 finals approach.
Bergman has a touching trust of the people who have mentored him along the way. His faith in Le Roux is so thorough that he took his recommedation for a commis, Pennsylvania’s Joseph Piccione, without having met the guy. “Give me somebody strong, who’s going to take authority well and is going to be very respectul,” were the specs he provided. Bergman and Piccione spoke by phone and Bergman has sent him pictures of the food he plans to cook. The commis will crash at the chef’s place in NYC as they train for the big day in Hyde Park.
Bergman takes polite exception to fellow finalist Andrew Weiss,who considers himself an underdog. “I don’t agree…” says Bergman. “Everybody’s doing their thing. We’re here to represent the USA. We’re here to show the judges, the committee, that ‘I’ve got what it takes to compete against the rest of the world.’
“I think every day in service you’re competing,” he continued. “You’re competing to do the best., to make sure a plate doesn’t come back that they’re unhappy with. The best thing you can do is put a smile on the judge.” His approach to doing that? “Just say to yourself: ‘He was a young chef just like yourself one day… let’s show ’em.'”