Chef Lee Grossman surveys raw tuna hunks as red and juicy as roasted beets. Young cooks appearing to be Grossman’s minions gather around him behind Bento Box restaurant’s sushi bar.
As the shop’s owner and senior “itame,” the Japanese word for sushi chef, Grossman decides the stunning fish’s fate. Onlooking toques concentrate. Instructions are forthcoming, and lessons will be learned in this sea creature’s preparation.
Someone on the team may even get to make his first cut.
No matter their experience, workers watching Grossman are hardly yes-men as far as the chef is concerned.
Grossman is as precise with restaurant operations as he is with a fish knife. Although in a constant state of scurry, his attention doesn’t waiver from his topmost task: sharing knowledge with aspiring chefs.
Mentoring is key to Bento Box management. Grossman works closely with Cape Fear Community College culinary students. He pays equal attention to disabled employees learning to tend the restaurant’s herb garden or an ambitious dishwasher eyeing the cooking line.
“The older I get, the more I realize that the generations after mine don’t think the same, don’t work the same, don’t act the same,” Grossman said, “because they don’t have enough role models of people that have worked really hard to get where they are.”
School of hard knocks
Grossman, 48, fought for his own mentorships. Tight-knit Japanese cooks he encountered during his early career were reluctant to let a white-bread guy handle a blade.
Asian food was off the family menu in Grossman’s native Rhode Island. The son of a hard-working, entrepreneurial Mom – Dad disappeared when Grossman was 3 months old – Grossman ate straight-up New England fare at Grandma’s house. Basic ground beef pie was a favorite.
Grossman was a 14-year-old school dropout with attention deficit disorder when be started to realize his passion for cooking. A friend thought Grossman needed to learn a trade. He arranged a dishwasher job at a catering company.
Catering led to an Italian restaurant, where an old-school chef smacked cooks with pans. Grossman suffered the fate but was mesmerized by the man’s cooking ability and professional drive.
“He told me I had to keep moving,” Grossman recalled.
While a French chef’s dishwasher, Grossman prepped vegetables for six months for free to demonstrate that he wanted to learn to cook.
“By the time I was done, I was 17. I was like a sous chef telling Johnson & Wales [culinary school] students that they needed to get out of my kitchen because they were not very good,” Grossman said.
A seafood restaurant job introduced Grossman to sushi. Grossman befriended the kitchen’s fishmonger. “That’s where I learned how to cut fish.”
One day, the fish cutter packed a bluefin tuna’s belly meat – the prized, fat-marbled toro. He took it and Grossman to a little sushi shop where Grossman experienced the subtle, satisfying flavors of raw fish for the first time.
“It was like, ‘Holy crap!’ A whole new world, a whole new vision. And again, I just went, and I worked for free,” he said.
Perseverance earned Grossman a 2001-06 executive chef job for a fine-dining Asian restaurant at the luxury Palm Beach, Fla., resort The Breakers. By then, he had developed his own sushi style, crafting rolls with unexpected ingredients, textures and cooking methods.
“At the same time that I was a chef, and I was called ‘a chef,’ I didn’t feel like a chef because I always had this desire to learn.” Grossman said. “I went to South Beach to look for a job as a sous chef to learn from somebody.”
Married and with a family, Grossman eventually sought a more relaxed setting. During a Wilmington -area vacation, he and his wife fell for the city’s laid-back lifestyle. They opened Bento Box at The Forum shopping center in 2006.
Class in session
At Bento Box, Grossman pays forward lessons his mentors provided. He invests in people who show reverence for cooking and/or the restaurant business – whether interns, first-job workers or seasoned cooks seeking a change.
Staffers include CFCC culinary class of 2014 student Tyler Naughton, 20. After working an American seafood/ steak restaurant in Cape Hatteras, he came to Bento in September.
Under Grossman’s tutelage, Naughton progressed swiftly to Bento’s busy double-wok station.
“I learn something new each day,” Naughton said. “I learn something new about management. I learn how to interact with people. I learn new knife skills, which can always be improved. I learn more about cooking, new tricks, little techniques.
“And I learn more about myself mostly because sometimes I feel that I can’t do it without the sous chef here, but I really can.”
Naughton is among many who scaled Bento Box’s ladder, which Grossman admits is a tough climb. He confesses to a notorious temper when mistakes are made, and he expects the same intolerance from staff.
“If I don’t see in these guys that same desire, that same care, that same love of the food that they’re working with, that same aggravation if they screw something up, then those guys aren’t in my kitchen,” Grossman said.
The father of a special needs child, Grossman also works with the mental health services program Learning Perspectives to train and employ the disabled, including two people who work at Bento Box.
Mentoring is not enriching just for Grossman’s crew. Studies show apprenticeship programs supply a better-trained workforce, build employee loyalty, increase productivity, decrease turnover and add to the bottom line, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
A 2006 report for the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum found that each dollar invested in apprentice programs nets employers a 38-cent return. The cooking trade brought a 54-cent return.
Not every trainee stays or is successful. Still, Grossman tracks their progress and advises them about career moves.
“You have to learn to give of yourself, and you have to be willing to put in the time,” Grossman said. “Anyway you look at it, the restaurant business is not a short-term investment, it’s a long-term investment. Why would the people involved in it be any different?”
The biggest payoff is that Grossman keeps learning. Asked how many trainees are among the 28-member staff, he happily replies, “We all are.”
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