Cover Story: Jesus Clemente, Mexico
A line cook follows his chef to Midtown's trendy Top FlrWednesday October 17, 2007 12:04 am EDT
It's a busy Friday evening at Top Flr, the trendy new restaurant in Midtown. From the bar, there's a clear view into the kitchen. Chef Mike Schorn is nowhere to be seen. Instead, dipping and spinning between the pots and the fire, performing that utterly elegant dance of the talented line cook, is Jesus Clemente.
Clemente is warm, shy, proud and steady. His story is typical of many line cooks in this country, the mostly unsung heroes of the restaurant industry who work long hours and aim to perfectly execute someone else's culinary vision.
He came from Mexico. He started out washing dishes. He is now an invaluable part of a restaurant team.
But Clemente is more than a laborer; he is a cook. And he was seduced by cooking early on in his kitchen career. He came to the United States in 1997 when he ran out of money and had to drop out of a program of computer classes he was attending in Mexico. His plan was to make enough to return to his computer courses in his small hometown near Acapulco. But once he arrived in Atlanta and began working in kitchens, he never turned back.
"I love cooking," he says. "This is my life now."
Clemente started his career washing dishes at Pricci, the Italian restaurant in Buckhead, but soon worked his way up the line. "I washed dishes for three months and then they let me work in the kitchen. I went to the grill, and after eight months I had worked the whole line."
Before moving to the United States, Clemente had never cooked in his life. Within a year of arriving here, he could handle almost any job in a kitchen and could cook almost any recipe taught to him.
Schorn, Top Flr's chef, doesn't like to think what his life would be like without Clemente or the other immigrants who make up so much of the restaurant industry's workforce.
"Before Jesus worked for me, I couldn't even take a day off," he says. "It would be almost impossible to run a restaurant here without these workers. Especially in the South, Mexicans and Latinos make up most of the kitchen in the good, chef-driven restaurants. They have food in their blood, and a lot more loyalty than most American cooks." Clemente has now worked for Schorn through three chef jobs and four restaurants. The word "loyalty" comes up over and over again as Schorn discusses Clemente.
Asked if he misses his home, Clemente is hesitant. "I miss it, but ..." His voice trails off. "Food is life there, and Mexico is a beautiful country. But it is very hard there."
Clemente has aspirations to be a chef, but not at cooking Mexican food. His time at Pricci gave him a love of Italian cuisine. One day he hopes to open an Italian restaurant and serve dishes such as the fettuccine recipe he gave us. The picture of a Mexican chef in an American city serving Italian food may not be an uncommon phenomenon in years to come.
But for the time being, you can see Jesus Clemente at Top Flr, working steadily and often alone in the busy kitchen, his hands moving quickly and precisely, his movements graceful and full of purpose.
Jesus' Fettuccine with salmon and arugula
10 ounces fettuccine
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces fresh salmon
5 ounces fresh arugula
Fresh pepper to taste
Cook pasta until al dente and drain. Sprinkle salmon with salt, and saute over high heat in 2 teaspoons of the olive oil. Cook until medium, around 2 minutes on each side. Remove from pan, slice and toss with the pasta. Add the remaining olive oil, arugula, and salt and pepper to taste.