Like many aspiring chefs, Alex Brown has his own set of knives, a professional attitude toward his work and a resume that lists some of his signature dishes (grilled halibut with three-pepper relish, asparagus and roasted red pepper coulis, raspberry puree napoleon).
But at home in Silver Spring, alongside the culinary reference books that inform his cooking, different symbols of his life's achievements stand proudly: half a dozen JV basketball and soccer trophies. Brown is only 15 years old.
He's been working at Marcel's restaurant in the West End for almost a year -- first in the time-honored fashion as an apprentice in the kitchen for several months, then for three paid shifts a week during the summer and long Saturday afternoons into evenings throughout the school year.
Brown is a sophomore in the mathematics, science and computer science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring. When the spring semester ends, he'll return to a more rigorous schedule at Marcel's, where, in the traditional manner, under chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier, he continues to work his way through the different kitchen stations -- from the garde-manger station -- where he's now making salads, pates and terrines -- to the entremetier (soups and vegetables), the rotisseur-grillardin (meats), the poissonier (fish) and the saucier (sauces). "That will take about three years," says Wiedmaier. "I'm adamant about teaching him a classical foundation."
These days, few careers have the allure that surrounds the successful chef. Brown isn't sure yet if that is what he wants to be. But working at Marcel's, he's learning that what could seem glamorous, creative and maybe a way to earn a good salary actually takes long, demanding hours and a passionate commitment to the craft.
Wiedmaier sensed that passion in the teenager when he invited Brown to apprentice in his restaurant just over a year ago. Brown's mother and stepfather, Julie and Rees Evans, had taken him there to celebrate his 14th birthday. (Brown and his younger brother, Phillip, split their time between the Evans home in Silver Spring and the Ashton home of his father and stepmother, Mark and Mary Brown.)
A picky eater as a child, he discovered the delights of food other than macaroni and cheese only after he went with his family to a crepes restaurant on a beach vacation. Told he could make them himself, Brown pulled out his mother's copy of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" when they got home and never looked back. From crepes with lemon juice and powdered sugar, he went to crepes with whipped cream and blueberries, crepes with Grand Marnier, crepes with Gruyere cheese and ham and bechamel sauce to an elaborate Christmas trifle to dinner-party meals for his family. A home economics elective and an eighth-grade culinary arts award helped. So did a knife skills class at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda when he was 13. "I was probably the youngest student by about 20 years," he remembers.
By the time he approached his 14th birthday, he told his family the gift he really wanted was dinner at a four-star restaurant. His mother conferred with friends, narrowed the choice to Marcel's and called the restaurant ahead of time to tell them it was her son's birthday, that he was interested in cooking and to ask if he could see the kitchen. When the family arrived, Wiedmaier welcomed them with birthday greetings and invited Brown to tour the kitchen.
"I hadn't been to any restaurant anything like that," says Brown. "Not even close to it. My heart was pounding. I couldn't take everything in. I was just engulfed in this scene."
"Alex was floored," his mother remembers. "He was in shock. I didn't think he could eat."
But he did, and he enjoyed it so much he wrote to Wiedmaier to thank him for the wonderful meal, describing the delights of each dish he'd eaten. Several months later, the Evanses went to the bar at Marcel's after a concert, ran into Wiedmaier and told him that Brown dreamed of working for him. Wiedmaier was intrigued. Two more letters from Brown followed, then a subway trip downtown with his mother to be interviewed. Impressed with the young man's seriousness, the chef invited him to come in and observe the rhythm of the kitchen. When he got there, the staff involved him in the evening's work and Wiedmaier got a chance to see him operate. "He was this skinny little guy with glasses, but I was touched by his letter and his enthusiasm, and his passion," says the chef. "He already had good knife skills and he wasn't scared. I just thought I'd give him the opportunity."
He started work on his 15th birthday, not quite one year ago.
The garde-manger station, which is responsible for salads and pates and assembling the appetizers, is visible from the front door of Marcel's. On this Saturday night, in full view of anyone entering the restaurant, Brown is working with John Stevenson, who at 20 is the senior cook at the station. Together, they've already blanched the leeks, chopped the chives and red onions, boiled the quail eggs, made the vinaigrettes and mayonnaise and formed the Stilton roulades they'll need to quickly assemble the orders for tonight's 180 reservations.
At 5:20 Brown, who's been in the kitchen cleaning, toasting and dicing all afternoon, is wielding a chef's knife as he chops cornichons, readying them to be mixed into the steak tartare. "The object is to make them blend into the meat," he says. Although Brown is the youngest on the staff, almost all the staff is under 30. "The younger you start, the better you'll become," says the sous-chef Paul Stearman, who at 26 has been in the business for 10 years. "You'll be in your prime when you need to be pushing long hours."
The kitchen staff at Marcel's starts preparatory work for the evening around 12:30 to be ready to respond quickly once the guests' dinner orders are placed. And they don't go home until the last orders have been sent out, and the kitchen is clean. Brown usually takes the subway.
At 5:30, the first reservations for this night arrive, followed by another couple with a 5:45 table, and a third -- 10 minutes early for 6. Even before their orders are taken, Brown is busy assembling baby greens to accompany a lobster flan with creme fraiche, tonight's amuse bouche -- a tiny complimentary serving chefs often send to guests to whet the palate and display the restaurant's skill. By 6:10, Brown is slicing French bread and arranging the slices on a baking sheet to be toasted to accompany the pates. By 6:20, he's shaping and garnishing the lobster salad that accompanies the lobster bisque. Then it's on to mixing the greens for a baby arugula salad -- doing it like a pro with his hands.
Like everyone else in the kitchen, Brown is dressed in a proper chef's uniform: a white jacket and black and white checked trousers, a towel at his waist and a chef's toque -- though it sits on his head a lot more securely than it did when he came to Marcel's 11 months ago.
Tonight the restaurant is full, some people ordering a la carte, some asking for dishes regulars know are available but aren't on the menu, others sampling tasting menus. The staff must be attentive to the varied rhythms -- as Brown describes it, "that mental clock you have to have to keep track of your dishes. It doesn't come naturally."
He's more used to it now, he knows. But at first it was all a little daunting. "The cleanliness, the organization and the discipline," he says. "The level of intensity that's required is something that's not to be argued with. It would blow any newcomer out of the water to see how organized we are."
And then there was that first Dover sole he filleted. "It was fun," he says, "but it had scary aspects because it was going out to a customer, and I was still in my apprenticeship."
"It's so neat to see him now," says Wiedmaier. "People walk up and say 'How old is he?' He started out as a little boy, but every day he walks in he's an inch taller."
He's faster than he was too. "You need three things to be a good chef: a palate -- if you're not tasting, you're not cooking; a great eye for details -- is there a spot on the plate, is the sauce nice and clear; and technical skills to be able to move fast and with efficiency," says Wiedmaier. "Alex has all three."
What's next for Brown after high school? Maybe culinary school? "He doesn't need it," says Wiedmaier. "He's going to culinary school here, and he's getting paid for it." Regular college? Brown is thinking about it. Or should he forgo more school and commit himself to a life in the kitchen? At Citronelle in Georgetown, Michel Richard, a chef who's particularly picky about his staff, has already agreed to employ Brown once he's done three years with Wiedmaier. Like a superstar high school basketball player, Brown faces a tough decision: Should he stay in school or throw himself into his career?
"If this is what he wants to do, I think he should just go for it and could choose school at another time," says his mother. "I told him I totally want to leave that up to him. He's made good decisions in the past. I would trust whatever he decided. You have to make these big decisions with your heart."
Under the supervision of Marcel's chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier, left, Alex Brown, at 15, is on his way to mastering the skills of the kitchen. Experience leads to expertise as the hands of Alex Brown roll rabbit loins.