There are some things that true chefs have in common: tattoos, chain-smoking, a pale complexion caused by a sunless existence like vampires of some secret underworld. They are known to use curse words as mere suggestions, are covered in scars and burns, drink until the bar lights come up and work on as many hours of sleep as the fingers on one hand – if they still have all fingers intact. Chefs are of a different breed. Their remarks reflect a dry humor that will send most people running back to the comfort of their bar stools. They may or may not have showered yet. They are known to be a bit rude. They have little to do with the rest of the world.
So when I waited three months to get an interview with Ocean Key’s Executive Chef Jason Westphal of both Hot Tin Roof and Sunset Pier, and was even stood up once before he finally found the time to meet for a few beers at a local Irish pub, I wasn’t at all bothered.
Westphal showed up looking a little exhausted, but happily ordered a Heineken anyway. When I asked him if that was his choice of beverage he simply said that beer in general was his choice of beverage.
“He survives on a diet of beer and cigarettes,” his sous chef told me just a couple days before. When I asked them to describe him in the kitchen they said, with a bit of sarcastic enthusiasm, “He’s a bit of a pain in the [you-know-what].” But they said in it in true kitchen manner, speaking with respect rather than hate. The kitchen is no place for the weak, and nobody respects a wimp — especially when it’s the guy with the big knife and Westphal has 10 to be exact.
Westphal laughs when I asked him the same question.
“Well, I’m not sure you can print what they call me,” he said. It’s the same answer he gives when I ask him what his favorite word is to yell out in the kitchen. Then he stops and thinks for a second.
“Actually I say ‘fire’ the most. When you say ‘fire’ it means you are having a killer night. I mean, what would you rather say?” he said. Still, it isn’t his favorite word.
Westphal had a pretty normal childhood growing up in rural Ohio before discovering his culinary passion. While some chefs boast about eating caviar and oysters at the age of 3, Westphal hated the liver and onions his grandparents made him eat before he could leave the table. But eventually their abundant love for travel won him over and these days he is influenced mostly by the ruggedness of German cuisine known for its dissection and use of all things “meat.” In true chef form, he has dabbled with dreads, acquired seven tattoos, and if it were not for weekly fishing expeditions he would probably be as pale as a ghost. Today he has grown into a talent that includes a James Beard nomination and several stints with highly acclaimed restaurants in Ohio, Miami and now Key West.
So what does he think about the culinary scene in Key West? It reminds him of home, he said, which apparently means quite a bit. I think I can almost see tears in his eyes when he talks about his next vacation. “Cleveland, Ohio is my next trip! Going back to my roots for that gyro joint that my Dad has been taking me to since I can remember,” Westphal said.
Turns out that beneath the kitchen gangster exterior is the character of a chef that most of us don’t get to see so often, that reality TV don’t always show. Thanks to food and wine celebrities like foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay and party animal Mario Batali, chefs these days are more or less admired for their exterior, rather than what actually goes on behind closed swinging doors. Even Martha Stewart has a streets reputation these days.
But Westphal isn’t concerned about fitting a certain chef image. “Food before fame,” he preaches to me as I begin to openly swoon about Anthony Bourdain. (Yet he agrees with me that out of all celebrity “bad boy” Chef’s, Bourdain is probably the one who gets away with it best.)
Instead, his version of a true chef is a little bit more than being able to spit out a couple of bad words. It’s about being down to earth. It’s also about finding a connection with food. He confesses to me that it’s not the strenuous lifestyle that fulfills him, but that like an artist, the kitchen is his canvas where he can create and overcome the impossible. When all hell is breaking loose on the line and there are a million tickets, the real joy is found in the moment of wiping down that last plate and of knowing that what is on that plate is a part of who you are. That moment makes it all worth it.
Turns out Westphal might be a bit of a bad boy, but there’s much more to him than that. I can hear it in the sarcasm of his staff, in the sincerity of his own words, and I can see it in the number of Key West locals who are starting to take notice of his food and are filling up the dining room of Hot Tin Roof every night. This guy is not only a true chef, but I think we will find out soon enough that he is the real deal.