By Caitlin Raux
There’s a new school of chefs — those who wax on about ingredients and sourcing; who want to elevate or demote the act of dining out; who want to change the way we eat. Ashley Merriman (Culinary Arts ’04), co-chef of Prune, does not belong to that school. She’s a rare breed of chef nowadays, one who’s passionate about the job mostly because she loves the actual work — the sound of the ticket machine; the chopping during prep; the firing up of grills; the rush during service; and the cleaning — lots and lots of cleaning, as anyone in the industry knows. Ashley’s experience “on the line” dates back to high school, but ICE handed her the keys to the world of fine dining in New York, where she’s had the opportunity to work with some of the city’s great chefs.
I caught up with the former Top Chef competitor on a Monday afternoon before the crush of dinner service (yes, even on a Monday, the house at Prune is full). Ashley and I chatted about her love of the job of being a chef.
Are you from New York?
I’m originally from New Hampshire, but I’ve spent so much time here that I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Was food a big part of your family life growing up?
Not at all. My mom was a single working mom. Consequently, there were lots of nights of: Here’s some hot dogs for dinner. I’m not from a big cooking family. It was more about feeding the family without a lot of time — my mom was working and we played a lot of sports and did extracurricular activities.
I got into the restaurant business because of the work. My mom made us get jobs when we were 12 and it was one of the only after-school jobs that I could get. My older brother mowed lawns. The only other job for kids our age was to wash dishes in restaurants. Once I started, I just liked the work.
Did you know that you wanted to continue working in restaurants?
I remember graduating from high school and I wanted very much to go to culinary school. I graduated in 1994 and I guess it was a very different time in our culinary world. It was not something that my mom had any interest in me doing — she didn’t think it was a viable career option, especially since I had gone to a pretty fancy boarding school. So I cooked throughout college and I cooked after college because it was the only paycheck I knew how to get. It was just the work that I liked the best. I thought for a while that I wanted to be an English teacher and I studied English in college. But I just kept doing restaurant work and I loved it. I love cooking and cleaning.
I think there’s a certain personality type drawn to cooking professionally.
Yes, definitely. At some point I took a career aptitude test and my choices were a cop, an EMT or a chef. In all of them there’s a certain level of stress or adrenaline, but also an altruistic side — of serving or helping people.
I would do this work anywhere, and not just at Prune. I would enjoy this work in small town USA, Kazooky’s Bar + Grill.
So you graduated from a four-year college and then went back to cooking?
I worked in a bookstore for a while, but I just liked restaurant work so much that I decided to go to ICE. That’s when I got serious about cooking professionally. I knew how to cook and I had a pretty lengthy resume but I didn’t know anything about food or fine dining. I just knew how to be a line cook at mom-and-pop restaurants. That’s what brought me to ICE — I knew it would be good to add to my resume and to get my foot in the door in New York.
I imagine you went to ICE to learn the technical skills too…
I didn’t know the next level culinary skills. I only knew what had been put in front of me, which was pretty little considering I worked as a line cook in the same restaurant for nine years before and during high school. I didn’t have a deep bench of experience.
What was your first gig after ICE?
At ICE, my very first teacher in Module 1 was Alex Guarnaschelli. She and I hit it off right away and Alex, being the smart person she is, saw that I already knew how to be a line cook. So she asked me to do my internship with her at Butter, which I did. I ended up staying at Butter for years. Then I worked in Seattle for a few years and came back to New York and worked at Butter again. I helped Alex open The Darby. Then I left and was the chef at The Waverly Inn for years. Now I’m at Prune.
I’m not saying this to flatter you, but Prune happens to be one of my favorite restaurants in New York.
Yes, it’s a good restaurant. I had been a regular there for years. I loved Prune so much. Gabrielle [Hamilton] and I are married (laughs) so I love her so much, too. It feels natural for us to be working together.
It seems like a very positive work environment – which you don’t find in all restaurants.
I think it’s one of Gabrielle’s signatures and something that she’s worked really hard to achieve. It’s why she has incredible staff retention and people really want to stay there. Prune is a feeling and it means a lot to a lot of people, not just the customers, but also the people who have worked there for years. It’s partially because of how the people at Prune are treated.
How has your ICE education prepared you to be chef at Prune?
The most important thing that ICE did for me was to expose me to fine dining – food and dining on a serious level. I already knew a lot about how to be a cook in a restaurant. I remember one of the first assignments at ICE was to write a paper about a chef who influenced you. Everyone else was talking about chefs like Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert and I had no idea who those people were. That’s what ICE exposed me to.
Did you aspire to become part of that fine dining world?
I only ever wanted to be a chef. I really mean this — and I don’t think this is how most people are anymore, though I’m not placing a value on it — I like the work itself much more than I like food. I like the act of coming to work and the ticket machine and the chopping and the lifting and the cleaning and the cooking – the actual act of cooking food. I care about it much more than I care about the ingredient or the product or the, Oh my god, lacto-fermentation. I think that stuff is interesting and valuable and it’s a part of my every day. But I would do this work anywhere, and not just at Prune. I would enjoy this work in small town USA, Kazooky’s Bar + Grill.
It’s more about the physicality and tangible aspects of being a chef.
I do really enjoy the tangible, pragmatic side: bring in the food, break it down, cook it, etc.
That’s rare nowadays.
I think a lot of people forget that every day is cooking and cleaning. I think that in our industry, a lot of people have forgotten about that part of the day, which is remarkable because it’s the biggest part of the day.
You cook every day – where do you look for inspiration?
Honestly, it’s so cheesy, but I’m really inspired by my wife. I think she’s the greatest cook. She doesn’t cook as much in the restaurant anymore, but I’m inspired by what she cooks at home. I’m inspired by our conversations about food. Long before we were married, I loved Gabrielle’s restaurant, before I even loved her. I’ve become a way better cook by working with her.
What does a typical day for you look like?
I’m in the restaurant by 11:30 – 12:00 p.m. I check in with the AM person and the porters and then I start the day. Prune is very small so the chef works the station every single night. There’s no expediting from the pass — you’re at the actual station. I spend the day setting up my station and helping the other cooks set up theirs. Other than that, it’s a pretty typical chef’s day. There’s ordering, receiving, managing, scheduling, actual cooking, running service, shutting down service, cleaning and organizing. Then I write in the log at the end of the night. I usually finish anywhere from 12:30 – 1:00 a.m.
What is your culinary voice?
My culinary voice is about the actual work. You see people with very clear voices and visions. My voice and my vision is about the day-to-day job that we have to do. I think it’s really important. My voice is a factual, objective voice about cooking.
Ready to find your culinary voice? Get more information on ICE’s career programs.