Water boy one day, electrician the next, this chef gets it done

Michael Brunson, head chef at Solea Tapas and Wine Bar in Waltham, prepares a plate of chicken livers in the kitchen. Michael Brunson, head chef at Solea Tapas and Wine Bar in Waltham, prepares a plate of chicken livers in the kitchen. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2010

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When chef Michael Brunson heard about the recent aqueduct breach, he began ordering his staff to boil water before the order was even issued.

Such is a day in the life of a restaurant chef, dealing with crises, whether it’s a sudden dinner rush — or boiled water order.

“I put on my emergency hat and coped,’’ says Brunson, head chef at Solea Tapas and Wine Bar, a 200-seat restaurant in Waltham.

Brunson says that his staff jokes that no matter what the task is — plumbing, electrical, and in this case, “water boy’’ — he’s up to the challenge.

With the boil water order on, Brunson grabbed all the large pots and pans on hand and boiled up to 100 gallons of water, which he stored in his coolers. He prepared coffee in small batches with the boiled water, purchased ice from a distributor, and offered bottled water for purchase instead of free tap water to customers.

Brunson, who oversees a staff of 19, including a sous chef, five prep cooks, eight line cooks, and dishwashers, said: “My workers are like my hands, while I’m the head and mind, keeping track of everything.’’

Solea’s menu of over 50 items includes items like stuffed wrapped dates and poached lemon sole. As a result, what’s required is a lot of preparation, organization, and constant training and supervision of the staff, whether it’s writing down a list of vegetables to be chopped or discussing the day’s special with the wait staff.

“A good chef looks at the kitchen as a whole and understands what needs to be done in the course of a day,’’ says Brunson.

Like many chefs, Brunson paid his dues the old-fashioned way, working his way up through the ranks.

As early as 13, he spent all his free time at his grandfather’s Italian restaurant, starting as a dishwasher and then moving up to prep and line cook. “I’ve always had a fascination with food,’’ says Brunson.

I have read that one chef said that this profession is for the crazy. Do you agree?

Because of the long hours and hard work, you do have to be a little strange to work in this industry. The restaurant comes first, before personal or home life. It’s a very selfless job and I have the bumps and bruises to show for it.

Are these the scars of initiation? I guess you could call them that. I was a butcher’s apprentice back in college, and I lost my fingertips, because when my mouth was moving, my mind wasn’t on the knife. And on busy Saturday nights, we run a six- to seven-man line and that’s a lot of people in a small, tight space. The kitchen is hot, everyone is moving super fast, throwing around pots and pans, and often you inflict yourself with burns just as much as others.

Do you enjoy reading the latest crop of tell-all chef memoirs such as “Kitchen Confidential’’ (by Anthony Bourdain)? I have no interest in reading those books or watching the food networks. I find it frustrating more than anything. It gives people the wrong idea about the profession. This isn’t a glamorous profession — it’s a tough gig.

Do you wear a white chef’s hat? No, that’s not my style. I wear a black skullcap and pinstriped black pants. That’s my uniform.

On the job with Michael Brunson, chef