Dennis Friedman studied political science and criminal justice at Indiana University until he was, as he puts it, "bit by the restaurant bug." The dynamics and culture of the kitchen intrigued him so much that he abandoned plans to become a lawyer and, after graduation, headed to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
He trained with famed chef Daniel Boulud at Restaurant Daniel on East 65th Street in New York City, learned the intricacies of Pacific Rim cuisine under the tutelage of Alan Wong at his restaurant of the same name in Honolulu, and continued his ascension into the world of haute cuisine at Michel Richard Citronelle, in Georgetown.
Six years ago, Friedman put on hold his plans to open a restaurant in order to help his family support his father, Arnie, through brain cancer. Four years ago, Arnie was there when Friedman opened Bezu in Potomac, which specializes in French-Asian cuisine. On Sept. 13, Friedman took top honors in a field of 32 chefs in the 16-week Mason Dixon Master Chef Tournament in Baltimore. He lives in Bethesda.
Why he's successful: "I believe that you never quit. If you make your play your work, you've already won. I'm a perfectionist. This is my outlet. I'm not artistic. I can't paint or play the piano, but when you go out to the table and you know you have given them a taste sensation, there's nothing like that. It's such a gratifying feeling to know that people really love the food."
Biggest obstacle: Money to open his restaurant. "Restaurants are very risky. Some people believe they are one of the biggest risks. I don't believe that. I believe there area lot of people who open restaurants who don't know what they are doing. In restaurants like Kinkead's," where he worked after returning to the Washington area six years ago, "Citronelle and mine, the owner-chefs know every aspect ...They control the destiny of the restaurant. I was able to overcome needing money because I was fortunate to have a wonderful father who was able to help me and I had some money saved up."
First job: Friedman was born and raised in Potomac and attended Walt Whitman High School. "I worked at Ledo's Pizza on River Road. I was 15 or 16. I worked there for a summer. It was a wonderful experience. I made a lot of money, for a kid, at least. I could make $100 a week and in high school, that was a lot of money."
Best job: Being a chef. Friedman got his first taste of running a restaurant one night when he and a friend had dinner at Bistro Asiatique in Bethesda and met the manager, whose chef had just walked out. "I said, 'I'm a chef.' We talked 15 minutes. He gave me the keys said 'Help us make this work.' So I set out on a major journey. I learned on someone else's dime. I ran a restaurant. I hired a new staff from scratch. It was very hard. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it, but I was able to prove myself and start to make a name for myself and gain some credibility."
Smartest move: Working for Boulud. "It was the hardest thing I ever did, mentally and physically challenging. But it opened every door for me ... When I was at the Culinary Institute of America and I needed to do an externship, my father said, work for the best in the field. He was the best. I called ...The lady said I should come in the next day for a tryout. The next day was Thanksgiving. I called my parents and said I wasn't coming home for Thanksgiving. I drove to New York City from Hyde Park. I get to this restaurant. Everybody is yelling at each other in French. Above me, there is this glass office. It was suspended above the kitchen. [Boulud] came out and ... handed me some keys and showed me a cart of food and told me to go and cook for these people ... I drove a couple of blocks to Park Avenue to this penthouse ...The meal turned out very nicely ...The owner came out and shook my hand and put something in it. I saw that it was $500 and I was ecstatic. As I left, the main door opened and I saw Daniel Boulud walk out. I hadn't known it, but that was where he was spending Thanksgiving. He said, 'You did a good job. Come back to the restaurant tomorrow. You will start tomorrow.' The rest is history."
Biggest misstep: "Not focusing on my studies in Spanish and French. Being in this business, the haute cuisine world, you need to be bilingual. You need Spanish to communicate with your staff and also you need to be able to converse in French to know the terms and to be able to talk to the chefs ... I can speak kitchen Spanish and kitchen French."
What's next: "We started a new company called Fired Up Pizzas, the only mobile, wood-burning, all-natural pizza kitchen. Right now we work at the Bethesda Farmer's Market and private events...Our goal is to franchise it out. We want to capitalize on this big win ... We just expanded Bezu and want to continue enhancing the quality and level to keep our loyal customers."
Advice to the aspiring: "Be tenacious and dream ...What I tell people who aspire to be chefs ... is to come in and observe. This business is very special and it takes a very special person. You either have it or you don't. I have a great kid right now who is working in my kitchen. He has no experience, but his heart is in it. I am taking extra time and extra care to teach him because his passion is there."
Avis Thomas-Lester| September 23, 2010; 12:00 AM ET | Category: success stories Save & Share:
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