You don’t have to be an Aussie to share the convict spirit.
“In my world there are two types of cooks” says Derek Orrell, “the ones that follow recipes and the one that write recipes.” Derek has worked in the top kitchens of New York and at an uncommonly young age opened and lead the kitchen as head chef at Williamsburg’s acclaimed restaurant The Heyward.
An old school artisan who defines his life by a dedication to craft, Derek spent his New Mexican childhood trying to outcook his brother and father in the kitchen. In high school, while the rest of us were cutting class to smoke cigs in the parking lot, Derek was whipping up his mischief in the kitchen. The young chef would play hooky so he could go home and cook.
Whether it’s the green chile garnishing his dishes, the freshly brainstormed recipes on his menus, or the German blades he uses to dice his ingredients, Derek brings a wicked level of precision to every step of his creative process.
Derek started out washing dishes at one of Albuquerque’s only fine dining restaurants, and slowly made his way East on a train of prep lines and dish pits. Derek modeled for a stint, but kept the life of a professional chef in his sights. “My drive to do what I truly wanted,” he says “eventually ate away at me enough so that I had no other choice.”
Derek’s been in the kitchen ever since. Stress became Derek’s new norm, but he figured “I’m going to get my ass handed to me every day, I’m going to get yelled at in a hot kitchen and get paid nothing to do it, but that’s what I got to do to get where I want to be.”
These days, Dereks hands are covered in gnarly scars from dicings gone wrong and burns from oily snafus, but he managed to turn his youthful passion into a profession, and his profession into an art. And like any artist worth his salt, Derek finds a heady mixture of escape and affirmation in his creation. When he’s not cooking at work, he’s remixing recipes and ingredients back at home.
“At work I’m painting someone else’s painting every day, so when I come home it’s my time to put what I want down on the canvas.”
Derek’s laser-like focus on craft occasionally trips up nine-to-fivers who cringe at the idea of bringing their work home.
“Escape to me is being somewhere other than the restaurant I actually work at, and still doing what I love, which is cooking. A lot of people have trouble with that.”
They say love is a mixtape, but Derek’s mixtape is a recipe. He recently married his longtime girlfriend, model Britt Maren. Derek credits their late night venting sessions with getting him through the slumps of self-doubt inherent to any creative lifestyle. Derek says of his culinary muse: “meeting a girl who makes you question the rest of your life can give anyone a gentle push toward bettering oneself.”
Whether it’s the green chile garnishing his dishes, the freshly brainstormed recipes on the menu at The Heyward, or the German blades he uses to dice his ingredients, Derek brings a wicked level of precision to every step of his creative process.
But that process itself is no stock list of ingredients. True, you need sharp knives and the right ingredients, but if you don’t let a recipe evolve organically, if you try to force it, “if you try to put your thumb on it or nail it to a wall you’re going to miss every time.”
Arriving at that level of subtlety in one’s craft requires thousands of hours of practice, and a laser like focus on the details.
Those demands, Derek says, are what keeps him up at night. “Honestly my biggest fear is at some point losing myself. I’ve watched so many people get involved with their work and lose themselves.”
But if chasing the dream was easy, everyone would do it. For Derek, the rewards- pride in craftsmanship, the unmistakeable feeling of maximizing one’s potential, and that special moment of sharing good food with good people-blow the risks out of the water.
“When you serve some food and all of a sudden it’s silent. You have this weird awkward moment where you look around and everyone’s smiling and their mouths are full and they’re just sitting there like Wow. There’s no better compliment to a chef.”