‘Learning to listen to food as it cooks’

‘Learning to listen to food as it cooks’


Skye Bonney, 32

The Black Birch, Kittery


Skye Bonney found herself in the restaurant business at age 15, cleaning tables and working as a hostess when she could. Now 32, Bonney is the sous chef at The Black Birch in Kittery, a restaurant nestled in the Kittery Foreside neighborhood that runs along the Piscataqua, the river that serves as a boundary between Maine and New Hampshire. The Black Birch opened in 2011 and offers food that has been described as “modern comfort,” along with an extensive selection of beer, wine and cocktails.

Sous chefs act as second in command after the head chef in a kitchen. The job is demanding and takes a person with good problem-solving abilities. Planning and directing food preparation, managing, training and scheduling staff, and serving as an expeditor during meal service are just some of the tasks that fall to the sous chef.

As a sous chef, Bonney has a lot of restaurant experience to fall back on. Throughout high school she worked in restaurants, a tradition she continued while studying at the University of New Hampshire.

“I worked in food service at a terrific carry-out sandwich shop inside a laundry, Franz’s Food,” said Bonney. “After obtaining my degree in psychology, I decided to pursue formal culinary training at the Culinary Institute of America. From there I got my first line-cook position at Blue Sky on York Beach, which was owned by Lydia Shire with Jake Smith as the chef de cuisine.”

Shire and Smith left Blue Sky a few years later to concentrate on Shire’s Boston restaurants. Bonney continued her work in the industry at several Portsmouth restaurants before The Black Birch opened for business in 2011. She was brought on as sous chef and reunited with Smith.

“Jake was hired as the chef,” said Bonney. “I was thrilled to be working together again.”

Bonney answered some questions for Maine Women, including what she likes about her job, what one of her favorite recipes is and what she might be doing if she weren’t a chef.

Q: What inspired you to get into the food industry? Is there a mentor or individual who has been helpful to you?

A: I began working in the restaurant business when I was 15, busing tables and hosting on the weekends. I loved the environment, the social aspect and the fast pace. I was hooked. My first real cooking job was at Franz’s Food in Durham, N.H. I enjoyed making soup from scratch, really good sandwiches and breakfast. It’s a tiny little place and we cranked food out of there. I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to have a strong support system of friends and family. When I began showing an interest in cooking as a career, everyone I knew helped in every way possible.

Q: What does it take to be successful as a sous chef?

A: I think being organized is a necessity to be successful as a sous chef. I write everything down all day long: What we need to order, what we need to prepare for the next service, ideas for upcoming events and or menu changes. At the end of a long shift, it makes preparing for the next day much easier.

Q: Do you have a favorite recipe, or have you developed your own recipe? What makes it unique?

A: Probably the recipe I’m most proud of would be our tomato soup. When we opened The Black Birch I was disappointed to learn that everyone thought the tomato soup on the menu should be vegetarian. I had always started tomato soup with bacon and roux. It was all I knew and I thought it was the way to make the most delicious tomato soup. I love making soups. I started redeveloping my tomato soup recipe. Now we roast tomatoes with mirepoix (a mix of chopped onions, carrots and celery), garlic and herbs in olive oil and puree it all with the juice from the tomatoes and a hit of sambuca. The end result is delicious and creamy, but surprisingly, it is actually vegan.

Q: What do you enjoy most about what you do? What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?

A: This may seem obvious but the most enjoyable part of my job is cooking. I really enjoy the whole process: Starting with beautiful raw ingredients and treating each component the best way I know. Learning to listen to food as it cooks, noticing the way aromas change throughout the cooking process, tasting everything and noticing the way a pinch of sugar or a few drops of vinegar affect the flavor. These are the things that never get old, day in, day out. If I wasn’t a chef I would probably have a different kind of craft, throwing ceramic pots, knitting, woodworking or glassblowing.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

A: In 10 years I see myself running my own kitchen. A cafe?, serving breakfast and lunch, prepared foods to go, and fancy reservation-only dinners a few times a month.

Skye Bonney, sous chef at The Black Birch in Kittery, enjoys “the whole process” of cooking and says it “never gets old” for her. Courtesy photo

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