Toby Moreno has been working in kitchens almost as long as he hasn’t. At 26, he’s taking on his first executive chef role at Plow & Anchor, after leaving what might be Indiana’s best restaurant, Tallent, last winter. But the road to executive chef was not one Moreno would be easily swayed from, from the first time he stepped on the line.
“I started working in kitchens when I was 14. I was a little taco boy at this little place outside of Marion, Indiana. I was making tacos, wet burritos, flautas. It wasn’t anything big. One day I’d be doing dishes, then I’d be on the line, then I’d be serving. It was a Mom and Pop kind of place.”
“I’d get off of school, go prep for service, or run service, that kind of thing,” Moreno says nonchalantly, as if running a four-man line in high school is some kind of small feat. “I originally got that job because I wanted to buy my girlfriend a present,” he says with a laugh. What may have started as merely an earning opportunity may have laid the foundation for the rest of his career.
“I dropped out of college at 19 and moved down to Bloomington to live on my brother’s floor and couch, and I started working at a place called The Runcible Spoon,” one job that he had along with a second kitchen job and a third job at a call center.
“I had all these jobs, and it was a lot of fun, but I wanted to be better than everyone else. It wasn’t until culinary school, when I was in my Classical Cuisine class, I stayed after with the chef because we were doing a thing on amuse bouches,” the art of the tiny, one-bite plate. “I thought that was the coolest thing — I had never seen that before. So our final was to make a smaller version of what we were going to make [for a main dish]. Our dish was risotto, roasted chicken and mushrooms or something like that. And at the end of the class, we try each other’s, and I thought that everyone’s was okay but I really thought that me and my partner’s was the best, and not everyone thought that, and that bugged me. And part of me feels like everyone has the right to their opinion, but we had the best amuse bouche in the class. That just kept me up,” Moreno says. This is a common thread in great chefs: when the desire to be the best meets lack of experience, guys like Moreno are not content to sit around and absorb skill passively. The next part of Moreno’s story is classic small-town Indiana, and a mentor with connections parked the young chef’s passion in the most fertile soil you could imagine.
“So I asked my chef, Alan Zimmerman, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I’ve got to get better.’ And he just says, ‘Come with me.’ This is right in downtown Bloomington. I’m like, ‘Where are we going?’ And he takes me out to the alley, down a few blocks, and he takes me to [James Beard-nominated restaurant] Tallent. I’m 19 and I’m like, “Ok, cool.’ Moreno describes his enchantment with the Tallent atmosphere as an all-encompassing kind of spell cast on him from the front of house to the back.
“Everyone in there is working really clean, and it smells fucking fantastic, and the dining room is beautiful and kind of dark, and there’s this bright light back in the kitchen, and it gets warmer as you walk back toward it. Nobody’s talking, everyone’s just handling their shit, and I liked that. I liked that atmosphere where everyone was just working.”
Between schooling, finding the motivation, and becoming a better chef, there is one toll all young guns must pay: the stage (pronounced stahj), which literally just means “work experience” or “internship” in French. And like an internship, it means doing a lot of grunt work for free. In kitchens, a stage can either function just for gaining experience, or it can be a tryout for an open position. In Moreno’s case, it was kind of both.
“I staged there on and off for probably a total of six months or so, but it wasn’t a consistent stage. I would go in and just work for free, whether it was four hours or seven hours or eight hours.” So if you’re keeping track at home, that’s an eight-hour unpaid kitchen shift for the experience. How’s that coffee run looking now, college students?
“And then one day, I get the nerves — and I think of myself as just a little pipsqueak, just so nervous to even ask — I’m like, ‘Hey, can I try out?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
Except that try-outs mean cooking right next to your boss. All night.
“You have to work on the line with him. So I was firing his plates and stirring risotto, basically. I had no fucking clue what any of this was. Then he gave me something to cook at the end of it all, and I had thirty minutes to cook, and I fucking overcooked my ribeye or something. I made a rabbit bacon hash. That was kind of stupid,” Moreno laughed. But ultimately, it was a creative sauce that won the chef over, and Moreno spent four and a half years slugging it out in Tallent’s kitchen, eventually becoming sous.
What is remarkable about all of this, though, is that Tallent fired Moreno last year, and Moreno could not be more gracious to the Beard-nominated chef for doing so. As a father with a newborn, his executive position at Craig Baker’s Plow & Anchor gives him more time to enjoy time with his new baby. At the end of his time at Tallent, he was spending more and more time at the restaurant, heralding an impending burnout.
“I was at work more than I was at home, there’s no doubt about that. It was just time. And he knew that,” Moreno says of Tallent. Here’s what else he has to say about Talent:
“Chef Tallent, that’s my guy. I wouldn’t be shit if it wasn’t for him. And he knew that I wasn’t going to quit. I’m not the kind of guy who quits.”
It was Chefs Night Off front of house coordinator RJ Wall (and, full disclosure, my basement tenant/housemate) who referred him to the Plow kitchen, and he’s about to move up to Indianapolis to start putting his spin on the menu in earnest.
As far as specifics for the kitchen, he’s got one goal in mind already. “One thing I plan on doing is building my pantry — things that are fermented or dried or things that are canned. Things that I don’t have to go out and get.”
And as far as the general goals go, Moreno’s are pure and simple: “I want to do what I do, and that is make sure everything is done exactly the right way.”
Finally, when I asked him when he plans on taking a minute to get some sleep, Moreno gives me a dyed-in-the-wool kind of chef response that makes me realize that for some, their briar patch is in the stress and helter skelter most of us try to avoid.
“Who sleeps? Nobody fucking sleeps.”