Bata's chef learned by starting as a dishwasher

In the kitchen, the chef rules

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Mon Sayasit, dressed in a chef’s white jacket and pinstriped pants, bounces around the Bata’s kitchen in the NewBo District as he blackens two cobs of corn in a pan on the stove and toasts rows of hamburger buns on a grill.

Rock music plays from a stereo overhead while Sayasit, head chef at Bata’s for the past three and a half years, and another chef position burgers on white, square plates.

Artwork scribbled on white computer paper from Sayasit’s daughter who was five at the time hang next to a tub of butter, cubed into tablespoons so it can easily be thrown into a pot or pan. The cooks will use about two pounds of butter a day, Sayasit estimated.

Bata’s, at 1006 Third St. SE, opened in NewBo in 2012, and is now managed by Joel Kane. It serves American fare such as pizzas and burgers as well as more unusual fare, including Thai meatballs, tiger shrimp and cornmeal-crusted chicken breast.

A chef’s time is segmented by the time it takes to assemble each dish. He pivots around the other cooks and wait staff with hot food, dusting sizzling meat — and sometimes the floor — with salt and pepper.

The occupation certainly is not tied to a desk. And the office climate can be as hot as the temperature of a grill or as cold as a deep freeze.

And the fruits of a chef’s labor aren’t tied up in any long-term projects. Instead, their products are plated up and consumed in probably half the time it took to get them ready to eat.

Because of that, head chefs need to have an endless supply of energy, Sayasit said.

And that stereotype of the temperamental head chef spewing curse words and tossing out directives, a la Gordon Ramsay? Sayasit said it is, in fact, quite realistic.

Sayasit has a biting sense of humor and stirs a liberal amount of colorful language into his speech. His quick speech pattern is as precise as the vegetables prepped each day.

And Sayasit, as with other chefs, often is guided by instinct more than specifics. With one taste, he knows when something has too little or too much salt.

He said he can tell when a slab of meat or cut of fish is done cooking with a look or a touch of his fingertip.

Sayasit, who is from Cedar Rapids, never got a degree in culinary arts. As a teenager, Sayasit worked as a dishwasher at Bishop’s Buffet in Westdale Mall. It was a job his mother, a baker there, insisted he take.

Along the way, he trained at various Cedar Rapids restaurants, including Vino’s Ristorante and Konstantinos. Though he said he likes to prepare cuisine from different cultures, some of his favorite foods to cook — and consuming — are Asian dishes he grew up eating.

Working your way up in actual professional kitchens, Sayasit said, “I think that’s the best way. In school, they really just teach you the basics — how to cut, how to sautee. When you go to a restaurant, you have to actually learn how to cook beyond the hotline. You’re getting yelled at, like, ‘Hey, you’ve got two minutes. I want this, I want that.’ It’s like patrolling traffic.”

And though chefs work 12-or-more hours a day, they always come to work early the next day to stack dishes, shape burger patties or chop vegetables in preparation for the next round of dishes.

In addition to the endless challenge to keep the kitchen fully stocked and patrons happy, Sayasit said chefs have a running dialogue with the wait staff, who make up the front line for food criticism from customers, and also can be the ones who botch an order.

Sayasit often chats with the chef at Pig and Porter and at other local restaurants. Sometimes he prepares dishes other local restaurants serve, and vice versa.

He uses as many local ingredients as possible in his dishes, whatever’s in season and “whatever feels right in the moment.”

At about 5:45 on a Tuesday night, for example, a woman dropped off a Fareway ice cream bucket full of fresh plums Sayasit plans to incorporate into a special menu item later.

Sayasit tries support local growers by using their products in Bata’s items. He has a network of local growers who provide him with fresh ingredients, such as mushrooms from a farm in Mount Vernon and microgreens from another grower in Iowa City.

Throwing knives

The kitchen is, in effect, a microcosm in which the head chef set the tone for the rest of the staff.

“We can swear back here,” Sayasit said with wry humor. “We can do anything we want back here.”

But Sayasit said kitchen staff today have it easier than he did.

“Back in the day, I got chefs yelling at me, throwing knives at me,” he recalled. “That’s why I say we’re a different breed. You can’t do it anymore. There’s people in HR.

“If you can’t handle it, get out of the kitchen.”

Not only does he have sway over the menu, but Sayasit decides who is slinging a spatula or wielding a knife alongside him.

He runs a tight ship. When potential sous chefs come into the kitchen, he wants to get a feel for how they work, what kind of attitude they exhibit. Sayasit expects the people who make food in his kitchen to work from the ground up, as he did.

“I expect them to do the same (amount of work) as I am,” he said. “If I clean, they clean. If they clean, I clean.”

They also should expect to start at the average $38,000 a year chefs in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area make, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“These kids come out of school and say, ‘We want this amount of money.’ They want weekends off,” Sayasit said. “It’s like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to go to the grind.’ A lot of chefs put time in.

“You have to be careful who you pick and choose to work with you. They’re like your second family. It’s not about money. It’s all about making food look good, taste good. (It) makes people happy.”

Chefs try not to lose sight of the desires and needs of the customers who keep coming back to their restaurant, Sayasit said.

“You’re as good as your last plate out, as I always say,” he said. “Every day you start from scratch. A customer might love your food last night, but today is a different day.”

VU’S FAVORITE MENU ITEMS

BLUEBERRY BURGER OR BLUBERRY CHICKEN BREAST SANDWICH

brioche bun + blueberry compote + bacon + jalapeños + goat cheese

BUFFALO BURGER

kimchee vegetables + bacon + provolone cheese + medium egg (on top) + horseradish mayonnaise

Find the rest of Bata’s menu at batasrestaurant.com/#menu

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