Top chef gets better with age By Jeri Rowe
He'll close his eyes, smell the sizzling sweet peppers and remember the click-click-click of his grandmother's fingernails on the counter as she rolled out the flour tortillas by hand.
"I'd love to help you out, Grandma," he'd say. "Can I learn?"
"No," she'd respond. "I got it."
He longed to find out how his paternal grandmother, Pat Ortiz, a self-taught cook, relied on nothing more than her instincts to make food taste good.
For Bart, that was magical. And that kept him anchored in kitchens everywhere.
As a teenager, he flipped omelets at Tex & Shirley's. As a newlywed, he flipped through pages of countless cookbooks. Today, at 35, he flips over the idea of bringing a bit of Paris to a meandering bend of Green Valley Road.
Bart's there almost every day, inside Print Works Bistro at Greensboro's Proximity Hotel. He's in his comfortable shoes, his red beret and one of his eight white chef coats, military sharp from heavy starch.
He's the executive chef. A local guy made good. A former drum major from Ragsdale High, handpicked by restaurateur Dennis Quaintance to help spearhead an operation that, according to the July issue of Travel & Leisure magazine, is one of America's top 50 places to visit.
Print Works Bistro opened eight months ago. Walk toward the kitchen, down a long aisle, and you'll hear the mesmerizing tinkle of silverware.
Inside the kitchen, the temperature jumps, and the pace quickens. Back there, amid 12 ovens, five food stations and two walk-in coolers, Bart is simply known by one name: "Chef."
On any given night, after finishing his double espresso, his forehead glistens with sweat. He keeps a handful of plastic spoons in a breast pocket. He tastes everything, bounces everywhere and keeps repeating in his head, "The ship moves at the speed of its captain."
With its high ceilings and walls of windows, Print Works Bistro feels a long way from Tex & Shirley's, a Southern eggs-and-pancake institution at Friendly Shopping Center.
It is. Sort of.
Twenty-seven years ago, Bart started helping his dad, Bartolo Joseph Ortiz, at Tex & Shirley's. Bart bussed tables, washed dishes and mopped the floor. He was 8; his dad was the manager; his parents were divorced.
Bart, the oldest of three boys, wanted to work at Tex & Shirley's because he wanted to be close to his dad. And like restaurant work everywhere, the place kept his dad busy all the time.
Bart later worked as a short-order cook and learned how to perfect the restaurant's flick-of-the-wrist technique: the skillet-flip of an omelet.
But Bart wanted to learn more. So, he worked with a catering company, and during college he became a line cook with Lucky 32, one of Quaintance's first restaurant endeavors, and created a lamb enchilada as a specialty dish.
But food initially didn't lure Bart. Music did. He taught band at a middle school in Charlotte. But after one year, that was enough. He hated the bureaucracy. So he approached Quaintance about coming back as a cook. Quaintance saw something more.
Even though Bart didn't have a culinary school degree, Quaintance saw potential, creativity and an uncanny knack for creating recipes and cooking food.
Bart was just like his grandmother.
At first, it was tough as the company's manager of flavor and consistency. One of the company's culinary-school cooks even told Bart:
"You don't know (expletive). What do you know about cooking?''
But Bart remembered what one of his mentors from his student-teaching days told him: "Put yourself in a position so you're one day ahead of your students."
So, as a newlywed, in a tiny galley kitchen near Grimsley High, he went to work. He experimented with recipes, got excited about making chicken stock and stacked columns of cookbooks throughout his two-bedroom house.
"Do you think you can put up the ones you're not looking at?'' asked Carin Speckhard, his high school sweetheart and fellow drum major at Ragsdale High, who became his wife.
"But Carin,'' he'd reply, "I'm looking at all of them.''
In the quieter moments of his long, busy days at Print Works Bistro, Bart says he feels he's starting to figure it out.
But watch him at work, bouncing around the kitchen, with the plastic spoons in his breast pocket. When a server comes up to him and says, "The diner wanted to show you this," he tenses up. For a second.
Then, he looks down. He sees a plate holding a big bone picked clean. Bart smiles so broad his dimples show.
That grandmother magic. Maybe he's getting close.