From Chef to Litigator: August Heckman’s Path to Law

Monday, May 15, 2023
Chef August Heckman

Before partner August Heckman began representing employers in a wide range of discrimination, retaliation, contract, and common law claims in front of tribunals and agencies, he was a successful chef in top New York– and New Jersey–area restaurants. August explains how he first started in the restaurant industry (learning about industry employment laws) and what lessons he took from the kitchen to the courtroom.  

What drew you to the kitchen?

At age 12, I started working “under the table” running food and barbacking at a then-notorious Italian restaurant at the Jersey Shore. I’m a night owl and was instantly hooked on the crazy characters, after-hours environment, and tax-free cash. If you hustled, tips made the hourly wage way more than my friends were making in retail and more stereotypical after-school jobs. 

Of course, the coolest guys were the cooks, and I eventually made my way into the kitchen. I traded in the cash tips for the line, starting as a dishwasher and prep cook before moving up to cold/salad stations, line cook (grill, sauce, pastry), and finally to sous chef positions at a number of Shore locations. I was fortunate to learn the craft from several chefs who mentored me—the school of hard knocks and I loved it. 

In college I was the sous chef of an Italian-Caribbean–themed trattoria when the chef there encouraged me to pursue a culinary arts degree. I dropped out of the local community college and attended what was then Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, now the Institute of Culinary Education.

Upon graduation, I earned a prestigious internship with Chef David Burke at his new restaurant, Park Avenue Café. When that ended, I made my way back to northern New Jersey, working in high-end restaurants where I was exposed to different styles and cuisines (and perfected the art of tableside flambés). Eventually I was tapped to lead a Mediterranean-focused restaurant at the shore backed by a local investment group of doctors and lawyers, which kicked off several head chef ventures for me.

What made you change your career path to the law?

Air conditioning, health benefits, and a chair. I jest, but the lifestyle is brutal on the body and mind. It’s a counterculture—everyone else’s holidays are our busy times and vice versa. Standing for 12–16 hours a day takes a toll. 

But what really pushed me back into school at the time was a failed business deal. While scouting new locations, I reenrolled in community college to take a business class. That exercise ended with a J.D. six years later (and a wife and my first daughter). The Food Network was a fledgling at the time, otherwise who knows what could have happened!

What lessons did you learn as a chef that help you as a lawyer?

To run a successful kitchen (and restaurant), you need to build and lead teams. It’s the same in a litigation (and an office, a firm, etc.). Keeping literally dozens of things cooking at once while dealing with front-of-house issues, last-minute emergencies, and mistakes (because nothing goes according to plan) while keeping a cool and calm demeanor (contrary to some chef-related horror stories) is akin to juggling several filing deadlines and client concerns.

And to be a successful chef you have to start every meal with everything you need—your mise en place. The same applies to my cases—having all the facts, research, client alignment, et cetera when starting a case makes it much more successful at the end.

What is your favorite dish and why?

Cheerios. After a long day, I don’t have the will to cook and then there’s only one bowl to clean. Otherwise, my current favorite is a pot roast because it’s made of all my favorite things: meat, stock, potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, garlic and herbs, and, of course, red wine. Like most things in life, it starts with humble beginnings: mirepoix. And it’s all done in one pot—because who likes washing pots!?