Advice for aspiring chefs
April 29, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part series of columns. Visit http://www.vaildaily.com to read the first part.
The French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss said, “Cooking is the language through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.”
The culinary arts are an expression of that language through cooking. Through the ages, it has been an art that identifies cultures, but it has elements of science. Like the notes of a composer’s aria or the colors of a master’s paintings, there must be harmony between epicurean to produce a beautiful result. Artists are born with their creative gifts embedded in their DNA. The science element requires external input and must be learned. So that led to the question I began to ponder last week: Do I want to be a chef? I was born with the passion and blessed with a good palate, but does that translate into a career as a chef?
My quest to learn the optimal track to a culinary career took me first to the Internet. There I learned the pros and cons of culinary school. That’s a subject that could fill a book, but the 1,200 words I wrote last week will have to suffice for now. The next step was hearing personal stories from chefs who took a variety of paths to their culinary successes. So many chefs, so many great stories, but here are a few I can share in this short space.
As my readers know, Chef David Walford, owner and executive chef of Splendido in Beaver Creek, is a respected culinary mentor of mine. Splendido was my first commercial kitchen experience, so it made sense to start there. We share a strong belief that our educational system fails to provide alternative training for those who aspire to trades. Should everyone go to college? No. Those who want to learn a craft as opposed to letters in college should not be stigmatized. There is value in both. In many European countries, teens with skills are put on educational tracks that lead to apprenticeships and trade schools, not universities. Perhaps the same thing goes for culinary education. Since it takes so many years to develop the skills needed to call oneself “chef,” the education could begin much earlier in life when youngsters with these skills are identified. And training should not be limited to institutions but augmented by years of apprenticeships in a variety of restaurants, learning a broad array of skills before a specialty is chosen. As Walford said, “You have to bone 100 chickens before you can really know how to bone a chicken.” This is not something learned in a classroom or even a culinary teaching kitchen. It’s a lesson taught through blood (literally, sometimes), sweat (lots of it) and tears on the job.
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Splendido’s website describes Walford as “a seasoned craftsman who has spent the last 30 years immersed in the culture of the culinary world.” Walford honed his skills through years of experience working at all stations in the kitchen under a variety of talented chefs. Walford loves aviation and is a pilot. But a career in aviation was not in the cards after he encountered the culinary world while working in a restaurant as a teen. He tried college but soon discovered his future was in a kitchen, not a classroom. The Colorado native experienced fine dining in Vailand then San Francisco and Napa, where he worked first as an apprentice and then a cook with renowned chefs such as Masa Kobayashi, at Auberge du Soleil, and Udo Neschutneys, at Miramonte in St. Helena. It was this latter stint that inspired Walford to head to France, where he spent a year working in several provinces, including Paris, under a number of noted chefs. Upon his return to Vail, Walford was executive chef at Sweet Basil for nine years before opening Splendido in 1994.
One has to wonder whether Splendido would exist if Walford had been laden with culinary school debt rather than having experienced working with some of the finest chefs in the world. To summarize his cautionary advice to aspiring chefs like me: Amass experience, not debt, and understand the hard physical work involved in this pursuit.
Between his teens and mid-30s, Chef Justin Hugill, owner of QUINNtessential Chef, was in “culinary career denial.” Being laid off from his mortgage-banking job at 34 was the final push into a culinary career. Hugill learned to cook when he was 8 years old and grew up working in his parents’ high-end deli and bakery in Auckland, New Zealand. This early experience – which seems to be the common thread woven through so many chefs’ stories – developed Hugill’s taste for the business. In his 20s, Hugill went in and out of the culinary industry before committing himself to a culinary career. And he’s never looked back.
Although I have a few years on Hugill, I am at a similar crossroad, where I realize despite the letters I’ve earned, culinary passion still burns within. Like the Kiwi chef, I thought about culinary school. Hugill went the route of combining experience with a short, intense term at Cook’s Street in Denver, where he expanded his knowledge base. He believes culinary schools fail to teach just how hard it is to be a chef, but he had already learned that lesson through his previous experience. At the end of his studies, he spent time working in Asti, Italy, and Paris, which convinced him that knowledge gained after culinary school was the most valuable of all.
Another advocate of experience-based learning, Heather Weems, culinary assistant at Colorado Mountain College, works with culinary applicants and students. Weems first obtained an English degree before completing the one-year accelerated program at Johnson and Wales. Her student loan story is a cautionary tale. It took her three years to pay off her four-year university debt but 10 to pay off her year at Johnson and Wales. Her complaints about culinary school are the debt load and the inability of students to have hands-on access to high-end ingredients. She believes CMC is uniquely positioned through its partnership with Vail Resorts to provide valuable apprenticeship programs for students. It’s in these fine-dining restaurants where students’ palates can be developed and eyes opened to the realities of the career they are pursuing. Once again, we see the value of real-life experience before incurring substantial debt.
These and other stories from esteemed chefs helped me arrive at my decision – I don’t want tuition debt, and I’m unable to deal with the physical stresses of the kitchen. So where does that leave me? Writing about food and people behind it is both an honor and a pleasure. I will continue, but it’s not enough. I decided now is the time to share my culinary dreams and aspirations with others by creating epicurean experiences through Pink Pearls Culinary Creations. And through this new venture, I will be able to speak the language of my eclectic Sicilian-French-Cajun-Israeli culture, a language of food and my love for the people who create and enjoy it.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.