A Recipe for Success
Antoinette Bruno, CEO & Editor-in-Chief of StarChefs.com
Addresses Graduating Class at Scottsdale Culinary Institute
- Le Cordon Bleu May 6, 2006
StarChefs’ mission is to be a catalyst in the industry
for chefs to pursue culinary excellence. To help you be the
best you can be and to make it in this challenging field.
Our JobFinder is a niche job board for the restaurant and
hospitality industry. That means that if you do not know where
you are headed when you walk out the door today, your next
stop should be StarChefsJobFinder.com
to learn more about some of the great opportunities out there
in top kitchens around the country.
Today is an important milestone in your culinary career,
and I’m honored to be here to share in the celebration
with you. No doubt you struggled mightily to make it through,
mastering everything from the essentials of food safety to
the fundamentals of classic cooking methods – butchering,
filleting, braising, baking. You’ve memorized food cost
formulas and mother sauces, and have been challenged to demonstrate
an understanding of the principles of hospitality and effective
team management. Are you ready to graduate today? YES, without
a doubt! But are you ready to be an executive chef or run
your own restaurant? That’s what I want to talk about
As your chef instructors prepare to set you free into the
world of hospitality, I’m here to prepare you for what
you will face in your interviews, your first job and hopefully
guide you in your career choices. In my role as Editor-in-Chief
of StarChefs for the past 7 years, I have met and interviewed
about a thousand chefs across the country and the world, and
have eaten at their restaurants.
Every time I interview an executive chef or executive pastry
chef, I ask them to share their advice to young cooks and
aspiring culinary professionals like yourselves. I ask them
for their favorite interview questions, so that I can help
you to excel in an interview and effectively demonstrate your
passion and drive. So, based on the collective knowledge and
advice from every chef I’ve ever interviewed –
chefs like Daniel Boulud, Norman Van Aken, Michael Mina, and
Todd English, plus all of our Rising Stars around the country,
I have a few pearls of wisdom to share.
Are you familiar with the word “phenom?” A phenom
is a person of “phenomenal” ability or promise.
Today, you all stand before me as phenoms in your own right.
But whether you achieve great success and live to fulfill
your potential depends on how you carry yourself when you
walk out of this school today. So consider this your final
recipe for success. It’s a handy acronym built around
the word PHENOM: P - H - E - N - O – M.
You are a PHENOM and destined for success if you
Passion: I can’t tell you how many
chefs over the years who have said to me that if you don’t
have the sheer passion for this business, there is no point
being in it. If you can’t demonstrate your passion for
food and cooking to an executive chef in an interview, from
the very first question he or she asks, then everyone is left
wondering why you are here? Especially when you are just getting
started in your career, an executive chef or chef de cuisine
is going to be more willing to take you on in his or her kitchen
because you have passion, not because you have skills.
There are a lot of kinds of questions a chef can ask you
to elicit a response that shows you are passionate –
from what cookbooks do you read, to where do you see yourself
in 5 years.
Josh DeChellis of Sumile and Jovia in New York, who was a
named a StarChefs Rising Star last year, told me that his
favorite question to ask is: “Where have you eaten your
favorite meal?” Not just because of where it might be,
he says, but when you answer he can gauge how you connect
with food. If you tell Josh that you ate at Alain Ducasse
in Paris and everything was really good –the bill was
really high, but the food was great, well then, ok.
But if you said to him that you went to this Chinese restaurant
in Chinatown and the dumplings were amazing because the dough
was rolled really thin, well then it’s clear that you’re
really exited about food. Chefs are looking to see if you
are totally consumed and enthralled by food. That’s
the passion and energy they want in their kitchens.
H is for Humility: Sure you may have aced
all your exams and memorized every textbook. But no matter
how much you think you know right now, I can guarantee you
that relative to every employee in a restaurant you think
you want to work in, including the dishwashers, you know NOTHING.
It’s imperative that you demonstrate genuine humility
as you go out into the working world, because no executive
chef that you want to work for will tolerate arrogance or
a know-it-all attitude. Being humble in the kitchen means
that you have respect not only for your colleagues, but also
for your surroundings – your equipment, your tools,
and the product. Being humble also means that no job is beneath
It’s a fact that not everyone working in this industry
holds a culinary degree in high regard. And that means you
may be asked to do some of the most unpleasant tasks simply
because you are a culinary school grad and your teammates
automatically think that you are arrogant and need to be broken.
I knew a sous chef at a top restaurant who told me that when
culinary grads started in his kitchen, the first thing they’d
be assigned to was cleaning out the dumpsters for a couple
a days. And if the dishwasher didn’t show up, then they’d
have to wash the dishes. The lesson that you are forced to
learn the hard way is that no one’s job is more important
than another person’s. This is a key lesson to becoming
a great chef.
E is for Endurance: If you really have dreams
of making it big in this industry, one of the most important
factors is endurance. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint.
Do you have the endurance to work 14-hour days, 6 or 7 days
a week, with no vacation for the next 10 years? Your health
is a key factor in your ability to endure in this field. Norman
Van Aken, the father of fusion cuisine, gave some very important
advice to a room full of young cooks and culinary school students
who were attending our Miami Rising Stars Revue a couple years
ago. He said, “If you smoke, quit and if you don’t
work out, start!”
Chef Sean Hardy, one of our newest Rising Stars in LA warns,
“Too many cooks come out of school now saying they don't
want to work weekends, nights and holidays, and I tell them
they need to change their outlook or they will not be successful
and then become miserable in the process.” Do you have
the endurance to work weekends and holidays for the next ten
years or more?
Chefs and other hospitality professionals who make it and
succeed at the highest level will tell you that this field
can be devastating to personal relationships outside the workplace.
Family and friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, children
are often unforgiving about the hours you are required to
put into your job.
Are you willing to sacrifice relationships and a balanced,
normal lifestyle to make it? Daniel Boulud once told me that
if you love the business, you’ll never think it’s
N is for Natural Talent: I think it’s
important to recognize your natural talents and strengths
and play to them. When all else fails, remember your talents.
If making phenomenal crab cakes or beautifully decorated cupcakes
is your thing, why not go for it? As Chef Gabriel Frasca,
one our recently named Boston Rising Stars said to me in an
interview, “There’s no sin in being really humble,
but there is a sin in not doing something as well as you can.”
While you do need to have some natural talent in this field,
what’s inspiring about the culinary industry is that
with dedication, you can overcome just about any weakness
and build up your skills in areas that might not come naturally
to you. I don’t know any chef who was born knowing how
to turn vegetables perfectly. But by practicing the technique
over and over again, you can master just about any skill.
Personally I find that one of the most compelling aspects
of this industry is that, much more so than any other, there
is a level playing field. This is a meritocracy, where you
are promoted because you work hard and demonstrate skill and
competency. Not because you’re good looking or you went
to a top culinary school, or because your parents are friends
with the owner. You can only get so far in this field on good
looks, fast talk or impressive connections. If the passion
isn’t in your heart and the skill isn’t in your
hands, then you won’t make it very far.
O is for Open Mind: Having an open mind and being
willing to try new things is crucial for your development
as a culinary professional. Being open to people, ideas, places,
and ingredients will broaden your horizons. Don’t assume
that just because you learned from an instructor or a chef
how to do something one way, that it is the only way. Being
open minded also allows you to take risks and experiment,
ultimately enabling you to come up with innovations that are
essential to driving the restaurant and hospitality industry
One of the best ways to open your eyes and mind to new or
different foods, as well as ideas about food, is through culinary
Whether it’s taking a month or two and traveling throughout
Asia or South America, or going to Europe to volunteer in
the kitchen of one of the top Michelin-rated kitchens, you’ll
be amazed how culinary travel and really immersing yourself
in a culture can give you the inspiration and insight to take
your career to a whole other level.
You may have heard of the concept of staging –
an arrangement where you volunteer – UNPAID –
to work in a top kitchen overseas for anywhere from one week
to 6 months or even a year. In exchange for the most modest
of accommodations, you have the opportunity to work in some
of the most celebrated kitchens of our time. Ferran Adria
of El Bulli in Spain has over 50 stagiers volunteering with
him at any given time, and hundreds more lined up begging
for the opportunity.
So how do you go about arranging a stage? Research and reading
is probably the most important first step to determine who
you want to stage for. You need to make a plan. Sending letters
to every Michelin-rated restaurant may not get you very far
– and sometimes can lead you astray. In fact, many young
chefs have told me that they got their stage by just showing
up at a restaurant in Europe and pleading with the chef to
take them on as stagiers.
One of the most memorable staging stories I ever heard was
from Amanda Lydon, another one of our Boston Rising Stars.
About 6 years ago, Amanda applied to dozens of European restaurants
for a stage, and eventually one restaurant in Provence accepted
her. So she went, but unfortunately it wasn’t the experience
she was looking for. She knew she had come to the wrong place.
But fortunately, Amanda had this article on Martin Berasetegui
dog-eared in a magazine she had brought on her travels –
so she called his restaurant and got one of his sous chefs
on the line. And she talked her way into a stage at this renowned
restaurant in San Sebastien. She stayed for 3 months, and
literally lived in the restaurant, sleeping in the basement
at night and working all day. And that experience has fueled
her passion, creativity and drive for all these years.
M is for Mentors: I’ve saved for last
what I consider the most important ingredient in your recipe
for success. Mentors. I can’t tell you how important
it is to really think about the kind of chef you want to be
or the kind of restaurant you want to work for and to seek
out a mentor whose approach toward food and hospitality aligns
Todd English recommends that you “go to your favorite
restaurant, or find a restaurant you like, get to know the
people, and ask them if you can volunteer. Most people will
let you do that, observe, hang out in the kitchen, to see
what you’re getting into.”
Todd English is known for being a great mentor to so many
young chefs. A mentor will not only teach you invaluable skills,
techniques and culinary concepts, but they will also impart
their philosophy of cooking and hospitality, as well as important
lessons on how to run a business, how to manage a staff, and
how to see beyond the four walls of your restaurant to understand
how the larger culinary community is connected. Ask around,
again, do your reading and research and identify a few possible
mentors. Then be relentless in your pursuit to get into that
kitchen and work with that chef. Offer to work for free if
you have to. Think of it as a stage at first. Offer to do
anything, even wash dishes. If you really want to work under
a particular chef, you have to be willing to start at the
very bottom and prove that you deserve to be in that kitchen.
Eventually you will get hired.
“Stay with a chef for 2-3 years before moving on,”
recommends Daniel Humm, a San Francisco Rising Star who recently
joined the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park in New York. That
way, Daniel says, you get to work as many stations as you
can and you really understand why a chef’s creations
are what they are.” Daniel Humm’s advice is worth
taking. Most top chefs won’t even hire you unless you
agree to a minimum of 1 year. Some demand 2 years. When you
show that you are committed to a chef, that chef will commit
to you in return. He or she becomes a true mentor and ally
to you, helping you when you’re ready to move on and
get your next job, and ideally helping you all along the way
of your career.
Reading is essential at every stage of your career. Michael
Mina told me that he reads every night for an hour before
he goes to bed, no matter what's happened in his day. He just
picks up a cookbook and reads. He also keeps a notepad right
beside his bed because that's when he gets a lot of his ideas,
late at night.
Committing yourself to a lifetime of learning – through
reading and working with other chefs – is very much
a part of the recipe for success. One of the best ways to
connect to the culinary community outside of your own restaurant
or kitchen is to periodically attend some of the amazing chef
conferences out there. Europe has become known for leading
industry conferences – like Madrid Fusion, Alimentaria,
or Lo Mejor de la Gastronomia. Even if you have to scrape
pennies to afford to go and find somebody’s hotel floor
to crash on, it’s worth it to have a chance to see the
best chefs from around the world in action, in addition to
some of the best chefs in the US.
I have been so impressed after attending these conferences
in Europe over the past few years. But I wondered why these
kinds of high level chef conferences don’t take place
in the US? I became convinced that StarChefs had to organize
something comparable in the US, for all the young chefs who
can’t take off a week from their restaurant and go to
Europe. And so I’m proud to say that this September
19 and 20, StarChefs will hold its inaugural International
Chefs Congress in New York City, and I hope that you will
all make it a point to come.
Some of the most innovative and influential chefs and pastry
chefs – from Sergi Arola and Albert Adrià of
Spain, to Davide Scabin from Italy, Pascal Barbot and Pierre
Hermé from France, plus chefs like Wylie Dufresne,
Marcus Samuelsson, David Bouley and Ken Oringer from the US,
will present their techniques and culinary concepts to their
chef peers. This is the first event of its kind in the US,
and I invite you to be a part of culinary history!
Before I conclude, I want to take a moment to talk about
money. Most of you probably took student loans to attend culinary
school and the burden or paying them back and supporting yourselves
in the real world is looming on the horizon. If you’re
weighing the choice between a job in a second or third-rate
kitchen that pays well, versus a low-level position or even
an unpaid stage in a top kitchen, my advice is almost always
to go for the experience in the best kitchen possible. The
fact is, if your goal is to make a lot of money, you’re
in the wrong field. Remember passion??? Being
able to delay the financial rewards of success is not easy.
But if you really have what it takes, if you are the PHENEOMS
that you all seem to be, then the money will come in time.
More important than the money is the knowledge that you are
the best you can be.
So now you have your final recipe for success: Passion,
Humility, Endurance, Natural
Talent, an Open-Mind, and Mentors.
Congratulations again to all of you on making it this far,
and I wish you the best of luck as you embark on the next
phase of your careers. Remember this recipe, remember what
it means to be a PHENOM, and maybe one day, you will be a
Star Chef, and I’ll be interviewing YOU!!!