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Antoinette Bruno CEO of StarChefs.com



 

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 today.

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 have:

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 you.

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 a sacrifice.

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 forward.

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 travel.
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 with yours.

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!!!


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  • StarChefs' International Chefs Congress: Sept 19 & 20, 2006
  • Research Culinary Schools Around the Country

  • ...Published: May 6, 2006

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