Chef Aaron Chambers of Boulud Sud

Chef Aaron Chambers of Boulud Sud
September 2011

2011 New York Rising Star Chef Aaron Chambers may have begun his career as an ardent vegetarian (despite almost succumbing to the guilty pleasures of a crisp bacon sandwich at 19 years old, and who can blame him?). But even with two meatless decades on his curriculum vitae, Chambers began early, eagerly, and undaunted in the kitchen. Born in Yorkshire in northeast England, Chambers was already at the stove at eight years old, baking scones and pies by his mother’s side. Family was an important influence, as were his experiences on his grandmother’s dairy farm. Observing the connection between earth and product provided an ideal background for the young chef in the making.

Chambers took his first job at 14, preparing soups, salads, and desserts as a commis at the Beverley Arms Hotel in his hometown. He then enrolled in a two-year culinary program at a local school before moving to the decidedly more bustling city of Birmingham and the kitchen of The Edgbaston Golf Club (where Chambers met Chef Julian Tolbert, a valuable mentor). Chambers got his first taste of a disciplined, formally organized kitchen at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxford, going from commis to garde manger under Chef Raymond Blanc. An urge to travel brought the chef to Al Mahara in Dubai and its global pantry of ingredients.

Chambers only made landfall in the States in 2005, as sous chef at the French-Indian fusionIndebleu. Next came Café du Parc, where Chambers embraced rustic French cuisine and his first exposure to in-house charcuterie production. Already a far cry from his idyllic English beginnings, Chambers delved deeper into the cosmopolitan world of cuisine, making a decisive move to New York to work at Café Boulud under 2009 Rising Star Chef Gavin Kaysen. Kaysen’s youth and enthusiasm inspired Chambers in his own leadership role in Daniel Boulud’s organization. Now at Boulud Sud, the de-vegetarian-ized Chambers combines a seasoned creativity with the respect for product he learned years ago, across an ocean.

Interview with Chef Aaron Chambers of Boulud Sud - New York, NY

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Aaron Chambers: When I was younger my mother did a lot of baking at home. Dad grew all our own vegetables in the garden. Mom would take what dad gave her, and make vegetarian meals for me and my brother and father. When I was younger, it was a family lifestyle (dad wasn't vegetarian); I got inspired by my mum's cooking at home, fresh vegetables in the garden, and Dad was a beekeeper so we had our own honey.

AB: Did you attend culinary school? Do you hire based on culinary school?
AC: I spent two years at the local culinary school in a local town. They push you to work in the restaurants and hotels in England. They're designed around that. I went culinary school full time. They push you to do that, working at a hotel and a job at a small restaurant while going to school. [They] push you into the industry; it's better, you learn more from working at restaurants.

I think for the company as a whole, it's something they require. As a personal chef, if it's someone young and they want to learn, I don't mind if they have or don’t have a culinary background or education. When I hear how much money they spend on school I want to throw up. They come into the kitchen and they can't peel a carrot. It's crazy.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs who are just getting started?
AC: It was funny when I was at Café Boulud, we had this young kid and he loved food. He'd eaten at all the best restaurants and was 15 or 17 years old. He came to the Café Boulud, did a stage, and got inspired by it. He and my executive sous are still in touch. He makes dishes [and] sends him pictures. He's maybe 17, and he's experimenting with sous vide and foams. If you have passion and drive for food, you will find a way to do what you want to do.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
AC: I've been to CIA, career festivals, and I went to FCI and did judging for students there. As soon as this came around, before we had a date to open, before we had gas, I had free time so I went to FCI and judged their final exams, which was interesting.  

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AC: I think food needs to be simple enough that the guest understands it, but complex enough that it's something that's different to them. I think you [can] confuse guests with new techniques. It should be more simple. It’s about the product and letting the product shine, but giving them something they can't go home and make themselves.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
AC: Understanding the protein or the vegetable, or the sort of things you're using. Where you're trying to go with the dish: is it butter, is it olive oil? It depends on what country you're in, as well. On our menu we have dishes that touch Spain [and] France. You have to decide where you are, where you're going. Each dish has to tell a story. It has to tell a story about what you're doing with an ingredient.

AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
AC: Waiting for [Sam] Sifton to come back and make his review.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
AC: Right now, I work seven days a week. That's not tough. Hiring is tough in New York City right now. Finding good cooks. I'm missing two sous chefs. I can't find someone that has the credibility and résumé to warrant being a sous chef. If you're not a sous chef in New York City, it's a different beast. Right now in New York, there's a lack of talent, good talent.

AB: If you had one thing to do over again, what would it be?
AC: Learn French and go to France. In school I didn't care about France. I knew I wanted to be a cook and go to culinary school. It would have made my career so much faster, so much better.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
AC: Having Daniel [Boulud] name me the chef of this restaurant. It's a big deal for me.

AB: What does success mean for you?
AC: Running a successful restaurant is a success to me. Training the guys you have in the kitchen, promoting them. Each kitchen to me is like a school. We take young people in, we teach them, we train them, and we hopefully move them up positions, move them to better restaurants. For me, the kitchen's a school. It’s all about training. Being a successful restaurant is all about training your staff, having them move on, having them grow—become chefs themselves.

AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
AC: I don't know. I'm a shy, humble guy. I work hard. I don't know what I’m gonna do in five years. I didn’t know I'd be here three years ago. I came to New York three years ago, on the seventh of July.

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