It all started with a small produce stand in New Jersey...
I didn't want a job. The summer was for friends, sleeping in, and the beach. I was 14 and my job was to replenish the vegetables as the customers pulled them from the baskets. I had to quite literally run. Because what seemed like a sweet old lady minding her business in a rocking chair was actually, at the time, more like something out of a nightmare. It became a common occurrence for her to call us "lazy kids" and scream in front of the customers to "move faster" or "hustle". Adults were supposed to be nice. At my age this was shocking.
She and her husband owned the farm and produce stand while their three sons worked in the fields. She allowed us a 30 minute break which I rarely took because there was nothing to eat and she charged us for a chocolate milk. I had no money because I was 14, and I was on a farm so there was nowhere to go. So I "hustled," and after the first couple of weeks I would hear from her less and less. I was constantly finding small ways to be faster. It almost became an obsession and not just because I feared the little old lady. In a weird way it became fun. The most important thing, even to this day, was learning to show a sense of urgency. And in our industry, that's everything. Over the summer I was taught to clean, pick and identify different produce items. I was learning a lot. This was my first real introduction to food.
The following school year came and I was finally able to talk to some friends about my cool summer job. As we traded summer job stories, one job had really stuck out. The restaurant was called The Village Roaster and I was told you could eat "whatever you want, whenever you want it." So of course my first question was "do they have chicken tenders?" And my friends reply, "Yep!" I needed this job.
The menu was similar to any small fried chicken joint but we made everything fresh. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, potato wedges, it was wonderful. I started as a dishwasher and after 6 months I was working the fryers. And eating chicken tenders all day was definitely all its cracked up to be. The owner Cheryl was was high energy, maybe a little spazzy but very fair. She quickly became family. Co-workers came and went but I stayed. I loved it. Soon enough I was creating my own specials (maybe a little too nice for a chicken shack). They rarely sold as I would put items on like blackened salmon or pan-seared tilapia. She was never concerned with the sales. The fact that I was learning, playing with food and having fun was all that mattered to her. It was a real turning point.
Senior year came and so did the pressure of college. At this point I was making decent money, had a brand new car and... received THREE speeding tickets in a few months. So naturally, I decided to take criminal justice courses and become a State Trooper. The inevitable day came when I needed to put in my two week notice and become a mall cop. I didn't want to quit, I had to. I remember sitting down, becoming cold, sweaty and pale. I was so nervous and upset. I told her the plan, we agreed it was best and we talked for what seemed like 3 hours. At this point, making this a career had never crossed my mind but I couldn't imagine doing anything else.
The following week I received a brochure for "The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill college" in Philadelphia, and thats when it hit me. I wanted to be a Chef. I attended the two year program for Restaurant Management (thats another story). After graduating I craved more and attended "The Culinary Institute of America" in Hyde Park, NY. It was the best decision I've ever made. The amount of knowledge each Chef instructor had and working with Certified Master Chefs, it was all so unreal. I was so proud to graduate. What I or any other culinary graduate wasn't expecting was the student loan payments and making less money than I was 4 years before. You won't graduate into a celebrity chef or an Executive Chef position. When you graduate you'll wash dishes and if you're lucky they'll let you make some salads.
In our industry we've grown accustomed to certain things. Things that don't generally exist in other professions. Things that would seem torturous and terrifying to others. Things like: long hours (it's typical for any chef to work 60-80 hours a week), hot kitchens, low pay, missing out on EVERY holiday and family party, cuts, bruises and plenty of burns. But these things we wear like a badge of honor. We certainly don't regret. Things they'll never tell you like your co-workers will become your family and you'll meet your significant other at work. See we know that there aren't many people who can do what we do. And we don't like that... we love it.
There are cooking techniques (sauté, grill, braise, poach, etc.) that have been around for hundreds of years. There are scientific and specific ways to cook items like green vegetables or pasta. You don't have to be a celebrity chef or work at the fanciest restaurants in the world to know these things and there is little re-invention of this wheel. If there are no secrets why doesn't everyone know how to cook? This seems troubling and dangerous. The idea that if for any reason someone was forced to cook and feed their family or themselves, they couldn't. It's a great freedom to be able to cook and eat anything you want, whenever you want, on any budget. The culinary world we live in won't get much better than this. In fact, it may only get worse as the population increases, rising prices of commodities, over fishing, climate change etc. and many items we take for granted become short supply or endangered (chocolate, ahi tuna). Before, we cooked locally, hence the different types of cuisines, dishes, equipment and ingredients found in any region of the world. Today you can literally eat hamachi caught in Hawaii yesterday, or how about beautiful poutine made with Idaho potatoes? Chinese food isn't just in China.
I've been in the industry for a long time (almost 19 years), originally a Philadelphia native. Ive worked every kitchen station, been a Sous and Head Chef for many years, worked at prominent, four star restaurants, a brewery and some holes in a wall with great food. And of course I've seen some of what most people only read about or see on TV. It's become clear that there are two major issues we want to help solve to leave this world a better place. And this is where Food Fire + Knives mission begins (finally).
First, people need (and mostly want) to be able to cook. But how can they create more time in their schedule and receive the knowledge to do so? One of our main goals is to also teach efficiency. If you could cook dinner in 30 minutes instead of 1 hour and 30 minutes, would that appeal to you? We hire Chefs that specialize in specific cuisines. We take an approach that's similar to crowdsourcing information. We use a metric that we call "Years of Cumulative Culinary Experience." Why learn from one Chef with 5 years of experience when you can learn from twenty with 500 years? We are currently at over 200 years and counting (our goal by next year is 1000). And of course our workshops are fun, entertaining and delicious.
Secondly, there are SO many great chefs out there that deserve to live comfortably, pay their bills (culinary school) while passing on their wealth of knowledge. How can we supplement their income or hire them full-time and provide a better quality of life? Well, we do that too.
The point to it all is that this is my unique story, and every chef has their own story of why they got into this business. But you'll always see one similarity. A few years back someone asked me the question, which I'm sure every Chef has received many times in their life. It's a general question that's very difficult to answer without seeming like you're blowing them off. It usually goes similar to this when they find out your profession, "Cool! How do you like being a chef?" And my perfect response, "I love it. I get to play with Food, Fire and Knives all day." No offense to anyone reading but I couldn't imagine plumbing toilets for a living. Now that's a job. Sure someone's got to do it, and I truly respect that. But I never wanted a job. And so it was born.