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An interview with an up and coming chef

October 13, 2008

I often talk about my friend Peter K who has spent the past few years in various kitchens, honing his craft.  This fall he took the next step and enrolled at the New England Culinary Institute to get his B.A. in restaurant management.  A few weeks ago I invited Peter to share his experiences, recipes and thoughts for the The DC Dish, to which he responded with a very enthusiastic yes!  To introduce him, I asked him a few questions about what it’s like to be the next big thing!

When did you realize you wanted to become a chef?
I don’t know if there was ever really an “ah-ha!” moment that made me realize I wanted to be a chef.  The first summer job I ever had was working in a kitchen and I just felt so comfortable working there that I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.  Over the course of the last six years, I came to realize that going to work and cooking took my mind off of everything else and completely relaxed me.  I guess there’s not much more I could look for in a job.

What is your favorite dish to cook?
Just picking one favorite dish is kind of tough.  I think I will say just about anything that involves duck in any form.  Duck breast, duck leg confit, or duck eggs (or even the occasional duck tongue!) paired with almost anything makes me happy.  If I had to pick a favorite, it’d be a thick piece of seared foie gras and some brioche French toast with a chestnut gastrique.

Describe a typical day in cooking school.
I’m in the hospitality and restaurant management program at New England Culinary Institute right now, so it’s a little different than what people typically think of when they imagine culinary school. I have eight classes right now, such as accounting, financial management, and human resource management. Besides the expected homework in each class, we are writing a business plan for our own restaurant concepts. We build our plan over six months, covering every aspect from creating a marketing plan to writing a menu to costing out the financial aspects of the restaurant.

What is the hardest thing about working in a restaurant? What is your favorite?
For me, the hardest thing and my favorite thing about cooking are both the lack of appreciation. It is the hardest because you can kill yourself working all day and all night, and if one thing goes wrong, you will hear about it for the rest of the night. On the other hand, even if you are nearly flawless, you might not even get a single word of thanks. Now, I say this is my favorite thing about cooking as well for two reasons. First, when you rarely do get those one or two words of gratitude, it means a lot more and really sticks with you, adding a nice reminder about how happy you can make others with your talents. Second, it keeps you striving for perfection and allows you to continually improve your abilities as a cook. With cooking, once you stop trying to learn and stop pushing yourself to your limits you stop your chance at being a great chef.

Be honest, what would you say to other young people who want to become a chef?
Cooking professionally and cooking at home are two completely separate experiences. When someone cooks at home, it is a fun, relaxing and most importantly a forgiving experience. You can literally take the time to play with your food and enjoy every minute aspect of cooking. In a restaurant kitchen, it is a different story. It takes a lot of love and passion for the food you are making to carry you through the pounding stress that each night brings. You’re usually cramped in a small space in sweltering heat, you have to make dishes faster than you think possible; you have to keep all of the orders organized in your head while more orders keep pouring in. You work long hours, late nights, weekends, and holidays leaving little time for much else in your life. If, after all of that, the satisfaction of knowing you pushed yourself to the limit and made truly good food is enough to make you happy, then you are looking at the right career.

What is your favorite place to eat when in DC?
My all time favorite place to eat is Restaurant Nora on Florida Ave. My parents brought me there for a birthday dinner when I was younger and now it is always my first stop when I come back to D.C. It was the first restaurant to be organically certified, and it really shows in the quality of their food. There is a nice range of dishes on the menu as well as a fair amount of creativity and If only I could afford to eat there every day, or even every week, I would.

What are your influences? Who do you admire?
My influences in the field are the people I meet and the food I eat. I always find it amazing to see the variety of character traits that other chefs and cooks possess. You meet everyone from people with criminal records, to people who have traveled the world, to people who are only in restaurants as a last resort for a job. One thing I always find the best chefs have in common is a passion and love for great food. This is where my influence and my admiration are the same. The chefs I have worked for who truly love food are the ones I would follow to any restaurant under any situation at the drop of a hat. Their eyes will light up when they describe a dish they had the other night, or they come in excited to work just so they can tell everyone about a new idea for the menu. I hope that I am able to remain as motivated as they are throughout the entirety of my career.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I would love to say that in 10 years I will be running my own restaurant and leading the kitchen as the executive chef. There’s always so much more to learn from other chefs in the culinary world that it may be hard for me to go out on my own. I guess what it comes down to is how comfortable I will feel in 10 years with the amount of knowledge I’ve already collected. One of the reasons I am in school now is so that I can prepare myself to one day have a restaurant of my own. Hopefully, I’ll get a great sous chef job right after school, take the next five to seven years to learn as much as I can, and then start moving towards the point where I can go out on my own.

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