We sometimes wait our entire lives for that moment; the epiphany, the light bulb event that signals what our purpose is. As I continue to find new ways to love my involvement in the food business I am always amazed at how many chefs have experienced those life-changing moments. When they occur, a person’s passion and commitment grows exponentially. I suppose it is parallel to that age-old question: “why am I here”?
For a chef “why am I here” might be “to create, to nourish, to teach or to simply make people smile”. To a few, this question may even address all of those and more. When it does, a chef becomes so much more than his or her title. A chef becomes a portal for others to flock to and an example of what we should all aspire to become. Such is the case with Chef Curtiss Hemm of Pink Ribbon Cooking, LLC.
Pink Ribbon Cooking is a life-long journey for Chef Hemm who now spends his days developing recipes and delivering a message to thousands who are recovering from breast cancer or supporting someone who is. His belief that food should “Do no Harm” has become a message that he seeks to deliver to all who will listen. In essence, he goes beyond this statement and demonstrates how food can help to heal on all levels: physical, mental and emotional.
Chef Hemm has agreed to this interview that addresses his career path, what keeps him up at night and pushes him every day, and how this path might serve as an inspiration for other cooks and chefs seeking out that “purpose”.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in the kitchen?
“There was no one person that led me down this path. I have always been a creative person and loved to build things without the influence of rigidity, rules or known outcomes. Ultimately I was interested in architecture but took a job cooking. I fell in love with the freedom, instant gratification and the fire that feeds a kitchen’s energy.
Having been raised in the northern tier of NY I had been a consumer of many forms of culinary media. Jacques Pepin has always influenced my cooking, probably more so than anyone else. Pepin’s regard for technique and his casual style were elements that resonated with me. The original Cook’s Illustrated also inspired me. I can remember making a lobster cake from the magazine using a mousseline as a binder instead of the normal 80’s bread crumbs and mayonnaise. I have a voracious appetite for technical literature about food and cooking. My appetite for anything related to food and cooking has led to a very large collection of cookbooks, memoirs and magazine, easily exceeding 3,000 books.
Another huge influence on my career and my life is my father. While he was not a large vocal advocate for my chosen career he always supported me as a person and he knew I was happy cooking. He allowed me to pursue my passion and allowed me to be me. I will always appreciate that and offer the same to my son.”
2. Who mentored you in your pursuit of this career?
“I did not pick up a culinary mentor until I enrolled in culinary school. At Paul Smith’s I was blessed to meet one of my longest standing mentors, Paul Sorgule. To this day Paul has inspired me to be prideful of my cuisine, to do it right the first time and to demonstrate the skills that make this a profession worthy of others.
I began working on culinary competitions at culinary school as a way to advance my skills and by exposure to ingredients and technique. These session instilled a love and passion for Garde Manger. Ultimately I ended up writing a culinary textbook, Garde Manger The Cold Kitchen with the world’s largest publishing house, Prentice Hall.”
3. What style of cooking best portrays your passion?
“I am really driven by technique and how a cook engages their medium. I openly admit to not being the most contemporary of chefs, leaving molecular gastronomy to the younger and the more ambitious chefs.
As I age I appreciate the simplicity of cooking and life. My cuisine and recipes reflect this. Life has become very busy and I seek to use my time in the kitchen to root myself to what makes me happy, to provide nourishment and love for my family and friends and to educate those living with illness on how to enjoy the table in a way that does not harm them.”
4. Do you have a food philosophy that drives your menu decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“Certainly I am a fan of cold foods; their subtle flavors, textures and nuances require you to engage your senses and explore the character of the ingredients.
More than anything I feel every ingredient has a voice and something to say, even the little ingredients like a bay leaf. It is my job as a chef to listen, interpret and present those voices in a way that showcases their truest character and qualities.
Our food should “DO NO HARM.”
Currently I am very focused on the nutritional side of cooking. More in how we remove processed foods from everyday life and engage fresh, natural and whole foods. There is a deficiency of culinary skill among the public. People think food is from a box or out of the freezer. This is killing us and we need to address it as a matter of life and death.”
5. Can you name a particular food experience in your life that was your epiphany? An experience that stands out as the moment when you said, yes, this is what I need to do.
“My time in France shaped a lot of my current thinking about food. Not that the food was better, but more how they engaged food as a society, it was a cultural importance to have good food.
I grew up not really having a culinary heritage. It was an experience to see how the French dined, cooked and shared the table. Spending time in France rooted technique into my culinary psyche. “
6. What is your pet peeve about working in restaurants?
“People think being chef is easy. IT IS ANYTHING BUT EASY. I have such mad respect for those in our industry that are able to balance family, work and career. I really was never able to do that. I chose education as a way to stay connected to food and cooking while staying married and raising my son.
Being a chef or being in our industry is a sacrifice. Chefs give up holidays, vacations and time with family and friends.
The public needs to respect these sacrifices and appreciate skill of the chefs that cook their meals and the function of restaurants within our society, communities and economy.
My other pet peeve is that I think there are too many restaurants that serve no purpose. These are owned by large corporations and do little to push our industry forward. They occupy space and dumb down food. The quick service causal genre has many of these establishments and I fail to see their value outside the economics of the business model.”
7. Who are your most valuable players in the restaurant where you currently work?
“Me. I do not currently have employees. When I left higher education and program administration I sought to be a very simple chef and business person. There are many aspects of my life that are challenging; my wife’s battle with breast cancer and my son’s issues related to Aspergers Syndrome. I require an amazing amount of flexibility. Being a business of one allows me to meet these primary responsibilities.
It is my goal to hire a culinary assistant in Q4 2014. I feel that being a manager is a huge commitment and I do not wish to become one again until I can do it on my terms and offer someone what I feel the position is worthy of, without compromise.”
8. If you had an opportunity to provide some guiding light to young cooks looking to make their mark in kitchens, what would you tell them?
a) Walk before you run. Know your stuff. Don’t become culinary fluff. You are better than that and you should want more for yourself. I have seen too many students come in and want to go straight to the most contemporary cooking styles and skip the basics. All cooking is rooted in technique, every aspect of it.
b) Be patient. Don’t rush to the top. It is not worth it. Enjoy cooking on the line. Build your skill-set, build your network and your culinary repertoire. All things come to those that deserve it.
c) DO NOT FOCUS ON THE MONEY. Money comes to those that earn it. Spend your 20’s building your skills and your 30’s building your career and name. This will allow you to build your fortune in your 40’s and 50’s.
d) You are nothing without the rest of your team. Lose the ego. Everyone in the restaurant industry is needed and should be respected for what they offer.
e) Find a mentor but don’t forget who you are. Find someone that inspires YOU, not just your food. I was fortunate to find this early in life, and in a few different people. It is a must.
f) Stay healthy. I wish I had embraced this earlier in life. Food is fuel, it can move your body, mind and soul, but it is still fuel. Fuel up properly, exercise and take care of yourself.”
9. When you hire people to work in your kitchen what traits are you looking for?
“Attention to detail, honesty, integrity, clarity of self and a good dose of confidence that falls short of arrogance or outright ego. I hire those that know life is balanced. Sometimes work requires a bit more and sometimes life does. We all live this and those that can manage it are the ones that succeed with me the best.”
10. If you were not cooking, what would you choose to do for a career?
“If I had a career mulligan I would be a doctor (orthopedic surgeon or cardiologist) or be a land and real estate developer.
I like the science and study of medicine and find that I know myself better now than in my youth and I would have really enjoyed that path.
Land development and real estate would allow me to engage the architect in me. I enjoy restoring my farm and managing my property and could easily see myself building beautiful houses and selling them to people that become their stewards. This would please me greatly.”
11. What would you like people to know about your current restaurant and the food that you produce?
“As a chef I feel obligated to serve food that is natural, whole and raised with humane treatment and harvesting practices. I have arrived to this position very late in life so I am more vocal about it than I rightfully should be but it would have to be the paradigm that food can both hurt and heal.
Our food should “Do no Harm.” Just as in medicine.”
Curtiss Hemm is an accomplished father, chef, manager, teacher, author and advocate for Breast Cancer Prevention and Recovery. I have been honored to know and work with Chef Hemm since he was a culinary student at Paul Smith’s College. Since then we have collaborated on projects, taught together at both Paul Smith’s and New England Culinary Institute and continue to look for any and every opportunity to collaborate. He is an exceptional human being, one who has found his purpose.
If you are interested in learning more about Pink Ribbon Cooking and Chef Hemm’s efforts in delivering an important message, PLEASE visit his website at: