There is a distinct difference between those who work in kitchens and those who choose to pursue a life-long career in food. Chefs tend to move in a variety of directions with their careers but typically all start out with the demands of prep and line work. Where they go from there will oftentimes depend on not just opportunity but where they feel they can have the greatest impact.
One of my favorite kitchen quotes came from Wolfgang Puck when he was asked by a reporter to describe why he was so successful in the food business. He said: “I buy the best raw materials and try not to screw them up”. This understanding of the source and the importance of the ingredient is a religion to many chefs and one of the most significant marketing tactics used by restaurants today. It goes beyond farm to plate and delves into a deeper understanding of quality, seasonality, carbon footprint, packaging, product maturity, understanding flavor profiles, handling and storage of ingredients, and how the ingredients fit with the concept of the restaurant. To this end, it is not just the chef who must take on the responsibility for understanding ingredients; it is of consummate importance that the distributor have an even greater understanding. The distributor, if competent, can help to educate the chef and the restaurateur and become their best friend and greatest contributor to restaurant success.
Over the years I have seen former students of mine move from the kitchen line to positions as executive chef, restaurateur, research chef, banquet chef, food writer and equipment rep. In a few cases, some of my more exceptional graduates have chosen a track that involves distribution. One such chef is Eamon Lee, CEC.
Eamon is currently the Corporate Chef for Maines Paper and Foodservice that distributes a full line of product and equipment out of Binghamton to New York and Pennsylvania. Chef Lee who is certified as an executive chef by the American Culinary Federation has agreed to the following interview that delves into his background, what drives him and his outlook for young aspiring cooks and chefs.
1. What or who influenced you to pursue a career in the kitchen?
“I worked at a high-end, on premise catering facility as a teenager and one night the chef could not make it into work. At 16 years old, I was the only one in the kitchen who could execute the wedding reception menu that evening. After the party, the newlyweds came into the kitchen and asked to see the chef. I said that the chef was gone and that I had prepared the meal. They looked at me in shock, gathered themselves, and stated it was the best meal they had ever had and that they would never forget it. I knew at that very moment I wanted to be a chef. “
2. What style of cooking best portrays your passion?
“Thoughtful, simple, seasonal, ingredient based American regional, with a farm to table feel. Basically, what they’ve been doing in Europe for 500 years.
3. Do you have a food philosophy that drives your menu decisions? If so, can you describe this philosophy?
“I usually ask myself these questions in this general order;
Create the palette-
*Where am I, and what is the “terroir?”
*What’s in season?
*Of these seasonal ingredients, which are the best for which I have to travel the least amount of distance to acquire?
*What staple ingredients does this particular “terroir” produce particularly well?
Identify the customer’s needs-
*Who am I feeding?
*What is the occasion?
*What is the level of formality?
*What is the importance of the food relative to the occasion?
*Are there any special dietary needs?
Choose the canvas-
*Where will they be eating?
*In what manner will they be eating? Family style, sit-down, buffet, etc…
*How will they be served?
Once this information is gathered, the menus write themselves. My job, as a chef, is to meet the customer’s needs (exceed them if the onus is on the food,) treat the ingredients with respect and dignity, and prepare a meal that dovetails perfectly with the needs of the customer, where and when they are eating it, and why. As a chef, humility is the most important ingredient I can bring to the kitchen, lest my needs supersede those of the customer’s and the potential of the ingredients. “
4. What is your pet peeve about working in restaurants?
“Missing family events and holidays.”
5. Who are your most valuable players in the restaurant where you currently work?
“In my last job as chef, the MVP’s were the people on my staff who “got it,” or, those who understood my answer to question #3. In a few words, or maybe even a look or gesture, they understood an entire philosophy or vision. Communication with MVP’s is effortless.”
6. 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?
“The same thing Jacques Pepin told me; essentially, cooking is a craft that needs to be mastered before in can be elevated to an art. Hone your craft, seek out masters, and do what they do. Rinse and repeat. After 10 years of this your own style may begin to develop. Then, and only then, will you be able to even think about making a mark.”
7. When you hire people to work in your kitchen what traits are you looking for?
“I look for an honest, open-minded and willing attitude and a dedication to the craft. A really, really strong work ethic helps too.
8. If you were not cooking, what would you choose to do for a career?
“Fine furniture making or a fly-fishing resort manager”.
9. What would you like people to know about your current restaurant and the food that you produce?
“I don’t work in a restaurant anymore, but in my current position I consult hundreds of restaurants throughout upstate New York. I try to be the chef some of them never had, or the source of inspiration they’ve never had. Instead of having one crew to inspire and manage, today, I have hundreds of crews. The food they all produce, in a small and sometimes-large measure, springs forth from the philosophy I described above. “
I have followed Eamon and his career since he finished a culinary degree at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondack’s of New York. He was one of those exceptionally talented students with a high level of confidence and the skills to back it up. Eamon was selected to represent his college as a member of the student culinary team that competed in Boston, MA. I will always remember this team with a special fondness because they were the first and only student team to win the New England Culinary Olympic Team cup for first place at that competition. Chef Lee is having an impact on the quality of food prepared at every restaurant that Maine’s touches. He is a true professional with an unwavering dedication to his craft.
For more information about Maines Paper and Foodservice, visit their website at: