What Makes a Chef a Chef?
If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that the moment I became a chef was when I put on my crispy white chef’s jacket with my name coupled with “executive chef” at a now-defunct Cleveland restaurant. Looking back, not only was I in fact not a chef, but I really had no idea what I was doing. My chef’s jacket today is blank. The jacket — or even the title — does not define me. An inscribed jacket can make you too comfortable. And comfort is a chef’s worst enemy.
Technically, I am a chef. And part-owner of a restaurant. I’m very proud of both, but my path here wasn’t a typical one. I didn’t go to culinary school and I made a lot of mistakes. I tend not to get too caught up in titles. Of course, my passion is cooking. But if someone is sick and I have to do the dishes or work the line, great, I’m in. It’s not a singular position, in my opinion.
When I was in high school, I was responsible for watching my younger brothers. This included making sure they ate. I had no idea what I was doing, but I’d throw some stuff together that loosely resembled pancakes or meatloaf. I’m sure it wasn’t very good, but we had fun. And a spark was born.
That spark led me to a Home Economics class in high school, during which most of my classmates goofed off or even cut class. Me and this other guy, who happens to be a fellow chef in Cleveland now, too, ended up winning this cupcake contest — white chocolate macadamia nut. And suddenly, I had the confidence that maybe I could do this. For whatever reason, I could look at a recipe and it just clicked. And this meant something because nothing else in my life was clicking. For whatever reason, I could look at a recipe and it just clicked. And this meant something because nothing else in my life was clicking.
Around that same time, I was reading Kitchen Confidential on the bus heading home and happened to look up to see a bunch of chefs standing outside in their jackets, talking and smoking. It was this perfect trifecta of events and I was sold. I wanted this life — or rather, the life I perceived those chefs to have.
I walked in to that same place I saw from the bus, Chefs for Hire Catering, and asked for a job. I was now a dishwasher. On day one, I walked up to the three-compartment sink and saw all the dishes and warming trays from the previous night’s party stacked to the ceiling, untouched and hardened with leftover food. I did every one by hand.
Eventually I was able to do a work release program my senior year. I’d go to school until noon then head to work and do dishes for three hours. The owners became like a second family to me and really took me in. After four years, I worked up the ranks and eventually left as a sous chef. I was 18.
I took a job at the Willowick Cabin, where everyone was old and had a lot of vices. I was young, naïve, and determined to make friends with the head chef who wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence. To my surprise, this job led to me another restaurant where they actually made me the head chef, a role I had been dreaming of. Except I hated it. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know, and realized I had to refine my abilities and go to culinary school.
Turns out, my family didn’t put away any money for college, so I was on my own. Luckily, I was really into hip-hop music at the time and didn’t realize how that would actually fund my education. One of the drivers at the restaurant recognized it and offered to buy all my turntables for $2,000. Every last dollar was spent on cookbooks. I’d throw dinner parties for friends and treat them like my guinea pigs.
I used my new education to get a job in the best restaurant in town working 80-plus hours a week. My only goal was to shut up and learn. After my shift — and a few rounds — I’d head home to recreate this dishes I made that night.
This experience allowed me to follow different chefs that were mentors to me around the country, and experience various aspects of running a kitchen first-hand. But Cleveland was my home and I wanted to come back. I made my way to Flour where I met chef Paul Minnillo, a very well-respected, old school chef. We had instant chemistry. He taught me to take a step back and really focus on the details. He’s made me a better man and a much better chef.
I have no regrets about not going to culinary school and think my training and type of education can stack up to any. I learned long ago that school in the traditional sense does not make someone a chef. Discipline, passion, integrity, camaraderie and literally doing whatever it takes, no matter how long you’ve been sporting the coat… That is what makes a chef a chef.