Fast Tracks to Success | Food Newsfeed
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Chef Toni Sakaguchi during a demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America Campus in Napa Valley.

Fast Tracks to Success

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Rising-star graduates of top culinary schools credit educational breadth and networking relationships with their meteoric paths.

By Brock Radke June 2015

“I always get asked by younger cooks who haven’t yet gone to culinary school if they should do it, and if I would do it again, and I always answer yes,” says Mark Buley, at 31 years old still a young chef but already an accomplished one.

He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America’s ACE program (advanced career experience) six years ago, and this year, along with his business partner Sam Hellman-Mass at the trendy Austin, Texas, restaurant Odd Duck, Buley was nominated for James Beard: Rising Star Chef. So when he offers up some advice, aspiring chefs should listen.

I would say to go to culinary school but make sure you go to a great one, because a lot of what you are doing is buying into a network,” Chef Buley says. “This industry is so heavily based on your network and your pedigree and what you’ve been exposed to.”

A quick survey of other recent culinary school graduates who have transitioned into success seems to prove his advice. With so many possibilities in today’s food and beverage industry, students with the simple goal of making a living cooking might instead find themselves pursuing an extensive education in wine, or a career in manufacturing and farming, or a corporate gig testing and developing the next great American hamburger. Oftentimes a hidden passion presents itself during the educational process, and the potential success of the young professional will rest in his or her ability to connect those specific skills and experience with the right opportunity.

With this in mind the school must be chosen wisely, and the network will be built quickly. That’s the recipe gleaned from this stellar class of industry individuals, a group as diverse and talented as they are driven.

Billy Altieri
Johnson & Wales 2013
Innovation Chef, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Denver

Research and development. Supply chain. Marketing. Quality assurance. These are not necessarily things students are thinking about when they enter culinary school, but rest assured that a top notch culinary school will expose its students to all aspects of restaurant operations. For Billy Altieri, 23, who found himself drawn to product development and culinary nutrition, “diving into the sciences a little more” led to an incredibly rewarding position as an Innovation Chef at the Red Robin company, which ended its 2014 fiscal year with 514 locations and $1.146 billion in sales. In this capacity, Chef Altieri works closely with the marketing department on consumer data and trend analysis to develop dishes people want to eat, American classics with an interesting twist. “We’re looking at regional foods—like what Primanti Brothers are doing in Pittsburgh or at Nashville hot chicken—and figuring out how we can make them ours, adding our twist but still paying homage,” he says. One of his proudest moments/menu items is the Doh! Rings, a trendy and sweet croissant-doughnut that is both memorable and functional. It adds brand equity in its structural similarity to Red Robin’s onion ring towers.

Chef Altieri was drawn to the educational experience at Johnson & Wales because it offered a bachelor’s degree program, something that can be found at more and more culinary schools today. “I don’t know if everyone will reveal this to you but I was very insecure about the kitchen,” he says in explaining his career path. “There’s a lot to know from a business aspect, and there’s a lot of failure out there, a lot of opportunity to not be successful in the foodservice industry. I knew I had a passion for food, but I didn’t necessarily know how to be successful, and that desire for more knowledge is what drove me.” Not only did he discover all the facets and details he was looking for, Chef Altieri also found his own direction, which crystallized when he interned with Red Robin. “Understanding food at such a large capacity was the most exciting thing,” he says, “and understanding the current nature of this industry.”

Tanya Baker
Le Cordon Bleu 2006
Executive Chef, The Boarding House, Chicago

If grabbing the coveted executive chef post at a super-hot, big-city restaurant seems like an impressive feat, consider that Tanya Baker, now 27, was also a finalist for this year’s James Beard: Rising Star Chef award. “It’s not something I ever thought would happen,” she says. “I don’t know how to feel about it. It doesn’t feel real, but it’s great. It keeps you motivated.”

Chef Baker joined The Boarding House as the restaurant’s sous chef when it opened almost three years ago and worked her way into the top spot, after having previously worked at several restaurants in the LM Restaurant Group, including the original LM and Troquet.

Now that she’s been calling the culinary shots for more than a year at The Boarding House, the menu is very much her own. “It’s very simplistic because my style is minimal, not a lot of fuss, just really good ingredients prepared seasonally,” Chef Baker says. “It’s just really straightforward, but we have a very broad clientele and cater to a lot of people.”

Is there a calling card dish? It’s probably the venison, uniquely available year-round.

Before she went to Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago where she earned an associate’s degree, Chef Baker had zero restaurant experience. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at school,” she says. Her first kitchen job was in a small family pizzeria.

Chef Baker’s fast-rising career can be attributed to seizing every opportunity and pushing as hard as she can.

“The restaurant world is a completely different world from the school environment,” she says. “You need to learn to improvise. It’s just as important to learn to adapt as it is to be able to apply what you learned in school to the real world in real time.”

Clark Barlowe
Johnson & Wales 2009
Chef/Owner, Heirloom, Charlotte, North Carolina

After stints at The French Laundry and El Bulli, two of the highest-profile restaurants in the world, Clark Barlowe returned to Charlotte—where he originally enrolled at Johnson & Wales University before moving on to the Rhode Island campus to earn his bachelor’s degree in foodservice management—and opened the ultimate local restaurant, Heirloom. “I always had the idea that I wanted to own my own restaurant, and as I got my degree I realized if I wanted to do my food, this was the only way,” he says. “At Heirloom, everything comes in from North Carolina farms and producers and we change the menu every day.” The restaurant opened in February of 2014 and has already won what seems like every local award.

Besides his experiences working at the most-acclaimed restaurants across the globe, Chef Barlowe says one of his educational mentors played a vital role in his development. “The thing I can really point to is during my sophomore year at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, working with Chef Shane Pearson, who recently passed away. He was really the first chef I worked with who was the most real about being a chef, and being realistic about what it’s like to be in the industry. He taught us what it was like to be in a restaurant, and that as a chef and owner I really have to be comfortable in all aspects of the restaurant.”

Chef Barlowe, 28, is not looking to build an empire or conquer the business world. “I’m not too interested in different concepts or other restaurants,” he says. “What we do well is focus on the details and I don’t want to get too far from that, ever.” But the Heirloom team is working on a cookbook and a documentary as well as collaborating with local schools to revise area gardens and getting involved with food policy initiatives in North Carolina. “The most important thing to me is how we’re connected to the community,” Chef Barlowe says.

Mark Buley
Culinary Institute of America 2009
Chef/Partner, Odd Duck, Austin, Texas

James Beard Award 2015 nominee and ACE program graduate Mark Buley, 31, says a key adviser and mentor at the CIA once told him: “The best thing you can do for this industry is to go out and sweat for five years and then go back to your small town or another community of promise and open a restaurant.” That guidance cemented what Chef Buley already wanted to do, to become a chef and entrepreneur and to establish a business “where the staff is well-compensated, where everybody has insurance, a model that fixes a lot of the stuff we saw go wrong at other restaurants where we had worked.” Along with his partners Bryce Gilmore and Sam Hellman-Mass at their restaurants Odd Duck and Barley Swine, Chef Buley seems to have accomplished his goal. But it’s not as if he’s letting up any time soon.

“It’s something we’re still pursuing to this day,” says the Wisconsin native who moved to Austin to help transform Odd Duck from a food truck to a brick-and-mortar destination. “The plan from the beginning was never to stop with this, but to look to expand to other concepts that hold the same mantra of locally sourced food and responsibly run businesses.”

While his cuisine may be market-driven, it’s served with a heavy dollop of fun—rooted in comfort foods like pot pies or tater tots but made from scratch with some whimsical flavors mixed in.

Chef Buley does believe that he followed his original intended path, and that he could have returned to Wisconsin to open a restaurant with the same values and possibly a more pure reflection of his singular style.

“But the team environment here provided an opportunity I just wouldn’t change,” he says. “We drive the menu here to push everybody, and the second we feel our cooks and staff are getting bored, we change something. When you put on that entrepreneurial hat, you learn that flexibility is your greatest attribute.”

Gonzalo Gout
Culinary Institute of America 2012
General Manager, Cosme, New York City

Right before he landed at Chef Enrique Olvera’s Cosme in New York’s Flatiron District, Gonzalo Gout was at a crossroads. The Mexico City native had graduated from the CIA with a bachelor’s degree and fulfilled his objective of moving quickly into a management position, training and working with the illustrious Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts company. He was about to be transferred from Washington, D.C., to Paris when he reconnected with Chef Olvera, under whom Gout had completed an earlier externship. “He convinced me to not go to Paris, and I don’t know exactly how he did that,” Gout says. “But he is a very persuasive man.” The chef did it by playing to Gout’s passion for Mexican food and offering him the chance to play a role in building something special.

Gout, now 27, was older than most American students when he finished high school, and he ended up living in Italy and working in a restaurant, where he met a CIA grad. Once he saw the school’s Hyde Park campus, he was sold, even though he didn’t know exactly what he wanted from his education. “I didn’t know if I wanted to work with a big chef or be a big chef, but there are so many outlets in the foodservice industry,” he says. He fell in love with wine and allowed it to steer him away from the kitchen, never looking back.

His experience with Four Seasons was essential, but working in Mexico City with Chef Olvera at his Pujol restaurant (before returning to New York to work at Cosme) exposed him to every aspect of his job. “I started as a busser and did every position in the restaurant, sommelier to banquet captain to event coordinator,” Gout says. “I came to New York with the plan of being the service manager and getting involved in every part of the project from the beginning, but then they never hired a GM and I stepped into this incredible opportunity. So in hindsight, skipping Paris turned out to be a fantastic decision.”

Jeff Turok
Culinary Institute of America 2011
Bar Manager, North End Grill, New York City

Lexington, Kentucky, native Jeff Turok considered himself a nontraditional student since he enrolled in culinary school after cooking and working in restaurants around Kentucky and South Carolina. “Both my mentors were CIA graduates, but I still wasn’t totally convinced I wanted to go to culinary school,” he says. “I woke up one day and I realized I wanted to know the fundamentals of what I was doing. I was tired of having these small blind spots in my capabilities.”

Turok, 31, admits he went to school “gung ho to be the next great executive chef,” but quickly discovered other parts of the industry that were better suited to his skills and interests—and he’s certain he wouldn’t have found his place without the elite, specific experience he encountered at the CIA. “Someone told me that you get out of it whatever you put in, and it’s absolutely true. That, combined with the in-depth curriculum, is why I’ve been successful. The reason I chose the CIA was for its reputation, its staff and curriculum, and its great location. But nothing comes without hard work and personal drive.”

He was driven to the front of the house, where there’s “a little more grace.” Turok latched on to wine courses and knew that would be his forte. He worked in Lexington after graduating and planned to study wine in California, but ended up in his company’s corporate office as a wine consultant and staff trainer. When Turok returned to New York to take sommelier exams, friends helped connect him to the renowned Union Square Hospitality Group, where he started at North End Grill in 2012 and was promoted to bar manager the following year.