By Carly DeFilippo
At ICE, we pride ourselves on the diversity of our community. In any given class, recent high school or college graduates learn knife skills along-side clinical nurses, marketing executives or former investment bankers. When it comes to career changers, we tell our students that all the skills they gained in previous careers will be of huge benefit to them when they enter the industry. As for finding a student who exemplifies that truth, there are few better examples than Culinary Arts graduate John Feingold.
What were you doing before you enrolled at ICE?
I’ve had several unsatisfying careers over the past 35 years. But I love to cook and eat almost more than anything else, so I decided to put my career where my mouth is. I quit my day job as a senior vice president at a big NYC real estate advisory firm, enrolled in ICE’s weeknight culinary program, and went out and bought a run-down restaurant property in Maine. My plan was to open a place that served food I’d like to eat. I’d been an adventurous home cook all my life, and I had taken lots of recreational courses, including some at ICE. I liked the ICE curriculum and the instructors I’d met, so ICE was an easy choice among several otherwise excellent schools.
Where was your externship, and where have you worked since graduating?
After excellent trailing experiences in the kitchens at Tocqueville, Jean-Georges’ Nougatine, and Daniel Humm’s The NoMad, I selected Restaurant DANIEL for my externship site. That summer was a phenomenal learning experience, especially since I rotated around the kitchen and worked at every station, with every sous chef and chef de partie. Working side-by-side with Daniel Boulud, himself, was certainly memorable.
Following my externship I spent a month in Paris as stagiare at SPRING, an acclaimed contemporary French restaurant, in the 1st Arrondissement. The kitchen at SPRING had a tiny staff – just six, including myself – so again, I worked every station. Since returning from Paris, I’ve done some private cooking for parties, which has been a lot of fun. The most interesting was offering my services as a private chef to a charity auction and then preparing a knock-out meal for 8 people at the winner’s palatial Park Slope brownstone.
But, my real work since graduating has been putting together my own restaurant project, a 40-seat place on a remote island in Penobscot Bay, Maine. The island is called Vinalhaven, it has a large summer population, and is one of the largest lobster ports in the country. My restaurant – SALT – was a former restaurant that fell into disrepair. I bought it a couple years ago and have renovated the place, completely gutting and reconstructing the kitchen. We’ll be doing simple, delicious, and beautiful things with locally-sourced seafood, produce, and meats in what I am calling a “contemporary coastal” style, rooted in classic French technique. I now am hiring staff and finalizing the systems, recipes and menu for a Memorial Day 2014 opening. I like to say that anyone can eat out, but not everyone can eat way out—like 20 miles way out, on Vinalhaven.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Lots of things, but here’s one that comes to mind. On the first day of my stage at SPRING, where I showed up jetlagged and bleary-eyed, I spent 8 hours doing prep work in an unfamiliar kitchen. Then, I was put on the line at the aperitif station (appetizers), where I was responsible for plating entrées. Now, this is no hot dog stand – SPRING had a 72 euro, market-driven prix fixe menu, and it gets over 850 reservation requests per day for its 46 seats. It has an open kitchen and my service station was 3 feet away from seated diners watching (and photographing!) every move I made, so I felt the heat. Somehow I performed, and did so every night of my stage. That, to me, was an accomplishment. One night Pierre Gagnaire (if you don’t know him, he’s like the French Thomas Keller), came in for dinner. We went on high alert, but did our jobs and served dinner. Later, he came around and shook each of our hands and said très bon. But I’d be more nervous had ICE Chef Instructor Chris Gesualdi come in for dinner.
What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from your time in the industry?
Watch and listen, do as you’re are told. Have your work checked early and often. Ask questions – know why you are doing what you are doing and what the end result is intended to be. Keep your knives sharp. But, maybe more importantly, my training in the fundamentals provided a base on which to build and learn. At first, I saw cooks in these high-powered restaurant kitchens doing high-end techniques that I wasn’t yet familiar with. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t do those things well – say, take full advantage of water oven cooking or sous vide – without having mastered the basics at ICE.
Briefly describe a day in your current working life.
For the past several months, I’ve been building a business. That means getting approvals, licenses, refining a business plan, solving equipment problems (like, what’s up with the exhaust fan?), directing contractors, recruiting and vetting staff, and spending what seems like ungodly amounts of money on equipment, supplies, professional services, marketing, etc. But I’ve been having a lot of fun meeting with local farmers and fishermen and researching local and regional vendors/distributors to source the best fish, shellfish, meat, greens, vegetables, and dairy possible. I like to say that I’ll be sourcing my food from the lands and waters of Vinalhaven and North Haven, but I might also have to import some items from Maine.
The best part of my daily routine, of course, is cooking – menu and recipe development, testing, tasting, tweaking. I give myself cooking assignments every single day. My family and friends eat well.
What might people be surprised to learn about your job?
I think people would be surprised to know how hard my so-called job is. Putting together a restaurant is a huge amount of work, and my days and nights are completely full. But what surprises me every day is that I’ve actually taken on this job – quit the corporate rat race and am building a restaurant. It’s a high-wire act, and I have a lot of sleepless nights. But I’ve always been inspired by what Harry Dean Stanton said in the movie Repo Man, “The life of a repo man is always intense.” Like the restaurant business.
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
In the kitchen in whites watching a small staff prepare the food I love.