By Caitlin Raux

Gaby Melian (Culinary Management 05’, Culinary Arts 05’, Pastry Arts 06’) is hard to pin down with words because she’s so many things: chef, teacher, official Food Revolution ambassador and, most recently, test kitchen assistant at Bon Appétit — the holy grail for test kitchen chefs. The Buenos Aires native has an infectious energy that she’s not shy about sharing; throwing her arms around a dozen ICE chefs and employees when she paid a recent visit to her alma mater. A slightly-less-than-compulsive organizer with an intuitive sense of the makings of a good recipe, she’s the perfect person to keep a fast-paced test kitchen on track. Gaby was kind enough to pop over from the offices of our Condé Nast neighbors to chat with us for an ICE blog interview.

Tell me about landing your job in the Bon Appétit test kitchen.

I opened the weekly alumni email from ICE and there was a listing from Bon Appétit magazine for an assistant to the Test Kitchen Manager. I remember I sent Brad Leone, the Test Kitchen Manager and also a graduate from ICE, an email saying “I can’t wait to put my gloves on and do your dishes,” and they called me right away! And then I had an interview with him and Carla Lalli [Music], she’s the Food Director, also a former employee of ICE, and I started in June of last year. The first week there, I was like, these people are crazy, everyone is so happy, what do you guys eat for breakfast? I love it and I’m learning a lot. Because it’s a test kitchen, you have to work with food editors and chefs and you get to test the recipes, or “cross test” — that’s how you say it. I’d like that to be my next step forward, a full-time cross tester.

One day I told the team that I make empanadas to earn extra money and they begged me to try them. I brought my empanadas to work and they tasted them and someone said, “Why don’t we do an article on empanadas?” And I said, “Sure!”

It was great because I got to see the whole recipe writing process — it’s super interesting. I was guided by Rick Martinez, a chef who’s been at Bon Appétit for a long time. You have to go in baby steps, beginning with writing the recipe — they have a specific way of writing recipes so I’m learning that. But I love recipes. I sit down with recipe books and just read them. I can read a recipe and tell you if it’s going to work or not.

I feel like some people have an intuitive sense about making things really flavorful and adding the right kinds of flavors.

Exactly. Like the other day a food stylist for Epicurious was styling something and asked, “What do you think of strawberries and dill?” and I said, “Ehhh, maybe…” and then they put it together and we tasted and it was a total no. Working at the magazine you get to see the whole process, including when a recipe gets cut. They try to use recipes that everyone can understand. That’s where a cross-tester comes in — you look at a recipe that you’ve never seen before and you have to be able to reproduce the recipe and have the final product looking more or less like the picture. So there’s a lot of photography, a lot of tasting — I’m not kidding, I eat food all day. You have to!

There are definitely worse jobs. What advise would you give to our students who are interested in working in test kitchens?

I’d say go for it. Follow someone who you think has great, amazing recipes. You also need the culinary school experience. We have just one person working with us who didn’t go to culinary school but he worked in amazing restaurants. He’s only 26. But one in a million are just born with it. Even people who are writing about food went to culinary school. It has become such a big thing to be a chef. I think you need to have that base to set you apart. Going to culinary school also tells you if you’re cut out for it or not. I know it’s a risk if it doesn’t work, but it’s not like you can just walk into a restaurant anymore and start working, unless you come from a restaurant family or you’re Daniel Boulud who started working at 13. This is not France in the 70s. Millions of people want to do it. But also don’t get stuck on one thing. Venture into other areas too. That’s what culinary school gives you — the credentials to venture into other things. You can end up being a manager or a prep cook. And maybe you don’t want to be a prep cook all your life, but you need that experience.

Was cooking a big part of your life, growing up? 

Yes. My grandma was an amazing chef. Her mom and dad were from France, so they had a French culinary background. Interestingly enough, when I went to culinary school there was a whole module on French food and I thought, Hmm! My grandma cooked this but she called it something else! My dad’s side was into cooking, too — they were more Spanish-influenced and a teeny bit Italian. Although in Argentina, everyone has some Italian in the family. We were really encouraged to try everything. We were in the kitchen always, making messes in my grandma’s pantry.

I’ve always loved cooking and entertaining. When I was in college and didn’t have much work, I would make cakes and sandwiches. My dad is an artisan and he would sell silver and leather goods at outdoor markets. I didn’t have a stand to sell food, but I would sell it to the vendors.

Did you know you wanted to cook professionally?

Growing up I wanted to be a lawyer and a detective, but I thought it would be a long commitment so I went for journalism. I also have a degree in education. Teaching is my passion. I like to speak in front of people and tell them what to do (laughs). I’m also a born organizer. I’ll go to your desk and de-clutter the whole thing.

Maybe you can stop by after this interview.

Seriously, since I was eight years old, I would fold my mom’s clothes. I’m not OCD, but I like everything organized. That’s what I’m doing in the kitchen now. I reorganized the pantry, the baking cabinet. I’m the newest one but when they can’t find something, they say, Ask Gaby. I’ve also helped restaurants that are opening to set up — to make sure they have a good flow. So the magazine is giving me the freedom to use my skills.

What would be your dream job?

My dream is to have a little Volkswagen van, like a camper van — it has to be green of course, because that’s my color. I’d have my equipment in the van and go from school to school, teaching children how to cook. Like a “school on the go.” I’m also a Food Ambassador for the Food Revolution with Jamie Oliver — I love him. I’m the Jersey City Food Revolution Official Ambassador, besides all the other things I do.

Tell me about a day-in-the-life in your current role.

I’ll walk in at around 10:00am. We’ll receive the orders from Fresh Direct and we have to unload all of the boxes. We only have one walk-in. People get surprised because they think we’d have a big walk-in. But because our ingredients change every day, we keep a lot of things on-hand, but not in large quantities. At least three times a day I go shopping. I do a lot of shopping and I love it. I go to Whole Foods, Eataly and Kalustyan’s — it’s the biggest spice market, in the middle of what they call “Little India.” If I cross-test a recipe, I’ll usually do it before 1:00pm, because that’s the time when we get super busy. All the chefs have to present for the editors. The editors have a table in the middle of the kitchen. You have to set up for them.

Is that every day?

Every day. We also have a lot of demos, like companies sharing their products with us. Yesterday, we had a demo from the NBA — the National Bison Association — so we ate bison and learned a lot about it. There’s an educational side of it. Then the day is hectic between 3:00-5:00pm. If I’m helping Brad, I have to make sure all of the orders are in for the next day.

My goal is to eventually become a cross-tester full-time. I joke around and say, “I’m the last pickle in the jar.” But Claire Saffitz, who’s another editor, tells me, Oh, Gaby, what would we do without you? I keep them on track. But we have fun. There’s a constant fun side to it.

Ready to launch a limitless career in the culinary world? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

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When we hear about ICE alumni being recognized for their accomplishments in the food and hospitality industry, we feel like parents of an Olympic gymnast who just nailed a perfect landing — thrilled. With the announcement of the James Beard Award nominees, we’re both thrilled and proud of the ICE alumni who made the list — plus we’re rooting for them to take gold when the winners are announced this April (Media) and May (Restaurants and Chefs). We’re pleased to share the following ICE graduates who were nominated for the 2017 James Beard Awards:

James Beard Award Medallion

Media Awards

American Cooking

Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South
Author: Vivian Howard
 (Little, Brown and Company) — Culinary Arts, 2003

Video Webcast, Fixed Location and/or Instructional

Kitchen Conundrums with Thomas Joseph
Airs on: marthastewart.com and YouTube
Producer: Greta Anthony
 — Pastry Arts, 1995

Restaurant and Chef Awards

Best Chef: New York City (Five Boroughs)

Missy Robbins — Culinary Arts, 1995
Lilia –
 Brooklyn, NY

Best Chef: Northwest (AK, ID, MT, OR, WA, WY)

Rachel Yang — Culinary Arts, 2001
Joule — Seattle, WA

 

We’re also proud of alumni who worked closely with this year’s nominees, including:

Outstanding Chef

Gabrielle Hamilton
Prune
 Restaurant — New York, NY (Ashley Merriman (Culinary Arts, 2004) is co-chef)

Best Chef: West (CA, HI, NV)

Jeremy Fox
Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen — 
Santa Monica, CA (Zoe Nathan (Culinary Arts, 2001) is co-owner)

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By Caitlin Raux

On a recent Thursday, I had a late morning phone chat with Aaron Fusco (Culinary Arts ’10), sommelier at Daniel. At 31 years old, he’s relatively young to be holding a top rank in the wine program of one of New York City’s most eminent restaurants. Just a couple minutes into our conversation, however, his affable yet polished nature came through. Together with Aaron’s passion for fine dining, it makes sense that he should be managing the expectations of (and schmoozing with) some of the most demanding customers in the industry.

Sommelier Aaron Fusco

Aaron was kind enough to offer us a sneak peak into a day in the life of a sommelier at Daniel, and to answer some hard-hitting wine questions, like whether the best sparklers come from France and if screw-top wines really merit their bad rap.

Was food a big part of your family life growing up?

Somewhat. My grandma was a really good cook and we all really enjoyed dinners at her house, though I wasn’t involved in the cooking very much. It wasn’t until after college, when I had time to focus on other things, that I realized I loved cooking. I just enjoyed it — the productivity and the tactile experience of cooking. I started watching Jacques Pepin programs and it went from there.

What did you do before ICE?

I studied economics at McGill University. Then I took a year in between graduating and starting the program.

That’s quite a change, economics to culinary arts.

I was spending summers working in a law firm, getting a feel for the 9-5 corporate life. That was motivation to do something a bit more fulfilling.

Tell me about your decision to enroll at ICE.

I was doing a lot of cooking at home and I wanted to make a transition into the industry. I considered other schools but I thought it would be crazy to enroll in a two-year program. Then I started looking at ICE and a couple other schools and decided on ICE. The main difference was the externship — I thought the externship was a better way to get good experience.

Were there any instructors or modules at ICE that stood out to you?

Yes. Chef Chris Gesualdi was by far the strongest teacher that I had. He had the real experience in terms of working in the best New York restaurants and was very interested in studying advanced techniques. This was a period when molecular gastronomy was a little more en vogue than it is now. I did a lot of recipe testing and extra-curricular work with Chef Chris, which was great.

Was that your first exposure to modern gastronomy and fine dining?

Absolutely. I was very naïve when I started the program. I didn’t know too much about the New York restaurant scene or the leading chefs outside of the celebrity chefs. Chef Chris helped open my eyes to Alinea and WD~50, which were the big places at the time. He was someone who had been in the industry so long but was still invigorated by what was around him.

How did training as a chef translate into working in wine?

I did my externship at Picholine, which was a two-Michelin star restaurant at the time. I continued to work with the chef after my externship and followed him to a couple of different restaurants. After about 15 months, I decided to make the transition to front of house. From there, it took another two years until I discovered wine and really got into it at Daniel.

What was your first job at Daniel?

I began in July 2012 as a busboy and within a year I was promoted to assistant captain. That’s when I started getting into wine. I was working for just under two years before I became a part-time sommelier.

Going from the kitchen to front of house as a busboy is a substantial change. Did you know you wanted to eventually be a sommelier when you began?

I first worked at Tocqueville — they helped me make the transition from back of house to front of house. I spent 9 months there, getting the hang of things, and then I made my way to Daniel. I had the mindset of I want to work in the best place possible. I figured that the learning curve would be higher.

What’s a day in the life like as a sommelier at Daniel?

I arrive at work at 3pm. I say hi to the management team and let them know I’m there. Then I do a little bit of set up in the dining room. I go downstairs to the wine cellar, say hello to my boss, take a look at the reservations for the evening and make a game plan for service itself. Then we usually have a handful of deliveries to put away — wines that need to be checked in and sorted in the wine cellar. Some evenings, we put some wines aside for private events and do restocking. Then we have lunch, a meeting and service. Service entails speaking with guests, opening bottles and keeping an eye on the tables I’m responsible for. At the end of the evening there’s usually restocking to do in the large cellar and smaller fridges upstairs; I say “smaller,” but there’s still a couple thousand bottles. That’s pretty much it. It’s really focused on service — there’s not as many behind-the-scenes tasks. The majority of work outside of the cellar is interacting with clients.

Now for a few wine and industry questions: It seems like the wine industry is changing in that people are having more fun with wine — taking it less seriously. What are your thoughts?

I totally support the idea of wine drinking becoming more casual. I enjoy wines that have a cerebral element to them, but that’s not to say that every glass of wine you drink should be analyzed to death. It’s a visceral and emotional experience, and if you want to dive deeper that can be fun and compelling. But at its surface, wine should just be enjoyed.

What’s your process for learning wines?

When I started, Raj Vaidya, the gentleman who runs Daniel’s wine program, encouraged me to take an autodidactic approach to wine. He told me, Anything you don’t know, go home and look up, and if you still don’t understand, then come ask me. If you do research on your own, it sinks into your brain a lot more than when you’re told something. So that’s what I did. The tasting side is taken care of at work. We have a policy that when we open a bottle, we pour a half-ounce for ourselves, to analyze the wine and make sure it’s in good condition for the guest. In a given night, I taste upward of 30 wines. Then I have a large stack of books and do a lot of reading.

You’re on a date and want to impress someone — what region and year is your go-to?

It really depends on a person’s taste. It’s hard to have an overarching standard. Still, I’d say Champagne is the best way to impress somebody. There are few people who dislike Champagne. I’d recommend getting away from the Roederer, the Krug and the Moët and find a nice grower-producer of Champagne. Then you can talk about how you’re drinking a wine made by a producer family in a small town.

What about a funky sparkling wine from a lesser-known region?

Those are fun, but not always the most refined. I tend toward something refined, smooth and approachable. I’m less interested in rustic wines with sharper edges.

So you’re saying that Champagne makes the best sparkling wine?

Hands-down, absolutely (laughs.) Well, I would say the most complex. If you’re looking for complexity and wines driven by terroir, then Champagne is the answer.

What about screw-tops? Are those always inferior wines? 

I don’t have a ton of experience with screw tops. But you’re placing wine in a 100% anaerobic environment, which overtime could put “reductive taints,” as they call them, into the wine by not allowing for any passage of oxygen into the bottle like a cork would allow. I think for aging wines, it’s not a good thing. But for young, fresh wines, there’s nothing wrong with screw top. Plus, you can get to the wine easier.

Ready to launch your culinary career? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

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“It was always something I liked doing; something I was good at naturally. But it was never something that I thought I would do professionally,” explained Jennifer Tafuri (Pastry Arts, ’11) on the hobby that would ultimately become her livelihood. Though she never imagined she would find herself practicing her passion for pastry on a daily basis, one visit to ICE convinced this former anthropologist and recreational baker to enroll in ICE’s Pastry & Baking Arts program.

With the launch of our 2017 #CulinaryVoice Scholarship Challenge, we’re revisiting stories from our most inspiring alumni. Jennifer popped out of the pastry kitchen at Rotisserie Georgette, where she holds the title of Pastry Chef, to chat with us about her decision to come to ICE and to inspire you to take the leap and enter our scholarship challenge.

Ready to find your culinary voice at ICE? Click here for more information on the 2017 #CulinaryVoice Scholarship Challenge and enter today!

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By Caitlin Raux

When our ICE alums grab the headlines, we can’t help but feel like proud parents. From Detroit-style pizza to home-style meatloaf to authentic Welsh cuisine, ICE graduates are using their culinary skills to create better dining experiences across the board. In 2016, ICE graduates and their restaurants were showered with praise — here’s a short list of those who regularly took spots at the top:

  1. Missy Robbins (Culinary ’95): Missy was the chef on everyone’s mind this year. For starters, she was donned Best New Chef – East, at the inaugural Taste Talk Awards. Lilia, the Williamsburg restaurant where Missy is chef/partner, was named one of The New York TimesTop 10 New York Restaurants of 2016, claiming the #2 spot. Lilia’s Cacio e Pepe Fritelle was among the Top 10 New York Dishes of 2016. Her Agnolotti dish topped the list of Time Out New York’s 85 best dishes in NYC 2016. Turning to the 2016 Eater Awards, Lilia won the Reader’s Choice for Restaurant of the Year. The Infatuation listed Lilia as one of New York City’s Best New Restaurants of 2016.
Zoe Nathan and partner Josh Loeb

Zoe Nathan and partner Josh Loeb

  1. Zoe Nathan (Culinary ’01): The west coast restaurateur has received accolades for the restaurants that she co-owns, among them Cassia, which was included in Bon Appetit’s 50 Nominees for America’s Best New Restaurants of 2016. As the BA Staff proclaims, “Given the powerhouse team behind this blockbuster — the same folks who gave L.A. its beloved Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, and Milo & Olive — no one in Santa Monica would be surprised to find that this Southeast Asian restaurant fires on every imaginable cylinder.” Another of Zoe’s restaurants, Rustic Canyon, was listed as one of LA Weekly’s 99 Essential Restaurants. Michael Bauer, writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, also included Rustic Canyon as one of his new L.A. Favorites.
  2. Matt Hyland (Culinary Arts ’05): In a town famous for its pizza, it’s a rare feat to stand out from the pack of pizza makers. Matt and wife Emily have the secret sauce for success, judging by the cult-like following of their New York pizza eateries: Pizza Loves Emily, and its progeny, Emmy Squared. As Andrew Steinhal of The Infatuation succinctly stated, “We love everything about Emily.” Zagat named Emmy Squared’s Le Big Matt pizza (Detroit-style crust and burger ingredient toppings: Fleisher’s beef, American cheese, Sammy sauce, pickles and mizuna lettuce) as one of 25 Essential Dishes to Try in NYC. 2016’s Eater Awards awarded Matt the National Instagram Badge of Honor for Emmy Squared — likely due to their incredibly Instagrammable #ronicups. Matt Hyland - Pizza Loves Emily
  3. Owner Illtyd Barrett (Management ’12) and executive chef Tom Coughlan (Culinary/Management ’12), who were once ICE classmates, have teamed up to bring Welsh cuisine to NYC with Sunken Hundred in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. They were awarded 3 stars from Eater for their efforts. Food writer Becky Cooper also gave Sunken Hundred a glowing review in The New Yorker. Writes Cooper, “The pub atmosphere and the barrage of My Bloody Valentine and the Clash are incongruous with how quietly thoughtful the food is.”
  4. Ann Redding (Culinary ’02): Uncle Boons, the perpetually packed Thai restaurant where Ann and her husband Matt Danzer are owners and chefs, has been rolling in good press. Eater named their Toasted Coconut Sundae as one of The 20 Perfect Desserts in New York City. According to food writer Ryan Sutton, “If you don’t like this, you are a flawed human being.” As if having one wildly successful (and understatedly cool) restaurant in downtown Manhattan wasn’t enough, Ann and Matt opened a second eatery, Mr. Donahue’s. With just two tables and five counter stools, the restaurant was quickly donned a New York Times Critic’s Pick and included in Pete Wells’ Top 10 New York Restaurants of 2016, coming in right behind ICE alum Missy Robbins’ Lilia at #3. Mr. Donahue’s Roast Beef also landed a spot in the Top 10 New York Dishes of 2016.
Ann Redding and Matt Danzer

Ann Redding and Matt Danzer

Want to join the ranks of these ICE grads? Click here for more information on our career programs.

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