By Caitlin Raux 

In a dining room on the ground floor of the Whitney Museum, where an open kitchen sits across from a towering glass wall and not an inch can escape the natural sunlight, I met with Suzanne Cupps (Culinary Arts, ’05), executive chef of Untitled. With a menu featuring colorful contemporary American cuisine, Untitled has enjoyed warm critical reviews, including a place on the New York Times “Critic’s Pick” list. Suzanne has played no small part in the restaurant’s success.

Though she began at ICE without knowing how to hold a knife, Suzanne, a former math major, was a disciplined student and a quick learner. By the time she graduated, she was ready for the New York restaurant scene and earned her stripes in the kitchens of Annisa and Gramercy Tavern before landing a gig as chef de cuisine at the buzzy new meatpacking restaurant, Untitled. Recently, Suzanne scored the enviable position of executive chef, not to mention the right to call the restaurant her own — something she does with a discernible note of pride in her voice. She’s transitioned from top student to head teacher, creating not only a menu, but also an atmosphere from the top down, one that allows for questions, experimenting, mistakes, and ultimately, learning — more learning, Suzanne thinks, than the traditional, chef-as-dictator style.

Chef Suzanne at Untitled (credit: Melissa Hom)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Suzanne took a quick break before dinner prep to chat with me for the ICE blog.

First, congratulations on your promotion to executive chef of Untitled! What are the changes that go with this new title?

Mike [Anthony] is very trusting, so he allowed me to know about financials and hiring and the other management things when I was chef de cuisine. With his help, I was running the restaurant already. I think the biggest difference is that Mike’s not here anymore. It wasn’t that I took over a bunch of different duties. It’s just that now the responsibility of making sure the business succeeds falls on my shoulders. I was invested as chef de cuisine, but now even more so because it’s my restaurant.

Do you still get to spend time in the kitchen?

Oh yes, definitely: I’m actually working the grill station tonight. In fact, I think that’s the hardest part about the job — there’s a lot of emails and paperwork but I try to spend as much time in the kitchen as I can. I would say on a normal day, I spend 70% of my time in the kitchen.

What does a “day in the life” typically look like for you?

There’s a lot of running around. One of the things that’s unique and challenging about our space is that we’re located on three floors. Untitled is here on the ground floor, our prep kitchen is two floors down and then we have another restaurant, Studio Café, on the 8th floor. That separation can be a challenge — to be in the right place at the right time. My job is a lot about being available. I have a list of things I need to do and only about 20% of that gets done because I get pulled around. Sometimes it’s a busy service and they need extra hands, sometimes a meeting pops up, or I have to sit and chat with an employee, or work on a special. I get pulled back and forth. But I’ve always liked multitasking rather than sitting at a computer or being in one spot all the time. It’s a little different each day, which I like.

Do you have any morning routines to start the day?

I’ve never been a morning person, but recently I started stretching and I got a Vitamix and so I started making smoothies every morning. I realized that one thing missing from my day was a starting meal. So I make an oatmeal, yogurt and fruit smoothie every morning. I actually noticed that my energy has improved. Also, I had to give up coffee, unfortunately, so I changed to matcha. I live across town in Gramercy, so one thing I like to do when I have time is to walk here — it’s about two miles. I find it helps clear my head, just to spend a little bit of time outside.

Are there any aspects of your job that people might find surprising? 

I think people think of a chef as just creating dishes. That’s probably what I do least in this role. Running a business is the main priority. Often people don’t realize how much time and effort it takes to manage labor and food costs. Also, I feel that a lot of people picture a chef as ordering people around and making demands. Here, we try to take more of a teaching approach. Instead of telling people what to do, it’s showing, asking questions and allowing cooks to be part of the creative process.

Did you introduce that from the top down? 

Yes. It’s something I learned from Anita [Lo] when I worked at Annisa. She was very open to allowing us not just to make mistakes, but to really learn on the job. Also, Mike was a big teaching mentor. When I went to college, I was an education minor and I thought I would end up in teaching. It didn’t work out, but this is a bigger teaching job than I ever could have imagined.

It sounds like you’re moving away from the militant kitchen prototype.  

For me, it’s about how people respond. Not only do you make people feel good when they come to work, you also get the response you want. Sometimes when the action is negative or too short people respond in a closed off way. It doesn’t allow them to show their personalities or be creative. I’ve found that this style works better, as a way to manage. It doesn’t mean that we drop standards. We just do it in a more respectful way.

I read that you’re from South Carolina. What were family meals like growing up?

I grew up in South Carolina but my family’s not southern. My mom is from central Pennsylvania and my dad’s from the Philippines so we did not eat southern food —no grits, no fried chicken. I mostly ate Filipino food and rice and some traditional American food.

Was cooking a big deal at home?

My mom cooked every single night. She had a very balanced approach to eating, but I was not into cooking when I was younger. Food bored me — it wasn’t until I moved to New York that food started to be interesting to me. Even when I started cooking, I was more interested in the cutting and precision. Then I started enjoying different flavors of food.

You were on track to be a math teacher then decided to shift to hospitality and culinary — a pretty big shift. What inspired that?

I had a couple of acquaintances here in New York, so I decided to try it for a year. I wasn’t really adventurous so it wasn’t in my personality to do it, but I decided to do it anyway. I found a job in human resources at the Waldorf Astoria. I really loved it but I knew it wasn’t the end result. I started getting interested in the restaurants at the Waldorf and thought I might like restaurant management. But one of my colleagues told me about recreational baking classes she was taking at ICE. I hadn’t really thought about culinary school before, but I went to visit and six months later I decided to go to culinary school.

You went to culinary school basically carte blanche, isn’t that right?

Yes, I knew nothing. I failed the first herb test because I didn’t know the difference between parsley and cilantro. I remember taking those potatoes home and trying to dice them for hours and hours. I had never held a knife. I didn’t know a thing about cooking. But I enjoyed it. It was all so new. It’s hard to remember how I felt back then, now that I’ve done those things so many times.

What were your goals when you set out from culinary school?

I didn’t know anything about the New York restaurant scene. I heard someone in my class say that Gramercy Tavern was a good restaurant so I went there to trail and ended up doing my externship there. That was before Mike was there. I had also heard someone say that Annisa was a good restaurant, so when I was done at Gramercy I went there. It was the only place I ever interviewed or applied. Anita hired me on the spot.

Was she your mentor?

Yes, Anita and Mike. I was very fortunate to fall into two kitchens that had great chefs. I think that’s why I really started to enjoy cooking.

They must have seen something in you, too, that made them want to mentor you.

With Anita, I paid attention and picked up things quickly, and I think she saw that right away. For Mike, by the time I started working with him I had been working with Anita for five years, so I had gained a lot of skills before going to his kitchen.

What advice would you give to culinary students starting their careers?

It’s not for everybody, but I would recommend working in restaurants first, even if it’s just a short period of time. It doesn’t matter what you want to do in food. Restaurants are a great place to see as much as you can. You get to work with more products and work on bigger teams, generally. You also reinforce those skills you learned in culinary school. It’s important to go somewhere where you’ll actually learn, too. It’s one thing to follow a chef’s instructions and do what they say. It’s another to learn how to cook yourself and learn to season food yourself. It’s important to pick places where you can find a mentor or learn from the other chefs. Also, pick a place where you like the food.

Are there any chefs that inspire you?

Lots. New York is cool because you can be inspired by not just the fining dining chefs. There’s something to learn in a small hole-in-the-wall place, just like there’s something to learn from a long tasting menu.

Are there any menu items you’re particularly excited about?

I’m making the spring menu more fish-heavy, so I’m excited about adding more seafood to the menu. That’s how I like eating in warmer weather. It’s a bit lighter. It’s not the only thing we cook by any means, but I like the delicate nature and the cookery of fish.

If you’re going out with a night with friends, what are your go-to places?

I like Uncle Boons. I like a newer restaurant in Brooklyn called Insa. The chef [Sohui Kim] actually came out of Annisa, too.*

What’s one restaurant on your hit list?

 Le Coucou. I’ll have to save up for that one.

*Sohui Kim is also an ICE alumnus!

Ready to launch your culinary career? Click here to learn more about ICE’s career programs.

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By Caitlin Raux

Back when she was a tween, Tanya Edmunds (Culinary Arts ‘09, Culinary Management ‘09) took an interest in makeup. This being before the days of Pinterest and YouTube tutorials, her mom bought her makeup books filled with pages of application instructions. Tanya would spend hours in her room carefully studying the tutorials then replicating them on herself until she mastered each lesson. From the beginning, it was clear that she would be drawn toward creative, hands-on pursuits.

Though she studied theatre at NYU, practical considerations and a knack for whipping up delicious home-cooked dinners led her to enroll at ICE. Fast forward to present day, Tanya has found a calling that allows her perfectionist qualities to mesh with her creative flair and passion for food: as director of training and development at Shake Shack. If you’re not familiar with the brand, it’s the fast-casual burger chain with a cult following and scores of customers waiting to dig into reliably fresh, juicy burgers on pillowy potato buns — the need for well-trained employees to feed the hungry masses is without question. Spend five minutes chatting with Tanya and you’ll realize she’s got the confidence and the energy to manage training of those employees.

Tanya Edmunds

Tanya Edmunds during a recent visit to ICE

Tanya chatted with us about landing a gig at New York’s favorite burger mecca and offered some advice for those looking to follow a similar path.

How did the idea of attending culinary school come about?

It was my dad’s suggestion. I moved home after my undergrad years at NYU, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do — what I was passionate about. While I was home I didn’t have to pay rent but cooking dinner was my responsibility. I started looking up different kinds of recipes online and watching cooking shows a lot. My dad is very entrepreneurial at heart. He started his own business, leaving behind a successful sales career. We started talking about whether it would be feasible to open my own restaurant someday. I looked at all of the other things in my background — managing people through stage management when I was in college, my creative side and inclination toward stage design. I thought with my skills and interests I could keep up with a restaurant.

So, how did you take these skills and start in the culinary business?

Education was the first thing that I looked into when we came up with this idea to open a restaurant. With my love of New York City and its amazing food scene, I knew that was where I wanted to be. Ultimately, I chose ICE for a very unique reason. I focused on the environment I was going to be happiest in.

It sounds like from the beginning you had a clear vision of what you wanted from the programs.

My hope was to manage a restaurant and not let anything stand in the way of being successful. So I wanted to have as much information as I could.

I ended up loving the Culinary Arts portion — being hands-on and creating new dishes each day. That spoke more to my creative side. It was a nice balance, going from the intellectual ideas of my culinary management classes to the hands-on creativity of the culinary lessons.

Don’t judge your path. Work towards things that make you happy.

How did you go from ICE to Shake Shack?

After I graduated from ICE, I was looking for jobs in the management field and the kitchen. My first job was in the pastry kitchen at Maialino. I had a great connection with my chef there and we’re still friends to this day. I got to make croissants and brioche from scratch and work a shift that was 10:00 p.m. – 8:00 a.m., then commute back to New Jersey. My dad would pick me up and we’d go have lunch at my favorite diner and then I’d go home and go to sleep.

What a schedule!

It was a cool experience but I wanted to move back to New York City. A neighbor from New Jersey was the director of banquet services for Restaurant Associates in the Bank of America tower. I landed a job there as assistant pastry chef and worked in corporate dining for 14 months. That opened my eyes to another part of the culinary world. I went from a rustic, Roman-Italian restaurant run by Danny Meyer, to working in a huge corporate restaurant kitchen for Bank of America. I learned a lot there, but I kept thinking about management and how I could work in that area.

Tell me about landing your first gig at Shake Shack.

I checked ICE’s alumni job listings every Thursday and had to apply when I saw a position for restaurant manager at Shake Shack. At the time of one of my interviews, Shake Shack was serving a special eggnog-flavored custard for the holidays. As I was waiting for the general manager to interview me, he apologized for being late because they’d run out of the custard needed for recipe. I said, “I have a background in pastry and I make ice cream all the time, can I help?” I looked at the recipe and told him a way to make it faster. I think that might have been one of the things that threw me over the top.

At what point did you transition to training manager?

I was promoted about two years ago.* I’ve been with Shake Shack for over five years. I’m in charge of overseeing everything that happens at new openings and our in-person classroom-style management training. I also collaborate with other departments to make sure we’re executing our manager training as needed.

When you’re sent to a new city to train a new team — what’s a typical day like?

Everywhere is a bit different – whether it’s Tokyo, Texas, Boston or Orlando – and I gather information before I go. Typically the area director will tell me something about their team, such as the staff is made up of all high school students. So I’ll tailor the training for the younger staff, include mentions of Snapchat. I want the audience to engage with the training. I’ve come to realize I’ve got the coolest job in the world. I get to meet managers from all over the country. I get to teach people about what Shake Shack does as a company and what they do for their employees and share my passion for this company. It’s amazing to see people walk in thinking they got a job at a typical fast food restaurant and seven days later they feel completely different about it. They’re excited and engaged.

What advice would you give to students considering going into management, particularly with a huge brand like Shake Shack?

I would say: don’t expect it to happen quickly. Allow your path to be what it’s going to be. Don’t feel like it’s too long or too short because it’s going to happen naturally. My path was unexpected. If you had told me in 2009 that I was going to be leading the training for over 3,500 employees, I would probably tell you that you’re full of you-know-what. So don’t judge your path. Work towards things that make you happy.

One thing I like about your story is that it seems that you were constantly reassessing where you were and where you wanted to go — which I think is important for people at the beginning and throughout their careers.

I’ve been with Shake Shack for five years. Every time I open a restaurant I ask myself what was successful about it? What was challenging about it? Do I want to keep doing it? And the ultimate answer is always yes. As a student, as you’re continuing to learn, it’s good to explore, to try things, to ask for new things. In a sense, I’ve been able to write my own job description, but I’ve worked hard for that.

*After our interview, Tanya was promoted from training manager to director of training and development.

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

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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.

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