By Carly DeFilippo

Kate Edwards 1The Odeon. Balthazar. Per Se. Le Cirque. When it comes to life behind the scenes at New York City’s highest temples of gastronomy, Kate Edwards has seen and done it all. Today, she’s sharing nearly 30 years of restaurant experience—from serving celebrities to delivering expert industry advice as a restaurant consultant—with Culinary Management students at ICE.

Before Kate was recruited by Manhattan’s hottest restaurateurs for her impeccable sense of service and savvy staff training strategy, she was simply a college graduate seeking to start a career in music and theater. “In theater, you study a little bit of everything,” Kate explains, “which planted the seed of being a multitasker and defined the way my mind works.”

Her first job in the city was waitressing at The Odeon—the see-and-be-seen brasserie of 1980s New York—which opened her eyes to other possibilities in the industry and helped her land a job as hostess at Brian McNally’s Royalton Hotel. After a few months serving such regulars as Anna Wintour and Madonna, Kate had learned the ins and outs of how to seat a room, plan a menu and manage the wishes of high profile guests. Kate says, “Relationships with restaurant guests last. You’ll see them again and again over the course of your career. It’s something I’m incredibly fond of.” Soon enough, she was promoted to maitre d’—a mark on her resume that thenceforth served as a professional passport to roles at the city’s best restaurants.

In 1997, Kate joined the team at Keith McNally’s new hotspot, Balthazar, just two weeks after opening to unprecedented buzz and acclaim. Having missed the professional training that benefitted the rest of the staff, Kate became acutely aware of the specific requirements of successful staff training—the area of restaurant management that ranks as her primary specialty today. Meanwhile, Kate had developed a foothold in the music industry as a jazz and R&B singer, but at Balthazar, she realized that working in restaurants was no longer a way to support her musical ambitions—it had become her career.

The bustling scene at Balthazar. Photo Credit: Taste Savant

The bustling scene at Balthazar. Photo Credit: Taste Savant

Kate eventually decided to trade in her two-career lifestyle and applied for a management job at one of the city’s most ambitious fine dining establishments: Per Se. Just five days after opening, the hotly anticipated restaurant was closed due to a fire, and Kate was brought on to help facilitate the postponed reopening. It was a time that Kate remembers acutely, a transition from “the Maitre D’iva” at Balthazar to the new kid, all amongst the stress of a highly-anticipated restaurant whose momentum had come to a screeching halt. “You learn the most when you’re struggling just to make it to the next day,” Kate explains.

Per Se was one of the wildest rides of Kate’s career, a more-than-full-time gig that took up every waking second. So after two years, Kate took a step back—both to plan her wedding and to reconsider her next move. Her inspiration came during a stint at Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town Restaurant, while working in management alongside a group of consultants. She realized there, that with all her varied roles and experiences, she had more than a lifetime’s worth of restaurant wisdom to offer.

The pristine, high end kitchen at Per Se.

The pristine, high end kitchen at Per Se.

Her first consulting opportunity came from the newly relocated Le Cirque—which meant Kate would be working alongside New York City’s most legendary maitre d’, Sirio Maccioni. At Le Cirque, Kate’s role was to absorb 30 years of accrued, anecdotal excellence and standardize procedures for a brand new staff. Reflecting on the specific challenges of the experience, Kate reflects, “Always listen to your team. They see things from a different perspective—and can help you do your job. Especially when it comes to the quality of your service and your product.”

Since then, Kate has worked with an impressive list of diverse clients, from Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Il Buco to Haven’s Kitchen and the Plaza Hotel. She notes that the “ultimate compliment” has been receiving multiple contracts from the same clients—a testament to her dedication and talent.

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Kate conducting an interactive Culinary Management seminar with three other instructors.

Over the past seven years, in addition to growing her consulting business, Kate has served as a guest lecturer and lead instructor in ICE’s Culinary Management program, helping students reach the next level in their own dynamic careers. “Teaching challenges what you know,” Kate adds. “People come from different walks of life and really open your mind.”

Reflecting on her own winding, dynamic career path, Kate shared some of the advice she gives to Culinary Management students regarding their professional development: “Look for diverse, challenging experiences in your career. People tend to comment on how ‘calm’ I seem for this business. But once you’ve tackled the high volume of Balthazar and the high expectations of Per Se, you become a real professional and learn to hold yourself with a certain degree of poise.”

Want to study with Kate? Click here to learn about ICE’s Culinary Management program.

This blog posting by Rick Smilow, president of ICE, is the second of two posts on Chef Thomas Keller’s September 7 lecture. Culinary Relations Manager, Virgina Monaco wrote the first. Keller came to ICE for many reasons and one of these was his long time friendship with ICE Chef and Instructor Chris Gesualdi. Thomas and Chris worked and cooked together at three NYC restaurants in the 80’s: La Reserve, Raphael and Rakel.

On Friday evening September 7, ICE hosted Thomas Keller, one of Americas most admired and influential chefs. Keller, most known as the chef and owner of The French Laundry and Per Se, addressed over 100 ICE students, alumni and staff for 90 minutes before signing books – nearly 100 of them!

He covered a wide range of topics and answered a series of questions that students had submitted in advance.

One of the student’s questions dealt with inspiration and where it comes from. Chef Keller said it happens rarely, and that you have to be ready for it, as you don’t know in advance that it will happen. He wryly observed that an artist, a musician, a poet and a chef could be walking down the street together and each see a leaf fall. From that, each would be inspired differently. As a real life anecdote, Keller said that his signature salmon cornet appetizer was inspired many years ago, by a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone standing rack.

On the subject of what he looks for when hiring new employees, Keller answered that people expect the answer to be passion, but the actual answer is desire. He went on to explain that he knows that passion is something that ebbs and flows, but desire is something that you can bring to work every day.

Speaking about what his goals are for the customer experience in each of his restaurants, Chef Keller said that he wants to make sure each of his guests leaves with a great memory of the dining experience and that memory defines success.

Keller is widely known for his commitment, interest and dedication to using the finest ingredients. Sometimes those ingredients are local, and sometimes not.  But he pointed out that sustainability has various meanings and dimensions. So when his Napa Valley restaurants source butter from Orwell, Vermont or lobsters from Stonington, Maine, the product is not literally local, but he happily knows that he is helping small producers sustain their lifestyle and the economics of their own rural community.

Talking about the future, he said that one of his driving forces now, was what he called the next generation. That means that he, and his top staff, spend a lot of time training and mentoring. Keller said he thinks it is critical that the younger generations in his kitchens have the confidence and encouragement to collaborate.

This Friday evening, ICE was honored to host A Conversation with Thomas Keller and welcome a true culinary legend to the school. Chef Keller’s awards, stars and accolades are too long to list here (and well worth a google if you are unfamiliar with him). Chef Keller and his iconic French Laundry restaurant came to fame at a time when America was known for fast-food and TV dinners, and to be a chef was to be considered a domestic servant, not a culinary arts professional. Ignoring that reputation, he has set the bar for American cuisine over the last twenty-five years and continues to define the ultimate fine dining experience across the country. He visited ICE to share stories of his experiences, philosophies on food and mentor the next generation of great chefs.

Students and alumni packed the sixth floor in anticipation of pearls of wisdom and words of advise. As I listened to Chef Keller give his thoughts on everything from his definition of sustainability to the importance of making memories, I couldn’t help but think that his advise was extremely wise in its simplicity and brevity. This wasn’t an infomercial claiming that you could be a success overnight if you followed four simple rules.  He stressed basic but vital core principles for success – hard work, constant improvement, evolution, collaboration, desire.

There are no shortcuts to success and no secret formulas to revel. His strongest advice to students was to simply try and do just a little bit better than you did the day before. That’s not that hard, is it? With explanations like that, any level of success suddenly seems within anyone’s reach.  It’s not always easy-going. Failures are inevitable and easy paths are tempting.  Doing it right day after day, year after year, every single time, is much harder than it sounds. I could see that most everyone in that room admired Chef Keller for his deceptively simple devotion to doing it right, taking pride in what you do, and doing it even better tomorrow.  Yes, he makes amazing food and yes, we admire his creativity and skill. But what truly inspires is his willingness to work hard, everyday, in order to bring pleasure to others and leave them with the fondest of memories.

My favorite quote of the evening was, “What is greatness if not consistency? Anyone can make one amazing meal. But to make thousands of amazing meals over dozens of years is what makes a truly great chef.”

For info on the next Meet the Culinary Entrepreneurs lectures, including David Burke and Lucinda Scala Quinn of Martha Stewart Living, check out our culinary career development class listings.

ICE Senior Career Services Advisor Amy Quazza and Director of Career Services Maureen Drum Fagin with Outstanding Chef Award Winner José Andrés

As we welcome spring, food lovers and passionate diners everywhere look forward to the annual James Beard Awards. Celebrated close to the anniversary of James Beard’s birthday in May, the awards are given to the best chefs, restaurants and media in the country. ICE founder Peter Kump helped launch the James Beard Foundation and ICE is proud to maintain close ties to the organization and their hard work to promote and celebrate food in America. The Awards are regarded as the most prestigious awards in the culinary industry, often referred to as the “Oscars” of food.

This year, the awards ceremonies and festivities were spread over the entire weekend as the food world gathered in NYC for a celebration of all things culinary. On Friday night, the foundation held their Book, Broadcast & Journalism Awards, hosted by Ted Allen of Food Network’s Chopped and ICE alum Gail Simmons of Bravo’s Top Chef. In fact, Top Chef, took home the award for best Television Show, In Studio or Fixed Location. ICE alums Dominique Andrews and Marie Ostrosky were also nominated for the second year in a row in the Television Special category. More…

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book’s release, they have been discovering even more interesting career paths in the food world. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature, “Unique Culinary Careers.”

Working in the culinary industry affords many unique and interesting opportunities. Paras Shah graduated from ICE’s Culinary Arts program in 2007. A born and raised New Yorker, Shah plans to open a small restaurant in Queens one day, but for now his culinary journey has taken him to Europe and one of the top restaurants in the world. After completing his externship at Per Se, he went on to work at Momofuku Noodle Bar. While working there, he was one of two American culinary school graduates to be awarded an ICEX Spanish Trade Commission Scholarship, allowing him to spend a year cooking in Spain. While there, he worked at Echaurren in La Rioja, then Santo Mauro in Madrid and is now at Ferran Adrià’s world-famous El Bullì in Roses. We asked him about working in Spain, cooking in another language and how travel is shaping his culinary growth.

How would you describe your job?
I am a stage at El Bullì, one of the best restaurants in the world. I am part of an international team of about 50 cooks. We do everything from doing about 90% of the mise en place to plating dishes during service. It involves long hours and we strive to be perfect in everything that we do in the kitchen. At El Bullì, we are constantly striving to reinvent the concept of fine dining by utilizing the newest techniques and pushing the envelope. More…

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