From Puppies to Pasta Part II

By Kris Feliz,
ICC Italian Culinary Arts graduate.
Read From Puppies to Pasta Part I

I got to culinary school having romantic ideas of Italian landscapes and giant bowls of pasta, thinking tradition and family was what drives cuisine in Italy but looking back at the Italian Culinary Experience at ICC — this total immersion curriculum expanded and exceeded my whole understanding of learning, cooking, what it means to be a chef, interacting with other chefs, and the beautiful countryside of Italy.

In the New York portion of the program, we learned all aspects of Italian cooking techniques and the connections that the cuisine has to culture, history, and language. It’s amazing how detailed and packed those days were — and Chef Guido is an excellent and genuine instructor. The foundation I built at ICC paved the way towards having a successful experience at ALMA.

As a school, ALMA is a precious gem in the Italian culinary world and it completed my education with a polish that has impacted the way I view the bigger picture of my job as a chef. Learning a complete body of wine, culture, history, language, and cooking techniques from all areas of the fine dining kitchen is just part of what I walked away with. The dedication and self discipline required to complete the complex coursework has shaped the kind of professional I am now becoming in the job market.

The campus environment is beautiful and truly helped to shape my thinking about the cooking community. Every week, we met with guest chefs who shared their wisdom and experience, allowing us to learn how these exceptional visionaries carved out their place in the modern cooking world. Simplicity, elegance, and elevation became fundamental for creation that reinforces the values of respect for the ingredients, expands traditions, and pushes the limits of today’s modern cooking techniques. Going to ALMA changed me, from a person who wanted to cook, to a chef who wants to create.

Italian Culinary Experience

Living in Italy was such a magical experience! ALMA is situated in a great location for access to many major cities, and there just wasn’t a reason not to enjoy the benefits of our free time. It’s always full sensory participation of foods, architecture, and cultural events no matter what city you visit. Travelling by train was easy and comfortable, and there’s always something happening in Italy. I had so many spontaneous experiences just because I was standing in the right spot when the marching band passed by, or when the festivals were visiting. I fell so in love with the sky, the trees, every building and cathedral, the coastlines, and mountains that I wanted to stay!

Luckily I was coming back to New York City with its high-quality, high-volume kitchen culture that is fueled by creative passionate chefs. I run into other ICC grads all the time in kitchens and it feels good to see us working and producing. I feel proud to be a working member of our graduate community! And I look back at the brilliant education I received with fondness for my creative and passionate instructors, mentors. This motivates and drives me to keep practicing, keep pushing this craft into a lifelong career of learning and giving back.

Alumni Interview with Abraham Scott (Pastry Arts’16)

My name is Abraham Scott and I currently work as a Pastry Cook at 2-Michelin-starred Marea Fine Dining Restaurant. I’m a recent graduate of the Professional Pastry Arts program and I am so proud to say that ICC gave me the foundation to be working at a Top 10 NYC restaurant. Prior to attending ICC, I worked in IT for a many years at City University of New York.

– What is your best memory from your time at ICC?

A class trip to Jacques Torres’ Factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn! Our Dean of Pastry Arts took us on a tour of his massive chocolate factory. Of course, we got a chance to taste many of the chocolate treats. It was a very inspiring outing, Jacques shared his own pastry stories and professional experiences with us.

Pastry School New York City

– Describe a day in your life.

My work day begins at 3pm. I do inventory of all of our desserts to make sure we have ingredients on hand. The Desserts menu is a wide spectrum of items which range from Mascarpone Panna Cotta to Bomboloni (Blueberry Doughnuts served with Honey & Lemon Curd). I am also responsible for prepping the desserts for the dinner service, which lasts from 6pm through 11pm on weekdays and 11:30pm on Saturdays. During the actual service, I am engaged in plating desserts at a rapid pace. Our covers average 260-300 a night, or even higher on the weekends.

Once the last order is out, I break down the station and clean the area, restock it for the morning cooks. I usually leave work at around 1:30am in the morning five days a week, and I get 2 consecutive days off a week.

Bomboloni at Marea (Photo by Ted Axelrod)
Bomboloni at Marea (Photo by Ted Axelrod)

– What would you tell someone who wants to start a career in pastry?

Since graduating from the ICC program I received EIGHT job opportunities, which is amazing! The best advice I received at ICC is to “Choose the job based on what you will to learn the most from” — that’s why now I am learning daily at Marea.

– What’s next for you?

I’m currently perfecting my ice cream recipes because I want to develop a line of ice cream products and hope to launch a pop up parlor in 2017.

A Cuisine in Ferment // Judy Joo Culinary Arts’04

By Eric Levin
Appears in the July 2016 issue of New Jersey Monthly
Photo by Jean Cazals

Judy Joo, the studious, Jersey-raised daughter of Korean refugees, left Wall Street to bring the bracing food of Korea to TV and now a cookbook.

Uprooted by the communists, little Eui Don Joo, his eight siblings and their parents put what belongings they could on their backs and walked south. The family had been landlords and farm owners in northern Korea, but now, as war raged in the early 1950s, they were refugees. In his backpack, Eui Don, the youngest, about age five, bore the lightest load, but the most crucial: rolls of fine silk. With Korean currency worthless, silk could be bartered for essentials, most of all food.

Eui Don’s daughter, Judy Joo—author of the new cookbook, Korean Food Made Simple(HMH, $30), based on her Cooking Channel series of the same name—learned perseverence and scholarship from her father, who came to this country in 1967 after graduating from medical school in Seoul. She learned those virtues and Korean cooking from her mother, Young Nim Park, who left Korea in 1968 with a scholarship to Ohio State, where she earned a master’s degree in chemistry. Eui Don became a psychiatrist. Joo’s parents met in Michigan and eventually settled in Berkeley Heights.

At the exclusive Kent Place School in Summit, Joo and her older sister, Sonya, were the only Asians. “Our parents pushed us hard. ‘You have to succeed! Play the violin, play the piano, excel!’” Joo recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t read that Tiger Mother book. I lived it.”

Partly to help her daughters fit in, their mom made them pb&j sandwiches for school lunch. But family meals were always Korean and made from scratch. “The laundry room,” Joo writes in her cookbook, “teemed with jars and containers stacked precariously, filled with fermenting drinks, bowls full of soaking tripe, mung beans, bean sprouts, or rice. The adjoining garage had rows of drying seaweed on hangers, chiles, and a small foil-wrapped charcoal grill for barbecue perched in the corner.”

At Columbia University, Joo majored in industrial engineering and operations research. She became a financial analyst and, at age 22, worked the trading floor. “It was a crazy environment,” she recalls, “with 500 people on the floor, 48 phone lines, a headset, two handsets, six screens in front of you. You’re yelling all day. The market is always moving, so you have to handle stress effectively and have a ridiculous memory. You either sink or swim.” She swam, but soon realized she didn’t love the pool.

What Joo did love was food and restaurants. So she quit and got a degree in pastry arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York. Why pastry? “Because of the science factor,” she says, referring to the precision required. She cooked, among other places, at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in the Napa Valley and Heston Blumenthal’s high-tech Fat Duck in London. After the stress of the trading floor, the pressure of a high-end restaurant kitchen was “not that big a deal.”

In London, Joo became a U.K. Iron Chef, competing in some 200 battles. She was executive chef of the London Playboy Club, working some Korean influences into her menu, when a backer who had eaten her food called out of the blue and offered her the chance to open her own restaurant. “I didn’t really want to,” she says, “because I knew how much work it was.” But she bit.

Jinjuu (Korean for Pearl) opened in London’s Soho in early 2015. By year’s end, through a cold call from another backer, she had opened another Jinjuu in Hong Kong. Now she commutes between those two cities and New York, where she appears on various Food Network shows and sees her family.

Joo’s book leads cooks gently from dishes that have gone mainstream—like crackly Korean fried chicken and kimchi, the spicy fermented condiment and ingredient—into the heart of a hearty and healthy cuisine.

Anything Jersey in the book? Yes! Kimchi pulled-pork disco fries—a tribute, Joo says, to the many hours she whiled away in the diners of Route 22.

Chef Dustin Christofolo, Italian Culinary Experience’09

Chef Dustin Christofolo,
Italian Culinary Experience 2009 Graduate

My experience at the ICC was short and sweet. The total Immersion program is one of the main reasons I selected the International Culinary Center.

It’s not easy to break away from your day to day life for two years that’s why the one year program was perfect for me. My focus was cooking, I was trying to avoid classrooms filled with lectures and tasks that did not fall in line with culinary. ICC kept us in the kitchen 6-8 hours a day with an Italian foreign language class twice a week to prepare us for our internships in Italy. Each cook executes 3 to 5 recipes a day with detailed demos by the chef-instructors. Recipes are very detailed in this program but I did appreciate that there were times we could “freestyle” with pizzas and pastas on select days which would help us express our creativity.

Christofolo

Chef Guido is an amazing instructor! With the roots of Italy fueling his style you’re sure to find yourself cooking like a true Italian. Not to mention, before and after class you find yourself in the greatest culinary city in the world, Manhattan! We also had great demos and lots of opportunities for volunteer work with reputable chefs.

The trip to Italy and ALMA was phenomenal! ICC is layered with three different experiences: the program in Manhattan, the program in Italy and then the internship in a selected restaurant in Italy which is optional. Working with multiple head chefs was an eye opening experience that continues to help me grow in this business. The program was very consistent but every chef had their own signature. The program at ALMA took more of a traditional approach, while the program in Manhattan was deeply rooted with Italian technique but had more of a contemporary approach. It was great to work with multiple styles and venues. This gave the program more depth and character plus helped me build my own style.

I wasn’t sure if I was on vacation or away for a culinary program. My stay in Italy was during the winter session which was great for me and my classmates. We had a two-week Christmas break during the program where I traveled as much as possible. I couldn’t believe that I had this opportunity to have an entire European trip! I took full advantage of the break while others choose to go back home for the holidays to shortly return when classes resumed.

After finishing my education, I headed home to Phoenix, Arizona and I am now at my second restaurant as Executive Chef and Co-owner, Quiessence at The Farm. Our restaurant focuses on hyper local ingredients to give the diner a true farm and garden-to-table experience. Our menu changes weekly, but there is always a pasta course available, taking me back to my roots at ICC where I learned the best techniques. The immersion education from ICC has lead me to being invited to cook at the James Beard House along with several accolades from our local and national publications.

Interview with Essie Bartels (Essentials of Fine Cooking’16)

My name is Essie Bartels. I am the Owner & Spice Mixologist for Essiespice. It’s a small start-up out of New Jersey. We make small batch spice blends and sauces/condiments that use traditional West-African cooking methods and spices but with a fusion of world flavors. In 2016, I took the Essentials of Fine Cooking course at ICC.

– What did you do before attending ICC?

I worked in Corporate America for 8.5 years but around the 6 year mark, I started making Essiespice Sauces and spice blends. I worked at Hitachi, Panasonic, Unilever and ADP. My career allowed me to travel a lot and I also studied in Europe while in College — my work and my travels are a big part of my sauces.

– What is your best memory from your time at ICC?

Chef Guido made a sauce out of duck stock and fat and it was the best sauce I have ever had in my life! I honestly will never forget that sauce.

icc_chef_guido

– What was your inspiration behind Essiespice and your products?

I am inspired by West African cooking and spices. A lot of my inspiration also comes from visiting 24 countries during my travels. I want to teach people about the indigenous food from West-Africa especially our spices, and also to highlight my experiences with global flavors and cuisines.

– Describe a day in your life.

No two days are ever the same with me! There are some days where I have to do a lot of paperwork for inventory and stock levels tracking. I could also be working on posts for our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Some days I’m planning recipes and shooting them for our social media pages. I also do my own production in an incubator in NYC, so I could be getting the ingredients for any and or all of our sauces and then actually getting my team together to work on the actual production of the sauces: cutting, cleaning, blending, cooking, and bottling. Other times, I am meeting with bloggers or writers. I also do deliveries to the stores that order my spices and sauces and sometimes I do actual in-store demos and tastings to show customers how to use the products.

essie_spice_icc

– What would you tell someone who dreams of starting a food business?

I would tell them to go for it. Honestly, no good thing will come easy. I won’t lie and say Essiespice hasn’t been the most challenging project of my life. It has tested everything in my life: patience, courage, endurance… that’s what you have to get ready for.

You will most definitely have to develop a thick skin and unless you have a lot of savings or investment from the start, you’ll have to get dirty and be a jack of all trades. Once you decide this is what you want to do, there’s a lot of research that has to be done with certifications and food safety so that is something to be mindful of and also you have to make up your mind that you’re in it to succeed so nothing will deter you. Because a lot of things will come at you and you have to stand firm.

– What’s next for you?

I’m getting ready to launch a Crowdfunding Campaign for Essiespice in the next 6 weeks. We need to raise money to keep Essiespice running smoothly into a stable and viable business that supports women entrepreneurs. We will also use part of the funds raised to research and create new product lines and introduce auxiliary products Made in Ghana to the US and world market.

Alumni Interview with Deanna La (Pastry Arts ’15)

My name is Deanna La and I am 36 years old. I am a mother of one beautiful young lady who is the inspiration for all I do. Her name is Alika and she is 13 years old. I come from a huge family and many of the women in my family bake. I grew up baking traditional sweets from Honduras with my mom and I can’t think of a single birthday as a child that went without a home made caramel cake from my grandmother. Even my aunts on my fathers side are wonderful bakers and they always made traditional Honduran caramel cakes, chocolate cakes filled with pineapple and what people from the islands call pone. Those are soft cakes baked in casserole dishes and are made with things like pumpkin, cassava and banana.

I started baking on my own at about 14 years old. The first things I ever baked on my own were vanilla cakes with whip cream frosting, cheesecakes and chocolate chip cookies. I stopped baking for a long period of time at around 22 and didn’t pick it up again until around 28 when I met my husband and we started throwing huge dinner parties for family and friends. It wasn’t until around 33 that I started taking my baking more seriously and thinking that it was something I would like to do for a living.

new_york_cake_show_winner

– What did you do before attending ICC?

Before I went to ICC I felt like a wanderer. I worked as an administrative assistant for many many years in various fields from investment baking to pharmaceuticals until I found myself working in IT for a financial software company. It was different and for a while I enjoyed the work and learning something new but it wasn’t right for me. After three years I found myself dreading going to work. I became very depressed and disinterested and longing for the freedom to set my own direction. That’s when I started to look for culinary schools to take what had already become more than a hobby to the next level.

The day I decided to quit my job and go to culinary school full time, I had already taken a leave of absence from work and it had done me no good. Returning to work, I was happy to see my co-workers but I still felt dread and unhappiness with my job. I was already set with ICC to attend classes at night but I was sitting in my cubicle feeling down when I typed a text to my husband that said. “I can’t do this anymore” of course alarmed he called me to clarify what I meant (haha!) and I told him that I was truly unhappy with my job and I couldn’t do it anymore. He knew I was miserable and he told me that he would support whatever decision I made so I got up from my desk, went into a conference room and called the school to see if there were any spots left for the day program. It was my luck that there were and I gave my two weeks notice that day, a few minutes after the school confirmed.

– What is your best memory from your time at ICC?

My best memory from ICC has to be when I took first place in the NY cake show as a student. All the messages of support I got from the school, fellow students and alumni was wonderful but the day after when I came into class and Chef Alain came by to congratulate me that was amazing. I have never really won anything before so to have that accomplishment for something that I really took a huge leap of faith to pursue and then have someone like chef Alain take his time to come by and recognize me was pretty great.

– What was your inspiration behind your masterpieces for the NY Cake Show 2015 and 2016?

The inspiration for my cake in 2015 was my mom. The theme was Mother’s Day that year and my mom has always been an avid gardener. Her yard is filled with so many wonderful flowers and roses in very color so I wanted to make a cake that was filled with flowers and color while still keeping it in the simple clean lines that I feel define my own personal style.

For my 2016 cake I absolutely had no idea. Unlike when I was in school, I was working full time with clients and I was pretty busy in the months and weeks leading up to the competition. I had several ideas but nothing I was truly in love with when my husband said “your cake tier looks like grand central” it all clicked together from there and I went full steam in that direction.

new_york_cake_show_winner_2016

– What would you tell someone who wants to be a Cake Artist?

As with anything, love what you do. If you don’t love this business you won’t get far. It takes hard work, long hours on your feet and dedication for often little pay. Many of the tasks involved are tedious and repetitive so you must be patient. You also have to keep in mind that you are providing a service to people for events that will forever be a part of their memories so you must be kind, compassionate and strive to do your best work always no matter what the budget.

– What’s next for you?

I will continue competing and I will be looking to expand my business Just Eats Custom Cakes to a store front shop. I will be sure to give an update when that happens!

Follow Deanna:

Instagram // Website

Interview with Julianne Feder (Culinary Arts’13)

ICC alumna Julianne Feder has a rather unusual and diverse culinary background. Her goal is to learn every aspect of the food world (in her true nerdy way), and so she’s done sales and marketing for a small Italian specialty foods importer, worked on a farm in Tuscany, helped scout companies for a food start-up accelerator, went to culinary school, and worked in some of New York’s best kitchens before becoming a private chef. Julianne is now a food writer, a private chef, and she runs the marketing for a restaurant group.

– What did you do before attending ICC?

I worked in agriturismo in Tuscany (we raised gorgeous pigs and made salumi) and before that I did sales and marketing for a specialty Italian food importer, selling truffles, aged balsamic vinegars and more. It was a lot of fun and I even went on a truffle hunt!

– Describe a day in your life.

I wear a lot of hats these days. I am the Director of Marketing at Tarallucci e Vino, I write regularly for Thrillist for the Food and Drinks Section, and I still work as a private chef on the weekends. So, the average day could be organizing and food styling a photoshoot for the restaurant, coming home to brainstorm recipes to develop or topics to research for a new Thrillist article and then coordinating with a client about an upcoming dinner party. It’s a lot of juggling!

julianne feder gastronerd culinary school

– How did you come up with the idea behind The GastroNerd?

I am a huge food nerd. I have always found the stories, etymology and histories behind ingredients and dishes fascinating, and felt that learning about them helped inform my cooking. The GastroNerd is my way of sharing that passion. Think of me kind of like a new wave of Alton Brown (I say humbly…).

– What would you tell someone who wants to be a private chef?

Get some real restaurant experience under your belt first. It will really up your private chef game. Be prepared to compromise a lot and go with the flow; remember you are there to serve your client first and foremost. Your clients will often make very specific requests or make last minute changes to your menu and event. You have to be very organized and independent. There is no one telling you what to do. You are on your own!

– What’s next for you?

I love my job(s) and I am excited to grow with them. Our restaurant group Tarallucci e Vino will be opening its 5th location soon and we can’t wait! I also will be writing more regularly for Thrillist and heading up more recipe development for them. I was also recently on the FoodNetwork (watch here). Hopefully I’ll be doing more with them and more general video content too!

Keep Up with Julianne:

The Gastronerd // YouTube

Interview with Chris Chowaniec (Culinary Arts’13)

ICC California alum Chris Chowaniec (left) and his brother Mark have turned their lifelong relationship with food into an exciting new business. The Chow Brothers “are committed to always being a fun and responsible food brand delivering unique flavors as accouterments, appetizers, and main dishes to good food fans everywhere!”

– How and when did you know you wanted to work with food?

My mom grew up on a farm. I grew up starting dinner prep for the family because my parents worked late. We never went out to eat, and family parties were really food festivals. Post college – my brother and I enjoyed throwing dinner parties back in Chicago, which turned into fundraisers. Shortly after, one of my friends started a private cheffing and pop-up dinner business in NYC back in 2008 and I went to help with him in the kitchen. When I got back, I realized I wanted to take our events to the next level – and formed The Chow Brothers. The culinary school bug was always in me, even though I have always worked in tech and photography. In 2013, before I turned 35 – I knew if I did not make the move to California and just do it, it would never happened. I committed to aligning all my work to focus on food, the food system, and cooking. It’s been my passion since I was young, and The Chow Brothers has allowed me to turn it into something bigger than myself.

– Tell us a bit about your photography – how did that start? Were you always interested in food photography or did that develop over time? What do you love about it?

My grandpa and dad taught me how to use medium format and 35mm film cameras when I was 9. I haven’t stopped carrying a camera around ever since. In 2007, after constantly taking photos, posting, learning, attending seminars and classes – one of my close friends asked me to shoot his wedding. So then I started my own photography business in 2009, and pivoted to food once The Chow Brothers came together. One of my mentors and friends who worked for Food and Wine Magazine brought me deeper into the world of food photography back in 2012, and when I moved to California for the ICC – I knew I wanted to work for a food magazine, so I knocked a lot on the doors of Edible Magazine. I love combining my knowledge and respect for cooking, plating, and serving into my photography. I guess what I like most about it is the ability to express my creativity and passion in a physical medium. That release of mental and creative energy into a solid form gives me purpose and allows me to communicate about food in ways that my words cannot.

Chow Bros Culinary School

– What inspired The Chow Bros? What’s next for them?

– Already discussed above – but we are definitely motivated to leave a legacy, celebrate our traditions, and responsibly grow a business we can rely on in the future. At a more simple level, it is about having fun and bringing people together with food.

What’s next? We are going to be producing gourmet pierogi like short rib and port, duck confit, and bourbon maple pork. Raw Carrot and Coriander Sauerkraut is already in progress and on sale in the Bay Area, and we are looking to outsource some of our production with partners. We are also trying to obtain our official organic certification for all of our products this year, redo our website, and break into some more bar and retail locations.

– What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I had to think about this one, because I have received a lot of it in my life from incredible people. But I guess the one that keeps on coming into my head is what my parents constantly told me growing up: study, study, study. I am the first generation in the US, and my parents are both from Poland. Their hard work ethic rubbed off on me for sure – but they insisted I do well in school, and go to college since they never had the opportunity. The advice I got out of it was to always learn new things. Challenge yourself intellectually and practically to be curious and learn how things work. Ever since I was a kid, I have been taking things apart, taking classes and workshops, and trying to things whether in kitchen or in life the better or right way. Curiosity is essential in the kitchen and it turns out it is some great advice in life.

– How did your ICC experience influence your career path?

The ICC gave me more confidence in my abilities and to appreciate the importance of not only a sustainable food system, but efficiency and excellence in the kitchen. At the end of the day – I have to run a business, the food has to be incredible, and the chef instructors at the ICC are passionate, experienced, and a great source of inspiration.

– What’s your favorite memory of your time at the ICC?

Charcuterie class, learning how to bake bread, and our farm to table field trips. Respecting the whole animal and respecting our farmers, food, and food system are important values for The Chow Brothers.

Interview with Alumna Emilie Raffa from The Clever Carrot

ICC Professional Culinary Arts’06 graduate Emilie Raffa is the blogger behind The Clever Carrot and the author of The Clever Cookbook: Get-Ahead Strategies and Timesaving Tips for Stress-Free Home Cooking.

Emilie’s work has been featured in Oprah Magazine, Women’s Health Magazine, The Huffington Post, Food 52, Saveur, Food & Wine, Today Food, and in the pages of Artful Blogging Magazine. She was a finalist for ‘Best Food Photography’ in the annual the Saveur Blog Awards, and she also contributes to the digital cooking publication Feedfeed.

The Clever Cookbook Emilie Raffa

-What did you do before attending ICC?

Before attending ICC, I was working in sales. I couldn’t stand my job! Following my gut and enrolling in culinary school was one of the the best decisions I ever made.

-What is your best memory from your time at ICC?

This is going to sound silly, but I’ll say it anyway: the bread! Baguettes, to be exact. I remember arriving to class, ripping off a chunk of bread from the kitchen, and then settling in (at my station) to assemble my paper chef’s hat (yes, our hats were DIY and stapled together, by the way).

-Describe a day in your life.

Hectic! I like to wake up really early in the morning to write. Then, once the kids are up, I switch gears into Mom Mode. Then, it’s back to work again- cooking, photographing, answering emails and of course, more writing. My cat is incredibly demanding too, if that counts.

Clever Carrot Emilie Raffa

-What is your personal favorite recipe from The Clever Cookbook?

Tough question! I’d say my One-Pot Creamy Orzo with Asparagus. It’s like ‘risotto’ pasta.

-What would you tell someone who wants to publish a cookbook?

Do not settle. Wait for the right deal. Many bloggers are getting book deals right now so don’t sell yourself short with a subpar offer, especially if you will be doing your own photography, styling and recipe testing. Good things come to those who wait!

– What’s next for you?

I’m always brimming with ideas! Right now, I’m still promoting my cookbook so we’ll see after that!

Alumni Spotlight // Justin Mays

By Daisy Martinez,
Associate Director of Alumni Affairs

I am always happy to chat with grads who stop by the school and update us on their achievements, and I am often reminded of that old adage, “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover”. Justin Mays is a prime example of this. His youthful charm belies the extensive life experience he has under his belt, and his quiet, shy manner leaves you wondering how he navigates the tumult of a professional kitchen. After hearing his inspiring story, I knew that it was one “book” I had to share.

What were you doing before you attended culinary school?

I joined the Air Force in September of 2006 and headed to San Antonio, TX, for my military basic training. After that, I completed my career schooling in Biloxi, MS, before heading off to my first base in Panama City, FL. Little did I know at the time, the journey that was ahead of me was going to fuel the fire that pushed me to finally come to ICC and jump into the culinary world.

After a year in Florida, I was reassigned to Osan Air Base in South Korea, about 45 minutes south of Seoul. This is where my curiosity for food really took off, as I was exposed to all of these ingredients that I had never heard of, let alone seen. I tried everything I could get my hands on! Several hospital visits for food poisoning later, I learned what I could and couldn’t handle.

That year was both educational and exhilarating, and then we were moved to England. There, I met a lot of really good home cooks and was a part of a food group named the “Fairford Fatties”. Needless to say, we searched for as much “good” food that we could find. I also had made some friends in the restaurant industry and really enjoyed listening to their stories of dinner service over a few drinks. I think this was the first time of many that I would look at the ICC website and dream about one day launching my culinary career.

What was the next step for you to reach your goal of a culinary career?

From there I was off to Istanbul, Turkey. Long story short, loved the food, met the woman I would marry, and made a connection with a country unlike any I had before. My new bride and I headed back to Korea, where we were blessed with two beautiful girls. My first move back to the United States in six years was to St. Louis and for my wife’s birthday we went to Sydney Street Cafe in the downtown area. The food blew us away! At that moment, I knew I had to make my dream a reality soon. It was killing me, literally. I couldn’t sleep without dreaming of cooking and creating. It pulled at me and made me experience goals and aspirations I had never dreamed of. But, I had a wife and kids to take care of, so my dreams were just that…

I got out of the military while in St. Louis due to some ongoing medical issues and moved to my hometown to become a distribution manager for a large steel and aluminum company. I had essentially what I had always worked for: a nice salary, two nice cars, a nicely furnished home, and financial freedom. By most standards, I was on top of the world. Well, you know how they say money can’t buy happiness? Well, that was true in my case. I was missing something in my life that I needed. I lacked fulfillment and happiness. Not to mention, by this point I was literally driving my wife crazy about becoming a chef. An opportunity presented itself, and I decided that if I didn’t do it then, I never would.

Photo from the Wallsé Gallery
Photo from Wallsé

That’s a big step to take when you have a family to provide for. What kind of support did you get from them?

My wife and I looked around and wondered “how are we going to make this possible?” What would we do with all of our stuff? How would we afford everything? I guess when you want something bad enough, you find a way. My wife and I took to Craigslist and started having yard sales to afford school, then sold my truck. We knew we couldn’t afford to come to NYC all together, so my wife and kids stayed with family in Istanbul while I started my training at the ICC.

However, I discovered I wasn’t ready for that separation from my wife and girls. Their absence became unbearable, and after four months I brought them back to NYC to be with me until I finished. I worked with some friends and happened to have a buddy who was going to be out of town so we rented his place. The end goal was moving to Turkey upon graduation and finding something there, but we ran into hiccups with my citizenship paperwork and not to mention security issues that were plastered all over CNN. We made the decision to stay in New Jersey where my family could have a nice place to live while I chased my dream.

Okay, so now you are attending the ICC, and your family is back with you from Turkey. How long after you graduated did you find employment in your “field of dreams”?

I worked as a Chef de Cuisine at Savann Restaurant in Harlem while in school and a few months after graduation. While I loved my time there, I needed to elevate my cooking to a different level. I saw an opening at Wallse for an Entremetier Chef in the West Village and started doing some research on the place. I discovered it had been a Michelin-rated restaurant for 15 or 16 straight years, and I said to myself, this is it. This is where I want to be.

That is a really inspirational story. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?

I want to push my limits and have my limits pushed daily for excellence. I want to learn and develop, not just into a cook, but a chef. I want to have that background that separates me from my peers; the experience of an education that is worth its weight in gold. I’ve found that, and now my journey continues. We have a long way to go, but my quest for perfection and my desire for a brand will be fulfilled. I’ve sacrificed too much for it not to.

Chef Justin was able to apply the ICC Military Scholarship towards realizing his dream of attending the ICC. Maybe you can too!
Military Scholarship
Applicant must be a military veteran, active military member or the spouse/child of a veteran or active military member who has been honorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces.