Pastry Arts Coordinator
Coming from a family where both parents cooked, Chef Kam Golightly developed an appreciation for the kitchen at a young age. It wasn’t until her sophomore year of high school that she realized she could make a living out of her passion and went on to study the culinary arts and minor in business at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After her studies, she traveled through Europe, taking the opportunity to stage at various bakeries. Upon returning to the US, Chef Kam began her first full-time position at Redd in Yountville (a Michelin-starred property). In 2011, Chef Kam became Redd’s Executive Pastry Chef and was nominated for Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Pastry Chef in 2012. Transitioning to the North Bay Area in 2013, Chef Kam accepted an Executive Pastry Chef position at Oliveto, a whole-animal, farm-to-table restaurant and cafe in Oakland. While there she supported the Community Grain project, focusing on whole heirloom grain breads and pastries. She notes that living in California leaves no room for excuses when it comes to being conscious of seasonality and sustainability. In 2015, Chef Kam joined the Firehouse restaurant, a high-volume, fine-dining establishment in Sacramento as an Executive.
Now as Pastry Arts Coordinator at the International Culinary Center, Chef Kam brings her experience in various avenues of the pastry arts world, from small international cafés to Michelin-starred restaurants in California, to her students. What makes her stand out as a Pastry Chef turned Instructor is the ability to transform something well known and comfortable and give it a fine-dining twist.
ICC: What was your experience with cooking as a child?
Kam: We were always in the kitchen growing up. My mom was my biggest influence because she was the baker in the family. She made all of our birthday cakes; we would wait for the Wilton cookbook to come out every July and I would go through it to pick a design I liked for my mom to replicate. The style of cakes back then was to use a shaped mold and decorate with “star tip.” To this day, I still have friends who talk about my mom’s cakes. Once I got older, around ten or so, I started working with her on baking and piping. That was definitely where things started.
ICC: At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in the pastry arts?
Kam: I went to an all-girls Catholic school that was very competitive and during my sophomore year, I struggled to keep up. I was actually getting a D in English so I talked to my teacher about how I could earn some extra credit. When he suggested that I do a project in addition to my paper, I automatically asked him if I could bake something. We were reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest and I proposed the idea that I could bake a cake that represents the book. Hesitantly, my teacher agreed and I got to work on an elaborate 3-tiered cake that had the shipwreck on it and quotes coming off of it. In my junior year, we took a career placement quiz that evaluated our strong suits. Interestingly, chef and cook came up under my recommendations. There was a light bulb that turned on when I realized, “wait, I could get paid to do this?” After that, there was no looking back and I immediately began looking at culinary schools.
ICC: What was the first step you took towards your culinary education and how did you know it was the right choice?
Kam: At Drexel University in Philadelphia, I took a four year culinary arts program that covered everything from cooking, nutrition, food science, and of course, pastry. I earned my B.S in 2007. The culinary portion of the program came very naturally to me. I feel like I excelled and felt very comfortable. Like a duck to water, I finally found my confidence. In my traditional academic studies, I always felt inadequate and behind the curve. At Drexel, I was second in my class so that was huge.
ICC: What was your first professional kitchen experience like?
Kam: In culinary school, I did a nine month paid-externship at the commissary kitchen of Miel Patisserie in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It was intense and terrifying! In school, the teachers push you to be faster but it’s nothing compared to what the real world expects of you. The first month, you just swear you’re going to get fired and you are praying that you make it though each day. For a moment, I even wondered if I had made the wrong decision by choosing this industry. However, at the end of 90 days, I was up to speed, into a rhythm and had gained confidence in my daily tasks. One of my sous chefs at the time told me to have faith, that my doubts were normal and that things would get better.
ICC: Do you feel that your schooling sufficiently prepared you for the real-world?
Kam: My schooling was definitely adequate but there were some big chunks that were missing. I’ve been really proud to work at ICC because those holes aren’t there in our curriculum. The ICC has a much more thorough program that covers everything! There’s a big umbrella covered here that is impressive because it’s only a six month program.
ICC: Tell us about your first official job.
Kam: After returning to the US, I began working at a boutique restaurant called Redd located in Yountville, CA. Interestingly, when I started, the entire line was made up of female chefs (something I have never encountered again). Being a Michelin star restaurant, it was a whole new level of standards. Actually, I attribute my high standards today to this particular work experience. They taught me the value of taking care of everything you have in your kitchen—not only should the food coming off the line be pristine but you should also have respect for the ingredients you’re using. At Redd, I had the opportunity to work as Sous Chef under Nicole Plue, a 2010 James Beard winner. She taught me how to navigate the fine-dining world, and she helped me develop speed and consistency. Chef Plue is one of the fastest pastry chefs I’ve ever worked for and by the end of my time with her, I could keep up.
ICC: What did it take to eventually become Redd’s Executive Pastry Chef?
Kam: When Richard, the Manager, first offered me the position, I was only 26. I was terrified and told him I was not ready. It was only with a lot of encouragement from him that I was able to muster up the courage. He was willing to take the risk with me, and with his support, I was willing to take that leap. After a three month trial, when things had gone well in the kitchen and my menu had been well received, I was finally ready to step into the role full-time. As the Executive Pastry Chef, I was in charge of menu development which meant I had to trust my palate. I was now managing employees, making schedules, tracking cost and taking inventory. I was responsible for not only onsite pastry production but also, offsite accounts such as the Pebble Beach Food and Wine Events and Robert Mondavi Vineyards. In 2012 when I was nominated for Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Pastry Chef it reassured me that I was making an impact. All the encouragement I received, gave me confidence to keep taking risks and to moving forward.
ICC: Why did you decide to leave restaurants to begin teaching?
Kam: Although it was a leap of faith to leave the restaurant business, after 15 years in the industry I was ready for a new challenge. When I saw ICC was hiring, I remembered how I had always loved hiring people straight out of culinary school. I appreciate that green students are super passionate, hungry and energetic. In a restaurant there is not always time to teach them and working at a school means I always have the time to teach!
ICC: Looking back, what are some of the differences in the way you were trained then and what we are teaching people today?
Kam: I love that schools today are talking about where our food is coming from, that was definitely not something we even mentioned. When I was in school farmers markets weren’t visited and sustainability wasn’t a subject of conversation. Now we are talking in depth about sourcing food responsibly and how that effects the environment, the food quality, the animals and plants themselves, our culture, quality of life, etc.
ICC: What are the most important things you want your students to know about the industry?
Kam: Repetition is key. For those students that think they’re going to master a skill after only trying once or twice, I want them to know that it takes repetition not only gain the skill but also to maintain it. I work really hard to give my students the chance to do things over and over. I hope that I also ignite passion in my students.