Associate Director of Culinary Operations
Chef Todd Engstrom is a third generation Northern California native with over 25 years of experience in the hotel, restaurant, catering and foodservice industries. Chef Todd attended San Jose State University where he earned a B.S. in Hospitality Management and later received a Distinguished Alumni award. After his undergraduate studies, he went on to earn an AOS Degree in Culinary Arts from the California Culinary Academy. Most recently, he was founder and owner of All Seasons Café and Catering where he provided private and corporate catering services throughout the Bay Area, as well as daily restaurant operations. Prior to this, he was Executive Chef for Café Primavera where he oversaw the café and catering operations at the Tech Museum of Innovation. Chef Todd has a passion for California cuisine and combining local native ingredients with global culinary techniques.
ICC: What was your experience with food as a child?
Todd: My mom was a fantastic cook. She was always looking for healthier alternatives, so my experience was different than many other kids. When all of the other kids were eating chocolate, I would be eating carob. When kids were drinking cow milk, I was drinking milk from the goat we raised. Although what I ate was different, it was always delicious and tasty. Most of the places I lived while growing up were in rural areas so, we always had a garden, fruit trees, chickens, goats, horses, geese, etc. Food was always fresh and for the most part organic.
ICC: Did you always know that you wanted to be a Chef?
Todd: Despite the fact that I was always cooking at home, and my very first job at 16 was in the food industry, a culinary degree was not my original plan. When I was in high school, the movie, Top Gun, had just premiered and I wanted to be a pilot. In pursuit of that, I attended SJSU as an aviation-major.
ICC: What led you to pursue a culinary degree?
Todd: Throughout my time at SJSU, I maintained my interest in cooking and frequently did so for family and friends. My wife and I had even talked about opening a bed and breakfast somewhere down the road. When the university developed a Hospitality Management program, I realized that it was a more natural fit for me. In 1996 when I graduated with my B.S. degree, I was still unsure of how I wanted to use it. It was my wife who encouraged me to expand upon my love of cooking by going to culinary school. So, in 1997, I spent 18 months attending the California Culinary Academy and earned an associate’s degree. That program included a two-month externship for Bon Appétit at Silicon Graphics International Corporation.
ICC: How did All Seasons Café begin?
Todd: In 2003, when we had saved up enough money and when an opportunity had presented itself, we bought a café that seated about 50 people. Over the years we gained many regular customers and developed relationships that were extremely strong. For example, one particular customer would often call me simply requesting lunch for a group of people and would leave the rest of the details to me. She knew me well enough to know that I would bring something balanced, delicious and show up on time. It was quite flattering to know that my customers had that much faith in me — those were really good times!
ICC: What challenges did you face as a business owner and how did you overcome them?
Todd: Although the café was technically only open on weekdays, that didn’t mean that there wasn’t work to be done on weekends. As a business owner, you quickly realize that there is always something that needs to be done. Between purchasing, receiving, managing, allocating, deliveries, and special events, there was little time in my life for much else. Back in those days, my wife and I frequented a gym close to the café. I really believe that those workouts helped to manage the stress that I was under at the time.
ICC: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in the culinary field, specifically the catering and corporate dining sector?
Todd: Assuming you are starting out at a young age, I suggest getting a taste of the different avenues of the industry before you commit to one sector. I would recommend not spending more than one to two years with one employer so that you can gain different experiences on how people do things. With catering, it is all about organization and timing. You’ll have to be well aware of which foods hold well and which don’t. You should understand which foods are easily transportable or not. You need to gain the ability to visit a site, and just by looking, make an assessment about what sort of menus can be produced there. You’ll need to plan ahead and have a backup plan because things will go south at times. You will need to be customer-friendly, and be able to consistently deliver things in a timely fashion. As I tell my students today, “you are only as good as your last dish or your last event.” Yes, people are always searching for the best deal, but what they really want is someone who is reliable and dependable.
ICC: Why did you choose to start teaching?
Todd: When the .com trend had slowed down, I sold my café. After a six month break, I began seeking employment. I hadn’t thought about teaching in particular until my grandmother, who lives near the ICC, said, “Why don’t you go over there and get a job?” Her suggestion peaked my interest because I knew that if I worked at a school, I would have somewhat normal work hours and I would be able to do what I love to do. Eventually, an ad in the paper came along for a part-time event chef. I came in for a stage and in March of 2013, I began working at ICC.
ICC: What advice would you give to students who are graduating?
Todd: I encourage our graduates to be that guy or that gal who: always shows up on time, who has a clean work station and who picks up the towel on the floor. Nobody wants to work with the person who leaves the place a mess or who is late. In this industry, if you don’t follow those guidelines, your food and your team will suffer.