Amanda DowningAdviser | Thursday, November 4th, 2010 | No Comments »
While Billy Dec is the face and figurehead of the successful Rockit Ranch Productions boasting such businesses like restaurants Rockit, Sunda, along with nightclub The Underground, he is not behind the scenes forming Kobe beef patties, purchasing orders, or deep frying chicken wings. Chef de Cuisine, Amanda Downing has been with Rockit Ranch Productions when Rockit was just launching in 2004. Her loyalty, work ethic, and leadership in the kitchen have gotten her to where she is today. However, she did not take the typical route of attending a prestigious private culinary school as many of her peers did, to not only enter, but thrive in the food industry.
“For a moment I thought about Johnson and Wales but financially, it didn’t make sense,” said Downing. “I had an idea of how to go about it. You want to go to school to get an education but you don’t want to lock yourself down where you can’t get a lot of outside experience. That’s what community college allowed me to do… When it comes to school, it’s really what you take out of it.”
Her outside experience started before entering Elgin Community College, located about 45 minutes from Chicago, in 1999 after graduating from Elgin High School.
“I started working at a small place that did catering, had butchery and a deli. They started me bussing tables. Once I told them I was going into culinary school, they moved me into catering production. I was working in it in high school but they really pushed me with responsibilities once I was going to school.”
After a year at Elgin Community College, Downing felt it was time to try a new opportunity and challenge. Networking would play a big part in her setting up an interview at 160 Blue in Chicago. A friend of hers knew one of the bartenders and an interview had been arranged. Even though she could not order wine at the time, she did well enough to prove she belonged in their kitchen but admits to being a little overwhelmed by her first professional interview.
“I interviewed with the chef that opened 160 and went in there being a young 19 year old and literally walked out not knowing what happened,” said Downing.
Although she was new to the fine dining scene, Downing showed that she had what it took to not only land the job, but ascend quickly at 160 Blue.
“Originally, they put me right into the line. The chef told me that he just felt I could pick up my station, keep my head down and work. He just wanted to see if you could do it. They gave me a shot and put me with a few Sous Chefs that were well trained and knew what they were doing. I just moved up. Literally I started at grill, moved me to sauté, and was in the Sous Chef position in about 2 years.
Downing continued her studies at Elgin Community College while making the 45 minute drive into the city for her job. However, it wasn’t easy for her to balance her new job while graduating.
“I learned so much working over that summer working with these guys. I don’t want to discredit culinary school but I learned a lot,” said Downing.
Things began to click for Downing as she completed her General Education courses along with her Culinary Arts courses. She had her “Aha” moment upon returning realizing that school wasn’t needed to validate her in the kitchen.
“When I went back to school, I was thinking that I know how this works now. I continued working there while finishing out culinary school… It was rough for about a year with the commute but it made the most sense…I got to the point where is school going to be over yet?”
After completing her degree at Elgin Community College, she rose to Sous Chef status at 160 Blue. Although she found success by moving up quickly in the ranks, she wanted a new challenge. Networking once again played a key part when Chef James Gottwald reached out to her.
“He (Gottwald) was at 160 Blue when I started there. He was just getting into the Sous Chef position but had been in the Executive Chef role before. Since he moved from Philly, he was breaking into Chicago. We were in close contact over years. He just got hired in at Rockit and he called me up asking if I would come in at Sous as he knew I was looking.”
Contacts are one of the keys in any profession but knowing the right people is not why Downing feels she has been successful in the business. While sliding by in work settings can be pulled off, the food industry is typically a different beast.
“It’s what got me in the door but I still had to go in, work, and prove myself. I didn’t go in there thinking that I knew everything. I went in and listened and learned from everybody.”
Currently the Chef de Cuisine at Rockit Bar and Grill, Downing does everything from cooking, to hiring and training new employees, managing 3 Sous Chefs at two different Rockit locations, to examining P+L sheets. It is often a 6 day work week with enough time to do laundry, clean, or try to get out to a new restaurant in the city.
Although the formal education played a role for her to achieve Chef de Cuisine status in a successful restaurant and company, simply attending a culinary school did not make her who she is today. Because the industry has changed over the years from when she entered, Downing gave her insight on what to look for today.
“I would tell prospective students to do research on the schools. I would make sure to know that this is what you want to do. College is an investment and in general is expensive,” said Downing. “Don’t think you have to think you need to go to the CIA. It’s going to be a different experience and I can’t speak of it. It will be more elaborate but before taking out financial loans, know this is what you want to do. They have to understand that when they come out of it, they won’t make tons of money off the bat. They have to build experience. You have to look at the whole picture of your life and have the balance.”