Valerie BolonAdviser | Monday, November 8th, 2010 | No Comments »
Chef: Valerie Bolon
Education: Kendall College (1999)
Experience: Contestant on Top Chef Season 4, Gordon, Emeril’s, Spring, Hot Chocolate
Currently: Private Chef and Chef/co-owner of The Culinary Speakeasy
A lot has changed in the 10 years since Valerie Bolon graduated from culinary school. The food industry had a different culture and expectation from the customers. Cooking shows were around but not at the rate they saturate our televisions today. Women in a professional kitchen weren’t as common and if they were, pastry may have been deemed a better fit for them. With the emergence of shows like Top Chef and the allure of culinary school being as strong as ever for teenagers and career changers, Bolon has navigated her way into a career she wasn’t even familiar with when she enrolled at Kendall College in 1997.
JT: Why did you decide to enroll into culinary school?
VB: For me, I had no experience in the industry. I didn’t even know what stock was. I came from a background where school was important. I went to undergrad for four years. That was the path you follow. Looking back, going straight from University of Illinois where I got a degree in Early Childhood Development to then going into a kitchen, I wouldn’t have known the first thing about a kitchen or where to begin. I felt it was important to learn the basics.
I certainly learned a lot at Kendall College. There are great teachers there. You’ll certainly learn the basics you need to know however, the majority of your knowledge will not come from those experiences.
JT: What did you do once you graduated from Kendall College?
VB: I decided I wanted to do some travelling. I went to Spain for a month and was inspired by that. I then went to New Orleans to learn more about Cajun cuisine. One of my final projects at school was about Cajun and Creole food. I packed up everything I could fit in my car having no job or place to live. While I am down there, I figured I should work at the best restaurant when I was there.
JT: Where did you work in New Orleans and how did it happen?
VB: I literally walked into Emeril’s and asked to speak to the chef. I told them I just graduated from culinary school and have this experience and was wondering if you are hiring. They told me to come in and hang out in the kitchen for the day. Basically it’s a working interview. They want to see your energy in the kitchen and you want to see what the restaurant is like. Is this an environment I can see myself working in everyday. Is it intense? Is it boring? Is it laid-back? So I went in and hung out in the kitchen. They told me to chopped carrots and I chopped carrots. They told me to strain stock, I strained the stock. Whatever they told me to do, I did.
JT: Was it difficult for you being female and working in a kitchen?
VB: In the industry, we have more respect but it is still this male-dominated profession. I felt that I needed to work twice as hard. I’m a woman. I am not the most prevalent in the kitchen. When you are in the kitchen, you are in the boys club like being in the locker room after the big football game. That’s fine because as a woman, I wanted them to treat me like one of the guys. If you work hard like everyone else, you’ll succeed. It’s not as gender-biased anymore. In the city of Chicago, there were just a few when I was starting out, now we’re everywhere
JT: After years in kitchens like Spring and Hot Chocolate in Chicago, you decided to become a personal chef. How did you get into that?
VB: Through the restaurant industry, I got to know the type of clientele that can afford a personal chef. That certainly helps you get the gigs. Finding clients can be very difficult though. I spent 13 years on the line in the restaurant scene. I usually didn’t have to reach out to people, they reached out to me.
JT: While you are working as a personal chef, you also started a separate business. What is the concept behind it?
VB: I just started it (www.culinaryspeakeasy.com) November 2009. It’s the idea of stepping out of the restaurant to bring people together to enjoy the same things we all love: food, wine, beer, and good company. Do something different and fun that’s constantly changing. Those are the things that appeal to me. With the set up, it’s just a bunch of strangers sitting together… Most people come into this idea that you’ll try new food and meet new people. Maybe new people come in thinking that they are nervous but it’s not a job interview, it’s not a date. That’s the best medicine if you are nervous meeting new people.
JT: You had worked for years behind the line to get to this point in your career. What advice would you give to someone that wanted to get into the food industry?
VB: What I would recommend now is to make it a summer job if you are 15 or 16. If you think you want to do this, go get a job in a kitchen. Wash dishes, make salads, strain stocks. It doesn’t matter. We all start doing those things. See if the energy feels right. It’s intense and a lot of time and money. I can’t tell you how many people I graduated with that probably within 10 years, were nowhere to be found in this industry. That’s a lot of time and money wasted if you aren’t going to be serious and passionate about it. You won’t always know that until you do it. That’s the catch 22. How do I know if I am going to like it if I don’t try it?
JT: Over the years, I will hear a lot of teenagers and even some adults talking about how they want to be on cooking shows like Hell’ Kitchen or Top Chef. Having been a contestant on Top Chef, do you have any tips for people with these aspirations?
VB: If your only motivation to go through culinary school, which is incredibly intense, time consuming, emotionally, physically, monetary wise, I don’t see how someone can be successful unless you go through and have experience in the industry. Let’s say it is your goal and you happen to get on a show like that. People don’t put it into perspective that when they pick people, my season had 16 chefs from thousands of people throughout the country. At the end of the day, just because you make it on a show like that, you have to have skills to back it up. They aren’t going to pick you without experience in the industry. They only pick people with experience and a solid resume so that you can actually handle a challenge like that. It’s not just about TV but about it’s also about performing in these ridiculously challenging environments and circumstances mentally and physically. If you are just out of culinary school and just in it for that fame and glory, it’s not going to suit you or benefit you without experience.
Valerie Bolon is teaming up with Yum Universe for a vegan dinner through Culinary Speakeasy in December. Location and menu is TBA. Check for updates for the dinner on our site along with articles on the life of a personal chef and being vegetarian or vegan in culinary school.