Executive Chef Erik Carlson sat us down to answer a few questions about his new protege he has been mentoring: Samantha Hoehne, Senior at Monroe High School and a culinary student at Sno-Isle Tech. Here’s the scoop (or spatula):
1) What do you enjoy most about being an executive chef?
I love the food service industry. I love the duality, that it can be a mainstream art form AND our jobs to feed others. I love the intimacy of feeding people (which is such a personal thing). That being said, my all-time favorite reason for being a chef is creating new and exciting menu items with such great local resources. We (chefs) are the new rock stars!!
2) What are some key steps to make a menu?
The first step is to know your guests. Second, here at ZinZanni, I do a lot of research. I investigate the era or the main characteristics of the upcoming show and develop the menu to run parallel. Next I brainstorm, writing what sounds great with no rules. Then I develop the recipes for my menu. This leads up to the big one: tastings and re-writes. Finally, complete the recipes, price them out, and train the staff.
3) What were the steps you had to take to become an executive chef?
In the beginning it was just lots of hard work. After that I chose to go to culinary school. Right out of school I found a chef I really wanted to apprentice with and bugged him until he took me. After five years of working under him and learning tons, I went out and started working with other chefs and developed my style through observation.
4) What do you feel is the most important part of your job?
Each job is so different for each chef. Here at ZinZanni I believe the most important role I play is to design and deliver a menu worthy of a world-class theatre/circus show. On a personal note, I aim to create a unique kitchen experience that is very positive and fosters a high level of creativity and energy for all my team members.
5) What kind of education did you go through?
A lot of my training was from my grandmother actually. She taught me what it meant to really love feeding people. After that I worked through all the positions I could then went to culinary school. Upon graduation I apprenticed under Chef Brian Poor for five years. However, I firmly believe that in our industry a chef’s real education comes from trial and error.
6) What is some advice you would give to younger people who want to become an executive chef?
Understand the service industry first. We work when others play. Being a chef requires a lot of sacrifice and a mountain of hard work. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Pay attention to everyone cooking around as almost every one of them will have some knowledge you do not. Embrace your failures and learn from them. Develop a ‘taste library’. This is the area in a chef’s brain where through time spent they can ‘taste’ a menu by just reading it
7) What do you feel are some of your greatest accomplishments in the culinary world?
Well, I am very proud of what we put out nightly. I think we truly have forged new ground in ‘dinner theatre’. I am extremely proud of my FareStart Dinner, it was a culinary dream of mine to do an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ dinner, and it was amazing! I have had several recipes published that I am proud of too.
8) How does Teatro ZinZanni differ from other restaurants you have worked in?
Well, it is actually closer to a banquet kitchen than a restaurant. Our shows and menus are themed and have unique design challenges: a 12-foot slide we send our desserts down or we have to make sure is or plates are ‘danceable’ (each course has a choreographed dance routine with full plates in the server’s hands). We have a 4-month menu rotation that requires a complete re-write with supportive recipe pieces each time.
9) What is the most difficult part of your job?
I am lucky in that I really love what I do. So, I guess the difficult parts are the same as always, lots of personal time sacrificed. I work some very long weeks when the shows ‘changeover’.
10) How do you feel becoming a mentor?
At first, I was very nervous, as this was my real teaching chance. I have always been nervous about being a mentor. I’ve always felt like the guy who’s cooking. What do I have to impart on others? Upon reflection I realize the 25+ years of experiences have given me some insights, things that are second nature to me, things I thought everyone knew. After meeting Sam, I felt more at ease. Her disposition seemed great for my first shot at mentoring and I get to help her design menu items, my real joy. Now, I can’t wait to get started because this will be fun and beneficial to us both.