How I Became a Chef
How does a person make the leap from being a home cook to a professional Chef on the Las Vegas Strip? Well, in my case, I did it how I do most things I am passionate about. I jumped in wholeheartedly with both feet, unsure of where I would land, but with complete faith I would find my way.
After graduating high school, I jumped around between mindless office jobs, none of which challenged or inspired me. At 26, I found myself back in California after a short stint in Washington State. I was bartending while trying to decide my next career move. The bar I was working in was going out of business, and my parents (who had always talked about having a restaurant) began talks to buy the business. The plan was for my mom to manage and for me to cook. I was so excited that I began putting together menu ideas and building recipes. To say I was disappointed when the deal fell through would be an understatement. I had a lingering desire to create, and a nagging feeling that I was meant to do something with my talents.
I decided to enroll in the culinary program at the local community college (shout out to the College of Hospitality Management at West Hills College Lemoore). My intention when enrolling was just to sharpen my skills. I thought maybe I would get a job cooking for the nearby casino or one of the nicer restaurants in the “big city” of Fresno. I never expected I would be where I am today.
When I met Christian Raia (head of the department) I became engrossed in the way he talked about food and ingredients. The picture he painted of restaurant and Chef life was not an easy or a pretty one, but it was one I fell instantly in love with. Although I learned a great deal from all of my instructors and hold so much respect for each and every one of them (Dan, Amy, Christine, Roxanna, I love you all!), Christian became a friend and mentor. He encouraged me to explore my creativity, offered words of support and guidance, and reminded me of my complete badassery whenever I became discouraged. I am forever grateful to have been able to learn from someone who was so invested in my future and saw in me what I had not yet seen in myself.
I dedicated myself fully to becoming a Chef and put in the ridiculous hours needed to achieve my goal. I enrolled in every single class the department offered and earned every certificate available in not only the cooking portion, but restaurant management as well. I had classes Monday-Thursday from 10am- 10pm. I spent Fridays in the lab working on recipes and honing in on what would be my niche. Weekends were for catering events. The department hosted several events throughout the year, and students were expected to work 3 events a quarter to earn class credit. I worked every single event, and was even asked to lead several. I immersed myself in all aspects of what it meant to be a Chef. I developed a palate for things I never thought I would like or even try. I realized a passion for food I never knew I had before. It was an awakening. Cooking had ignited something in me I never knew was missing.
As I learned more about technique and ingredients, I began researching Chefs and restaurants. I focused my attention on Pastry Chefs, and Jean Phillipe Maury quickly rose to the top of my favorite list. I mean have you SEEN that chocolate waterfall!?
The closer we came to graduation, the more I realized my passion could be a career: One I could be proud of. One I knew would challenge me and keep me engaged. I started applying for jobs in Las Vegas and got a call to interview at my dream job, Jean Phillipe Patisserie!!!! I was FREAKING OUT!!! The thought of being able to work for a top pastry chef in the industry seemed so unattainable. And even though I had an interview, I never believed I would get the job. Being that I lived 5 hours from Las Vegas at the time, and hadn’t even graduated culinary school yet, I scheduled several interviews on the same day, so as to only have to make a single trip. One of these interviews was with RiRa, an Irish Pub I had found online. As I read staff bios and scrolled through pictures, something in the articles and images spoke to me. Without ever even stepping through the door, it felt like home. The pub wasn’t officially hiring, but seemed like such a fun and lively place, I decided to send my resume in anyway. I received a call back and scheduled an interview immediately following my interview at JPP.
I was so nervous the entire drive, I thought I would throw up the second I opened my mouth to answer the interviewers questions. I somehow made it through my interview at JPP (don’t ask me how; I have no memory of what was asked or how I responded), and when it was all said and done, I was offered the job! Wait. What!? Did I just get a job offer to work in the patisserie of one of the world’s top Pastry Chefs!? OH. MY. GOD! I of course accepted and was sent on my way to start the required background check and paperwork. Although I had just been given a golden ticket into the chocolate factory, I still had one more interview. I made my way from the Aria down to Mandalay Bay. I found the pub and interviewed with the GM Scott. I had no idea what job I was even interviewing for, as I said above, there were technically no openings.
My meeting with Scott went well and ended with a promise to call in a few days. A week went by, and I received a call back that the head Chef would like to meet with me. I was still waiting for my background check to clear for JPP, and figured there was no harm in talking with the Chef. I made the trek back to Vegas and met with Chef James. Things went well but my green nature was obviously apparent (something he told me later). I thought “no way I get a call back." Oh well, I already had my dream job right?
My background check had finally cleared, and I moved to Las Vegas and began training at JPP. OMG, was this real life!? A few days into training, Chef James called and asked me to come in and stage. For those of you unfamiliar with restaurant terms, this is basically a cooking interview. I was tasked with cooking one dish of my choosing (with an Irish influence) as well as replicating a dish already on the pub menu. I decided to make a Guinness glazed pork chop with Colcannon mashed potatoes and garlic roasted wedged cabbage topped with fresh parsley sauce. Why in the world I decided to use cabbage for both of my sides is beyond me. I still had no idea what position I was interviewing for, and was a nervous wreck leading up to, and during the stage. I thought I had completely bombed.
Now two weeks into working at JPP, I had learned quickly the job was nothing like what I had expected. My dream job seemed like just that, a dream. The reality was much less appealing. No offense to Jean Phillipe (truth be told, I never even got to meet the man). Then, just as I began questioning myself and my choice to enter into this crazy life, Scott emailed me. He, Chef James, and our then C.O.O. Angela, liked me so much, they had created a position just for me. Being that I had experience in both front and back of the house, I would have a hybrid role. I would spend half of my time as a front of house manager, and the other half as a Sous Chef. I was in shock. NO ONE gets a Sous Chef job straight out of culinary school! It is UNHEARD of! But there I was, with an offer I thought was years down the road. I accepted. (DUH!)
My first year I spent going back and forth between front of house shifts and Sous Chef shifts. In that year, I began developing desserts and was given freedom and support to create and bring new ideas to the table. After the first year, I became a full time Sous Chef, and am now 3 years into the best job I have ever had. I have taken on more responsibilities and continue to create and fine tune my skills as the Executive Sous Chef and Pastry Chef for RiRa Las Vegas.
What started out as a hobby, has turned into a successful and rewarding career. My passion for food and bringing people together through cooking continues to grow as I continue to learn and evolve as a Chef in this crazy industry. -Kitchen Gypsy