Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why I Am a Chef

By CIA Chef-Instructor Tony Nogales. He has taught Cafe Savory, Culinary Fundamentals, Garde Manager...the list goes on! If he had to pick one kitchen to call home, it would be Cuisines of the Americas.

As I look around The Culinary Institute of America, I see a very diverse group of craftspeople, artists and educators; and while we are all very different as individuals, the common thread of food and its culture brings us together. Having cooked for most of my life, since childhood really, there are a couple of questions that always pop-up. Such as, why did you choose to become a chef? Or what is your specialty? I have answered these questions in many different ways over the years, and I will offer another rendition of the first question in this first blog. Why did you choose to become a chef?

Truthfully, the answer has always been the same, to satisfy my curiosity. When I was a kid growing up, my mother, as most mothers do, had a big influence on me.  I grew up in the small town of Puerto Ordaz between the Orinoco and Caroni rivers, in Venezuela. My father was a Venezuelan mining engineer who had studied in the US and consequently met my mother in New York during the 1950’s, and after a couple of years of courting they decided to get married.  Together they moved back to Venezuela and decide to have a family. This was the 1960’s and Venezuela was a relatively prosperous and stable country. So, my childhood was spent growing up in the tropics, picking mangoes, lemons, papayas, avocadoes, tamarind and many other food products right outside our backdoor. For me, this was a pretty normal activity that many of our friends took advantage of; our main competition was the “loro,” a local green parrot that could tell the ripeness of the best mangoes from a distance of 300 meters.

With the availability of ripe, fresh and seasonal produce, cooking became an activity that satisfied our creative urges as well as our hunger. Seasonality was really the only way we thought, since the roads and consequently distribution networks, were virtually non-existent. In South America in the 60’s and 70’s there really wasn’t any television to speak of, so our entertainment growing up was usually either sports, music or food.

Kitchens in many homes serve as the heart, where everyone congregates and hangs out, and our house was no different.  I was always, and continue to be, drawn to this activity in the kitchen, the chatter, the noise, the smells, cooking techniques and tastes. Cooking has always drawn me in, and my curiosity to how things are made, and what things taste like continue to fuel my interest. At first, my eagerness revolved around basic home cooking, as I helped prepare dinner.  Venezuelan dishes like arepas, empanadas, tequenos, and of course the proverbial “Carne Mechada,” were served along with many American classics that my mother grew up on, such as fried chicken, meatloaf and the traditional Thanksgiving Day feast. The most challenging part in our Thanksgiving meal was of course sourcing the ingredients. With “Thanksgiving” being a North American holiday, the turkeys and cranberries didn’t exactly fill the market shelves, but we always managed the event with the other North American families, and it continues to be one of my favorite holidays of the year.

In my youth I wanted to know the answers to: how do I make that soup? How much rice do I need? When is something done? How do I get that flavor? These were the simple questions that kept me in the kitchen. Over the past 25-30 years, as I continued cooking and transitioning from a home helper, to a prep cook, and then into the ranks of a professional chef, my sense of curiosity and wonder never left. The questions have changed over the years, evolving from the earlier taste and technique questions, to the more managerial aspects of the culinary profession. The questions became more related to, cost basis analysis, product evaluation and sourcing, labor relations, menu design, employee training and market segmentation.

For me, the culinary field provides an endless supply of questions that continues to elicit my attention. Presently, I am taking a broader view of some of the more challenging issues that are affecting our food system including, water usage, farming techniques, GMO’s, energy conservation, global warming, consumer behavior as it relates to health and nutrition, and urban development. These are extremely large and complex issues that will eventually affect all of us. To answer that initial question, as to why did I become a chef? Curiosity I believe, continues to be one of the strongest drivers here at The Culinary for both me and my collegues.

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