By: Alex Charpentier, Culinary Arts Student
Before I sat down for a chat with Chef Will Packwood, instructor in the Culinary Arts program at the Austin campus of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts I did a little research on him online. Here’s what I found out from articles that have been written about him in the past: Chef Packwood was born in Italy to a Texan father and an Italian mother. While he spent much of his childhood in Texas and Illinois he traveled to Italy often to visit his extended family. He attended the prestigious CIA in New York at the age of 24, has owned multiple restaurants in Austin and was named one of the Best New Chefs of 2001 by Food & Wine magazine.
I admit that as a lifelong food enthusiast, home cook and current Culinary Arts student I was slightly intimidated by the idea of sitting down one on one with Chef Packwood to ask him questions about his thoughts on the industry. My fascination with Chefs and how they do what they do goes way back to my days in restaurant operations and catering and I have found that like most artists Chefs don’t necessarily like to talk about what they do, they just prefer to do it. Their pleasure is in the making and doing, not in the talking about.
That said, when we had a chance to sit down together after classes in the farm to table room one humid, rainy, June afternoon I learned a lot about Chef Packwood as a person and a Chef.
Q: Chef Packwood, there is already a lot that has been written about you online, what can you tell me about yourself that isn’t already out there?
A: Well, I love border collies! Seriously I do, but I expect you are more interested in things related to food right?
Q: Yes, although I find border collies adorable too. Tell me about how you approach food. What is your perspective?
A: It’s interesting, I have worked a lot in fine dining, both for others and in the restaurants that I have owned but I never really wanted to be pigeon holed in one cuisine. I have found that it is more a need that food writers and food critics have to put Chefs in a box or category for easy labeling. I actually love to make Asian food at home, but I would never do a concept based on it.
Q: Why is that?
A: Because I believe that a Chef needs to fully understand a culture to be able to really sell it, to appreciate the ingredients, the flavor combinations, everything about that cuisine including the people. My entire family still lives in Italy and I worked in Italy for a decade. The Italians have a different appreciation for food and dining. They really socialize through food and that is the way I live my life.
Food is Chef Packwood’s life. Eating, drinking and cooking. He is fascinated by the producers of the ingredients that he is using, the farmers themselves, and the ones who are passionate and committed to a limited number of things.
Q: You have spent your career in high-end cuisine, is this why you started teaching?
A: Yes, teaching was a natural transition for me as I have stated, its part of who a Chef is. I had been working as a Gourmet Specialist for a local food supplier in Austin and wanted to get back to teaching to get closer to the food.
Q: When did you join the Austin campus of Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts?
A: I joined in October 2014 and I primarily teach the six-week classical cuisine block, meaning the cuisines of France, Spain and Italy. During this six-week course we cover the most traditional dishes from each country. In France we make confits, boeuf bourguignon and lobster bisque to name a few dishes. In Spain its cassoulet and paella while in Italy it’s of course pasta, gnocchi, risotto and polenta. I also teach an introduction to the wines from these countries as well as a few New World wines. It goes fast but the students get good exposure to the foundations of many of the dishes from these classical cuisine countries.
Q: What advice would you give to someone considering culinary school?
A: You get out of it what you put into it so be ready to work hard. I recommend working in the industry before going to school so that you get a realistic view of what it takes to be successful. Do as much research as you can and come into it knowing what to expect. Bottom line: do your homework.
Q: What advice do you have for current Auguste Escoffier students?
A: I always tell my students the same thing I used to tell my kitchen team, “every day when you come in, think about what you are doing, how you can do it better, faster, make it taste better and look better.” It’s about the integrity of what we make. Chefs are givers, we revel in watching people enjoy our food, as such we strive for perfection in everything we do. We don’t smile often, not because we aren’t happy, quite the contrary, most of us love what we do or we wouldn’t be doing it. We aren’t smiling because we are concentrating on achieving perfection in what we are making while paying attention to everything happening around us in the kitchen. Being a good Chef requires discipline, passion, vision and an ability to communicate it. When you really think about it, Chefs are teachers, especially in today’s kitchens. They are constantly showing their Sous Chef and cooks how to be better and must continue to educate their waiters and front of house teams on the food that they are producing and the ingredients behind it. From there, the wait staff can share this information with the customer to enhance their experience. The modern day Chef working in high-end cuisine is a teacher all day every day.
Q: What are you most passionate about?
A: I had my first chef position when I was 21/22 and I just came across the menu I had created back then a few months ago. It’s really interesting to see the evolution of what was important to us as Chefs at one time and how that changes based on how we mature and evolve. Right now I am passionate about foraging, learning about and utilizing indigenous products from the Central Texas area. I want to really explore what the natives, the true locals were eating before the white invasion, not only what is growing here now, but also what naturally grew here. I am a minimalist and a purist and I enjoy simple cuisine, which means I like to let the ingredients speak for themselves. This is actually much more difficult because you need to have really good product and really good technique or your mistakes will ruin your dish.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: There is so much culinary “content” out there, food I mean and so much competition; honestly anything that feeds anybody is competition. Austin went from crawling to running a culinary marathon and everyone is trying to keep up. Sometimes hot restaurants and food trends are more about the media hype as opposed to the real quality of the food. For many people if they read it online then it must be the fact. That can be challenging for smaller restaurants and Chefs that produce really good food but remain unknown. As a purist, I guess that my hope is that in the end the ones putting out the best food will get recognized by people and be successful. After all, it’s why we do what we do!