December 6, 2013

We’re likely all familiar with The French Laundry – heard tales of their incredible nine-course tasting menus, pored over celebrated chef Thomas Keller’s intricate recipes, or perhaps even had the chance to dine there. Culinary Arts student (March 2013) Elizabeth Marsden will one-up us all with tales of what it is actually like to cook in that kitchen. Marsden secured a stage at the award-winning restaurant while she externs at nearby celebrity chef Michael Chirarello’s Bottega. Marsden shares her secrets for securing such elite opportunities (hint: it’s not as hard as you think), encourages students to get involved in extracurricular activities, and explains how culinary school kick-started her passion in wine.

Escoffier: How did you decide to come to culinary school?
Marsden: I wanted to come [to culinary school] since I was a little kid. I picked up a lot of it [growing up] without even realizing it. My dad is a food safety scientist and my mom is a nutritionist. I went on business trips with my dad and I would have these great restaurant experiences. I would get to go back in the kitchen and meet the chef. As a toddler I was already cooking with my mom and then, at age twelve, I was cooking on my own. My dad found this school online and we drove to Boulder; the same day we came to visit the school I got enrolled. It’s beautiful and it just felt right. The admissions people were so nice. Plus, all the Chef Instructors had great backgrounds; each has celebrated chef status, which is really awesome.

Escoffier: This has been a dream a long time in the making; how does the actual experience measure up?
Marsden: You can be a really good cook without going to culinary school, but there are so many little things they don’t tell you in recipes [that I’ve learned in school]. My technique has really improved. I’ve also learned to appreciate foods I didn’t like before, like oysters; I love them now! Everything Escoffier-related exceeded my expectations. Everyone is so helpful and always willing to help me. It’s a short program, but I feel like I am qualified and ready. I feel like I have the skills I need – a base knowledge – to survive in fine dining.

Escoffier: Speaking of fine dining, I hear you are moving to Napa this week for your externship, can you tell us about that?
Marsden: It’s surreal. [I’ll be externing at] Michael Chirarello’s restaurant, Bottega in Napa Valley. Last November, I had lunch when he was there and he gave me a tour of the kitchen; it was pristine! For my externship, I’ll start off in prep work, then – if all goes well – I move to pasta, and then pastry. I’m really crossing my fingers that I get to work on pastry a little bit with their famous pastry chef, Christina Kaelberer. I also have a two-night stage at The French Laundry. I’m really nervous about that.

Escoffier: Wow on both accounts! Please share how you got the chance to stage at The French Laundry.
Marsden: I contacted them through their website, sent my résumé, and I told them I was doing my externship at Bottega. It was a lot easier than I thought it was going to be. They said that they loved doing stages with culinary students and that Thomas Keller read my résumé! It’s like other girls with Brad Pitt, that’s the way I am with Thomas Keller.

Escoffier: You must have some résumé – any secrets on what to include?
Marsden: Work experience is one, like Grandma Hoerner’s, a jam and preserves company in Kansas, that I developed recipes for using their products (simple stuff like a recipe for sticky buns using their pecan pie filling). The recipes I developed were featured on QVC. Probably the best part of my résumé was the two culinary competitions I have won here at school (Editor’s Note: Marsden competed in and won two Escoffier-run culinary competitions garnering local press and accolades). I also included my first real restaurant experience working at Four Olives Wine Bar. On my last night there I got to make a special and I had that [I created a special for the restaurant] on my résumé.

Escoffier: Do you have any words of wisdom to students who are thinking about where to go for their externship?
Marsden: Don’t have limits; don’t be afraid to apply anywhere you want to go. I have almost no work history – just my limited experience and my time at school I think is the reason I got my externship and stage. It’s almost like your career starts when culinary school starts. I volunteered at every event at school. It is such a short amount of time spent at school that I wanted to get everything out of it that I could. Another thing I’ve noticed in my class is that when people applied for externships, they didn’t specify that they were seeking an externship, not a job [and were not contacted], so be clear what you are [applying] for.

Escoffier: Any thoughts about what comes after your externship?
Marsden: One of my favorite parts of school was actually wine academy. When I was taking it I was overwhelmed because it is just five days and so much certification. But once it was over, I had retained so much! [That said] I’m really interested in getting my sommelier certification. I hope to get hired at Bottega, and after about a year of work there I will work to get my sommelier certification. After that I’d like to work for a smaller bistro to get more cooking experience, before moving to a winery as a personal chef. Before I get to the winery, I want both the food and wine experiences to back up my [ability to create] food and wine pairings [in the future] at a winery.

Escoffier: What are you most looking forward to about getting to Napa?
Marsden: I’m excited to back in the kitchen! By the time I finish Career Development, it will have been six weeks since I have been cooking in the kitchen. I’ve actually gotten less nervous [about cooking at my externship] as time goes on because I’m just so excited to back in it and I figure if I’ve got that mindset then I’ll do well.