December 3, 2013

Ben Conner, Culinary Arts March 2012

A year out of school, alum Ben Conner (Culinary Arts March 2012) has found a place in the restaurant industry, but not where you might expect to find him. Conner has transitioned from back-of-the-house cooking to front-of-the-house hospitality. Boulder’s Basta (the restaurant he calls home) provides an unpretentious atmosphere keen on hospitality and an enthusiastic chef/owner, Kelly Whitaker, who supports Conner’s desire to learn both sides of the business.

Escoffier: What inspired you to come to culinary school?
Conner: I’ve always enjoyed cooking; it’s a strong tradition in my family, from catering to my grandmother’s recipes being featured in old southern cookbooks. After moving out here from Alabama, where I earned an English degree, I went to culinary school for myself. Whether or not I stay in the profession, I feel like I’ve enriched myself. Every day of class was a vacation for me and I loved it!

Escoffier: And now, here you are, a year into a profession within a restaurant…
Conner: I feel great. I’m not so much in the kitchen right now; I’ve moved to the front-of-the-house. My goal is to learn every role in the house. [Eventually] I’d like to take a more managerial role. Right now, I am expediting more than anything. It’s like a hybrid position where I can be in the back to help prep and at the same time run food [to guests].

Escoffier: Tell us about Basta and what keeps you there.
Conner: The food [keeps me there]. Definitely the food, it was the first thing that drew me to it, even before I went to culinary school. Chef Kelly Whitaker inspires me. He is so enthusiastic about his craft and that’s how he approaches it, a craft. It’s not pretentious. He does everything he can to make an open hospitable environment. There is a lot of pretension with food around here and I don’t feel that at Basta; it’s very friendly. I also like how small it is; you really get to focus on each one of your guests. You can see everyone in the restaurant and everyone can see the kitchen, seeing where the food is coming from.

Escoffier: I’d like to hear more about Basta; what are your greatest learnings from your time there?
Conner: It was my first job working as a cook on the line in a restaurant. It opened my eyes. When it’s busy, it’s busy! You learn to cook faster, that’s one thing. I was telling my buddies, “An hour and half for your final exam? I could do that ten times now!” And hospitality. They are key on being really hospitable, trying to create an environment that is as close as possible to home. It’s like Cheers with really good food. [Delivering great hospitality] is something important and if you can carry that over to other places you work, you’ll be successful.

Escoffier: How did school help prepare you for the restaurant world?
Conner: Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts was definitely really good at maintaining a level of professionalism: mise en place, knives sharp, uniform looking good. When I showed up at Basta the first day, I just acted like I was in class, “Yes, Chef, yes, Chef,” and it worked out. I got hired. I also like the [menu] diversity we learned in school. You can learn the same basic techniques of cooking and transfer it to different types of cuisine. Also, the Farm To Table® Experience of the program was important. It gives you a great appreciation of where your food is coming from.

Escoffier: Have any unexpected opportunities come your way?
Conner: I didn’t expect to get into the front-of-the-house. After I cooked [at Basta] for a while, I asked if I could see how the other half of the house worked and they were really supportive. I didn’t expect that to happen; I’m glad it did, though.

Escoffier: Which do you prefer – the front or the back-of-the-house?
Conner: To be totally honest, probably the front-of-the-house. It took me a while to get to the mindset to know what I wanted. Cooking has a therapeutic aspect; once you start cooking there is something transcendental about it, you just focus on the food. But in the back-of-the-house, it’s too fast [for me]. I just wanted to slow things down and it got crazy enough to give me the spooks a little bit. I like being around the food, I like prepping it, I like being the guy they can turn to when needed, I like being hands-on in the restaurant, but not being the line cook. I just want to be in the restaurant whatever way I can. I had to work before I realized that. I am always going to be glad I went to culinary school.

Escoffier: Do you feel like your culinary training makes you better at your current role in the front-of-the-house?
Conner: I definitely have a better idea of how long it takes food to get picked up. I have more respect for the kitchen and I know what has to be done. I can pop my head back there and know that [a dish] is about three minutes away. Timing can become an issue and the more familiar you are with the dishes, it helps as exposure.

Escoffier: Do you have any advice to share with new culinary students?
Conner: Just be true to what you want to do. The reason I hesitated moving out of the kitchen was because I felt that I was betraying my education, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. You go to culinary school to enrich your love of cooking – be happy whatever you’re doing.

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