January 23, 2014

Heather Huffman, Culinary Arts, November 2012

After years of office work Heather Huffman reinvented herself by heading to culinary school (Culinary Arts, November 2012). New to the industry, persistence paid off when she landed her role as Swing Chef in Watertown, Wisconsin’s Harvest Market. Today her job challenges her, provides full benefits for herself and her family, and allows room for creativity. Huffman shares how learning what you don’t want in a job can pay off by ultimately steering you toward your dream job!

Escoffier: What brought you to culinary school?
Huffman: I started thinking that I needed to go back to school and nothing interested me enough to attend school for four long years. I saw something about the culinary school that was in Boulder, Colorado and Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts popped up online. It really interested me because of the short, intensive program. I felt like this school was a good match for my personality.

Escoffier: You externed at a great new place in Milwaukee; can you tell us about that?
Huffman: I externed at a restaurant in Milwaukee (named one of the best new restaurants of the year by Thrillist). One of the chefs that we had to research in school is the Chef de Cuisine, so I was excited. I was hired as Garde Manger starting two or three weeks before they opened. It was totally all hands on deck. Honestly that job was not a good fit for my personality. I learned that I hate oyster shucking. I didn’t get out of there until two or three in the morning. I didn’t get into the kitchen (cooking) that much and it was really disappointing.

Escoffier: How did that affect how you approached finding a job?
Huffman: I interviewed at other places that I thought I wanted to work, like this dry-aged beef place. I went in and did a working interview and found out that is not where I wanted to be either. They offered me a position, but I did not want to just be cooking beef. Finally I interviewed at a hospital. The biggest reason I wanted to be there was that the Executive Chef Justin Johnson is a “monster chef” in Wisconsin. His concept is that he goes into institutional type settings that he takes from pre-packaged foods to freshly prepared great food. If you had told me before culinary school that I would have worked in a hospital, I would have slapped you. But I feel this is really important and this is where I am meant to be.

Escoffier: That’s great that you had choices and found just the right fit. It sounds like an interesting approach to hospital cuisine; can you tell us more about that?
Huffman: I love the concept that food is powerful medicine. I think it is important because you go to a hospital when you are sick and most of the time you are fed food that doesn’t make you feel better – emotionally or physically. How nice would it be if you had to be in a hospital where the food was a bright spot in your day? Comments from people include, “This is the best food I’ve ever had in my life.”

Escoffier: Did graduating from Escoffier help you land your job?
Huffman: I feel like it absolutely did. I don’t know for certain, but I think that the name Auguste Escoffier is what made the chef call me. He loves to tell people (other chefs and people who know who Escoffier is) where I went to school. Also I did have to do a cooking interview, which is really funny because when I was in class I was the person who was so freaked out on final days. I would do something really dumb. It was a blind box and the kitchen was total chaos. I had a 3 x 3 space to prepare my meal. I ended up cooking mussels, Belgium endive, and heirloom tomatoes. I think because the kitchen was so chaotic it forced me to not be in my head so much. I made mussels in a fennel white wine broth. Apparently I did it really well. I had never touched a mussel before I went to Escoffier.

Escoffier: What do you like most about your job?
Huffman: I really like working for Executive Chef Justin Johnson. He trusts me to do anything well and refers to me as the “linchpin” of the kitchen. He is totally non-micro managing. All of us have the ability to create any special for two days or for a full week. My mind is always percolating with what I can make at any of the food stations. I always go toward ethnic foods; I did a Thai noodle and shrimp salad which has become one of the top specials.

Escoffier: Do you have any advice to share with new graduates looking to find a job?
Huffman: Be open. Try as many things as possible. Work under as many chefs as you have the ability to. It might be the greatest restaurant, but if you despise the way the chef runs the restaurant, you are going to be miserable. For females: be as strong as the guys. I have gotten a lot more respect for being direct and I love that. I love the dynamic and pace of the kitchen.