March 24, 2014

When Culinary Arts alumnus John Hadala first tasted a dish at Denver’s Il Posto, he knew two things instantly: that he just had the best meal of his life and that he wanted to work in that kitchen. Shortly after commencing his official culinary training at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, Hadala began interning with the restaurant two days a week. The two-day-a-week internship led to his formal ten-week externship, followed by a well-deserved job offer as a pantry cook. His commitment to learning and working hard every day earned him a place in one of Denver’s best restaurants. Hadala tells us what makes Il Posto special, the greatest lesson school taught him, and what’s on his bedside table.

Escoffier: Tell us about Il Posto.
Hadala: Everything we do is farm-to-table and fresh. Nothing comes packaged besides butter – and we’ve even made that before, too. We change the menu everyday and only use ingredients that are fresh and at their peak; that is one thing that separates Il Posto from any other restaurant. I can’t think of any other restaurant that changes [the entire menu] that often. Many change every quarter, but not every day.

Escoffier: Why did you set your sights on Il Posto?
Hadala: My girlfriend Jenny and I went there for Valentine’s Day dinner right before I went to culinary school and it was probably the best meal I had ever had in my entire life (everything from the plating to the fresh food). So after that meal, I was like, “I want to work at this restaurant, this is the best restaurant I have ever been to.”

Escoffier: So you knew you wanted to work there; how did you approach them?
Hadala: This is one of the best parts about the school; they help you along the way to find externships. I went to Career Services and told her I wanted to work at this place and she basically set it up for me. I went in and talked to the sous chef and then started going in two days a week to learn prior to my externship.

Escoffier: That is pretty ambitious…
Hadala: I am pretty new to cooking; it started as a hobby a few years ago. I had no kitchen skills. I didn’t know how to hold a knife! And that is why I wanted to get into a kitchen as soon as I could, to try and develop quickly.

Escoffier: Did you get hired directly after your externship?
Hadala: At the end of my externship, I thought, I’m going to ride it out and see if they say anything. My sous chef said that if I gave him a few weeks, he could probably get me a job. The reason I got the job is that, yes, they liked me, I worked hard, but also that one of the other sous chefs was leaving for another restaurant. So the timing worked out. You have to patient in small kitchens and you have to let them know how you feel, too. I remember having a direct conversation about the job; it is also important not to let people take advantage of you [and continue working for free after a certain point].

Escoffier: What is your favorite part about your job now?
Hadala: There is a lot of freedom at the restaurant. One cool thing – every night after service, one of the cooks gets to cook dinner for everyone in the kitchen. It’s not just scraps either; it can be chicken or fish. Also, the chefs allow us to plate things the way we want to. That is one of my favorite things – the freedom to plate the way you envision a dish.

Escoffier: How did school prepare you for your job?
Hadala: One of the things school taught me was that it is very important to be humble. It is probably the most important trait to becoming a good chef, because if you have a big ego and you think you know everything, then you are not as willing to learn.

Escoffier: How about lessons learned on the job?
Hadala: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but at the same time, think about the question and if you are able to answer it yourself. You don’t want to ask common sense questions because you will start to irritate the chef. Don’t try to be perfect because you are going to make mistakes and it’s important to recover from mistakes, not letting them affect what you are cooking and moving forward.

Escoffier: Is there anything that you are studying now that keeps you fresh?
Hadala: I like to read the Modernist Cuisine because we use a lot of the cooking techniques from that. I also like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential because I can relate to his start in the industry.

Escoffier: Any advice you can share with new students?
Hadala: I think it is important to know that even if you don’t have the skills or the talent right now to make great food, you can still work in a really good restaurant and slowly learn to become a great chef. If you are passionate about food, you can work anywhere you want.