Mentorship plays a vital role in shaping the careers of aspiring chefs, providing invaluable guidance and support. At La Marmotte, a fine-dining French restaurant nestled in the picturesque town of Telluride, Colorado, Chef de Cuisine Maggie DeMarco has cultivated a transformative externship program.
With the support of the restaurant’s owners, Josh and Melisa Klein, Chef Maggie has developed a mentorship program that fosters growth and empowers culinary students. Find out how La Marmotte works with Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts externs to prepare them for their future in the restaurant industry.
Chef Maggie Makes the Case for Mentorship
Chef Maggie’s own journey included an externship at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville, California, while studying at the Culinary Institute of America. Recognizing the value of the one-on-one guidance that she received, she proposed a paid externship program to La Marmotte’s owners. It was important to Chef Maggie to pay it forward, helping cooks that are just beginning their culinary journeys.
Beginning an externship program at La Marmotte came with unique challenges, like the restaurant’s location in remote Telluride. The picturesque town is in a small valley surrounded by mountains, with a permanent population of just 2,500 residents. But a bustling winter ski season and a popular summer festival scene attract hordes of tourists. These busy times also align with the restaurant’s operating periods: a summer season from May to the end of October, and a winter season from December to April.
There are also no culinary schools in Telluride and few in the region. Most culinary schools in Colorado are concentrated in Denver and Boulder—over 350 miles away. All of this could make it difficult to attract externs and culinary staff. But it was a challenge that Chef Maggie and the La Marmotte team have worked hard to meet, as we’ll see.
Offering a picturesque backdrop and a wealth of outdoor activities, La Marmotte is uniquely positioned in one of Colorado’s most desirable destinations. The restaurant takes on externs from both Escoffier and the Culinary Institute of America.
“[Escoffier students have] really great introductory knowledge and knife skills,” says Chef Maggie. “A lot of students will come out of culinary school and immediately want to do molecular gastronomy and use tweezers to plate. Those things are great. But just as you don’t build a roof before laying the foundations of the house, the same idea should be applied to cooking techniques. In order to make a really beautiful sauce, first you need to master the technique of stocks, perfectly caramelizing the mirepoix and roasting the bones. Escoffier students come in with that really strong foundation, and we’re able to build off of that here.”*
Finding the Right Externs and Setting Their Goals
When they first started the externship program at La Marmotte, previous restaurant experience was a preferred prerequisite. But they’ve since abandoned that qualification. “We learned that prior restaurant experience, while valuable, is not a key deciding factor in a student’s success in our kitchen. The common denominators amongst the most successful externs have been the willingness to learn and the drive to work hard, day in and day out,”* says Chef Maggie.
In fact, two student externs that excelled at La Marmotte were both pretty green. Jackson Hussey, a Boulder native, had never worked in a restaurant before. Army veteran Araceli Laborin had worked in the front of house, but had never cooked in a restaurant before coming to Escoffier and La Marmotte.
To get connected with La Marmotte, both Jackson and Araceli were recommended by Escoffier Chef Instructors before applying and scheduling video interviews. Jackson recalls, “The first interview was very laid back, just getting to know each other as people. The second interview was more specific. They asked ‘What do you want out of this externship? What are you expecting from us, and vice versa?’ A big goal for me was getting comfortable with the speed and pressure of a kitchen because I had never worked in one.”*
For Araceli, Chef Maggie was the draw to La Marmotte. “She was amazing,” she says, “and I liked that she is female. She also turned me on to the way she runs her kitchen. She told me, ‘Oh, we’re not gonna scream at you or anything like that.’”*
While Chef Maggie does have high standards and will correct mistakes in her team, she knows that you don’t have to use intimidation to achieve excellence! A positive culture where people aren’t afraid to admit their mistakes is a much more effective environment.
Once each extern is selected, Chef Maggie asks them to fill out a pre-externship questionnaire. It asks students to set three professional goals for their time with La Marmotte. It also asks about the best and worst bosses they’ve ever had. These questions can help Chef Maggie figure out what leadership style works best for each extern.
“We’ve had students who really enjoy a more militaristic communication style,” she says. “And some students need more encouragement throughout. There’s no right or wrong way. But I think it’s important as a chef and as a mentor to be able to understand the type of leadership that people thrive under. It’s not a one-style-fits-all.”*
Chef Maggie makes it a priority to have similar conversations with externs at the midpoint of the externship, and again at the end. By prioritizing these check-ins, she can tailor the experience and open up communication channels for both the student and the La Marmotte team.
Getting Outside of Your Comfort Zone
While there is room for customization in the La Marmotte externship experience based on proficiency and desired goals, it begins with a basic framework. Students start by completing basic prep lists, practicing their knife skills, and working on stock and sauce production. They have to get that mirepoix just right, as Chef Maggie said! They also help with mise en place and setting up the line, working on organization and getting comfortable with each station layout.
“We talk a lot about working with a sense of urgency and efficiency in order to optimize output. The students learn how to do more in less time, without sacrificing quality for speed. It is one of the biggest challenges of a young chef—learning how to work efficiently,”* says Chef Maggie.
Then there’s the line rotation. Externs may practice plating and garnishing dishes for service. They may also make food to order, learning butchery and proper cooking techniques for meat and seafood.
Throughout it all, externs aim to meet certain goals and standards before they can move on to the next step or station. They also work directly with Chef Maggie, creating actionable plans on how they can fill in gaps and succeed where they may be struggling. If a student hasn’t hit their goals in one area, they will have to work at it a little longer before moving on.
This is a lesson that Jackson internalized right away. “If I was bad at something, then that’s the thing I wanted to do most,” he recalls. “We had to cut mille-feuille potatoes, paper thin, to a whole hotel pan-worth. So you’d sit there with a mandolin, slicing them for about an hour. It was just the worst task that season. I think I asked for that job every single day so I could do it as fast as humanly possible by the end.”*
Chef Maggie frequently checks in with the students, making sure that they’re progressing—and pushing them further when appropriate.
“There are times where we challenge students beyond what they feel like they’re capable of—not because we don’t want them to succeed, but because we want to show them just how capable they are,” Chef Maggie says. “With their prep lists, for example, I will teach them to multitask by writing a small number next to the tasks in order of priority. There might be four ‘number ones.’ That means while you are chopping, you also have mirepoix caramelizing, you’re simmering a sauce, and you’re baking crème brûlée. This pushes them outside of their comfort zone, and that’s where the most growth occurs.”*
Eventually, the students write their own prep lists. And since they’ve been practicing prioritizing and multitasking from the start, it becomes an automatic habit. Before they know it, they’re successfully executing a big task list that would have been overwhelming just a few weeks before.
What Are You Passionate About?
Beyond the “standard” externship curriculum, students get a chance to explore their particular passions as well. La Marmotte has a strong industry network, from farmers to wine experts to Smuggler Union Brewery across the street, owned by the same couple that owns the restaurant. Together, these experts expand the reach of the externship program to varied corners of the culinary industry.
Chef Maggie explains, “If I know that a student eventually wants to open their own restaurant, they can work with Josh, the owner, or Maury, our Director of Operations, and learn about finding an investor, finding a location, developing your concept, developing your pitch to investors, and so on.”*
One of the summer 2023 externs, for example, is very interested in farm-to-table cooking. So they have connected him with La Marmotte’s exclusive farm supplier. “We’d like him to have his own little patch of land, so he can farm his own stuff and create his own special off of what he had planted,”* says Jackson, now an employee himself at La Marmotte.
The Special Menu: The La Marmotte Extern’s “Final Project”
Near the end of the externship, students get the opportunity to develop their own special menus. Students will meet with Chef Maggie to discuss their ideas, editing and refining until it’s ready to start recipe testing. “Since many students have never done this before,” says Chef Maggie, “they may be anxious about the process. Rarely has any student come to us with an idea that didn’t need some tweaking, but that’s part of the learning process.”*
Students are expected to do substantial research into seasonality, classic French cuisine, and base recipes before pitching their menus to the chefs. With guidance from Chef Maggie, the extern will create ingredient and order sheets, a prep timeline, and plate designs. They will practice their recipes, taste the components with the chefs, and create final recipes. They’ll also train the staff on how to execute the final dishes.
Successful dishes may be featured on the menu at La Marmotte. Jackson’s special menu beet salad was so good, it became part of the restaurant’s regular menu last winter!
Making the Most of Life in Telluride
As such a small town in an isolated spot, housing can be limited. And when you factor in the droves of winter skiers and summer festival goers, it’s even harder to access affordable housing. So Josh and Melisa Klein, the owners of La Marmotte, stepped in. The couple owns several properties in the area, which they make available to both externs and full-time staff.
Both Araceli and Jackson lived in employee housing out in Norwood, about 40 minutes away from the restaurant. “You rent a room in one of the houses, and then that’s deducted from your paycheck automatically. And for the area, it was incredibly affordable,”* says Araceli. The leadership team also encourages bonding and group activities, like family dinners and game nights.
One of the questions that comes up on all the questionnaires is how externs are managing their work/life balance. It’s very important to Chef Maggie, as she knows that the workload of a cook or chef can be demanding. That’s why the company offers an Employee Health Initiative that reimburses employees for gym memberships. And Chef Maggie encourages externs to take advantage of the natural beauty and close-knit community of Telluride.
“It’s important to have hobbies outside of work and cooking,” says Chef Maggie. “I want to show my students that you can still be a very passionate and successful chef without sacrificing your physical and mental well-being in the process.”*
“They want you to go out and explore and see everything that Telluride has to offer,” says Araceli. “They almost never scheduled me for extra hours unless I asked for it. They were very, very good about that.”*
Looking Back on the Externship
Araceli and Jackson look back fondly at their externships. As an Army veteran, Araceli sees the parallels between the military and the kitchen. “Good leaders in the military are the ones that want what’s best for you. And [Chef Maggie] absolutely did. Having been out of the military for so long, I wasn’t used to it. Most people are not like that. But she truly cares. And her mentorship helped a lot.”*
Now that she has completed her externship and graduated from Escoffier, Araceli is making progress in her career. She recently secured a role at an Italian restaurant in O’Fallon, Illinois, where she’s training under the sous chef. The plan is for Araceli to take over as sous when the current sous chef moves on.
As for Jackson, he “graduated” his externship and became a permanent employee the next season at La Marmotte. Chef Maggie saw so much potential in him that she created a new Manager in Training program, with Jackson as the first recruit. He’s working on achieving goals like advanced knife skills, butchery, conversational Spanish, and leadership to prepare for this future role.
Even without any prior restaurant experience, Jackson felt well-prepared by his Escoffier education. “They could just say, ‘I need you to make this sauce,’ and I immediately had an idea of the base. It helped me work a lot faster, not having to ask them to give me a recipe. I knew where to start, and I could just ask them how they want me to adjust it to their liking. That was a huge help to me and to the restaurant.”*
Where Could Your Externship Take You?
La Marmotte goes above and beyond for its externs. With Chef Maggie in their corner, externs like Araceli and Jackson are able to make a strong transition from school to the professional kitchen.
But La Marmotte is far from the only amazing employer that has hosted Escoffier students externs. From Pujol in Mexico City to the famous Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC to the McMurdo Station in Antarctica, Escoffier students have pursued their next steps in the most surprising places.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE EXTERNSHIP EXPERIENCE AND THE PATH TO BECOMING A CHEF, TRY THESE ARTICLES NEXT.
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- Boulder Student Chris Marhevka Blends Social Work and Culinary Arts