How a Culinary Education Led Shai Fernandez to the Four Seasons

Culinary Arts student Shai Fernandez wanted to build a culinary career on a foundation of good habits. And he knew that Escoffier could help him build that base!

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July 14, 2023 9 min read

Shai Fernandez already had home cooking experience and some restaurant experience when he decided to go to culinary school. But he had seen first-hand that it was possible to work in the food industry for years, even decades, and still not develop the skills he was after without a formal culinary education.

Find out why Shai decided to attend Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, and where his education has taken him since graduation day!

“I Was Worried About Developing Poor Habits”*

For Shai, the time after college was one of uncertainty. With a degree in history from Texas A&M, he wasn’t sure what his next steps should be. He tried his hand at a tech firm and a marketing agency, but neither felt like the right fit long-term.

“I have to have a passion for something to really put my all into it,”* he says.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With less than two years on the job market under his belt, it was hard to find employment. Shai found himself wondering what his next steps should be…and he kept coming back to the kitchen.

“Growing up, cooking with my grandma was my favorite thing to do,”* he says. He particularly liked learning how to make her best Mexican dishes. Other than Grandma, Shai felt like he was the only one who could make those family favorites just right!

During college, Shai spent some time working in restaurants, and he saw a future for himself in the professional kitchen. But the technique and organization he’d seen left room for improvement. Determined to get the basics down right, Shai decided that was his next step.

Shai Fernandez“I worked in [a chain restaurant], and there was a guy that had been there 30 or 40 years. But he still chopped parsley completely wrong. That’s what I was worried about—developing poor habits.”*
Shai Fernandez, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate & Lead Line Cook, The Four Seasons Nashville

He began researching his options, looking for a school that fit within his budget and wasn’t too far from San Antonio where he was living at the time. With an affordable price**, a great reputation, and an Austin campus, Escoffier seemed like the clear choice.

“I filled out an application, and a day later they reached out to walk me through the process,”* he recalls. Escoffier also helped Shai to relocate from San Antonio to Austin. “Escoffier had a partnership with an apartment complex in Austin and helped to get me set up. And [when I left Austin for my externship], they helped me find a student to take over that lease.”*

With the logistics handled, Shai enrolled at Escoffier’s Austin campus to study for his diploma in Culinary Arts!

Focusing on the Fundamentals at Escoffier

As a place to build on the basics, Shai found that Escoffier was just what he was looking for. The foundational skills he learned in Culinary Foundations, like proper stocks, sauces, and knife skills, have been invaluable for his daily work, both during his externship and in his later roles.

He also learned a great deal that would come in handy in the Farm to Table® and Regional Cuisines courses, especially during his hands-on industry externship at Yolan. The restaurant has relationships with local farms and focuses on fresh, seasonal ingredients. “I think learning those values and an appreciation for seasonal ingredients really set me up for success,”* he says.

Shai Fernandez“I think I’ve used every [Escoffier] class at some point in my career.”*
Shai Fernandez, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate & Lead Line Cook, The Four Seasons Nashville

Shai also found a welcoming atmosphere at Escoffier, from the culinary training to the mentorship from Chef Instructors.* He recalls Chef Instructor Scott Moore telling him, “It doesn’t matter how successful you are or where you are. At some point, you’re going to feel like a fraud or imposter. Pushing past that and believing in yourself is vital.”*

He also got some tough love from Chef Instructor Brian Felicella. “Chef Brian was great,” Shai says. “He really took an interest in me. He was the first chef who would say, ‘You’re better than that’ when you weren’t up to standard.”*

Externship at Yolan: Taking the Fast Lane to Fine Dining

When it came time to secure his industry externship, Shai reached out to Escoffier’s Career Services department. Together, they worked to narrow down what he was looking for. He knew he wanted to work with the best—which for him meant fine dining. He was targeting Michelin-starred restaurants or those of a similar quality. And he knew he wanted to work in Italian or French cuisine.

So Career Services suggested Yolan, an Italian fine-dining restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, led by Food and Beverage Partner Tony Mantuano. Chef Tony has a list of accolades a mile long, but they include a Michelin star for Chicago’s Spiaggia, a James Beard Award, and twelve James Beard nominations. So Yolan certainly ticked all of Shai’s boxes!

Shai Fernandez wearing a white button up with his arms crossed standing under a sign that says Yolan

Shai at Yolan

Shai applied while he was finishing up his courses at Escoffier, and did a speed-run through the interview process with four interviews in a single day. He knew he wanted to get started right away, but he needed a place to live in Nashville. Fortunately, Yolan is located at The Joseph hotel, and Shai was allowed to stay there while he got started at the restaurant and secured housing.

While this position served as Shai’s externship, it was also a full-time job with an intense pace. “You have to be extremely organized,” he says. “Your mise en place has to be perfect or you won’t be done in time.”*

Shai started on garde manger (the cold station) and was really thrown into the role. “I think after the first week, I was working solo. I had to know what sauces needed prep, and what needed to be thrown out. I would have three hours to prep, and it’s all made from scratch.”*

Shai Fernandez“Communication is very important! If you’re behind, you have to let people know. If one station goes down, the whole restaurant is in trouble.”*
Shai Fernandez, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate & Lead Line Cook, The Four Seasons Nashville

He also worked the entremet station, plating proteins and preparing accompaniments like sauces and vegetables. He also prepared separate in-room dining menu items for hotel guests who ordered room service.

As an extern and new employee, one might expect that there wouldn’t be much opportunity for innovation or exploration at this point in Shai’s career. But that’s not the case! With his hard work and education in the fundamentals, Shai was trusted to work on a daily amuse bouche, a single bite served to each guest before their meal. He got to use ingredients they had on hand and make a suggestion to the chef. With the chef’s signoff, Shai would put this bite together. Then, the chef would taste it and either approve it or make suggestions for improvement. One of his best dishes was tempura-fried shishito peppers served with puttanesca caper aioli.

During Shai’s time at Yolan, the restaurant was voted the “#1 Restaurant in America” by Food & Wine. He is so proud to have been a part of such an impressive accolade!

Amuse bouches with Vichy-style glazed carrot with beet molasses, chive aioli, pickled ramp, and toasted pecan

One of Shai’s amuse bouches: Vichy-style glazed carrot with beet molasses, chive aioli, pickled ramp, and toasted pecan

Slow and Steady Growth

After over a year at Yolan and the other restaurant kitchens at The Joseph hotel, Shai was ready for his next challenge.

He got a new position at The Four Seasons Nashville, working at the hotel’s new Rivière Rooftop restaurant. “Rivière has been a very cool opportunity for me,” he says. “It opened a week after I joined [The Four Seasons], so I’m seeing it from the ground up. It’s just me and the banquet chef right now, and it’s a lot of work! Rivière can seat about 60, and it does get pretty busy on a nice day.”*

Long term, Shai would like to travel, and The Four Seasons is a great place for that. They’re always opening properties in exciting new locations. He’d also like to continue learning from Michelin-starred chefs—which is certainly possible within The Four Seasons brand. Mimo Restaurant within Shai’s hotel is helmed by Michelin-starred Chef Aniello “Nello” Turco.

While he has considered seeking a salaried position, Shai is taking a thoughtful approach to his growth. “I want to keep growing my technique, being the strongest cook I can,” he says. “It’s early in my career. I want to enjoy focusing on my culinary skills at the moment, learning from good managers before I jump into leadership myself.”*

Shai Fernandez“If I could become a sous chef with The Four Seasons, that would be amazing!”*
Shai Fernandez, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate & Lead Line Cook, The Four Seasons Nashville

Good Habits Pay Off

Shai feels that he got the foundation he needed at Escoffier. With good habits (including but not limited to the right way to chop parsley) and a strong work ethic, he has already excelled in his first two roles out of school.

Shai Fernandez“I think Escoffier was definitely a good decision for me. I wanted to chase a passion but also get the best habits I could. Escoffier really kindled that passion. I knew I was getting good habits and techniques instilled there.”*
Shai Fernandez, Escoffier Austin Culinary Arts Graduate & Lead Line Cook, The Four Seasons Nashville

Shai was forward-thinking enough to know that formal education could build the groundwork for a successful career. With a degree or diploma and the skills that may come along with it, there’s no telling where you could go!*

Get answers to your questions about curriculum, financing, and career options at Escoffier by getting in touch with us today!

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*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.

**Consider your situation and resources to determine what is affordable and on budget, for you.

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