Podcast Episode 24

‘Make Yourself Indispensable’ – Executive Chef Melissa Trimmer Shares Tips for Aspiring Chefs

Melissa Trimmer | 38 Minutes | January 4, 2022

In this episode, we speak with Melissa Trimmer, Corporate Executive Chef at Dawn Foods.

Melissa is an ACF Certified Executive Pastry Chef and holds the honor of being the 2016 Cutting Edge Award recipient. She has also received critical acclaim leading the pastry department of two institutions that received the Bib Gourmand rating from the Chicago Michelin Guides Inaugural Edition in 2010. With over 25 years experience as a culinary professional and being one of the few women in her field, Melissa advocates for individuals to craft their own career.

Listen as we chat with Melissa about her journey as an executive pastry chef, advice for building a fulfilling career, diversity, and the many ways she supports women in the kitchen.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone. My name is Kirk Bachman, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Melissa Trimmer, corporate executive chef at Dawn Foods, ACF certified executive pastry chef, and a 2016 Cutting Edge Award recipient. With over 25 years of corporate culinary experience, Melissa has received critical acclaim as a pastry arts leader, having led the pastry departments at two institutions that received the Bib Gourmand rating from the Chicago Michelin Guide’s inaugural edition in 2010.

Join us today as we chat with Melissa about her journey as an executive pastry chef, her passion as a chef instructor and mentor, and the many ways she supports women in the kitchen.

There she is! Good morning, Melissa. Thank you so much for being here today.

Melissa Trimmer: Good morning! How are you today? I hope I don’t let you down! That was quite the intro!

Every Day’s Better with Donuts

Kirk Bachmann: I’m exhausted! I’m exhausted from the intro. That was really good! I couldn’t have written that better myself. No, no, no. Super. Tell me about the set! I want to reach in and have one of those donuts. Are they vegan, by chance?

Melissa Trimmer: Well, they’re not vegan, but we do have a vegan line.

Kirk Bachmann: I know you do! I know you do.

Melissa Trimmer: No, I’m actually sitting at the Dawn Foods Innovation Studio. If you’re unfamiliar with Dawn, we are a baking distributor and manufacturer. I’m at their headquarters. I run the Innovation Studio with a culinary team, and this is our set, where we do a lot of the filming. When my sous chef found out this morning that we were going to be in front of the camera today, he decided to make a bunch of donuts because he was like, “Why should you go on camera without donuts?” And I tend to agree. I think when we’re done with them, we’ll eat them.

Kirk Bachmann: Every day’s better with donuts. I love the colors.

Melissa Trimmer: You’re not wrong.

Raising Her Hand

Kirk Bachmann: You know what? You just said the word, “innovation.” I’ve got to capitalize on that for a minute. Cutting Edge Award recipient in 2016, that was through the American Culinary Federation. If my memory serves me correct, that’s about innovation, mentoring and tutoring others, right?

Melissa Trimmer: It is. It is.

Kirk Bachmann: Am I embarrassing you there?

Melissa Trimmer: A little bit. Am I turning red? At the time, Chef Tom Macrina was the president of ACF. I just love Chef Tom, and he his so supportive of lots of different voices within the ACF. So he really felt like it was time to amplify some of the voices that maybe felt like they hadn’t had as much of a spot at the table. He put together the Women’s Task Force and asked me to chair it, along with a group of like-minded female chefs.

We spent about two years collected data from the ACF, and then we reported back to the board with our findings. Really what we ended up finding was not only did female voices need to be amplified, but also people of color, the LGBTQIA community. Lots of folks just needed a little bit more. And we gave our recommendations after the two-year task force ended, and the board took most of the recommendations. Most of them have been implemented. We’ve sort of passed the torch on to the diversity committee, and it’s been really exciting to see the institutional changes as a result. I’m just really proud to have been one of those folks who raised my hand at the beginning.

A Reckoning for Work-Life Balance

Kirk Bachmann: One of the first, yes. Congratulations! That’s super, super exciting. I want to capitalize here, too, on the fact that…and I forget this sometimes. We worked together for a little while in Chicago. When I look at your resume and I see your body of work, I forget about Lula Cafe and Carnivale and some of the times – I’m not going to tell anybody about some of the times at Carnivale. And C-House. These were some of the most popular places in the city.

You came to teach with us right out of that environment. You were on edge. You were the real deal coming out of the industry. What was the motivation at the time to walk away from some of that notoriety and to teach? I know what you’re going to say. It’s about giving back, but was that what it was back then? I want to say that was, what, 2010, 11, 12, right in that?

Melissa Trimmer: Right in there. I will tell you what it was. There are two things: one was giving back, because I’ve always loved being a mentor. You mentioned a lot of the fine dining restaurants that I worked at in Chicago, and ran those pastry departments. One of the things we did is we were always a facility for students to come do their externships. I was already working with pastry students pretty much on the regular and just found that I had this passion for it. That was kind of one side. We’ll get into that a little bit more because even though I’m not teaching currently – well, I do sometimes on the side and I mentor – I think that it’s really important to give back.

The other part of it was completely selfish, and that was work-life balance. I’m married and I’m a mother, and my eldest at the time was only six. She’s a grown-up teenager now, but at the time she was six and I’d just gotten home from work.

At the time, I was executive pastry chef of a beautiful hotel on Michigan Avenue with a famous celebrity chef, and we did these beautiful menus every day and she had said something to me about cherries, so I made this beautiful cherry clafoutis with these bon-bons.

And I brought it home and I said, “Look, baby, we’re going to have a tea party and we’re going to do this whole thing.”

And she sat down and she started crying. She was like, “Mom, I never see you. You’re always tired. I don’t want you to be a chef any more.” You should only hear that once, first of all, from your kid. Once.

Kirk Bachmann: One time.

Melissa Trimmer: So I had to sit down and I had to re-evaluate my life. I had to decide if fine dining was worth it. Ultimately, what I came to was that while I loved fine dining, and I love the rush, and I love being creative, that I had to find a better balance so I could be a good chef and a good mom. And then I came to work for you because you understood that.

Kirk Bachmann: No. Bravo! Bravo! That’s okay. God bless your daughter at the time to have that sort of emotion and passion. “I want more of Mommy.”

Melissa Trimmer: Right. Absolutely. It’s something that I feel like, especially as parents, we need to work on. For so many years, chefs in fine dining in particular really felt like they had to sacrifice their families for the art and for the craft. And I don’t think we do anymore. I think we’re dealing with this reckoning in the industry, and I think we’re going to come out of it better and stronger as a result.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, well said. Well said.

Real quick to come back to Dawn Foods. You’re in Michigan now. Tell us a little bit about where you are. You’ve got a little bit of land for the kids to run, and you’re growing your own plants and such, right? As I understand it.

Melissa Trimmer: Yes. The Dawn Foods Innovation Studio, we have a home office down the way, but my work is in Jackson, Michigan. I actually live in Ann Arbor. As you know and maybe some of your listeners know, I’ve been a city girl my entire life. I am a city girl through and through. This is the first time in my life I’ve lived in the country. We’ve got a big spot in the country with some land off a dirt road. My kids run and play and enjoy outdoor spaces. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

The Dawn Foods Innovation Studio where I am is really kind of a neat space where I lead the culinary team and we get to be really creative every day. We create all the content for the website, all the recipes, all the food photography, all the really fun stuff. But we also partner with R&D where I get to use the technical side, too.

When our team of food scientists – let’s say they want to come up with a new chocolate cake mix – my team comes up with a scratch gold standard first. We do all the scratch work, and it really can be on agreed upon attributes, and they may come to me and say, “Chef, I want a tight crumb. I want it to have butterscotch undertones and I want it to have a black crumb.” And then I need to figure out what that means in scratch world. We’ll do many, many tastings. By the time I get there, then I hand it to the food scientists, and they’ll do their magical voodoo that they do to turn it into a mix.

So we really spend a lot of time doing those sorts of things, and then finding custom solutions for the customers that I can’t name, but I promise you know their brands.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that because what I hear, too, is another pathway for students, young culinarians, young pastry chefs that are looking to get into the industry. It’s okay to find a space where you can have that work-life balance, which it sounds likes you found.

Melissa Trimmer: I couldn’t agree more. And the one thing that I will really stress that, for me, has been really helpful is that I heard a chef that also played music say once that once you learn classical music, you can play anything. I think it’s the same for cooking. Once you have that classical education – and for me, I went to Johnson & Wales and then I trained in Europe. Then I spent some time in really high-end kitchens. Once I had that base, then you can go off and do anything. I want students to know: when I came up, it was fine dining room. Nothing. That’s all I cared about. That was it.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Like so many of us, right?

Melissa Trimmer: Yeah. We were all there. So while I love that part and it’s important for your classical base and we kind of need to start there, there’s so many different paths to take that can still offer success and work-life balance, and the kinds of things that you want in a life. It doesn’t have to just be, “Well, if you have kids, quit, or go do wedding cakes on the side.” I don’t accept that. I want more than that, and I have made a path where you can do that.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love the story of the musician. I remember a couple of years ago asking my son, Joseph Henry’s, music teacher, who has a master’s degree in music. I remember asking him, or maybe Joseph Henry asked, “Which instruments can you play?” And his response was, “All of them.”

Melissa Trimmer: Yeah. Right. Pick one.

From the Field to the Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. So let’s talk pastry a little bit. As a pastry chef – but I’ve always considered you more than just a pastry chef, and we’ll get to that in a minute – but you know probably better than anyone that desserts are about happiness, they’re about chemistry, they’re about harmony. It all kind of comes together. You know my father was a pastry chef. But it’s also the reason, even for myself, that baking was somewhat intimidating. You get one thing wrong, and it’s over! That’s why the mise en place occurs early. With that as a backdrop, what inspired you to become a pastry chef? Such an exact art in many ways. As creative as it is, but in an exact science in many ways. Where’s the inspiration from?

Melissa Trimmer: This is such a good question, Chef. Alright. I already prefaced: city girl, right? There’s two things you have to know about me. I know you know this, but the listeners don’t. I was raised vegetarian in a hippie household with no sugar. Everything natural, everything super intense. So sugar was like the forbidden fruit. It was exotic and special and really amazing.

The only time I ever got my hands on it was in the summers. My sister and I would go off to my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm out in western Pennsylvania, out in Amish country. As a city kid spending my summers on a farm, I discovered really quickly that I absolutely hated – and I mean hated – being in the fields with my cousins. It was like the stupidest, worst, terrible thing. I was the biggest baby. No thank you. I don’t like bugs. And instead, what ended up happening was my aunt would prepare food every day for all of the farm hands and for the really large extended family. She had this beautiful kitchen garden next to the house. So the first day I offered to help in the kitchen instead of going into the fields was like, you know, completely selfish. I just didn’t want to be in the fields with everyone.

It was with her, that was the first time she had me climb a cherry tree, pick the cherries, pit the cherries, make a pie with butter from the milk cows. And as these things came together with truly understanding where it came from, I realized, “This is actually really amazing and I want to spend the rest of my life doing this.” And that’s where it came from.

Kirk Bachmann: What a beautiful story, and a very consistent story with so many chefs and entrepreneurs that we speak with. It’s a childhood memory; it’s a nana; it’s a grandma; it’s an oma. That puts you in the position to fall in love with it.

So you mentioned earlier a little bit about the process at Dawn when you’re coming up with a new product. How do you, just in general terms, approach that process of creating a new dessert? Because so much is based on history and what we’ve done in the past. So how do you approach it?

The Differences Between Fine Dining and Mass Market

Melissa Trimmer: There’s a couple of different ways. If you’re familiar with the menu bell curve, with fine dining on this end and you go up into ubiquity over here. So when you’re a fine dining chef, you’re going to go back to that classical base. You should know already what a genoise is and how to make it off the top of your head. You should know pastry cream. You should know all these things, how to poach your fruit, whether it’s in a sous vide or a rondeau. All those things are givens.

But when you’re in fine dining, you’re thinking of the next thing. So if I’m in my fine dining days, for me the way that I approach a new dessert is whatever’s fresh and coming out of the field because that’s what’s most delicious right now. If it’s cherry season, I want to work with cherries. If it’s the middle of winter, let’s reach out to California for some citrus, whatever that is. That’s kind of that part of it, and I still love that creative part of it.

But today it’s a little bit different. Those skills certainly helped me on the way, but when you’re in the kind of position I’m in as a corporate executive chef, we’re not at this end of the menu bell curve anymore. We’re looking in here because we want to have mass appeal and national launches and sometimes even international launches. We have to think about it in a little different way.

Today I often rely on the market research team at Dawn, actually. I look at lots of numbers and graphs and see what’s happening in various marketplaces, and then take those things and then combine them with what I already know, which is how to make food delicious and pretty. And then figure out a way that it’s going to have a little bit more mass appeal. I find it’s actually easier to do a beautiful plated dessert in fine dining because you’re only appealing to this many people that are going to think it’s awesome anyway. I’ve found it’s more difficult to have those larger launches, but the good part about those larger launches is that they hit such a wider audience.

As you know, I spent so many years in fine dining and I care about where food comes from and environmentalism and everything else. It’s really sexy to be one of those chefs. You get press and it’s all over the place. Just before I came to Dawn, I was with a different company, when I had one of the big international launches, we were able to get them to commit to reducing their packaging by 15 percent. That one project did more for the environment than probably the rest of my career combined. So it wasn’t sexy and it wasn’t on a menu, but it had so much more impact that it felt really good.

Kirk Bachmann: And the right thing to do. It feels very strategic. I like that a lot. So do you believe…It’s 2021, almost 2022. Social media has such a big impact today. A lot of people are seeing things on Instagram and TikTok and Twitter and all of that before they even come into your restaurant. Is that more pressure on chefs in general?

Melissa Trimmer: I guess with anything I’m cooking, you could call it more pressure, but I think it’s exciting. Listen. It used to be the big cities were the hubbubs of everything. If you wanted to have a fabulous dinner, you had to go there. This is the first time in history when social media is bringing those trends to the masses first. So you could be in one of those secondary markets and still do something really cutting edge and really exciting and have the audience for it. I think it’s really, actually, allowing chefs in some of those smaller markets outside of New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco – it’s allowing them to have a level of creativity they couldn’t have sold before. I think it’s awesome.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That’s a great response. So 25 years, hard to believe. 25 years experience. It sounds like you’re learning every day, but it’s probably not a lot, at least foundationally, that you’re not aware of. You’ve touched on this a little bit, but for our listening audience: what is your regimen in terms of how to stay on top of something that’s going to last versus just a trend. And for Dawn, how do you decide which way to go? There’s a lot of trends out there. Do you get on that bandwagon, or do you just let it go?

Melissa Trimmer: Yes and no. I will simply say that on this we have a lot research folks where that’s their whole job, is to mine through the data. Which is really, really exciting.

For me, a lot of it, as my contacts. We love talking about how chefs will network, and we all probably 1.5 degrees of separations between all professional cooks. There’s definitely that. There’s definitely eating out. A lot of it is social media now. Who are you following in your feed? Who is interesting? What has staying power? There are some trends that are really fun for social media but maybe aren’t practical. Like cloud bread. It’s really cool. My kids want to make it. Even if I was still in fine dining, would I serve it? Probably not. But that doesn’t make it any less need or impactful. So I think part of it is just sifting through the noise and finding what works.

What’s really important, or what I’ve discovered as my career has gone on, is what works for one concept doesn‘ t work for another, and that’s okay. That’s actually really interesting and cool. Let’s find the concepts that work for you.

Kirk Bachmann: Some thought definitely goes into it. Are there any characteristics of a trend that you’ll stay away from? Want nothing to do with that? Cornflakes and ice cream.

Melissa Trimmer: Yeah. I hate the f-word, which is “fusion.”

Kirk Bachmann: Okay. Okay. That’s fair.

Melissa Trimmer: Not that it can’t be done well. It can. There are some folks that execute it really well. I hate when you say, “duh-duh-duh fusion,” and I’m like, “What does that mean?” Really. As cooks in the United States, isn’t fusion every day for us? Why do we have to call that out? Why can’t I just say, “I want to use furikake and also with this French technique and that’s just what I’m doing because I work here.” Or I live here. Or this is what’s exciting to me today. I just feel like sometimes when people use the word fusion, it’s trying too hard, and it’s almost trying to be a gimmick rather than really delicious food.

The Impact of Certification

Kirk Bachmann: Well, said. Don’t put me in that box, right? Just let me cook and hopefully you enjoy it.

Have there been, or is there one particular pivotal moment in this journey, this 25-year journey? We’ll, even take it further back to being in the cherry fields. Is there that one moment that defines who Melissa is today as a cook?

Melissa Trimmer: Oh my, there are many. I have to be honest. I think the one that I may be most proud of is the day I got my CEPC sous certifications.

Kirk Bachmann: Bless you. Yeah.

Melissa Trimmer: That was a lot of-

Kirk Bachmann: Proud moment. Yeah.

Melissa Trimmer: It was. For those of you who don’t know, a CEPC is Certified Executive Pastry Chef through the American Culinary Federation. It’s very, very intense cooking exams and written exams after you’ve done lots of things to qualify for it. At the time, Chef, the day that I went in took my practical exams, which is the cooking portion, I was the only one that passed that day, and I was the last one that went through evaluation. I’m watching guys come out crying, and was just *gasp*. I passed. It was amazing and terrible and all of those things.

But certification in my life has really mattered. It’s projected my career to the next level, which is why after going through that and being terrified of the evaluators and all the other things, it’s why I became a certification evaluator. So now maybe I’m one of those people, but I try not to be terrifying.

Kirk Bachmann: It comes back to the mentoring pieces. By the way, as I think you know. Frank Vollkommer works for us, Certified Master Pastry Chef, one of only a few. He knew that we were chatting this morning and he wanted to make sure he said hello. Even though you haven’t met, he’s a follower. He loves your stuff on social media. What a small world it’s become.

Melissa Trimmer: It really is. It really is. I think he came to you from my alma mater, too.

Pastry Chefs and the Savory Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: He did! He did. Absolutely. Yeah. he’s been a delight.

So I’ll be the first to admit that many pastry chefs, cliché, can throw down in the savory kitchen.

Melissa Trimmer: Can they?

Kirk Bachmann: This is a great conversation. My dad always challenged me. His sauerbraten is better than my sauerbraten, right? he’s a pastry chef. Do you think that the term pastry is unnecessary? Do you think we’re all just chefs, or you’re all just chefs? Or do you like the nomenclature?

Melissa Trimmer: Boy, that’s a tough one. So here’s what I will say: when my team calls me in the kitchen, they don’t say, “Hey Pastry Chef Trimmer.”

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, good point. Yeah.

Melissa Trimmer: They’re like, “Hey just Chef.”

Kirk Bachmann: You’re the chef.

Melissa Trimmer: Yeah. Right, exactly. Chef.

Kirk Bachmann: Pastries end up being your specialty but it doesn’t mean that you don’t know how to make a stock, and you don’t know how to sauté. Of course not.

Melissa Trimmer: This is a softball because you know I started out on savory line.

Kirk Bachmann: I do. I do. And that’s what was so amazing to me when you came to work with us in Chicago. You turned some heads. I don’t even know how long it took for us to make you a lead instructor or a department chair or whatever you were.

Melissa Trimmer: Not long.

Kirk Bachmann: It went pretty quickly, right? You get there because respect, experience and such. I think we’re on the same page there. You bring up a really good point. In the kitchen, you’re the chef.

Melissa Trimmer: Yeah, but I feel like – yes, you’re the chef in the kitchen, but also there’s something to be said for each side. To be fair, to what you were saying earlier, it is fairly unusual for someone to flip back and forth. I prefer being on the pastry side. I started on the savory side. I learned to break down a bird and flip a sauté pan before I ever learned to roll a croissant. I like doing croissants. And some of the places I worked, they knew that, and some they didn’t. But one thing that I really encourage my pastry students to always think about is versatility, because as soon as times get tough in a kitchen, even in fine dining, they’re going to look at a place to trim the fat. If you become as versatile as possible – step on and work pasta, get on grill, learn how to temp meat, touch it and temp it – in addition to being able to temper chocolate and roll a beautiful laminated dough, you’ll find that your pastry department will not get cut because you’ve made yourself indispensable. They can’t move without you. I think that’s really important.

Chef, I don’t know if you remember one of the first classes that I taught for you at Le Cordon Bleu was a plated dessert class. I made all the students stand at the stove and learn how to flip a saute pan, and they thought I was nuts. I was like, “Listen. Who’s going to tell you you’re not going to have a hot pickup on plated desserts. Flip the pan.” The pastry chef instructors came in and they were all upset with me. I was like, “No, no, no, no. We’re flipping pans today. That’s what we’re doing.”

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. Spoken like a leader. That sort of foresight for students’ careers going forward is super, super important, because trimming the fat is inevitably something that occurs. It just does. It could be seasonal. It could be pandemic related. It does happen.

Corporate Chef Success

So you’ve been doing the corporate chef thing for a while as well, which is a whole different world. Lots of responsibility. Tell us a little bit about a day in the life. Today looks really good! You got your donuts. Beautiful space. Do a little podcast. There’s a lot of responsibility for a big company like that. Walk us through that.

Melissa Trimmer: There is. I think that one of the biggest things that came from working in those smaller places is not just the cooking side. Cooking’s the easy part, so getting that classical cooking education, number one. The second part of that is the business acumen. You can be the most talented pastry chef ever, and if you can’t run a good shop, you’re still going to go under. The reverse is true; you can be a really mediocre pastry chef and be really good at business and be really successful.

Part of the corporate side is being able to see those things and to have the foresight and to think about strategic long-term planning. Since I’ve been a corporate chef for probably almost ten years now. I’ve done everything from coordinate international product launches – where you need to look to Tokyo and Paris, and New York and London all at the same time, and how are we going to get these things off the ground – to something as simple as, “This is this really large customer. They’re a national customer. They want to create” fill-in-the-blank. “And they have a microwave. Go.” So it really encompasses being really flexible and understanding many different parts of it, but the business acumen is really the top part of it.

Part of it is understanding not just P and L statements and strategic planning, but the other part of it is how you present yourself. So as you know, you can’t probably can’t tell because my chef coat is covering my shoulders, but I’m fairly heavily tattooed. I came out of fine dining. I listened to crazy rock and roll and hip hop. That’s all me, too, and I probably walk into these meetings with high-top sneakers on and a suit, but at the same time I can get in front of really anybody and present myself in a professional manner. That is really, really important and it’s one of the things that I try to talk to the students about when they are posting on discussion forums or having conversations. “Listen guys: what you do in practice, you will do in performance. Write in complete sentences. Speak in a way that people will receive your message. Stand up straight. Look in the camera. Smile a lot. That will take you a long, long way. It really will.”

Kirk Bachmann: The soft skills are important. I appreciate you saying that, particularly you saying the pieces about being yourself. At Escoffier, it’s very important that students understand the tradition of working in a kitchen. That’s one thing, but we highly encourage students to be themselves and to really focus on that. I really appreciate that.

Chef Melissa’s Source of Inspiration

As we’re talking about this environment, and this is the creative side, you’re probably tasked with what’s next. What innovation is coming from Chef Melissa next? Where do you find your inspiration for whatever it is? A new take on a traditional flavor, or something just completely outside of the box – no pun intended. Where is the [inspiration?} Does it come from the farm now? Does it come from your history? Does it come from your children? Where does that inspiration come from?

Melissa Trimmer: Oh my gosh, Chef! Yes. Why do I have to pick one?

Kirk Bachmann: All of the above! All of the above is okay.

Melissa Trimmer: All of the above. A lot of it has to do with what the ask is and what the market is now. Again, it just depends on who I’m targeting. So a lot of that goes back to that business acumen in marketing. If I am trying to target Millennials, I may look at some market data now and say, “Hmm. Spice foods are interesting right now for them. We want to look at world flavors and textures, and how can I combine these into whatever medium makes sense.” A lot of it’s really just collecting data and filtering it in a way that makes senses. Again, it doesn’t sound exciting or sexy, but it totally is. It is.

The other part of it, which I keep going back to, is having that classical base and understanding it and ingredient functionality. Because one of the mistakes that I see so often with folks early on in their career is they want to be really creative. They’re like, “I want to use Chinese five-spice and pink peppercorns and rose petals in the same thing.” I’m like, “Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa! Those are all really cool things. Pick one. Pick one. One savory element per dessert. Maybe you can get away with two if they really make sense together.” I don’t know, like shiso and miso or something like that. But beyond that, it’s really understanding how to create these things in a way that is pleasing on the palate. And that’s something that – gosh – really it takes years to develop an understanding of how those things work and how those textures play together.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, I was just going to say: sometimes after a quarter century of experience, does it sometimes just come from the gut? “I just feel like that’s not going to work, or I just feel like that needs to work.”

Melissa Trimmer: And you know, I have to tell you: we are so far in front of things here, so I am already working on next year’s holiday season content. I was literally working on that today.

Kirk Bachmann: Mise en place. Mise en place.

Melissa Trimmer: A year ahead of time. We’ll shoot it. We’ll create the recipes and stuff and we will shoot it in a couple of weeks. When I think about those sorts of trends, not only do I have to look at today, I’m often looking a year in advance. Is this going to stay until next year?

And the thing is, there will be some things that will and some that won’t. Cob bread even if has, nobody’s going to be trying it at home, but I bet you hot chocolate bombs are still around.

Know Your Own Worth

Kirk Bachmann: Makes total sense.

So lots of experience in the industry. Lots of experience as an instructor. Formal education. What are some of the most important things, or even the most important thing that you want your students or those you are mentoring to walk away with from you? This is specifically – five years from now, they’re going to say, “Chef Melissa taught me this.” Or “I do this because of Chef Melissa.”

Melissa Trimmer: Right. You know, I would love to say there’s all these skills, but at the end of the day the most important one, I think, is knowing their own worth and being able to advocate for themselves.

It took me a really long time to learn that. Even before I was an executive pastry chef, as a young cook and coming up through a very European, very male-dominated kitchens. Good lord! When I studied over there, I was not only the only American, I was a girl on top of it. Back then, they would tell you the highest you could rise was sous chef. That was it. That was all you could hope for. When you hear that kind of a thing, you can go two places with it. You can be really upset and kind of kill your spirit and be all done and move on to something else. Or you can let it light a fire in your belly and be like, “Is that right?”

Kirk Bachmann: I’ll show them.

Melissa Trimmer: Well, let me show you this. If students or anyone I’ve mentored takes anything from me, it’s knowing their own worth and knowing it takes time to get there. You’ve got to build your skill set. Failing sometimes is okay. Sometimes the best lesson we learn are from failure. But know who you are and know your worth, because chances are you have experiences and opinions and skills sets that are really value.

Kirk Bachmann: Are things changing – let’s go U.S.; let’s go Europe – for women chefs?

Melissa Trimmer: I mean, yes!

Kirk Bachmann: Case in point! Case in point!

Melissa Trimmer: Yeah, right. It’s like, “Here I am! Hi!” You know, we still have some places to go, but when I look at where we were when I started and where we are today, it’s very different. The first time I ever worked with another woman in the kitchen, I was more than ten years into my career. So that wouldn’t happen anymore. Now, we’re seeing culinary school numbers, we’re seeing pretty equal amounts of students. Probably skews more women in pastry, but the numbers overall are pretty similar. We look at hospitality as a whole, it’s pretty evenly split. We do need to work on leadership. Got to work on that.

Kirk Bachmann: We all do.

Melissa Trimmer: We do. We do. It’s just reality. But the best way to work on leadership is to have as much representation as we can. Again, that’s why I became a certification evaluator so when somebody else is going through that exam – I didn’t see any female certification evaluators, let alone anyone of color. It’s important to have those folks that let down their hand and then pull the next one up.

I have to say that I recently started mentoring – I don’t work for Kellogg’s, but Kellogg’s has what’s called the Kellogg’s Chef in Residency program.

Kirk Bachmann: Okay.

Melissa Trimmer: And what they’ve done is they’ve created this fellowship, it’s called the Culinary Fellowship, for young chefs of color that are from areas that might be a little tougher and they’ve partnered them with mostly corporate chefs to say, “Hey, you know what? You don’t have to slave away behind the stove for the rest of your career. Let’s get you some soft skills. Let’s get you in a place where you’re going to be the next leader.” And it’s those sorts of things that are really, really close to my heart and that I try to spend a lot of time with.

Kirk Bachmann: I appreciate that. The mentorship is so, so important. Giving back.

Setting Boundaries for Balance

So working in a professional kitchen, being a corporate chef, being a mom, it’s all demanding. I know this is a very emotional piece for you. Great words of advice here, so choose them carefully. How do you create work-life balance so that you can give as much as you need to give to your family while also giving everything you possibly can for your career?

Melissa Trimmer: What a good question, Chef. This took me some time to learn, too. I’m going to share some personal stuff with your folks. You guys heard me say earlier, we talked about my eldest child. My younger child, who is also equally amazing, is autistic, and so I’m a special needs mom, also.

Now they call it autism spectrum disorder, which really irritates me because there’s nothing wrong with him. It’s not a disorder; it’s just who he is. Where he falls on the spectrum is what was formerly called Asperger’s. We don’t use it anymore, but it sometimes help people get an idea of where my son is.

It almost becomes even more important to figure out: How am I going to manage this life? Because fine dining takes so much out of you, and I’m glad I had that base, but I realized I couldn’t stay in it forever and be a good mom and a good wife, especially as my son’s needs have progressed through the years. It’s actually why I stopped traveling for work. I used to be on an international team and go to all these places, and it was awesome. It’s why I took the job at Dawn. Dawn’s a family-run company and they understand family values and that you need to have that work-life balance.

There are a few things I’ve tried through the years that have worked really well for me. The last fine dining spot I was at, I asked for a written contract as the executive pastry chef. Again, this goes back to knowing your worth. “If you would like me here, let’s write a contract.” Within that contract, we wrote my maximum number of hours per work. As a young cook, I would have been terrified to walk in and negotiate like that. I got to the point where I was like, “No. I’ve got two kids at home. This is important for me. If you want me, then this is what I need from you.” Surprise, surprise! They did it! They agreed. They probably thought I was nuts, but they were like, “Well. Okay.”

So we wrote it in, and at the time –

Kirk Bachmann: It was important to you. It was important to you.

Melissa Trimmer: So that’s one tactic that has worked really well. And the other thing within knowing your worth, is knowing if something isn’t a good fit. Sometimes when people interview us, we just try, try, try, try for the job. But ultimately, we’re interviewing them, too. It’s important to find a company that shares your values.

I have done things with my children’s schools. A lot of times they aren’t very good about getting dates out. You find out the week before. But I’ll set up an appointment with them at the beginning of the school year and sit down and spread a calendar out and say, “Hey listen.” When I was traveling for work, it was because I was traveling. Now, my schedule books out literally months in advance. “My schedule books out months in advance. So I’m going to need you to give me a few solid dates where can I make sure to show up at school on those days.” They’ll say, “we don’t have any.” And I’ll say, “Great. Write them for me. It doesn’t matter to me, but we’re going to sit down together and we’re going to write them so I make sure I’m present and I am there.”

Those types of lessons. I don’t know if I would have stood up for myself early in my career, but learning how to do that has made not just my family happier, but it’s made me happier. Then, when I’m at work, it allows me to focus. I feel better about it. I don’t feel like I’m being taken advantage of, so then I’m ready to give that 110 percent.

The other side of that is, when you know your worth and you’re asking for these things, when you’re at work, then you need to overachieve. That’s just the other part of it. You have to get in there and you have to give that 110 percent so they know you’re worth it.

Chef Melissa’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Sure. Thank you for sharing that. Really beautiful story. Such good advice for so many who still kind of struggle with work-life balance. It feels like you took charge of your life, and I love that. I’m so proud of you.

Hey, we’re getting a little close to the end here. Before I let you go, you’ve been delightful. This has been amazing. I love how you address everyone in the crowd. It’s so cool. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So, we’re asking you, Chef Melissa, what is the ultimate dish?

Melissa Trimmer: You know, Chef, I was thinking about this for some time, and I have two answers for you, but they both are tied together. So I’m going to tie them together for you.

Grown-up Melissa’s ultimate dish is a really beautiful cheese and charcuterie board with a fresh baguette on it and some beautiful preserve and lots of fresh cheeses.

And I’m going to bring it back to the beginning, to the farm. Going back to that kid that was raised by hippies, never had sugar. When I would go out to the farm, I thought my aunt made the best sugar cereal, because it was exotic. Remember, I couldn’t have it. The best Lucky Charms in the world. I never had Lucky Charms so good! I couldn’t understand why they were so delicious.

As an adult, I realized, they were putting fresh, unpasteurized milk directly from the cow onto that cereal, and that’s the reason I’ve never had another bowl of Lucky Charms that was as good as it was there. It was that fresh, beautiful dairy that one of my cousins had collected that made it so good. That craftsmanship and care. Grown-up Melissa likes the charcuterie board, but it came from those early bowls of Lucky Charms with farm-fresh milk.

Kirk Bachmann: I am going to venture to guess that I haven’t heard and I never will hear a more amazing story than that. We should call the Lucky Charms people, because they’re going to want to hear this story. Absolutely love it. Love it.

Chef, thank you so much for spending time with us. I think there’s more to talk about, so I’m going to have to have you come back.

Melissa Trimmer: I’d love to! Next time I’ll send you some of those donuts.

Kirk Bachmann: And send some vegan ones, too, because I do remember you being vegan, plant-based for a long time. I’m proud to say I’m kind of 80/20 there now. Not 100 percent, but we’re getting there. As we get a little older we want to feel good, and it’s the right thing to do.

Thanks again for being with us today.

Melissa Trimmer: Thank you for having me. I appreciated it.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.

And thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast where you’ll find any materials mentioned in the podcast, including notes, links, and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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