Mitchell Rodriguez’s love started like that of most professional chefs: bite by bite. In his case, it was a move to Southern Florida and an introduction to cuisines he had never tasted before like Cuban and Creole that really sealed the deal. Working his way up from dishwasher to line cook and eventually kitchen director, his love for the culinary arts has never wavered and only grown stronger through his 16-year career in restaurants. Craving a more formal education in both culinary techniques and business skills, Rodriguez enrolled in Escoffier Schools’ online culinary certificate program, the perfect combination for this aspiring entrepreneur.
We caught up with Rodriguez to discuss his ultimate celebrity dinner party, his top 3 favorite things about the program and his future business plans.
Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts: When did you first fall in love with cooking?
Mitchell Rodriguez: I’ve always loved cooking, but my passion was not ignited until I relocated to the Ft. Lauderdale/ Miami area. I was introduced to a variety of foods from all over the world. From foods of the islands south of Miami to European cuisines, I wanted to try everything. Next I relocated to the Pensacola area. I dug into my wife’s Southern Living books and magazines and begun baking quick breads, pound cakes, and cooking with cast iron; that’s when I knew I wanted to make a career change.
AESCA: What is your background in the culinary arts?
MR: I started off washing dishes at a place called the Moose Lodge when I was 15. It was my first job, and I couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen after school was out. It was not a large kitchen staff; there was a chef, an assistant and myself. This place would cater holiday parties for some of the manufacturing places. I left there when I turned 16 to work in a fried chicken joint. They trained me to deep fry chicken and work a flat top with speed. I liked it there because I was learning to cook. I stayed there for some time and then left to work at a Georgia-style barbecue restaurant. I started off washing dishes and moved up to working a brick oven pit. I was learning how to smoke different meats and food never smelled so good! I was off and on working in the kitchen and front of the house for 16 years.
AESCA: Why did you want to go to culinary school?
MR: I wanted to go to culinary school to get a strong foundation and a well-rounded education. I also wanted to hone my skills, expand my knowledge and receive guidance from experts in the industry.
AESCA: Why did you choose Escoffier’s online program?
MR: I chose Escoffier’s online program not only to learn cooking and baking techniques, but also because they offer courses in business management and entrepreneurship. The online coursework is convenient for me to complete around my work schedule and family life. Finally, Escoffier appealed to me because they offer a nationally-accredited culinary program that meets high standards in culinary education.
AESCA: How has it helped your career?
MR: I feel that the techniques I’ve learned have made a notable difference in my cooking and baking. I’ve gained a better understanding of how to execute a variety of cooking/baking techniques as well as how to manage a kitchen. I went from washing dishes and cleaning a commercial kitchen to managing my own within a two-year span. I love the kitchen I work in. I’m directing and managing all aspects of the kitchen, from budgeting to menu management. The best part of all is that I am still on the line cooking. When I first started at Escoffier, Chef Graham gave the class advice and I’ve carried it with me ever since: “Don’t strive for perfection, but strive for excellence.”
AESCA: What are your top 3 favorite things about Escoffier Schools?
MR: The program’s chef instructors are not only helpful, but personable, encouraging and inspirational. Their teaching and words of advice are always with me! They’re willing to help you one-on-one whenever you need it.
Chef Anne does more than an excellent job in breaking down the concepts and foundation of baking and pastry. The textbook can be overwhelming with some of the technical words and procedures, but when she uses a phrase like “form a meringue” those are comfort words for me and it hits home. Chef Susie is encouraging in her feedback; I look forward to hearing from her on submitted assignments. Chef Jesper is an expert in managing a kitchen. From costing recipes to explaining the design of the FOH and BOH, he does a fantastic job. We were discussing job descriptions in class one evening and he said something that stuck with me. He said “A chef’s job is to conquer and command.” The instructors at Escoffier and my family are my inspiration. I’m constantly learning and excited for the next assignment. The techniques and dishes are always relevant and pique my interest.
Finally, the assignments and discussion are fun! I have really enjoyed learning and preparing new dishes as well as interacting with the instructors and other students. Even though I was initially intimidated by the business courses, I have come to enjoy them and look forward to learning this aspect of culinary as well.
AESCA: What’s your favorite dish to cook?
MR: My favorite dish to cook is Dixie fried chicken along with collard greens, mashed potatoes with gravy and buttermilk cornbread.
AESCA: How about to eat?
MR: Cuban style picadillo over white rice with a side of black beans and fried plantains.
AESCA: Celebrity dinner party guest list (dead or alive)
MR: Auguste Escoffier, Alton Brown, President Barack Obama, former Georgia football head coach Mark Richt
AESCA: What is your dream job in the culinary arts?
MR: My dream job would be the concept I came up with in one of my business classes: running my own southern cafe/bakery featuring coffee, breakfast/lunch dishes and bakery items with my wife. Some of the brunch specials would be traditional deep-South dishes with a modern twist. A family owned restaurant is a blessing from above.
AESCA: How do you feel your education with Escoffier can help get you there?
MR: Escoffier has given me the culinary and business tools, resources, knowledge and self-confidence I need in order to make my dream a reality!