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Interview with Andrew Dornenburg co-author of ‘What to Drink With What You Eat’
CHEF JAMES: I know you had many jobs before embarking on a culinary career. What made you decide to pursue a career with food? Can you tell us a little about when and how your interest in the field began?
ANDREW D: I have loved cooking since I was young, and my interest was encouraged by my mom, who let me stir whatever was on the stove. I grew up in the Bay Area not far from Napa Valley, so food and wine are in my genes.
When I was 15, my first job was at the local McDonald's. Though I didn't fall in love with the food, I fell in love with the business. I took many different roads to get there, but eventually found myself in my late 20s working at the East Coast Grill in Boston with James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Schlesinger. Chris gave me my start in a real professional kitchen, which then led to more than a decade working in top kitchens in Boston and New York City.
CHEF JAMES: Do you have any strong feelings on whether it is better to get a culinary education first, or is learning 'on the job' still a viable career path for aspiring chefs? What advice would you give to someone in high school who would like to pursue a culinary career?
ANDREW D: When starting out, the most important thing to learn is whether you like the actuality or just the fantasy of working in the restaurant business. The myth is very different from the reality. It's important to decide this upfront before making a large investment of time and money in school. You need to like the physical work, stress, and rewards that professional cooking brings with it. One should definitely work in some aspect of the restaurant business before investing thousands of dollars in culinary school.
Though I did not attend culinary school myself, virtually all of the chefs we have interviewed for the first and second editions of BECOMING A CHEF believe it is important for any aspiring chef to have a culinary degree. There are many programs to choose from (ranging from programs lasting a few months to four years), so find the one that is right for you.
As for my advice to a high school student starting out, look in your community to see if there are any restaurant programs for students. Beyond that, start cooking at home so that when you apply for your first job even if you don’t have formal work experience, you can talk passionately about the food you like to cook and eat. An enthusiastic, hard-working attitude will go very far with a chef!
CHEF JAMES: Do culinary schools devote enough time to beverage education (wine, beer, coffee and tea), the subject of your latest book, 'What to Drink With What You Eat'?
ANDREW D: When it comes to culinary school, there is a limited amount of time to teach -- and a lifetime of lessons out there. As the role of a culinary school is to prepare a student for a starting position in a kitchen, it is hard to say whether they devote enough time to this or not. And frankly a chef in a position to hire you out of school is more concerned about how well you cook and season a dish than in your wine knowledge.
That being said, more and more chefs (including myself) are earning sommelier certificates, and virtually all of us(including myself) will attest that it makes us better chefs. The role of beverages is crucial to the success of a dish in a restaurant setting because the wrong beverage can ruin it -- while the right one can make it sing! The more cooks know about pairing, the better. If they create a special, they can then make a recommendation to their servers on what to pair with it. That makes everyone a winner -- the customer, who has an enhanced experience, and the restaurant, which sold both a dish and a beverage.
CHEF JAMES: How do you and your wife, Karen Page, decide on new projects to work on together? How did 'What to Drink with What You Eat' evolve?
ANDREW D: Ideas for future books come to us fast and frequently during the research for our books. We will start hearing things that trigger more questions, but then find there simply isn’t room or it is too off topic to include in the book we are writing at the time. We have a backlog of a dozen or more ideas of books we'd like to write, and decide when it's time to commit to a project with a publisher which one(s) show the greatest promise to make the greatest contribution to the field at that time.
There are many criteria we use to decide what we are going to work on next. Is the topic something we want to learn more about? Can we make an original contribution? Is there a market for it? Will it make the culinary world a better place? At some point in the process, Karen will have an "aha," and off she goes with me trying to keep up!
Before WHAT TO DRINK WITH WHAT YOU EAT, Karen had wanted to explore the topic of wine and other beverages for years, seeing food and drink as inseparable. However, in our previous books, we had only been able to touch on the topic of beverages. Our extensive research for this book on food and beverage compatibility started more than a decade ago, but only came to fruition in WHAT TO DRINK WITH WHAT YOU EAT's publication this month.