An Interview with Chef Allen Susser

Posted in: Culinary Arts

His Career

When and how did you decide to become a chef?

Chef Allen Susser: When I was a teenager, I cooked for my summer time jobs. I enjoyed the energy, and the challenge of cooking for many people. Though it was fast food in a beach front amusement park, I worked hard and got a lot of gratification. Even when it came to making cotton candy, I had to know why it worked, and I had to make two at a time – one in my left and one in my right hand. I had fun with being creative as a cook. I decided then that I wanted to be a chef. Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

My grandmother and mother did a lot of good cooking at home. They also allowed me to be creative with the family’s dinner. Professionally, I would have to say that Alain Sailhac was my biggest inspiration. I worked for him for 2 years at Le Cirque. He taught me what it was to be exacting and consistent. The exposure of exotic foods for me in the late 70s opened a lot of avenues of food and taste exploration for me. Then, in the early 80’s, Jeremiah Towers and Larry Forgione influenced me to focus on local natural resources.

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?

I enjoy being around food. I get a lot of satisfaction from the process of going from raw ingredient to a finished dish.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

Being able to write my own cookbook. I was able to share my culinary ideas with others who have not necessarily come into the restaurant. It is a thrill to have people cooking my food with success even though I have not met them before.

My biggest set back is having only 24 hours in the day.

What is your specialty and why did you choose it?

A focus on fusion. When I opened chef Allen’s 15 years ago, I created a fusion cuisine that was regionalized to the south Florida environment. I took the best of its natural recourses to blend into a cuisine that took its influence from the Caribbean and Latin America. New world cuisine uses local fresh fish, tropical fruits, and Latin root vegetables. Today, I have enlarged that market basket to include North Africa, India, south East Asia, and the rest of the world. This still lets me challenge the food ways that have processed the way we eat. I feel that fusion allows me the creative edge that I want.

What exactly do chefs do?

Chefs are in charge of the kitchen. That is usually the soul of the restaurant. A chef is responsible for the creative and the business side of the food. He must be a skilled cook, as well as motivator, and communicator.

How much are chefs generally paid? Are they generally paid by the hour or by salary?

Chefs are usually paid with a salary. The salary can be enhanced by benefits and incentives for food cost or levels of volume or success. The range of pay differs from the level of responsibility to the size of the restaurant to the region that the restaurant is located in. For a broad stroke, salary ranges can be from $40,000- 150,000.

Tell us about where you work. What do you like most, least?

I love coming to work each day. A new day is always a new challenge. It begins with the market: availability, quality, and uniqueness. Then how does the market play on the cuisine? We change the menu at Chef Allen’s every day. When we buy our fish from the fisherman, we then determine how it will be prepared for that evening. I enjoy having a small kitchen staff that is well trained. They understand the technique as well as the creative process. It enables me to be one on one with the cooks who have their hands on the food.

How important is it to create & maintain relationships within the culinary profession? If it is, how do you do it?

As large as the industry is, it still has a sense of community. I feel it is always important to work and act professionally. I try to keep in contact with all the chefs that I have worked for. Networking is essential. It is also important because rarely do you work for only one person or chef. One of the most reliable sources of reference is a good recommendation from your chef.

Today, chefs work together on various projects from consulting to charity. SOS and Meals on Wheels are two groups that work with food for the less fortunate. I have chaired the Share Our Strength program in Miami for the past 13 years. It has raised millions of dollars to fight hunger in our community. You need to volunteer your time and energy sometimes past the call of duty.

The Culinary Profession

What are the tools of the trade you use most?

Having a good set of knives is essential and a worthwhile investment. These are tools you will always use, and want to know you can rely on them to be sharp and steady. For budget reasons, if you have to start small, buy the best French knife that you can afford. Follow that with a paring knife and a steel. The rest can follow.

What are your favorite kitchen gadgets?

I probably get the most use out of an emersion blender. It can be placed into the mixture hot or cold and processed in the container that you are working in. Another useful gadget is the raspier that is used to zest citrus fruits easily.

How much of your work is done outside of the kitchen?

At this stage of my career, I spend more time out of the kitchen than I would like to. I am very involved in not only running the kitchen, but in running the restaurant. I am also very involved in the food community throughout the country.

What are some trends that you see in the field of culinary arts that might help prospective students?

The Internet will give students access to chefs, ingredients, and amazing amounts of information that could only benefit students. The overall growth in the industry will encourage more independent restaurants. I feel there will be a great opportunity for new, talented chefs.

What are some common myths about chefs?

I thought Hercules was a myth, not chefs. Mostly, I find chefs to not be common people at all. They have an unusual drive for perfection.

What are some of the skills that help all chefs succeed?

The ability to listen. You must first listen to learn. You must learn to listen to your customers or you might end up cooking for yourself. It is important to develop a good sense of balance and to develop your palate. You must taste everything you can. Try to think about what it is you taste. And then you must store that taste thought, for instant recall.

How important are certifications in the profession, such as Executive Chef or Master Chef?

Certifications can be important depending on which part of the business you envision your career. I think the real drive is to continue to learn every day.

What are the best ways to find a job as a chef?

By being in the field. Working and growing into the next position up the rung. You must establish a wide base of people skills and culinary knowledge to support your move upward. Then, it usually comes through references to other establishments. There is a lot of networking that will be beneficial to your career.

How can graduating culinary arts students gain an advantage in their job search?

Very often, the culinary schools start off with internship or externship programs that get students into the industry leaders. This usually helps add to a sound culinary foundation. They can also use their chef contact from the schools to open the doors of certain restaurants. But I must stress that most students need to realize that culinary school is only the beginning of the experience. And that this is only a starting point. The time and effort that you put into it as an individual, schooled or not, is most important.

How is the job market right now for culinary professionals? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?

The job market for all culinary professionals is HOT. It is growing fast because many people do not want to cook at home or don’t know how to cook at home. This leaves the door wide open for our industry.

Culinary Education

What is your degree in?

I have an Associates Degree From New York City Tech in Hospitality Management, a Bachelors Degree from Florida International University in Restaurant Management, a Certificate from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and an Honorary Doctorate from Johnson & Wales in Culinary Arts.

What did you like and dislike about your culinary education?

It seemed to me that I never had as much hands on culinary, day after day. I would learn a topic and move on. The schools never had enough time to give the depth of understanding that you get from repetition in cooking. I would learn many techniques, but needed the practical application. Most of the time I worked while going to school to get that hands on daily understanding. With the training from many different chefs at school, I learned a great flexibility from one point of view to another

What factors did you consider when choosing a school of culinary arts or culinary department?

The courses of study and hours in the kitchen were important to me on one level. Later, the management I found to be just as essential. I felt it was also important to go to school in an area that I could get the type of on the job training in a fine restaurant at the same time.

Was your culinary education worth it for you? Why?

Yes, well worthwhile. It gave me the time to start with the very basics. I have always felt that the structure it set up for me is continuously reflected in my cooking. It taught me how to deal with recipes as a tool for training others.

For those who have the talent already, should they go to culinary school and why?

Talent needs discipline. It would help to bring focus. Culinary schools usually will give you more exposure to different styles and techniques that talented individuals can broaden the scope with.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the culinary arts?

It is a great career, but also an alternative life style. You have to recognize that you will be working holidays and weekends. You’ll be making the party that everyone is enjoying. You need to obtain gratification from making others around you happy. In general you work nights, while others around you work day. You have to learn how to respect your time, and how to use it properly. Understand that all good things take time. In this business, you need to make your luck with dedication and lots of hard work. You need to treat school in the same professional fashion as work. Push yourself to learn as much as you can. Participate actively; it’s your education.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the 5 most respected and prestigious culinary schools in the world that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools?

The Culinary Institute of America in New York, The California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, The Cordon Bleu in Paris, Johnson & Wales University, and the International Culinary Center in New York City.

Is there a major difference in the industry between graduating from a prestigious culinary school and graduating from a college with a culinary program?

School is only a staring point. Many of them have the same curriculum perhaps with different budgets. I think it is more in the talents of the student than the credentials of the schools. A few years down the road it will not be which school, though one is important; it is the proficiency, skill and professionalism that will count more.

What advice can you give to prospective culinary arts students before they begin their education?

My advice here is simple. Before you start paying for your education, go into a restaurant that might be your dream restaurant. Ask the chef if he will permit you to work one week in his kitchen (or at least a day). See what it is like: the pace, the people, the hours on your feet, the work environment. If you are more enthusiastic than ever, then go for it. If not, ask yourself, why not? No, you should not base your career on one such experience, but then maybe try another style of experience.

What should culinary arts students try to get out of their school?

Everything that they can. Exposure to as many different cooking styles as possible. Exposure to as many different techniques as available. Seeing and tasting as many different foods and wine experiences. Connections with culinary organizations such as the James Beard Foundation, or the American Institute of Wine and Food. Networking with out side contacts and chefs

What factors should prospective culinary arts students consider when choosing their school?

Who are the culinary teachers? What is their background? Does the program give you focus where you want to go? Is the cost realistic? Can you be out of the work force, or will you be working? What are the outside job possibilities?