Chef Alex Bury first started cooking and learning about cooking in the San Francisco Bay area in 1985. She is a 1991 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, and has worked in restaurants in Berkeley, San Francisco, Paris, New Orleans, Alaska and Sonoma County, California.
Although originally trained in classical, flesh-based cooking, Chef Bury is now both a vegan herself and a vegan-only chef. She teaches cooking and nutrition at The Institute of Educational Therapy in Cotati, CA, and recently opened a vegan and organic restaurant also in Cotati, Sparks at the Inn. She still occasionally works as a private chef.
When and how did you decide to become a chef?
I had always loved cooking for my family as a little girl, but I didn’t know cooking could be a career until I was a teenager. When I was 15 my father moved my family from Valdez, Alaska to Berkeley, CA (talk about culture shock!). In Berkeley I got a job at the Pacific School of Religion helping out in the kitchen. The chef was Michael Henderson, a Benedictine monk, and within months I knew I had found my path. Michael was extremely talented with food, a kind and gentle teacher, and he taught me that feeding people involved a lot more than just giving people energy for another day–it was giving energy to their soul, too.
Tell us how your career unfolded?
I was lucky to first learn cooking in Berkeley, it being such a food haven. I cooked more and more at Pacific School of Religion and a few other theological schools. I stumbled into meeting Alice Waters and ended up doing childcare and cooking for her child, both in California and in France. That really cemented my passion for cooking. When I was 18 I bought a one-way ticket to Paris and lived there for a year, cooking and eating everything in sight. Then I came back to go to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
Credit for that move actually goes to my father–I was having too much fun in Paris and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to the CIA anymore. Dad really put up a fight and I’ll always owe him for that!
Like many culinary school students, my externship from the CIA had a profound effect on me. It was at a classic french restaurant in San Francisco called Amelio’s. The chef and owner was Jacky Roberts. I learned so much in those six months, a lot of which I still use even though I don’t cook animals anymore.
After attending the CIA I cooked in New Orleans (too hot for my Alaskan blood, but a good experience in a high-volume restaurant which every cook should do at least once) and then moved back to Alaska. I had two good learning experiences as Sous Chef, at a big restaurant on a golf course and a small, expensive place downtown (yes, Alaska has golf courses and downtowns!). At this time I had become a vegetarian but was still cooking flesh. I didn’t think I had an option.
Then I got a great job as a private chef for a small family. Excellent pay and hours, total freedom and creativity with the menu–except they also ate animals. I worked there for three years, loving the family and the job but growing more and more uncomfortable with serving flesh.
Finally I quit and decided that I would only cook vegan, even if that meant I had to choose a new career (this was an agonizing decision, believe me). I could no longer justify my role in encouraging the cruelty of slaughterhouses, the environmental destruction of the meat industries, and giving my clients heart attacks.
To my amazement, my career started to explode! I started a catering and dinner delivery service in Anchorage, which was growing at leaps and bounds when I moved to California. Here in gorgeous Sonoma County, I’ve been honored to start teaching at the Institute of Educational Therapy, a whole foods cooking school. I’ve also found a strong demand for vegan food through catering and private chef work, and now I’m excited to be in the process of opening a vegan and organic restaurant in downtown Cotati (The Inn of the Beginning).
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
My first chef, at Pacific School of Religion, Michael Henderson. Alice Waters. MFK Fisher. Jean Donnelly, my mentor at Amelio’s (my extern job).
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
I love how it uses my whole being. It’s physically demanding, of course, but it also takes great mental concentration and stamina as well as emotional feeling and all your creative juices. And I love feeding people. People are always happy to receive good food, and I’m thrilled I can do that for my friends and family.
What was your greatest success and biggest setback?
My greatest success was a job I’m just leaving, sadly. I was the private chef for a group home of six foster teenage girls, all of whom have had a rough time. I cooked their dinners, vegan only. When I started these girls, and the house parents, had really unhealthy diets. McDonald’s every day, that sort of thing. I certainly didn’t convert everyone to strict veganism (that was never my goal), but I was very excited to see their diets start to improve and to see them start to taste and appreciate real food. Four of the eight are now vegan, one’s vegetarian, and I have a whole new section of my heart mind and my heart reserved for teenagers.
My biggest setback was fighting against my ethics for so long. I sometimes wish I could go back in time and start my vegan cooking earlier.
Do you have a culinary specialty?
Desserts. I didn’t really ask for this, or think about focusing on desserts. Many people are skeptical about vegan desserts, so I would always make a rich chocolate cake or melt-in-your-mouth apple tart to “show off” how good vegan can be. Vegetarian food is still fighting a bad rep from the 70’s, when it was all brown rice and raw broccoli. Desserts seem to work best in these situations, so they’ve become a specialty. It doesn’t hurt that my partner and I both have a big sweet tooth!
What exactly do chefs do?
A chef is sometimes that last person cooking–ironic, isn’t it? Working on opening the restaurant right now, I’m cooking a lot to test and perfect the recipes. But then I’ll train staff and get out of the way, because the chef also has to source all the ingredients for the kitchen (more of a challenge here since we’re going to be organic), keep track of food cost, make sure the staff is working smoothly and reliably, price out dishes, work on new dishes, etc.
How much are chefs generally paid? Are they generally paid by the hour or by salary?
A private chef is usually (but not always) paid by the hour. A restaurant chef is usually paid salary.
Tell us about where you work. What do you like most, least?
IET (The Institute for Educational Therapy) is a brilliant place to work. I’m enjoying it more each month. At first I was terrified of teaching, but now I’m hooked. It’s wonderful to work at a place with some ethics. IET strives to create a very warm and healthy work environment–very different from your average restaurant kitchen! The Executive Director and the Administrative Director are both such supportive and positive people–the best bosses a person could ask for. They really care about both the chef-instructors and the students. The students are fantastic–all of our students at IET are here because they really want to be, so I’ve never had to deal with a “slacker.” What do I like the least? The two days in the program that we teach how to cook dead animals!
What are the tools of the trade you use most?
My knives. Without a doubt, my knives. I would miss my food processor and Kitchenaid, and our monstrous old Wolf oven at the restaurant, but they could be replaced or even not used. My knives, though, I use every day all through the day. They’re sharp and reliable and long-lasting. A great investment every new cook needs to make. You also want to make sure and have a good calculator on hand!
What are your favorite kitchen gadgets?
Citrus zester. Strong tongs. The Japanese sesame seed toaster I just found for $5.
How much of your work is done outside of the kitchen?
Quite a bit right now. For IET, I spend hours at home in front of the computer getting ready for each class. For the restaurant, there’s a lot of computer time, running around and shopping and searching time, meeting time, etc.
What are some common myths about chefs?
We’re all fat. A vegan chef isn’t going to be overweight, of course, but even chefs who still eat and cook meat aren’t that likely to be grossly overweight–when you work 10-12 hours on your feet, moving and sweating, who needs an aerobics class? Another myth is that we eat rich, 5-course meals all the time and are hard to please. It’s no fun being a chef when your friends are scared to cook for you. Most chefs I know eat pretty simple on their days off: salads, soups, pizza. We love to be cooked for, too!
What are the best ways to find a job as a chef?
Meet people. Go eat at restaurants and talk to the chef. Attend a culinary school and stay in contact with the people you meet there. A resume is great, and you should definitely put some time into yours. But a piece of paper can’t tell a prospective employer about your people skills or personal dedication.
How can graduating culinary arts students gain an advantage in their job search?
Most culinary schools have some sort of job placement program. Use it! Work really hard on your basic skills, speed, and organization. Make sure you get references mentioning those things. Volunteer whenever you can: as an intern at your alma mater, at benefits, anywhere you might meet people and/or get a good reference.
What are some of the skills that help all chefs succeed?
Organization. More than any sense of creativity or skill with the sauté pan, if we aren’t very organized we won’t go far.
The ability to stay mentally and physically healthy, to avoid early burn-out.
A solid base of the basic cooking skills. You can be as artistic and creative as you want, but if you can’t dice, julienne, sauté and grill then your great ideas will stay ideas.
Good people skills. Too many of us food folks get big heads and hot tempers (although this, too, may be fading into myth-dom as our profession gets more respected and professional). If you foster the reputation of being easy to work with, able to listen and take advice, reliable and pleasant to be around your career will benefit. There are a few real jerks that are famous chefs, but for the most part, the cooks with faulty or missing people skills get left behind.
How is the job market right now for culinary professionals? How do you think it will be in the next five years? ten years?
Here in Northern California, the job market for cooks is going crazy. There’s a real shortage of good, experienced cooks. I think this is going to continue well into the next decade because American people are really starting to care about the food they eat.
How important is it to create and maintain relationships within the culinary profession? If it is, how do you do it?
The culinary world is a small world, and almost everyone moves around a lot. It is of the utmost importance to maintain relationships in a positive way. You never know when somebody from a past job will suddenly pop up in your current place of employment! Or you may need a reference for something you used to do, or you may find yourself teaming up with old faces for a new project or benefit. It’s a challenging career for all of us, and the more support we give each other the better. One of my last restaurant jobs at a place here in Sonoma County ended in such a way that the owner is still ordering food for my catering and even giving advice for the new restaurant, even though we’ll be a competitor. I make sure to do what I can in exchange: A free ad for his place in our animal rights newsletter, I buy his pizza at least once a week, and I encourage my students to eat there. This has become a very important local relationship for me and I am indebted to him. Joining culinary guilds and organizations is also very important. It’s a good way to meet people and stay involved.
What is your degree in?
An A.O.S. degree in the Culinary Arts from CIA in New York.
What did you like and dislike about your culinary education?
At the time, I disliked the tough discipline and all the rules. Now I’m very thankful for them because I’m a strong, organized chef thanks to the CIA. I appreciate the focus on basic skills, management skills, and seriousness of the CIA. I sometimes wish I had waited a couple of years, because I missed some of the great things they’re doing now with local produce, organics, vegetarianism, etc. I would love to find the time to attend some continuing ed classes at the CIA in Napa Valley.
What factors did you consider when choosing a school of culinary arts or culinary department?
I was determined to go to the CIA. My first chef told me it was the best cooking school in the world, and I believed him. Now I tell people that. I knew they focused more on “real” food (i.e., making stock from scratch rather than opening a can) than the other schools. Their Chef-Instructors are incredible: Lots of Executive Chefs, Certified Master Chefs, cookbook authors, etc. And of course I wanted to live near New York City!
What factors should all prospective culinary arts students consider when choosing their school?
What is the school known for? What are YOUR goals and focus, and does the school match them? How well do they help and stay in touch with their alumni? How experienced are their instructors? I knew several CIA alumni who convinced me that the CIA was what I wanted. Call the school(s) your interested in and ask to talk to an alumni.
Was your culinary education worth it for you? Why?
Absolutely. Even though I was paying back those student loans for years, and I went vegan 4 years after graduating from a school where I paid to learn about butchering, I still think it was worth it. You can learn how to cook without a cooking school. The three chefs I respect the most–Michael Henderson, Jean Donnelly and Alice Waters–never went to school. But culinary school will give you a jump start to your career. It can take 15 years of experience and learning and condense it into two years. The discipline and contacts you make are also invaluable.
For those who have the talent already, should they go to culinary school and why?
Some of my students are already accomplished cooks. But now they will have a certificate to put on their resume and a stronger base to stand on.
What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in the culinary arts?
Try it! Get a job in a restaurant. Work for a caterer. Visit the schools you’re considering and watch the students in action.
What are the 5 most valuable courses that aspiring chefs should take?
- Knife skills
- Basic cooking methods: sauté, braise, roast, etc.
- And at least one course on business and money management!
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the 5 most respected and prestigious culinary/cooking schools in the world that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools?
- Culinary Institute of America
- Johnson & Wales University
- California Culinary Academy
- Institute of Educational Therapy
Is there a major difference in the industry between graduating from a prestigious culinary school and graduating from a college with a culinary program?
There can be, but not necessarily. I don’t think there should be a difference. A reputation doesn’t help you cook, good skills help you cook. Our local Santa Rosa Junior College has a culinary program. Nobody outside of our area has heard of the SRJC, but it’s a strong program that graduates good beginning cooks. If I had an SRJC grad and a CIA grad applying, I wouldn’t automatically hire the CIA grad. I would want to meet them both, see what their people skills are like, check the cleanliness of their hands, and watch them chop an onion.
What advice can you give to prospective culinary arts students before they begin their education?
Take it very seriously!! Take notes. Keep everything. You will use your culinary education for the rest of your life–and don’t think that you’ll remember it all, because you won’t. I wasn’t a big pastry maker my first few years out of school, but I am now. Because of that gap, my old notes and books from the CIA were precious as I started baking more and more. And remember, everyone you meet at culinary school is a prospective employer, partner, or investor. Treat the school like a job.
What should culinary arts students try to get out of their school?
Strong basic skills. Practice working well with a variety of people, many of whom will be a challenge! Good contacts.
What are some trends that you see in the field of culinary arts that might help prospective students?
My personal crusade: sanitation! I think that more and more of our customers (private and restaurant) are starting to clue in to cleanliness. They see more when they wander into our kitchens, they read more, they’re more concerned. E. coli and salmonella are well-known words now. Hand-washing, bleach and an organized mise en place are so important. As cooking and chefs become more interesting to people, we’re going to be watched closer. And I think that’s good. Cooking vegan is a little easier, because we’re not dealing with the decomposing flesh foods that carry 90% of E. coli and salmonella. But it’s still a very, very important issue.
The other trend I see, of course, is a rising demand for vegetarian, vegan and/or organic foods. Boca burgers and Toffutti ice cream are in mainstream stores across the country. There’s vegetarian and vegan restaurants opening all over. As people learn more about the cruelty to animals, the environmental waste and the fatal effects of meat and junk foods, they’re asking for better alternatives. I meet an endless stream of people who are in their 50’s or 60’s and either just had a heart attack (or stroke, or impotence, or cancer, or diabetes) or just discovered that they’re heading that way. All of a sudden they want to eat better. A lot of these folks are at a financial time in their lives where they can afford to hire a whole foods private cook, but many want to learn for themselves. It’s a huge, and growing, market. There’s also the young folks, who (contrary to popular opinion) don’t want to laze around on the couch for the rest of their lives. They learn about what happens at a slaughterhouse or the fecal waste of a factory farm, and boom, they’re looking for alternatives.
What all these people have in common is that they don’t know how to cook better. Most of us were raised with the standard American diet, so things like tofu, unbleached sugar and millet are new. That’s why I think whole foods cooks and teachers are going to really take off in the next few years.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed as a chef?
Make sure your sense of humor is intact. Cooking is hard work. The best people I have known in the business have had a sense of humor. The day you relax is the day your career stops. You will always be a student, even 40 years after you graduate. The chefs who are always trying new things, reading, learning, experimenting, taking continuing ed courses–those are the ones who really succeed.