Interview with Chef Ann Cooper

Ann Cooper, Executive Chef of The Ross School in New York and Consulting Chef for The Putney Inn in Vermont, is the author two books: A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen and Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What We Can do About It. Chef Cooper, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, was one of the first 50 women to be certified as an Executive Chef by the educational arm of the American Culinary Federation.

Chef Cooper has compiled an impressive record of achievement during her career and her awards include both Gold and Silver medals won at national ACF conventions. In 1995, she was Vermont ACF Chef of the Year as well as being a national ACF of the Year nominee.

Chef Ann Cooper & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Career / Job Info. & Advice   |   Education Info. & Advice   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks

Chef Ann Cooper & Her Career

When and how did you decide to become a chef?

The following is from my first book – but I think it speaks to this question:

Based on my own experience, the ascension to the position of chef was long and hard; but it was a journey during which knowledge was continuously acquired.I started my culinary career at 17 and accepted my first chef position at 26.During those intervening years, I went from prep cook to baker and from line cook to chef and manager. I apprenticed in a hotel, working all the stations in the kitchen, spent two years cooking in the kitchens of cruise ships, and somewhere in between, graduated from the CIA.My first position as executive chef was at a 200-seat restaurant, where I had responsibility for all the food and staff.I really thought I was a chef at 26 years old, I really thought I knew it all, almost twenty-five years later, I think I am evolving as a chef.

Editor’s note: Read an excerpt from the preface of the book, A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen, which offers more details on Chef Cooper’s career path.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Elka Gilmore, Barbara Tropp, Joyce Goldstein and Madeleine Kamman

What do you enjoy most about being a chef?

The food & feeding people.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

My greatest success has been, first, becoming an Executive Chef and, secondly, having the good fortune to cook with so many wonderfully talented chefs.

The Actual Work

What is a chef?

From A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen:

Regardless of how we define chef — whether it’s “chief,” “cook,” or “manager,” it’s clear that chefs must be talented culinarians, craftspersons and artists; they need to have vision and creativity; they need to be leaders and motivators, friends and bosses, number-crunchers and foragers; some even have to be TV personalities. Many chefs with whom I met considered the art and/or the craft the most important aspect of their work.

Editor’s note: Read a more detailed excerpt addressing this question.

What exactly do chefs do?

From A Woman’s Place is in the Kitchen:

As chefs, what binds us all is the food. It is our joy, our passion and our craft — a craft that can become an art form. While individual chefs may view their work in a different light, in the end, it is a masterful presentation of food and flavor.

Gary Fine, Professor of Sociology at the University of Georgia, has researched human behavior in kitchens. His most recent work, written in 1996, is Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work, which offers his perspective on this issue: “Some cooks speak of themselves as artists through their actions, making cooking a performance art. For some the criteria for quality labor are primarily in the product: the sight, feel, taste, or smell; for others they are in the performance; but for each the work has a style, a sense of form, an aesthetic.”

What are the tools of the trade you use most?

My knives & my computer.

What are your favorite kitchen gadgets?

A hand-held burr mixer.

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

Half.

What is your specialty and why did you choose it?

Regional, seasonal, sustainable food. It is the future.

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

I’m the Executive Chef of The Ross School in East Hampton NY. The property is just getting started, so it’s a little too new.

Career / Job Information & Advice

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

At the level of a chef, it’s salary.

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

Absolutely tantamount. Networking can be done through professional organizations like American Culinary Federation, Chefs Collaborative, and Women Chefs & Restaurateurs.

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

More and more so – especially for any part of large-scale industry.

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

There’s plenty of them – just apply for a job that you’re qualified for.

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

Many Chefs & Food & Beverage Directors look favorably on culinary education.

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

Right now there are eight culinary positions open for every culinary graduate.

Education Information & Advice

What is your degree in?

AOS in Culinary Arts.

What did you like and dislike about your culinary education?

I loved it all.

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

Student-to-Teacher ratio, the type of food, quality of education.

Was your culinary education worth it for you?Why?

Yes.It helped me become a chef and manager.

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

If management and financial education is important, then it is very important – you really learn the basics of the business.

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

Find a restaurant, and start working in the kitchen.

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?

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

In many cases, you get out of your education what you put into it.

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

Find a restaurant and start working in the kitchen.

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

Learn everything possible, volunteer for all events, network

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

Student-to-Teacher ratio, the type of food, quality of education.

Industry Trends

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

Regional – seasonal – sustainable – nutritious – organic & safe food.

Closing Remarks

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?

It’s the most wonderful career in the world.

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