Fast Tracks to Success

Chef Toni Sakaguchi during a demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America Campus in Napa Valley.
Chef Toni Sakaguchi during a demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America Campus in Napa Valley. CIA/Keith Ferris

Rising-star graduates of top culinary schools credit educational breadth and networking relationships with their meteoric paths.

“I always get asked by younger cooks who haven’t yet gone to culinary school if they should do it, and if I would do it again, and I always answer yes,” says Mark Buley, at 31 years old still a young chef but already an accomplished one.

He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America’s ACE program (advanced career experience) six years ago, and this year, along with his business partner Sam Hellman-Mass at the trendy Austin, Texas, restaurant Odd Duck, Buley was nominated for James Beard: Rising Star Chef. So when he offers up some advice, aspiring chefs should listen.

I would say to go to culinary school but make sure you go to a great one, because a lot of what you are doing is buying into a network,” Chef Buley says. “This industry is so heavily based on your network and your pedigree and what you’ve been exposed to.”

A quick survey of other recent culinary school graduates who have transitioned into success seems to prove his advice. With so many possibilities in today’s food and beverage industry, students with the simple goal of making a living cooking might instead find themselves pursuing an extensive education in wine, or a career in manufacturing and farming, or a corporate gig testing and developing the next great American hamburger. Oftentimes a hidden passion presents itself during the educational process, and the potential success of the young professional will rest in his or her ability to connect those specific skills and experience with the right opportunity.

With this in mind the school must be chosen wisely, and the network will be built quickly. That’s the recipe gleaned from this stellar class of industry individuals, a group as diverse and talented as they are driven.

Billy Altieri
Johnson & Wales 2013
Innovation Chef, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Denver

Research and development. Supply chain. Marketing. Quality assurance. These are not necessarily things students are thinking about when they enter culinary school, but rest assured that a top notch culinary school will expose its students to all aspects of restaurant operations. For Billy Altieri, 23, who found himself drawn to product development and culinary nutrition, “diving into the sciences a little more” led to an incredibly rewarding position as an Innovation Chef at the Red Robin company, which ended its 2014 fiscal year with 514 locations and $1.146 billion in sales. In this capacity, Chef Altieri works closely with the marketing department on consumer data and trend analysis to develop dishes people want to eat, American classics with an interesting twist. “We’re looking at regional foods—like what Primanti Brothers are doing in Pittsburgh or at Nashville hot chicken—and figuring out how we can make them ours, adding our twist but still paying homage,” he says. One of his proudest moments/menu items is the Doh! Rings, a trendy and sweet croissant-doughnut that is both memorable and functional. It adds brand equity in its structural similarity to Red Robin’s onion ring towers.

Chef Altieri was drawn to the educational experience at Johnson & Wales because it offered a bachelor’s degree program, something that can be found at more and more culinary schools today. “I don’t know if everyone will reveal this to you but I was very insecure about the kitchen,” he says in explaining his career path. “There’s a lot to know from a business aspect, and there’s a lot of failure out there, a lot of opportunity to not be successful in the foodservice industry. I knew I had a passion for food, but I didn’t necessarily know how to be successful, and that desire for more knowledge is what drove me.” Not only did he discover all the facets and details he was looking for, Chef Altieri also found his own direction, which crystallized when he interned with Red Robin. “Understanding food at such a large capacity was the most exciting thing,” he says, “and understanding the current nature of this industry.”


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