We may think of them as the folks who run the kitchens of our favorite restaurants, but the role of a chef takes many forms: consulting, teaching, writing.
Chef Pat Weber spent his earlier years chasing the dream, working in a variety of kitchens across the country, but now spends his time either teaching students at the local Art Institutes International or consulting for various restaurants around town with his business Mise en Place.
Chef Weber is one of six contestants participating in this year's Iron Fork competition. Here's how he went from kitchen jockey to culinary instructor, and how this could give him an edge in this year's culinary throw-down.
Hot Dish: Where did your culinary journey begin?
I grew up on a dairy farm. I just sort of grew up in a family setting where my mom cooked a lot of meals at home so it was pretty natural for me. I went to school for a little while for finance, and just like a lot of chefs, I worked in a restaurant while in college and kind of got turned on by the energy and just cooking in general, so I wound up switching gears and decided to go to culinary school.
Which culinary school did you go to?
I went to the Culinary Institute, the CIA in New York. At the time, there were only a handful of schools to go to in the late '80s, and the CIA really looked awesome to me. I was in awe.
Did you hang around in New York after you graduated?
Yeah. I ended up working in New York City for about four years, which was an awesome experience, and then I did a lot of traveling. I also got my bachelors in hospitality management at FIU in North Miami, so I spent some time in Miami Beach. I lived there for a few years, then Atlanta, Charleston, SC, and Kansas City.
Was the dairy farm where you grew up in Minnesota and if not, what brought you here after all of your travels?
I grew up in Iowa. It was about four hours south of here. When I moved to Minneapolis, I was just trying to find my roots a little bit and I wanted to be a bit closer to home. Minneapolis was the closest big city to offer opportunities in my trade and so it worked out. It's the perfect size: It's got a thriving food scene, great chefs, and great food availability.
When you moved here, did you start teaching right away or did you spend some time cooking around town?
I was actually a chef at a restaurant called Bobino in Northeast. I was there for a few years and then the owner and I ended up opening a restaurant over in St. Louis Park. It was a huge restaurant, way bigger than I felt comfortable running, and it lasted for about two and a half years before we closed. That was really my foray into trouble shooting, management, and really understanding the depths of the operation. I learned more in that two years than in all of my years in school and all of my years of industry experience. After we closed that, I found myself in the position to do some consulting for a restaurant and I found out that I was really good at it, so that was sort of the start of my Mise en Place consulting business. It only made sense to augment my consulting by teaching and that's when I started teaching at the Art Institutes.
When was that and what kinds of classes do you generally teach at AI?
I've been teaching since 2007, so about seven, eight years and I teach everything from baking and pastries, American regional, to a lot of the academic classes -- finance, HR management, food service technology, global management, and food & beverage.
You've got a lot of experience in a lot of different facets of the service industry. Have you ever done the food competition thing before?
Oh yeah, I've probably done four or five competitions over the years. It's a lot of fun and I find that it sort of distills your talents down to their core essence. You really get to see what you've got when you've got one hour and a mystery basket to put together a dish. My first competition was a charity for Second Harvest Heartland and it was sort of a celebrity competition. There were three of us and one was former Minnesota Viking, Ezra Tuaolo, who's a big anti-bullying advocate and he's a really great guy and the other was one of the chefs from Bradstreet. The mystery basket that we had contained four things that you'd typically find at a food shelf; it had a package of spaghetti, a can of spam, a can of carrots, and a jar of Jiffy peanut butter. It was super fun and it really challenged your depth of culinary creativity.
We were talking to one of our other competitors a few weeks ago and he mentioned that if he got gummy bears, he might just quit on the spot. But when you take strange ingredients and put them in a context like that, do you think it can help to drive home a point or a message?
Oh yeah, and I think it can be fun to throw in a curve ball. I do competitions at the school and we do a BBQ competition every year and we also did a Top Chef-style competition this year. It's fun and it's enjoyable to watch. I like competing.
There are a lot of chefs who are sour about the idea of culinary competitions for a variety of reasons. Is there anything that you can think of to say that might help to change their perspective?
Well, you know, do I want to see Top Chef season 15? Probably not, and I think that it is everywhere and you get to the point where it's all going in so many different directions that it can be overplayed, just like anything. I think that locally, it's a good way to get chefs together in a different sort of arena and it's for a good cause. If you don't personally want to compete, that's one thing, but I also say that you should get out of your comfort zone and jump into the kitchen, open the mystery basket, and see what you've got.
Do you think your competition experience gives you a bit of a leg up against your competitors?
You know, maybe. Once it starts all you have is your experience to draw from, especially with a mystery basket because you really can't compare, which is one thing I like about it because it all comes down to what you have. You usually spend the first few minutes or so getting a lay of the land and getting an understanding of what's there. The next few minutes are spent putting together the components of your dish. I think there's something to having a familiarity of the situation, but you know what, and I've said this before, chefs typically, whether you have competition experience or not, this is what we do. Whether it's a competition or a typically Saturday night in your restaurant, there's going to be a curveball. There's always going to be a special, think-on-your-feet type of situation where you're going to have to create a dish -- whether it's to meet a special dietary need, maybe the vendor didn't show up with your lamb and you have to tweak your dish and change it, or your cook didn't show up, or your fryer went down. I mean, there's any number of curveballs that we get thrown on a daily basis and is that really much different than competing in a competition? Maybe, maybe not, but it's all about thinking on your feet.
Are there any of our competitors that you're particularly excited to compete against this year?
You know, really all of them. Nick [O'Leary] is awesome. I love his food and I love eating his food. Erick at Victory 44 is awesome. He's got a totally non-conformist style of cooking and those guys have a lot of new energy and modernist stuff going on. Honestly, I'm 46 years old and I'm not in the thick of it as far as some of those trends go. I'm more of a traditionalist. I grew up learning in more of the European fashion with more classical food, so there are definitely some differences there. You know, youth and energy are hard to compete against and honestly, it'll be an interesting competition. I think Don [Saunders] and I, I mean, I don't want to speak for him, but Don is a bit more of a traditionalist too and his food isn't as racy or modernist as some of those guys either, but I think there's a lot going on across the board and it'll be a lot of fun.
Are there any ingredients that you really don't want to see show up in your basket?
You know, I don't think that I can cook with Spam any more. You know, anything ethnic or any singular ingredient I think I can pretty much figure out. A lot of it is if you find that you've got a weird combination. You know, if you're presented something like thyme and kombu, or things that are very traditional in their own ethnicities that aren't requiring some fusion shit going on, but beyond that I can pretty much use any ingredient. Just don't give me Jiffy peanut butter and Spam.
Do you have any final fighting words or words of encouragement for your competitors?
You know, it's for a good cause, it's for hunger, so I say let's have fun. It's very subjective. Cooking is very emotional and subjective and it's really hard to put into a culinary competition. You know, the judges are going to have a hard time. At the end of the day, someone is going to come out ahead and we just need to have fun.
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