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MODESTO — Passion, commitment and hard work. These are the ingredients necessary for success in the culinary industry, say local professional chefs. Those whose aspirations are driven primarily by money or fame won’t last long in the business.
“You can make anywhere from minimum wage to millions of dollars, but you have to love it or there’s no way you’re going to make it. You can’t think of it as a job or career. It’s like a relationship you have with food, service and feeding people and taking pride in it,” said Michael Midgley, chef and owner of Midgley’s Public House, a pub and steakhouse that opened in Stockton’s Lincoln Center last November.
The journey to becoming a professional chef varies. Some prospects attend culinary institutes, spending up to two years learning the essentials of kitchen safety, health and sanitation, food preparation and restaurant business basics. Others work their way up from the lowest paid kitchen jobs in fast food establishments and dine-in restaurants.
Regardless of the path taken, one key characteristic shared among area chefs is an intimacy with food that has compelled them to spend countless hours in the kitchen creating cuisine for the satisfaction of others.
Vincent DeAngelo is the owner and head chef of Bella Bistro and Bar in Merced. He attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York after working in restaurants during his teens. The two-year program gave him intensive training and work experience that enabled him to start work at New York City’s Rainbow Room when he graduated. After working a couple of years in New York, DeAngelo decided he wanted to own his own place. So, he headed west where he opened a bakery and cafe.
He credits his own success to dedication to the craft and a willingness to work hard.
“You have to have a lot of passion to be a chef. That’s the No. 1 thing you need is passion and strong work ethic. Otherwise you’re in the wrong business,” DeAngelo said.
He obtained an Associate of Occupational Studies degree, but DeAngelo believes it is definitely possible to become a chef without attending school if a candidate is dedicated and not afraid to work.
“Some people have a natural instinct for cooking. You can get underneath a couple of ‘A’ chefs and work your way up,” he said. “If you get in a good establishment, a good restaurant or a hotel, a lot of times they will have a program and you can start at the bottom and work your way up.”
That was the direction Leroy Walker chose. Walker has been the executive chef at Turlock’s Bistro 234 for 15 years.
“I never went to school. I just worked my way through the ranks. I started out dishwashing at the age of 14. I started catering, took a couple of small jobs in odd kitchens, different restaurants. I just worked my way through the system,” Walker said.
A Turlock native, Walker spent his entire career in the Central Valley and built his reputation though long stints at each establishment he worked at along the way.
“I didn’t jump around from restaurant to restaurant,” he said. “I built a consistency with my name and the product that I served.”
While he believes education is always a positive ingredient, all the great chefs he’s hired for his kitchen started without schooling.
“They start out as a dishwasher. They learn how to chop and prep the way I want it done. After six months of dishwashing, they work into the salad area, and after the salad area they work in the broiler area, and after the broiler area they work in the stove area,” Walker said.
Michael Midgley combined early work experience with a formal education and enjoyed a bit of fame along the way. He competed on the second season of Bravo’s Top Chef, a reality television show where chefs compete and are judged by a panel of professional chefs. Midgley survived through eight of 12 rounds but was voted out on the program’s ninth episode.
Even with some national notoriety, Midgley agrees that putting in your dues is a reality of working in the industry.
“If you go to culinary school, you still have to work your way up. What I look for in a kitchen staff is just someone that wants to come in and do things my way. I don’t care where they’ve been. What I look for is people with kitchen knowledge, how to behave in a kitchen, that have good habits and have kitchen common sense,” he said.
For these chefs, the ultimate payoff for the long hours of work in the classroom, the kitchen or both is serving the customer.
“Once you finish that plate of food, put it up in the window and you actually go out there and it’s an emotional thing to see people enjoy your food. And they’re smiling and they’re taking pictures of it,” said Midgley.