Al: Todd, what I would like you to do is talk to me
about how and why you got into the culinary arts.
I got into a vocational program in high school, which was very beneficial to me because it really opened my eyes to the professional cooking world. It also showed me much more than just what I was doing at Chaucer's Inn. It also got me hooked up with a Mike Luca who was just out of culinary school. He was reopening a hotel in Fort Wayne, the Holiday Inn, which had recently been totally renovated. This was right before I graduated from high school. Mike he took me under his wing, showed me all the ropes, and really took an interest in my development. I learned a lot from him. He had just come from Lake Placid where he was the chef at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. He cooked for the Organizing Committee-a pretty prestigious job. It was an exciting time for me. He showed me how competition worked and got me into my first one, which I won a gold medal for a nougat train.
From that point on, I absorbed everything I could about cooking and food. I didn't have the opportunity to go to culinary school; I couldn't afford it. I just continued working and fell into another good job with a really good person, Lois Rothert at a tiny French restaurant in Fort Wayne called du Jour. She taught me everything from the ground up. I started working in the cold station doing salads and appetizers, learning how to make pates, things like that. She had been trained in France. She was instrumental in me doing things the right way, the classical way. She really laid a good foundation for me in my future career.
Al: Why is it that we have a tendency to see chefs as males rather than females?
Todd: I think that's just one of those classic icons that have been pounded into everybody's head. In history, there have probably been more famous male chefs than female, and I'd say the percentage of male to female chefs over history has probably always been 80-20. Lady chefs just haven't been the dominant theme. I think that they have been there; they just haven't been as dominant as the male chefs or as visible.
Al: Is there a difference between our nations? Are
the French much more sexist and Americans more liberal?
Al: How do you account for that? When we think of food, England isn't the first country we think of.
Todd: I think she had a certain amount of mystique with the way that she spoke and with her experience overseas. She was down to earth and made fun of herself. She really helped to demystify cooking-especially French cooking. She made it do-able for the average person, and she had the ability to make people laugh and made cooking a lot less scary.
Al: Do you think that she also subconsciously reminded people of their grandmothers when they were growing up?
Todd: Oh, yes I'm sure there was some of that too. She had that motherly quality.
Al: What's it like for your wife to be married to a
chef? Does she cook very often?
Al: You talked at the beginning of the interview about creativity. In addition to the being right brain, how to do account for your cooking creativity? What else is behind your psychological need to create and cooking?
Todd: I think a lot of it does stem from the fact that I like to please people. I like to make people happy-to see the look on their faces when they have eaten a really good meal or hear them say nice things about something they have had that I have had a hand in. As far as being creative, I think there is just always this urge to do something once I encounter food. I start to think about what I can do with it. It's fun for me just to walk into the coolers to see what we have and then just start drumming up ideas. It just kind of starts happening. I guess that I have been doing it for so long that I'm used to just automatically thinking about it.
Al: If you hadn't been a chef, what do you think you
would have done?
Todd: The most direct route is to go to school and get a degree in culinary arts with further on the job training. Then the most effective way is to pursue some sort of on the job experience, preferably starting out at the lowest level and working their way up. The best way to get a handle on all the jobs that are in your kitchen and really know and understand what your employees go thru, what they need to do to do the job correctly. It gives you a good perspective on the whole operation and how to run it. There's a certified body called the American Culinary Federation, which is the largest organization of cooks and chefs in the U.S. It certifies culinary arts practitioners all the way up from cook to master chef. There is a series of things that you need to accomplish in each area to gain certification for each level. I'm certified as an executive chef which is the second highest level under master chef and to get that I had to have five years experience as an executive chef and then pass a test that covers all areas of cooking from food costs and labor and supervision, sanitation, and cooking.
Al: Do you have a list of places where you would like to go to further you education?
I think if I go back again any time soon, I would like to go back to Italy and see more of that country, because I really liked it. I spent several days on the coast down by Portofino, and it was incredible. I didn't get to eat enough stuff!!
Al: When you are traveling, can you eat something and
replicate a recipe by merely tasting it?
Al: Would you go back in the kitchen and talk to the chef at a restaurant that you were visiting?
Todd: Well, I have done that a couple of times. However, I'm very big about not letting people know that I'm a chef. I don't want any special attention; I just want to enjoy my meal and my company. Therefore, I don't unless it is something that is just really, really incredible, or I can't figure it out. Then I think I need to go talk to the chef and compliment them. I'm also afraid that it might seem that I am throwing my weight around and acting bigheaded. I don't really want to come off that way. However, it is interesting talking to chefs in other countries, because there is this instant bond that we have. Food is the common language that we all understand-barriers come down immediately.
Al: A couple weeks ago, I observed you doing a training
session for some Russian chefs that was put on by
National Pork Producers Council. It was obvious that creativity and culinary
interests broke down all sorts of barriers.
Working with the Pork Council, they asked us to identify three major food trends in 2000 and beyond. I listed them as an influx of Latin flavors, everything Australian, and reinterpreted "comfort food" (an updated version of classical comfort home-based recipes). I really think the whole Latin influence is a very strong thing. This is largely due to travel. We vacation there now much more frequently than we ever did. Also, the huge influx of the Hispanic population to this country. We have more Hispanics here now that work in the kitchen. These guys are going to start becoming chefs and running kitchens. They are going to start cooking recipes from their homeland. Their food is very visually exciting, orally stimulating to the mouth with very lively flavors from chilies and spices. I think the American palate is ready for it, and very much craving it. We witnessed the popularity of hot sauces and things like that the last few years; it's really become a craze.
Australia is really an enigma to me. Thinking about identifying these trends, I started looking through my book collection of over 2000 cookbooks, and I had only one book that had anything at all to say about Australia. However, there is really a culinary revolution going on down there with very young, forward thinking, creative chefs that are really doing some phenomenal things with flavor because of the influences of Thailand, India, and Asian Pacific areas. They are building their own cuisine down there based on all these different influences; it is very exciting They have some indigenous ingredients that we don't see here-different kinds of berries, fruits, and vegetables. I would like to go there to experience it all.
Al: My impression of Australian cooking is BBQ, and beyond that it is just kind of voided in my mind. However, you make me think about whether you could generalize about a country by their food. Can you make understand a society by what it eats?
Todd: I think to some extent you can. You know, the French people eat pretty wild things, they eat very daring kinds of foods to most Americans' minds, and that shows in their lifestyle. They have bravado in their lifestyle and attitude. You look at England, and their food is very stodgy, very basic, and that kind of fits with the British persona of a mild-mannered and quiet. The same thing with Germany. You look at German food, and it is very straightforward, common, and very peasant like hearty food, and that's pretty much descriptive of the German character. It's interesting, the more you look at it.
Al: You were talking about the three trends of 2000
and beyond, I thought about the three trends in food nutritional values:
calories, fats, and carbohydrates. How has our interest in health and diets
impacted your business? Do people that come to a fine restaurant like Park
Avenue Café care about those issues or are they here to celebrate?
Al: Todd, are there general rules or models that all dishes should possess?
The same thing is true with entrées. I like to have something firm, crisp, soft, and tender. For example, you could have a soft component like mashed potatoes, a firm component like a meat item and something crispy like a chip or a fried item of some kind just to lend balance to the whole plate. I think that the crisp texture is very important and is something that I learned indirectly from David Burke, the chef, who is my boss now. He started that whole craze in the U.S. with crisp, texture, and crunch components on hot food and most dishes. It is something they have been doing in France and in Europe for a long time. It wakes up the mouth a little bit. As you are eating, all of a sudden, you get something that is crisp and crunchy, and it's like oooooooooo. That's a different texture as you are eating something. If you are not constantly stimulated, it becomes old and flat. It is something to think about when you are building dishes.
Al: What about my favorite entrée...desserts?
I think wine contributes a lot also from a communal standpoint, from a celebratory and heartwarming standpoint. Wine brings "a warm fire to the table." It brings a communal aspect to eating. It lends a lot to the meal-just having it on the table. I try to bring character, a lot of sharing and love. For me, there's also a lot of love in a bottle of wine...somebody has worked really hard to make that wine what it is-from the people who planted and tended the grapevines through harvesting, mixing, and aging it. There is just a lot that goes into it. I think it shows when you have a nice glass of wine at the table with a good meal, it all just comes together. You've got the love on the plate and the love in the glass.
Al: Can you give me a day in the life of a chef?
After this interview, you are going to start your day. What's the day look
I know that when I start today I am going to have three lunch parties going on, a couple of all day meetings that have lunches involved, probably 30-50 people. Downstairs my dining room will just be gearing up for lunch. We will probably do another 80-100 people for lunch. The weather being like it is today, the patio will be open. Just the patio being open attracts people, so it will be busy. I will be getting ready for the evening shift upstairs in the dining room. Both of my chefs are going to a baseball game tonight, so I'm watching both restaurants. It's constantly something like that.
Al: I watched you demonstrate your culinary art with
the Russians several weeks ago. I was struck by the chaos in the kitchen, at
least it seemed like chaos from an outsider's point of view. When I am cooking
at home, I want everybody out. I don't want anybody around me; I don't want any
distractions. However, you just seem to thrive on it.
Al: Do you ever do recipes over and over again and
you just think if I have to make this again that you are going to scream?
Al: You have talked about comfort food several times
in this interview, and that's a term my wife and I use a lot. What's your spin
of the derivation of that term and what does it mean to you?
Al: It's related to the feelings you had when you were a child with food or is there something indigenous to those types of food?
Todd: I think it's just the characteristics-the simplicity and basic-ness of it. Comfort food is something with which you are very familiar.
Al: So, in twenty years from now will a Big Mac be comfort food?
Todd: Probably will be.... Isn't that scary?!!
Al: Another thing that I want to talk about are your dreams that are still on the horizon. What are some of your personal or professional goals that you haven't realized yet?
Todd: I have some tumbling around in my mind; I'm still kind of polishing them. Definitely, probably for better or worse, I would like to have my own place-a small place. Ideally, it would be somewhere on the coast, maybe California. I want to be somewhere like that where I have access to the fresh food, seafood, and produce. I would like to be in a situation where I am growing some of my own food. I like to garden and tend the earth and grow things. That's something that I haven't done for awhile. I also would like to do something with TV or possibly attain master chef status. For a long time, it was a driving force to get a gold medal in Germany, which I did in October 2000. Now that I 've done that, I need to move on to the next goal.
Al: You mentioned television. Do you want your own show? What's the draw?
Al: Would you do some one-liners on some famous chefs?
Todd: I have met most of them, so I definitely have an insight into them.
Al: What's Graham Kerr's strength?
Todd: Approachability. I think that he also has a little bit of intrigue. He's got a bit of the European mystique about him. He also de-mystified food to a large extent the way Julia Child did. He is also able to make fun of himself and makes fun of cooking in general. He has made cooking in reach of most people. I really respect his ability to make things taste good and what he has done for the profession.
Al: Paul Prudhomme?
Todd: He is the master of flavor. He has one of the most developed and sensitive palates in the world. He is a master of blending flavors and got all those spice blends that are just incredible. He's kind of an idol to some extent because he went from very humble means from a very large family down in the bayou country of New Orleans to being a multi-millionaire. He was totally self-made. Aside from all of that, I have had the opportunity to spend some time with him and have gotten some advice from him about marketing products. I have products that I would like to put on the market, and he was perfectly fine with spending time with me. He is a very busy guy. I got some very good insight and good information from him.
Al: What kind of marketing things are you thinking
Todd has now started his own restaurant consulting company, FSInsights and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 219.928.1640.
Todd and some of his friends.