By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
North One 10 is considered among Miami's prime venues for contemporary American cuisine, so Johnson & Wales student Andrew D'ambrosi volunteered to help out there "whenever I had free time" to learn a thing or two from the veteran LoSasso. D'ambrosi graduated J&W in May of last year and hadn't worked in restaurants prior to acceptance, "so as soon as I arrived at the school," he says, "it was my concern to try to get a job in the field." He found one with China Grill and worked there throughout his schooling. "I started at the very bottom, making $8.50 an hour. I was the dessert plater, because they didn't know if I could do anything with food. I didn't even touch the food. By the time my two-year tenure was done, I was at $11.50."
If he hadn't worked in a restaurant while attending classes, D'ambrosi contends he "would have gotten out of school in a little bit of a pickle." Indeed his time at North One 10 paid off in more than one way: When Schwartz was looking for a sous chef at the cutting-edge South Beach restaurant Afterglo, LoSasso told D'ambrosi to give Schwartz a call. He interviewed, got the job, and has been at Afterglo since it opened six months ago.
D'ambrosi landed a plum position relatively quickly, but Juliana Gonzalez's ascent has been downright dizzying. She graduated Johnson & Wales in 2002 and, like Andrew, had no food experience before entering the university. If Gonzalez had to do it over again, "I'd work first in a restaurant and then go to school. As a student, you have no idea of the speed and endurance that is going to be needed in the kitchen." Her initial job was at La Broche "as the tournet [roundsperson], doing a little bit of everything." When the brash Spanish restaurant closed, Gonzalez moved to Norman Van Aken's Mundo, and when that venture shuttered, she moseyed over to Mosaico as sous chef under Jordi Valls. Now, less than four years removed from putting on her houndstooth pants for the first time, Juliana is executive chef at one of the city's prize dining establishments.
Such exceptions notwithstanding, the climb upward, as we've duly noted, is slow and arduous. But for all the tribulations, kitchen work can also deliver a nightly dose of intoxicating, pressure-cooked, adrenaline-fueled fun assuming you're employed in a large, bustling establishment. There is likewise a quiet, life-affirming gratification in the very act of feeding others, more often than not manifested in smaller, chef-driven operations. Michelle Bernstein is due to open such a restaurant, Michy's, this month.
If you take a pinch of Johnson & Wales students past and present, and a dash of chefs who've either graduated from the school or have had experience working with grads, you end up with a stockpot of opinions as to how things might be improved. Every chef we spoke with was supportive of the school and believes it's a boon both to the community and the food industry. Plus, as Andriola points out, "I love having a pool of workers to draw from less than five miles away from my restaurant. As long as you have the time and patience to weed through the bad, there are plenty of diamonds in the rough. My right hand at Timo, Frederica Schael, is one hell of a cook who definitely learned her lessons there."
Others cite similarly mixed results with interns and grads. LoSasso puts the ratio at "70 percent great, 30 percent not so great." Says Schwartz: "The range is so wide. Some are amazing; a few are so horrible that you wonder what the hell is going on over there." Jonathan Eismann, too, has had "fantastic workers" as well as "some who talk a good game, know all about foams and things like that and they've got a complete understanding of the Food Network schedule but they can't make rice."
The most common gripe concerns the school's admissions policy. D'ambrosi tells of the euphoric moment he walked into the university office and learned he was accepted. "I began jumping up and down. The lady looked at me like I was a maniac. She said, öAlmost everybody gets accepted. You have the money, you fill out the paperwork, you're in.' I didn't know that. I said oh, and sat back down."
LoSasso says that when he attended the CIA, "I had to interview and show hours of work. I've heard it's gotten lax up there, and I know it's definitely lax at Johnson & Wales." D'ambrosi remarks, "They're letting too many people in that you just know don't belong there," meaning those who lack prior culinary background, experience, and knowledge. This, in turn, can dull the learning curve of others in the class, which doesn't sit well with those who applied to the school seeking a more enlightened education.
Donald "Mac" McGregor, J&W's Florida campus president, dismisses the notion of an open admissions policy. "It's not like you apply and get accepted. We require a high school diploma, and while SATs and ACTs are not required, they are strongly advised, because we use them for the basis of awarding academic merit scholarships." Prior food service experience isn't a requirement either, but McGregor believes that those without intense interest in the business wouldn't have reason to aspire to culinary school: "I'd be surprised if 99 percent of our students don't come in with some sort of background in food service."