I met Chef JoAnna on ChefsLine, a cooking hotline my friend Jennifer Beisser created. We talked for a while and I knew I wanted to interview her on Novice2Pro and I’m so glad I did. This is one of the most informative interviews to date and anyone thinking of going to culinary arts school or becoming a personal chef should read it.
JoAnna started out as Human Resources manager but decided she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a chef at age 32. (It’s not too late for those of us who are looking for a new career.) She attended The Art Institute of Los Angeles, now called The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California – Los Angeles and maintained a 4.0 GPA.
JoAnna then created her own in-home catering and personal chef business called “Chef JoAnna” and is preparing incredible meals to the “rich and famous” and not so “rich and famous” in the Los Angeles area. You can read her many Estonia at Chef JoAnna Compliments.
There is so much more I want to learn from Chef JoAnna and I’m hoping she will contribute more to the Reluctant Gourmet in the future by means of Ask A Chef and guest writings. She is a wealth of information and a chef with a sense of humor. What more can you ask for. Thanks JoAnna for this interview and don’t forget to visit her web site at Chef JoAnna.
Interview with Professional & Personal Chef to the Stars JoAnna Minneci
You left a career in Human Resources to go to Culinary School. When did you realize you wanted to become a professional chef?
I’d kind of reached a point in my Human Resources career where I decided that I didn’t want to be the bad guy anymore. I mean, when does anyone go to HR with great news instead of a complaint, right? So I sat myself down and, even though it sounds kind of cliché, asked myself what I’d want to do for the rest of my life. I love to cook, and I love to feed people, so it was a no-brainer.
How difficult was it to leave a secure job to start a new career in the culinary world?
When I was at that turning point, I’d been working as an independent Human Resources consultant, so while I was working steadily, there wasn’t exactly a sense of security. Also I do have to say that my husband was very supportive; emotionally and spiritually, of course, but also financially.
If you don’t mind my asking, how old were you when you made the career move?
32. There were people in my culinary school class that were even older than me.
What would you tell someone thinking of leaving a career to pursue a new career in the food industry?
There are so many aspects of the food industry that it’s hard to answer that completely, but if someone was trying to become a personal chef, I’d say “Do your homework!” You need to know what’s going on in your locale, and if you have a population who can support you and everyone else who’s trying to be a personal chef.
Was there one thing that helped you decide to change careers?
Yes, in fact… I bought a culinary-school textbook, On Cooking. I went through it cover-to-cover, telling myself if I got through that book and still wanted to cook I was on the right track. My nose was in that thing constantly. If it wasn’t 3″ thick, I’d have carried it with me everywhere.
How did you decide to go to the Culinary Arts at the Art Institute of California at Los Angeles?
It was about 15 minutes from my house! A mile and a half and only 8 speed bumps made the decision pretty easy.
What was the most important criteria for choosing the Art Institute? (location, reputation, cost, faculty, etc)
If AICLA wasn’t as close, I probably would have taken a lot more into consideration. I got good grades in college when I went for my first degree, and they were willing to apply those credits to the degree I’d get at AICLA, plus I got a couple honor grants.
Did you compare it to other schools?
Not really, I had heard that the Le Cordon Bleu program was only a certificate and not a degree program, so that was certainly a factor, but that was about it.
What were you looking for in a culinary arts school?
I already felt like I was a pretty good cook, so I wanted to hone my skills and see if I could make a living doing something I really enjoyed.
What advice would you give a high school student interested in going to culinary school?
Cook everything, whenever you get a chance. Eat everything, and keep notes. Keep your eyes open and know that everything you do, whether you get paid for it or not, is experience, and that’s priceless. Some of my best lessons in this field have been when I was volunteering.
Is that the same advice you would give an adult starting a second career?
If not, what would be different?
(laughs) I’d also admonish the adult to remember that they don’t know it all.
What was culinary school like? Hours, instructors, classmates, workload, etc.
My school had varying schedules. Number 1 was from 7am to noon Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and number 2 was 1pm to 7pm. Then for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they had another set of classes from 7am to noon. I had the flexibility to choose my classes, so I chose based on the instructors.
I can’t stress enough how important that is. Your rapport with your instructor makes a big difference in what you learn. My classmates ranged from straight out of high school to 49 years old. We had to work in teams a lot, and I really learned a lot about teamwork and how to get along with difficult people.
As far as workload, there were some papers we had to write, and projects we had to do, but showing up for class and paying attention was the biggest part of school. It’s what I did beyond school, the volunteering and the side-work, that I feel had a big impact.
What are the top 3 or 4 traits someone should have to succeed as a chef?
I think that the traits to succeed as a chef are the same as the traits you’d need to succeed doing anything. Let me put that in context. You need passion: You have to love what you do if it’s making you stand for 10 hours at a time in a hot kitchen, getting burned & cut & whatever, with the responsibility of feeding people.
You need to be honest: When something doesn’t go as planned, you need to make it right, and sometimes making it right means confessing that something burned or the sink broke or some other thing goes wrong. and for Pete’s sake, don’t try to pass off cheap ingredients as good stuff.
You also need a thick skin: Taste is subjective, and one person’s favorite is another person’s most despised food!
Also, compliments are great when you get them, but when you’re expecting one and you don’t get it, it’s just awful.
Finally, I think you need to be a self-motivated person: No pun intended, but you have to be hungry for more work all the time. You have to set goals for yourself, and then work to reach them. If you aren’t working to be the best, what the hell are you doing?
Can you recall a funny culinary student story and share it with us?
Oh sure! How about something self-incriminating!?
One time I volunteered to make cupcakes for the Santa Monica bus’s 75th anniversary. I made these two gigantic sheet cakes, and I had to make something like 500 cupcakes. I spent one evening measuring out all the ingredients and set them aside for the next day, when I’d do the baking.
So I’m going crazy baking, 24 cupcakes in a pan, 6 pans at a time, in this huge deck oven, cranking along, and suddenly, one batch comes out flat. I called over a Chef-Instructor from the next room teaching a class, and he takes one look at them and says, “You forgot the sugar. Didn’t you taste the batter?”
Well, no, of course not, who tastes raw cake batter? So he helped me adjust the sugar, until the batter tasted right. I ate a LOT of raw cake batter that day! So, what did I learn from that? first, I learned that you have to taste and check everything you cook, at every stage.
Second, I realized that by asking the chef for help, I didn’t waste the cake batter that could be fixed, and all the time I’d have spent trying to figure out the mistake on my own. (Thanks again, Chef Juez!)
Finally, I learned that one day if I got the hang of this, I could see someone’s mistake and be able to show them how to fix it.
You now have your own Personal Chef & Catering business in LA. How did you decide to go off on your own?
When I was in school, I’d been working part-time for many of the medium-to-large sized catering companies in Los Angeles. I learned a lot about how they put stuff together, how they planned and inventoried, how they prepped stuff. This wasn’t stuff I learned in my culinary school classes; to be sure, a lot of what I learned was from watching others’ mistakes, too.
Once, with one of the smaller companies, we did a reception for Senator Hillary Clinton at the gorgeous home of a rather famous director/actress in Brentwood (a part of Los Angeles with very expensive real estate). It was so great to see this lovely little party put on in a private home, in the living room and spilling out into the garden. The chef for the event was kind of whining because it was such a small party, but I thought it was perfect.. I knew that there was a market for small catered parties at home, so that has become the focus of my business.
What was your first job and can you tell us a little about your experience?
I did a party making tray-passed appetizers for 35 guests at this house party in the Hollywood Hills. The guy made a lot of dot-com money, and had this amazing house with a great view, but this dinky little galley kitchen. He had this tiny little oven, too, a regular sheet pan wouldn’t fit in it!
Also, I was nervous I’d forget something so brought everything I could think of. I practically moved in! So that combination wasn’t a good scene. Matthew was awesome and let me run the show, and it was the best feeling ever. Not only that he trusted me, but also that I could pull it off and everyone was enjoying my food.
Did you start your business right out of culinary school or did you spend some time in restaurants?
I started it while I was still in school, actually. Once or twice I even skipped classes so that I could work. it was a bad choice, now that I think about it, because I was paying to go to school, but I was really eager to get my business off the ground. It was cool to be able to recruit my classmates, too.
I started as a DBA and then made the big step to incorporate. It’s not only important to set the business up properly, I also think it makes an impression when I say my company’s name is “Chef JoAnna, Inc.”
It’s been my opinion that many families with dual incomes could benefit from working with a Personal Chef. Can you tell my readers what you do as a Personal Chef and the benefits of working with someone like yourself?
I used to do more of the “expected” Personal Chef thing where a chef comes to your house and cooks you a week’s worth of food, but I have taken my business on a different path now. It really was great for families, though, because everyone could just come in, wash up, and sit down to dinner.
The way I did it for my clients was that I cooked all the food for the week in one night, but I actually served them the night I cooked. Then, while I was cleaning up, they would enjoy some family time. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the only night during the week some families spent all together.
If you would like to share a story about working with one of your famous clients, please do. If you don’t think it appropriate, that’s ok too.
Ha! Oh, the dirt I could dish! I won’t, of course, but I’ll share a couple cute anecdotes: I was making a romantic dinner-for-two for Rosalyn Sanchez and Eric Winter. This was way before they got engaged. She was all nervous about everything being perfect, running around her house making sure everything was just right. She’s this huge international celebrity, and she’s swiffering the hallway an hour before her guest was to arrive.
Another time, I did a seated dinner for 10 at the home of Julie Bowen. She wanted to do something “fun” for a birthday party, so I suggested that I could bake cupcakes and bring frosting, and everyone could decorate their own cupcake. The do-it-yourself decorating was a big success, and some of the frosting even ended up on the cupcakes!
Back to cooking…What would you say to a new home cook to help them get over their fear of cooking?
Don’t be intimidated by pictures. Think of it like this: a model has professionals to do her makeup, and then someone goes in and airbrushes the photo. Food stylists do the same thing to the food in pictures.
Unless you’re going to pin your lettuce leaves to cardboard, arrange the radish slices on one-by-one with tweezers and mist the whole thing with glycerin, don’t expect your food to look like the glossy photos in the cookbooks! Just find a recipe, follow the steps, and don’t get too creative with the ingredients or cheat the instructions.
A lot of home cooks tell me they are in a cooking rut and tend to prepare the same 5 or 6 recipes, week after week even though they read about new ideas in cooking magazines and cookbooks. Why do you think they are “stuck in a rut” and what can they do to get out of it.
I think it’s simply that they are comfortable with making those same dishes over and over. If you have a picky eater at the table it makes things even more complicated. Two thoughts pop into my mind to mix it up a little:
One, trade out the starch. If you’re used to serving something with pasta, try serving it with rice. If you’re used to baked potatoes, try making oven-fries instead.
Another is to plan to incorporate one new thing a week. It doesn’t have to be a whole new dish, but maybe add some different greens to a salad, or change the kind of beans you use in a chili. The best way to get out of a rut is to plan your meals in advance. I have a cheat-sheet that I use, you can find it on my web site.
What 3 – 4 cooking mistakes do you see home cooks making and what can they do to stop making those mistakes?
The first two things are don’t overcook and don’t undercook. Learn what “done” is for the thing you’re cooking and take your food all the way there, but no further. Another thing would be to keep the flavors of your foods true. Don’t use spices and sauces to mask what you’re cooking, only to complement the main ingredient.
Finally, more of a good thing is not necessarily good. If a recipe calls for 1/2 a cup of wine, measure it, and use only 1/2 a cup. If you add too much, the final dish won’t have the right consistency.
If you could give a home cook just 3 pieces of advice, what would they be?
Invest in your tools, buy food that’s in season, and don’t be afraid to experiment! Oh – and buy an oven thermometer!
How many cookbooks do you own? What are your 5 favorite cookbooks and why?
Yikes, I’ve got over a hundred… Only five? Gosh, ok, here goes:
- Craig Claiborne New York Times Cookbook. It’s all the classics, written with clear, easy to follow methods.
- Healthiest Food In The World. Not only the best photos, but a wide assortment of international cuisines. I make a lot of stuff from that one.
- Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book: This is the one with recipes like what my mom made for me when I was growing up. In fact, it was given to me as a wedding shower gift from my mother in law.
- American Regional Cuisine. This one has recipes for stuff my mom never made, but what you’d still consider “American food”. I use this one quite often.
- Small Batch Baking. If you only need to make two servings of cake, then you can make two tiny cakes. This book is brilliant and the recipes turn out great.
If you were helping outfit a new kitchen for one of your clients, what basic pieces of equipment would you recommend they purchase?
First of all, for your utensils and such, select stainless steel or silicone, except your knives which should be carbon steel. I also love Pyrex. Also, these suggestions are exactly the things I use:
Cutlery: You need a 10″ forged chef knife, 10″ forged bread knife, 3″ forged paring knife. Those three will take you very far.
Pots & Pans: I recommend a 12″ skillet in anodized steel, plus pots, with lids and oven-safe handles, in 1qt, 2.5 qt, and 8 qt. sizes, in anodized steel. Also, an 8″ nonstick skillet is essential for omelets and crêpes.
Small Appliances: It’s nice to have a food processor, choose one that can hold about 4 cups. I also suggest an immersion blender for soups, and a hand-mixer for cake batters and stuff. I’m actually a fan of those bullet blenders, too! They rock!
Gadgets & Other: These are things I couldn’t live without: julienne peeler, silicone spatula, flat whisk, microplane, Parisienne scoop (melon baller), piano whisk, an instant-read thermometer, and LOTS of chopsticks!
What is your signature dish or favorite recipe? Can you share it with us?
There’s this potato thing I’ve been making, it’s a lot of steps, but it’s really pretty simple. you cut the potatoes into tournée, then you boil them, then you dry them, then you bake them with thyme and butter. I don’t have a name for it, I’ve just been calling them “Those Awesome Potatoes”. I should come up with something in French. Since they take so long to make, maybe something like like “Pommes Toute la Journée”.
(laughs) “All Day Potatoes”. I majored in French in college, and it’s become infinitely useful when writing menus. You can say just about anything for food in French and it sounds better!
Thanks again so much for this interview.
Absolutely my pleasure! And thank you, Gary, for letting me share!