Interview with Chef Christopher Van Ness
I met Chef Chris at a group cooking class at Carmines Creole, a New Orleans-styled restaurant in Bryn Mawr, PA. I asked Chris many questions during the class and now stop in often to ask more questions.
Chris is a chef who loves teaching and has an expansive knowledge of cooking techniques and food. Ask him how to boil water and be prepared to learn more about boiling water than you ever dreamed about.
Here's my interview with Chef Christopher Van Ness of Carmines Creole Restaurant:
Chef, When did you realize you wanted to be a professional chef?
When I was 5 years old, I cooked eggs with my grandma. She would have me go and look for my grandpa and sprinkle black pepper on them. I would come back and she would say, "Don’t tell, but I dropped his eggs." I would tell him and it was funny every time.
Who inspired you most as a young cook & what did you learn from them?
My grandmother. She taught me to work clean. Grandmas cook all day and you would never know it because there never is any mess.
How did you decide to go to the New York Restaurant School?
My mother! She was very tired of me working in fast food restaurants and told me to get off her sofa and get my degree.
What were the most important criteria for choosing the New York Restaurant School? (Location, reputation, cost, faculty, etc)
What do you remember most about culinary school?
I was already more advanced than the other student so most of my time in school I would cook dinner for my professor and go home.
What were you looking for in a culinary arts school?
I did not invest much time in school. Cooking can’t be learned from a book. For example, if you’re working at a restaurant with specials from your purveyors, buy them. I never saw a kangaroo but I got it at a good price and taught myself how to use it.
What advice would you give a high school student interested in going to culinary school?
See if there is anything else you can do!
When you realize you want to be a chef, you must know many things are over i.e. birthdays, holidays family. I thought in high school, "Who cares I don’t want a family now. " I have one now and trying to figure out how to run a restaurant and play with my kids, not having charisma and pretending that charisma eve is when Santa comes.
What was culinary school like? Hours, instructors, classmates, workload, etc.
Frustrating! I knew my mother sauces, and I knew how to de-bone a chicken but I needed my degree to start building the respect that comes with it.
What are the top 3 or 4 traits someone should have to succeed as a chef?
The drive, competitive, PASSION, on my block there are 8 other places to eat so I need the drive and competitive nature to (16 hours a day 6 days a week) want to be the best on the block.
Can you recall a funny culinary student story and share it with us?
I am not a baker but I dream about deserts a lot and try to make them the next day so I like it (baking) but in school, we were doing cakes and were using food coloring and it was supposed to be one dot for light purple and I put 12 dots. My teacher went to every classroom got every teacher and most of them brought all their students to see the most purple “Barney” cake.
You are now an executive chef at Carmine's Creole here on the Main Line. Can you describe to my readers what a Day in the life of Chef Van Ness is like?
Hours prep, managing staff, creating menus, working the line, ordering for the next day, etc. Juggling act!
I have had this interview for 3 months, doing 2 questions a day. I have many projects halfway done. I am fortunate to have brought strong line cooks and a great sous chef (Kenny Wong) from past restaurants to free me up to leave the line to get my orders done. I have it where for example Wednesday's order is done a week ahead of time.
As for managing, I took this kitchen over from someone who would make someone cry every shift so I realized that is no way to get people to work hard for you. Restaurants are family. It has to be a love nest where employees may have problems outside of their jobs but when they come in for work, there is no more stress. They walk in and my kitchen is clean. My people are dressed in clean chef gear and no one is yelling. They come in and do the same in the front of the house.
How do you come up with your daily specials?
Most of the time it is a dream from the night before. The rest of the time it was something I never worked with. One time I brought you to the seafood store, I have cooked soft-shell crabs before but I did not know their history so every day I go to the store for my seafood I ask the fishmonger about their product. They teach me how to clean them and how long they are in season..
I have taken a group cooking class with you and learned a lot but I would like to know what you would say to a new home cook to help them get over their fear of cooking.
Never be scared; you can fix anything (man-made problems = man-made solutions)
You are making tacos and it is the worst taco. Add tomatoes and cream and you now have the best enchiladas.
Many home cooks tell me they are in a cooking rut and tend to prepare the same 5 or 6 recipes weekly even though they read about new ideas in cooking magazines and cookbooks. It may be because they are comfortable with making these same dishes over and over but why do you think they are "stuck in this rut" and what can they do to get out of it.
Cause they are tired, they work all day and the last thing they want to do is cook. It's hot and you have to stand and think who needs that, but if they throw away the cookbook and open the cabinet and there’s pineapple juice and some chicken in the refrigerator and a onion, you have dinner. You know what flavor you want and that's not in a book.
What are your 5 favorite cookbooks and why?
I don’t really like cookbooks. They are mostly outlines. Alfredo sauce is cream and cheese but what if I love oregano and you don’t. I can’t tell you to put it in.
What is your signature dish or favorite recipe?
Chilean sea bass ginger basil rice and mango curry sauce. It looks great and tastes better.
Where do you see yourself as a chef 5 years from now?
I see myself rising to the top, leaving something behind for my son a name and rep so I did not miss him and my daughter grow up without me for nothing.
Thank you so much for participating and I hope you enjoyed the interview.
Thanks, RG, for the opportunity to do this.