Focus on learning the skills and techniques behind cooking…not just following recipes. - Chef Dawn Thomas
With all the crazy cooking shows featuring celebrity chefs screaming and yelling at everyone, it's great to hear Chef Dawn Thomas's calming voice and watch her gifted hands as she teaches home cooks like myself the techniques of preparing great food at Rouxbe.
Dawn is co-founder of Rouxbe along with Joe Girard. They previously co-owned and operated a successful film catering company, Freaky Beats & Eats, that you'll read about in the interview.
With over 15 years of experience in the culinary field, she now leads the productions team at Rouxbe. Like the Reluctant Gourmet, Dawn is more interested in helping people learn how to cook than making herself famous. This is evident in all Rouxbe cooking videos where she is the featured chef and does the voiceovers. All you see are her skilled hands while listening to her hypnotic voice.
Interview with Dawn Thomas
Thank you Dawn for participating in the Reluctant Gourmet's Novice2Pro interview. I always like to ask how and when you decided to go to culinary school?
I decided to go to culinary school in my mid 20’s. My love for food began when I realized how food truly brought people together. I love to help create and share experiences with great people and food is one of the best ways to do that. Almost every great memory I have has revolved around food in some way or another.
How did you decide to go to culinary school at the Pacific Culinary Institute in Vancouver?
At the time it seemed to be the best school. I did enjoy my experience there and did learn a lot. But I think if Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver had been around at the time, I would have gone there instead. I say this because Tony and Christopher (the two founders and chef instructors) along with the other teachers there are amazing in every sense of the word. Of course, if I had of gone there my life may have taken a different turn, so I have no regrets.
What were the most important factors in your decision? - Location, Reputation, Cost or other factors
It was mostly based on what I got from their brochures and my in-person visit. At the time there was not the luxury of “googling” things. So for me I weighed my options and just went for it.
What would you tell someone today thinking about attending culinary school to consider before making this important decision in their life?
You have to really want it. You should know what you are truly getting into…working weekends, holidays, long hours, not always good pay (in fact, most often not)…I could go on…but basically, becoming a cook is hard. It takes a lot of commitment, drive and most of all passion. And being just a little bit crazy also helps.
Can you think back and tell us about some of your favorite experiences were at Pacific Culinary Institute?
I had many good experiences - everyday I was growing and learning and living outside of my comfort zone. Living each day in that state makes you feel sort of high on life…as you are living each day to the fullest. So I guess I would say that that was my favorite experience from culinary school…that and the fact that I am pretty darn good at turning vegetables (which I hardly ever do anymore fyi).
Not to let our readers think culinary school is all roses, what were some of your least favorite experiences?
It’s hard, in most cases, you know very little. You are not fast enough, skilled enough or good enough and that can drive you crazy. The smart cooks will even realize that after culinary school they still know very little. It’s after culinary school that the real work and learning begins.
I read in your bio that you co-owned and worked a "successful film catering company where you planned menus and cooked for over 225,000 cast and crew". I'm not sure I told you but in a past life I worked in film production and on many movies and can attest to the importance of a great catering company especially on location when there is no time find someplace to eat. So how did you get into that end of the business and can you share any of your experiences from those days?
It was sort of through a friend that my partner Joe and I started film catering. As for sharing some of my experiences with film catering…I have tried to forget about film catering. Everyday (and I mean everyday) was grueling non-stop work.
Catering itself is just hard work but then having to move everyday (sometimes in the middle of the day) …in the rain, snow or boiling sun just adds a whole new element to things. Some think that film catering is glamorous…not for a second. Half of the time you are no where near the crew and the only time you ever feel or look glamorous is at the end of the show at the ‘Wrap Party”
Would I do it again? NEVER! Do I miss it? Not for a second. Am I glad that I did it? Absolutely because it led us to Rouxbe!
You are now a co-founder of Rouxbe, the web's first-ever online cooking school. I'm wondering how you made the shift from catering to online education?
We knew the power of food and we saw first hand how food and cooking affected everyone. We wanted to share our knowledge of cooking with anyone who wanted to learn. We wanted and still want to teach the world how to cook.
I have to admit what you are doing with your cooking videos is exactly what I'm trying to do on my web site and that is help home cooks become better cooks. Can you tell us a little about Rouxbe and the philosophy behind it?
When ones goes to culinary school they learn skills and techniques behind cooking and not necessarily just recipes. The recipes are merely the vehicles used to practice the skills and techniques. Really, like driving, you learn the skills and techniques before getting behind the wheel of a car. We felt that most of the online world (and offline for that matter) was driven by recipes and we wanted to help people understand that in order to become a better cook they had to take a different path.
Although designed for home cooks, is this a program that would be helpful for anyone thinking of going to culinary school to become a professional cook?
Absolutely, in fact, Rouxbe is already being used in professional cooking schools and in high school culinary programs around the world.
Are there any similarities to what you are teaching your Rouxbe online students with what you learned in culinary school?
Yes, only Rouxbe goes into much more detail and it is also much closer up. Another major benefit of Rouxbe over what I experienced is that with Rouxbe the videos can be watched over and over again - kind of like being able to take the chef instructor home with you!
What advice would you give anyone who is just starting out learning to cook?
Focus on learning the skills and techniques behind cooking…not just following recipes. And probably one of the most important pieces of advice is to practice… practice… practice… practice – oh ya, did I say “practice”.
What top 5 cooking mistakes do you find home cooks making?
- They think it is quicker to follow a recipe than to take the time to learn how to cook.
- They don’t make their own stock.
- They don’t use their knives enough.
- They are afraid to fail.
- They want to be chefs not cooks.
A lot of my readers tell me they are in a cooking rut and are tired of cooking the same 5 or 6 meals day after day. What advice would you offer them?
Of course #1 would be to sign up for a Rouxbe Cooking School membership. Don’t be afraid to fail the first time. Everyone is so afraid that they won’t make something perfectly the first time that they just stick with what they know. Learn how to cook, I mean really cook…not just follow a recipe. Learn how to braise, rather than how to braise a particular dish and you will gain tons of freedom.
What 3 cookbooks would you recommend every home cook own?
- The River Cottage Meat Book - by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
- Food Lover Companion - Sharon Tyler Herbst
- On Food and Cooking - by Harold McGee
When cooking at home, what do you like to prepare for yourself?
For some reason tonight it is Borscht soup, but usually it is things like roast chicken, maybe a nice rib-eye steak…or maybe even a good salad –like a Salad Lyonnaise.
I love braised dishes and…ah who am I kidding, I love it all. I would have to say that Italian might be my favorite though. I do love a Chicken Parmigiana. And when I am looking for quick and easy, I often make this Aglio e Olio pasta dish previewed below.
Thank you and I hope you enjoyed this interview.