Why a Pastry Chef of the Year Chose Her Career
Chef Mary Cech has amazing credentials. She has worked in some of the top kitchens in America, taught in some of the finest culinary schools, been recognized as one of the “Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America” by Chocolatier magazine, named “Pastry chef of the Year” by Chefs in America and written two cookbooks.
From Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago to the Grand Wailea resort in Maui to the famed Cypress Club Restaurant in San Francisco, Chef Cech has been busy.
After overseeing the pastry program for more than 40 restaurants for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago, Chef Cech was recruited by the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park to be one of the opening instructors to launch their Greystone campus in California.
Now Mary is living in Park City, Utah with her husband and working with Laurie Moldawer to develop some new culinary programs for the Park City Culinary Institute. We are very happy to share with you our interview with Chef Mary Cech.
Hi Chef Cech, thank you for participating in this interview and letting my readers learn a little bit more about you and your thoughts on attending culinary school.
You started out at the Culinary Institute of America back in the 80’s in the Baking & Pastry program. What was it about the CIA that attracted you as a student and was there a deciding factor that helped you choose it?
I started out in 1984 at a small pastry school in upstate New York called IACP or International Pastry Arts Center. The chef was world renowned Swiss born – Master Pastry Chef Albert Cumin.
He was the best. I went into the industry with 2 simple goals – learn from the best and work in the best places to become the best. I could therefore say Albert “was the best”! His program was short. 6 weeks! Length is not important. Quality and self-determination shape who you become.
After school I went back to Chicago at that time and resumed work at The Park Hyatt. My goal was to go back to New York and assist Chef Kumin in the school as his personal assistant as well as assist the students.
After applying by letter, one year later I was chosen to work in the school for the year. During the year I was able to assist and relearn techniques a number of times and begin to get involved in competitions in New York, then on a national level and finally international level always winning gold metals.
My involvement with the CIA started another type of valuable education. While in the day-to-day culinary world, I always had a thirst for more and took continuing education classes at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York.
If you think back to those early days at the Culinary Institute of America, were there any experiences that stood out as “aha” moments, when confirming that you’d made the right decision in choosing a career in the culinary industry?
I did have an aha moment. Years before entering the culinary industry I visited my boyfriend, now husband, who was a CIA grad. I liked in the pastry kitchens and watched the students work and said to myself “I can to do this”. I truly felt like a kid in a candy store looking at all these pastries being made!
My next encounter with CIA was being hired by the Napa Valley campus, redeveloping custom curriculum for West coast influences then going back to the east coast, working with the pastry director on programs and teaching while I was there.
You have worked in some of the top restaurants in the country and taught in several top culinary establishments including at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone, California campus – how has the training of new students changed from when you started to how students are trained now?
Training of students has never changed over the years. Fads change, trends change, hairstyles change. Culinary training is deeply rooted in tradition and techniques and students – some excel and some don’t but basically the art of teaching is the ability to reach out to all students in a way they can connect with. Students all desire fundamental training with eager enthusiasm.
There are so many people, including both young kids right out of high school and older people looking to start a new career, interested in attending culinary school to become a profession cook or baker/pastry chef.
What advice would you give these people to help them make the right decision to enter the culinary field?
Advice – you will know if it is something you want to do as a career because you will love it. Do it if you love it otherwise find something you love first.
Are there questions they should be asking themselves before making such a monumental decision that could affect the rest of their lives?
I think that is different for everyone.
You have lived and worked in cities all over the United States and are now living in the beautiful mountain resort town of Park City, Utah and working at the Park City Culinary Institute with Laurie Moldawer.
What brought you to Park City and how did you get involved with Laurie and her new culinary school?
I moved to PC with my husband as we want to retire there someday. We love to ski and outdoor living without the hassle of fast paced city life after years of living in large cities. Laurie contacted me one day over a year ago and we started talking!
I got involved with Laurie because teaching is my passion and I believe in what she is doing plus trying to make a difference with her and for culinary students and their education.
The Park City Culinary Institute is a relatively new school so I’m wondering how its programs compare to some of the other programs you’ve been affiliated with or know by reputation?
We are developing the program now so I can’t compare with other schools.
If someone decides to come to the Park City Culinary Institute or any school for that matter, what can they be doing to get themselves ready for attending school?
Ready to attend school – be prepared to learn, listen, write everything down and organize the information daily so you can refer to notes and lectures. Study, focus and always ask every question that comes to you especially technical cooking/baking questions.
Are there any books you would recommend they read?
Food lovers companion is great, Harrold McGee books, Susan Purdy Pie In The Sky, Chez Panise and lots of other technical books but I don’t have them on the top of my head right now.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.
There were a couple of questions I asked Chef Mary and she recommended I speak with Laurie Moldawer, the founder of The Park City Culinary Institute, and here is what I asked and what Laurie had to say:
Is there something unique about the Park City Culinary Institute that future students from around the country should know about to help them decide if this is the best school for them?
We’re shorter and more affordable than other culinary schools. We have more flexibility our curriculum than other schools. We can cater to entrepreneurs and the resort market by providing accelerated training, and high-level techniques.
It’s the opposite of two years of food-service training to work at the Cheesecake Factory. This is accelerated fine dining training to work at a ski area.
For those planning on attending one of the upcoming programs at the Park City Culinary Institute, what can they expect the experience to be like?
The experience is tangibly different than other culinary schools. Intimate classes with experienced chefs, premium ingredients that come from local artisans and ranches, high-quality All Clad and Wusthof Ikon knives on a Wolf range on the slopes of Deer Valley.
Classes surrounded by ski and mountain biking trails, within minutes of golf, paddle boarding, zip lines and hot air balloon rides.
Read, Read and Read Some MoreOne of the best suggestions I have for anyone thinking of going to culinary school or just getting into the restaurant industry is to read everything you can get your hands on. Learn from professional chefs who have worked in the industry and those who have taught in culinary schools.
There are many great books available to get you started in your culinary education and I suggest you read as much as possible before making that big decision to make sure this is the right move for you. Below is just a sample of books you might be interested in checking out.
For a much more comprehensive list of books for aspiring culinary, baking and restaurant management students, I suggest checking out my post on books for future culinary students and chefs.