Why a Pastry Chef of the Year Chose Her Career
Chef Mary Cech has impressive 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.
Chef Cech has been busy, from Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago to the Grand Wailea resort in Maui to the famed Cypress Club Restaurant in San Francisco.
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 as one of the opening instructors to launch their Greystone campus in California.
Mary is living in Park City, Utah, with her husband and working with Laurie Moldawer to develop new culinary programs for the Park City Culinary Institute. We are delighted to share with you our interview with Chef Mary Cech.
Hi Chef Mary Cech; thank you for participating in this interview and letting my readers learn more about you and your thoughts on attending culinary school.
You started out in the Baking & Pastry program at the Culinary Institute of America in the 80’s in the Baking & Pastry program. What about the CIA attracted you as a student, and was there a deciding factor that helped you choose it?
I started 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 entered the industry with two 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. Six weeks! Length is not important. Quality and self-determination shape who you become.
After school, I returned to Chicago 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 several times and began to get involved in competitions in New York. Next, 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 culinary world, I constantly thirsted for more and took continuing education classes at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York.
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 to choose a culinary career?
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 the pastry kitchens and watching the students work and said, "I can do this.” I truly felt like a kid in a candy store looking at all these pastries being made!
The Napa Valley campus was hiring my subsequent encounter with the CIA, redeveloping a 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?
The training of students has never changed over the years. Fads change, trends change, and hairstyles change. Culinary training is deeply rooted in tradition, techniques, and students – some excel, and others don’t. Still, 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.
Many people, including young kids right out of high school and older people looking to start a new career, are interested in attending culinary school to become professional cooks or bakers/pastry chefs.
What advice would you give these people to help them decide to enter the culinary field?
Advice – you will know if you want to do it 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 ask themselves before making such a monumental decision that could affect the rest of their lives?
That is different for everyone.
You have lived and worked in cities all over the United States. You 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 do 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 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 it with other schools.
If someone decides to come to the Park City Culinary Institute, or any school for that matter, how can they prepare themselves 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 Lover's Companion is great, as are Harrold McGee books, Susan Purdy Pie In The Sky, Chez Panisse, and many other technical books, but I don’t have them off 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 in 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.
What can those planning on attending one of the upcoming programs at the Park City Culinary Institute expect the experience to be like?
The experience is tangibly different than other culinary schools. Intimate classes with experienced chefs, premium ingredients from local artisans and ranches, and high-quality All Clad and Wusthof Ikon knives on a Wolf range on the slopes of Deer Valley.
Classes are 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.