Interview with Chef Todd Mohr
" I say cooking is confidence in the kitchen. " - Todd Mohr
Chef Todd Mohr started out in the Communication Industry and then the Broadcasting and Outdoor Advertising Industry before deciding to quit his job and attend the Baltimore International Culinary College.
There he earned a dual culinary degree in cooking and baking, graduating cum laude. He then accepted a job at the NSA just outside of Washington, DC where he was part of a team feeding 15,000 people twice a day. Now that's a lot of potatoes.
He then moved back to Raleigh, NC to work at Rex Healthcare as the Production Manager/Executive Chef. After that he was general manager of catering and dining services at two firms in the Research Triangle Park, NC.
When he was tired of working for someone else, he founded Savor Hospitality in 2002. His vision for Savor Hospitality is "to provide an extremely high level of cuisine and personalized service for all events, both on-site and off-site." And he has been very successful in achieving his vision.
In 2007, Todd opened a private event venue in Cary, NC that also the home of his Cooking School where more than 300 local residents have taken classes to improve their cooking skills.
In 2008 Todd launched his daily video cooking blog, Cooking Coarse.
I am thrilled to bring this interview to you and if you have ever thought of attending culinary arts school, this is a great read.
Here's my interview with Chef Todd Mohr:
Let me start by asking, how did you decide to switch careers from working successfully in business and management to becoming a chef? I can’t image it was for a pay raise?
I was always a good amateur cook. I enjoyed cooking, but had a repertoire of about 5 things I could make successfully. These were dishes that I had made enough times that I could duplicate the procedure from memory. Anything outside these specific dishes meant referring to recipes which never came out right, and lead to frustration. I was hungry for the “hows” and “whys” in cooking.
About this time, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the middle management positions I held in Marketing and Advertising. Although I was very successful in this career, I started to dread going to work. I was spending the majority of my life in an endeavor that was not fulfilling spiritually.
I felt I knew a better way of doing things than all the bosses I had. They were not concerned with my success, only their own. This was difficult because they were partially in control of my success and pay. I decided this type of thought process was one of an entrepreneur, not of a middle manager.
I knew I wanted to own my own business and began a 10 year plan to achieve this.
Was it a difficult transition?
I quit my job, sold my house, had a huge garage sale and sold most of my possessions. I answered an ad in the newspaper to steam oysters in a Baltimore seafood restaurant. I went from 6 figures to 6 dollars an hour, in one afternoon! No, it was not for the pay. It was for the peace of mind.
I enrolled at Baltimore’s International Culinary College to pursue my second career. It was a very difficult transition. I tore my life down to the studs and began to rebuild. Having decided to go to school full time, my income for the year was less than $6,000. Because my income was too high in the previous years to warrant financial aid, everything was put on credit cards. Yes, it was tough for a year.
You attended the Baltimore International culinary College in Maryland. How did you decide
on this school?
I was in Baltimore at the time, it was simply closest. I already had a 4 year Bachelor’s degree, so most of the core curriculum transferred in. I got through the 2 year program in 13 months.
What were you looking for when you were deciding where to go to school?
Geography. I was already in Baltimore.
What should someone thinking about attending culinary school consider before signing up for a culinary school?
Begin with the end result in mind. Determine precisely what career you want to develop based on your new education. While I was some 15 years older than most students when I went to culinary school, I was curious about the amount of students that didn’t know what they wanted to do after graduation.
Find where your passion is and pursue it. Perhaps you have dreams of being an Executive Chef at a large hotel or upscale restaurant, or an institutional facility like a hospital, college, or business cafeteria.
Share this information with the enrollment officer and ask what classes or series of classes would be best in pursuit of your specialization. Don’t just “go to culinary school and see what happens”.
Can you recall a funny culinary student story and share it with us?
In my last semester, our garde manger (cold hors d’ oeuvres displays) class was held in an historic building, a bed and breakfast that the college ran. The Chef assigned me a task of preparing smoked chicken breast for a buffet. I took great pride in brining and carefully smoking the chicken over two days. It came out perfectly!
With great enthusiasm, I presented the finished product to the Chef. “Great, we’ll cut it up for chicken salad tomorrow,” he said dismissively, barely looking at the chicken. “Chicken Salad?” I thought. “Are you kidding? I spent two days on this, you are not making chicken salad out of it.” So, at the end of class, I slipped the chicken into my book bag for MY dinner that night.
Upon return to class the next day, the Chef met us in the doorway. “Class is cancelled today”, he said. “We were robbed last night.” Thieves had broken in that night and stole mixers, knives, slicers, pots and pans, almost everything. “The strangest thing,” the Chef added, “is that they must have gotten hungry, because they stole your smoked chicken also!” “Those bastards!” I screamed, “I was looking forward to the chicken salad.”
After graduating you worked for the National Security Agency feeding 15,000 military brass. What was this like and did they eat the same stuff we eat or did you prepare them a top-secret recipes that you had to burn every night?
The NSA was a fantastic experience, although I didn’t realize it at the time. It was VERY hard work. I went into culinary college with the idea that I wanted a better life than most Chefs. I didn’t want the restaurant lifestyle, working every weekend, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and never knowing how many people would show up that evening, full staff or not. I had decided that I wanted to enter institutional cooking. I would know exactly how many people to serve each day, work Monday through Friday, and have all government holidays off. It was the perfect schedule for someone from the business world.
My first three months at the NSA were spent with a knife in my hand. For 10 hours a day, I would dice onions, or slice carrots, or zucchini, or peppers, or whatever they wanted. I would come to work at 6am and be presented with 10-12 CASES of onions. I’d chop from early morning until early evening.
Then, it was breaking down beef, cases and cases of beef tenderloin to be trimmed and cut into steaks. The sight and smell of bloody beef at 6am was a bit much for someone just out of culinary school. However, I’m extremely grateful now, because my knife skills are much better than if I had worked in a 100 seat retail restaurant doing prep.
We had a 3 week cycle menu at the NSA with 5 different stations. We’d offer a pizza station, entrée station, deli station, grill station, and salad bar. Each of these stations changed daily and repeated on a 3 week basis. The recipes weren’t worth being top-secret. It was mostly basic comfort and meat and potatoes food.
What’s the secret to cooking for 15,000 individuals?
A good team is the secret. The NSA had 9 different cafeterias on their campus. Our main production kitchen prepared most of the food and trucked it to the different cafes. The coordination of purchasing, production, and distribution had to be tight and honor food safety standards.
The basic production of lasagna for 15,000 isn’t much different than lasagna for 24. We just used a lot more pans, and much more ingredients. The thing people don’t realize in a large production kitchen is that we have the large equipment necessary to complete the tasks.
When I tell people “lasagna for 15,000”, I think they imagine their home Kitchen Aid mixer trying to accomplish this. We’d load pallets of ricotta cheese into a 300 gallon mixer so each pan was consistent. The process went from the prep staff to the production staff, to the distribution staff, each fulfilling their part.
I took this information to my next job as Executive Chef at a large hospital. The hospital has 8 types of menus. We’d feed the staff, doctors, patients, visitors, adult care, child care, long-term care, then people on low-salt, or who can’t chew, or low carbohydrate diets. Each of these departments were doing their own prep and own production. 8 people were chopping onions, dicing celery, every day. This was silly to me and redundant..
I changed the entire production system at the hospital to a commissary system like the NSA. I created a separate prep room where 1 person would chop the onions and then distribute to the different departments for their individual production. This saved thousands of dollars, made the food more consistent, and gave staff a defined roll in our success.
The hundreds of hours I had spent doing prep at the NSA gave me the skills and insight to improve the hospital’s service to their customers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the NSA taught me a tremendous amount. There were certainly times I wanted to quit, but I’m glad I persevered, because that knowledge paid off.
In 2002 you decided to start Savor Hospitality, a corporate catering business in Cary, NC. Why the move to you own business?
I think I was born an entrepreneur, but took 30 years to overcome the fear of not having someone else give me a paycheck. I was General Manager of a business dining cafeteria at the time for Sodexho/Marriot services. I had the most efficient unit, most profitable, best employee attendance, best client relationship, but the upper management continually lied and screwed with me.
Bonuses and promotions promised were delayed “just a few weeks more”. I began to realize that I was making someone else rich at the expense of my health and comfort. Basically, I thought I could do this for myself. The only thing holding me back was fear. I recalled that I’ve torn my life to the studs before, so a gamble on me was a good bet.
I didn’t want to start just another catering company. I wanted to create a unique niche. I started to notice large, important, companies having important business meetings and getting wax-paper wrapped sandwiches brought by an unskilled delivery boy, dumped at the receptionist’s desk.
The secretary now has to set everything up, clean it up, stuff that’s not their job. I created “Business Dining Catering”, elements of a wedding caterer brought to the business environment. This unique approach that included a Chef on site, gold and chrome chafing dishes, white linens, and return clean-up service separated us from every other caterer.
Now, 7 years later, others are copying what I started.
You also started a culinary school for local Cary residents to “learn and improve their home cooking skills.” Can you tell us a little bit about your vision for this school?
The beginning of my career and life change was due to my frustration with recipes. I could make 5 things by heart, but recipes always disappointed. In culinary school, we didn’t always run for the cook book, we cooked by the basic method we were taught and included ingredients we liked.
With the advent of the Food Network, cooking became entertainment, but still didn’t help people actually cook better. I feel it’s been in the industry’s best interest to keep “Chef Secrets”, to make things seem mystical and difficult that only a professional could do it correctly.
My mission at The Cooking School at Savor Hospitality is to de-mystify recipes and empower the home cook to use their personal artistic interpretation to create dinner tonight.
Cooking is an art form. If it’s an art form, it’s open to artistic interpretation. A recipe is one guy’s opinion of how to create a dish, not the only way. Plus, recipes have so many variables.
- When they call for “one onion, chopped”, is this onion the size of a baseball or of a golf ball?
- Exactly what temperature is “medium heat”?
- When a recipe says “cook for 20 minutes”, how does it know?
- How does it know how thick the chicken breast is?
- How does it know what my pan is made of?
- How does it know how “medium” my heat is?
- How does it know that my oven temperature is correct?
All these things frustrated me. We should cook with our eyes, our ears, our fingers, our nose, all our senses, not blindly follow another person’s opinion.
You don’t tell a painter – “paint for 17 minutes and you’ll have a landscape.” It doesn’t work that way. You don’t tell a guitarist – “strum for 22 minutes and you’ll have a new song.” These are artistic endeavors, just like cooking. We should cook like a painter paints, like a guitarist strums, with artistic interpretation, until your desired results are achieved.
After all, even on “The Next Food Network Star”, when they’re given an assignment to cook something, they don’t run to the library for cookbooks. They run for ingredients to apply their standard cooking methods.
I get tons of emails from people interested in taking cooking classes locally. They don’t want to become professional chefs but just improve their skills and have some fun. How can they locate a school like Savor Hospitality and what should they be asking the school before signing up?
I imagine people would find schools on the web, like your listing of culinary schools. Often times, your local community college will have culinary classes. I would ask recreational cooking schools whether their classes are hands-on or demonstration. Our school is entirely hands-on. Everyone cuts, chops, stirs, sautés, etc. Many of my new students come with complaints about other schools where “all I did was watch someone else cook.”
Also, ask the school what their mission and purpose is. Do they teach a recipe or a method? Do they concentrate on baking or cooking? What will you leave having learned at the end of the class?
As a professional cooking instructor, what top 5 cooking mistakes do you see your students making and how can they correct them?
I see so many mistakes that people’s grandmothers taught them 30 years ago that continue until today. First, I’d advise people to stop and scrutinize old family recipes. An entire stick of butter isn’t necessary to sauté something in, nor do we use 3 cups of olive oil for sauté. This is called deep frying at that point.
- People start with a cold pan, put a cold protein product in the pan, then heat them together on the stove. This is the best way to make dry chicken, because as the chicken and pan heat together, the first thing it will do is release moisture. ALWAYS PAN HOT FIRST!
- Melting butter – people often separate or clarify butter when they should be just melting it. The goal is to keep the butter yellow. The best thing for melting butter is melted butter. As soon as you get a little bit of melted butter, remove the pan from the stove or microwave, and use the heat plus friction around the cold, solid butter by using the melted liquid butter. You’ll need patience as with all cooking. Patience is number 2 ½.
- Adding more oil to a sauté pan mid-way. The fat in a sauté procedure is used as a conductor of heat UNDER the protein product. Once you’ve added olive oil to a sauté pan, added the chicken, leave it alone. I see too many people indecisively pour olive oil on top of chicken already in the pan. It doesn’t help your sauté, or conduct heat, it just adds more fat.
- Indecisiveness - Before you begin cooking, decide on the end result. What do you want this to look like? What procedure are you going to employ? Visualize it ahead of time. Gather all your ingredients, your mise en place. I see many people turn chicken breasts over and over in a sauté pan. I see people open the oven doors 5 or 10 times to check on their roast, releasing heat each time. I see people poke, gash, and slash items to check for doneness. Be confident, move forward, for better or worse, but don’t second-guess yourself throughout the whole process.
- GET YOURSELF A THERMOMETER! This is the only way to QUANTIFIABLY tell when your item is done. I hear more people tell me the old wives tale that the tenderness of your chin or cheek, or thumb is “medium rare” on a steak. This is preposterous and highly suspect. An instant read thermometer is the only way to tell when your items are done.
- I see people gash and poke items all the time. I understand this fully. It is much more embarrassing to serve a raw chicken breast than one that is rubbery. This is why home cooks WAY overcook things, in an effort to not serve something dangerous. Get a thermometer. Some people have a sleep number for their beds, I have a steak number. 128. Perfect every time.
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?
I say learn basic cooking method like sauté, poaching, braising, roasting, and then change the ingredients. I always encourage people to visit the international aisle in the grocery store, or your local ethnic, Indian, Latino or Asian grocery.
Buy jars of sauces and condiments you’ve never heard of before. Get the red Thai chili paste, buy hoisin sauce, samosa chutney, wasabi powder, anything. Then, during your old, boring sauté method, you can add any of these flavor profiles to the same procedure, making an Indian, Asian, Latin, or any dish from the same sauté procedure.
Keep the method, change the flavors. So, if you’ve made a French inspired chicken sauté, deglazing with white wine, shallots, goat cheese and mushrooms, you can make the same dish Mexican by adding jalapenos, and deglazing with tequila or margarita mix, adding jarred salsa at the end.
Perhaps you want a Hawaiian dish. Saute chicken, deglaze with pineapple juice, add ginger and pineapple chunks. An Indonesian dish would use peanut butter and coconut milk with some ginger and perhaps pineapple. The same sauté can make an Italian dish with garlic, deglazing with red wine and diced tomatoes.
Get the idea? One method, endless “recipes”.
Some who visit www.reluctantgourmet.com have an outright fear of cooking. They are afraid to take chances or experiment with different types of cooking. What would you tell them to help them get over their fears?
People always ask me if I think cooking is trial and error. I say cooking is confidence in the kitchen. How do you get confidence? Well, trial and error. If you try a new procedure or ingredient, what’s the worst that can happen? It’s not to your liking, and you’ve learned yet another way NOT to cook something. Make either mental notes, keep a notebook, or write in your cookbook how you would change something next time. I keep a black and white composition notebook of recipes and how I’d change them next time.
If a painter paints a landscape that they just don’t like, do they give up painting all together? No, they mix more paints and continue to learn and build their confidence.
What is your favorite style of cooking? What about that style most appeals to you?
I’m a big fan of sauté. This is “driving the car” of cooking. If you put a roast in the oven, come back an hour later is this cooking? Well, I guess it is, but using a sauté method where you have to control heat, caramelize sugars, coagulate proteins, add vegetables, drop the temperature of the pan with a cold liquid, thicken to make a sauce, mount with butter... it’s exciting. I feel you have so many opportunities for creativity and variety with sauté than you do with any other method.
What 5 cookbooks would you recommend every home cook own and what can they learn from
- Food Lovers Companion – Sharon Tyler Herbst – It’s an encyclopedia of food and cooking. It’s not a cookbook, but more like a foodie dictionary. It’s necessary.
- Le Repertoire de La Cuisine – Louis Saulnier – Reference guide to Escoffier. A fancier foodie dictionary.
- On Cooking – Sara Labensky & Alan Hause, - My textbook from culinary school. It covers method and procedure as well as recipes.
- The Sauce Bible - David Paul Larousse – Sauce making is one of the most important skills in the kitchen, and one of the most fun. A bad piece of chicken can be saved by a good sauce, but the best piece of chicken will be ruined by a bad sauce.
- Professional Baking – Gislen – A no-frills, no photos reference to baking methods and formulas.
Briefly, what is a typical day like for you when you are at Savor Hospitality?
There is no typical day. That’s what I like about a catering company over a restaurant or institution. Generally, my day begins around 8 am, answering emails and requests.
- At 9 am, preparations for on-site or off-site lunch service.
- Once lunches are served or delivered, I generally have office work from 1 pm – 3 pm or so. It’s paying bills, writing invoices, writing proposals, taxes, meetings with brides, etc.
- From 3 pm-5 pm, I record cooking videos for my website.
- From 5-6pm I’m doing prep for the 6:30 cooking class.
- 6:30-8:30 I’m teaching class and cleaning up until about 9:30.
- I get home around 10 pm and have to edit and post my daily cooking lesson to YouTube and my website. I’m asleep after midnight.
Some days we have on-site breakfast service. Then, the day starts at 6am and goes until midnight. I would be terribly frustrated with 12 -18 hour days if I worked for someone else. The fact that I’m forwarding my own business makes it a joy.
“My soul be satisfied with thorns, but gather them in the one garden I call my own”. – Edmond Rostand
Let's shift gears and talk about a little about cooking at home. After a week of working long hours around some incredible food, what do you like to prepare at home when cooking is not your job?
Unfortunately, with 12 -18 hour days, I don’t cook at home that often anymore. When I worked for someone else, I cooked every night. Now, I usually eat at work, being surrounded by food all day. When I do cook outside of work, I get most excited to prepare things with outstanding ingredients.
When my wife and I go on vacation, I always make sure we stay somewhere with a kitchen. It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of vacation for me, getting fresh fish and produce. When we go to Hawaii, I’m able to get fish that was swimming an hour ago. This is much more exciting to me than making a frozen fish dish from my local grocery. I’d rather have frozen pizza than go through the effort of preparing a complex dish with mediocre ingredients.
But, to answer your question, I most often prepare breakfast at home. I love making omelets with different ingredients, like brie and dill, or shrimp and lobster. I also love AM baking. Popovers are one of my favorite items, as well as banana breads, corn muffins, etc.
Do you have a signature dish or favorite recipe? And if so, can you can share it with us?
I have a favorite METHOD, not a favorite recipe. I like inventing new ways to use the direct source, conductive heat of the sauté pan to caramelize items and make pan sauces. Having grown up on the water, I generally like anything from the sea.
One of my favorite dishes (and one of my original 5 I could make) is crabmeat stuffed shrimp. There’s really no recipe for it. What I do is deeply butterfly shrimp, not cutting through the tail or head to leave a “donut” hole in the cleaned shrimp. I invert the shrimp, folding the tail over the head and put a ball of crabmeat stuffing made with crabmeat, mayonnaise, butter sautéed onions, whole grain mustard, salt and white pepper. The stuffed shrimp are baked until pink. It’s pretty and delicious.
Thank you again Chef for this interview and if there are any questions I missed or anything you would like to comment on, please do.
Thank you for your web site and your noble efforts to improve the skills of the home cook. I would caution people that think they can quit their corporate job and open a restaurant. I hear from so many people that have a romantic vision of standing at the matre’ d’ stand and welcoming their friends, being the center of attention.
A restaurant is a business. You need more business background than culinary background to run a successful restaurant. If you don’t have the business experience, get some or partner with someone who does.
Many a great Chef has gone out of business for serving a $10 item that costs $11 to make. A restaurant is a very difficult lifestyle, and the margins are very thin.
If you are considering a career in culinary arts, speak to as many people who have gone before you as possible. Find the people whose opinions you respect, and those that have been successful. Mirror what they did, ask questions, and have a support system ready. It’s difficult, but can be done rewardingly.