For the past two years I've had the pleasure of sponsoring a Reluctant Gourmet Culinary School Grant in association with Chef4Students.org (no longer active). It is a great way for me to participate in the industry and make a small difference to these fine young people and future chefs. This year's recipient is Blair Cannon who is currently attending Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, NC.
You can read his appreciative letter to my friend Chef David Nelson, founder and president of Chef4Students on my blog. Check out A Letter From Culinary Student Blair Cannon. It is letters like this that get me so excited to be involved with this organization.
A Little About Blair
Blair Cannon is a 20 year old who lived in Virginia Beach, VA all his life. Virginia Beach is a beautiful resort city and a great place to grow up. Tourism is big and there are a lot of great restaurants to work at.
Before attending culinary school, Blair started out working as a dishwasher at the age of 15 with little training. Then he worked his way up at some of the most popular fine dining restaurants as a line cook. At 16, he was given a great opportunity from local celebrity Chef Todd Jurich to apprentice at his new restaurant, Zinc Brasserie. He taught him everything there is to know about opening a new restaurant from scratch.
He and Chef Pete Evans taught Blair not only how to be a line cook, but inventory and the financial responsibility of opening a new restaurant. Even though the hours were long and the work grueling, the rewards were great. They even displayed his photo on the side of the restaurant building.
Blair is currently finishing up his training at The Masters, at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. According to Blair, working his co-op at the Masters was a once in a lifetime experience. He never had worked at a golf resort before, especially one that is famous for the Masters Golf tournament. He said it was exciting to overcome the challenges that were presented through working with such a high-volume production.
At what age did you decide you wanted to go to culinary school and become a professional chef?
Ever since the age of five, I loved to cook. Growing up in a family of "foodies" who had a passion for cooking, it was not until I was 15 years old, that a culinary class I took in high school gave me the inspiration to want to go to culinary school and become a professional chef.
Even though I have enjoyed cooking with my family, I had originally wanted to become an air force pilot. But my mother wanted me to have another profession to fall back on, in case I did not get into the Air force Academy. She suggested I try the C-CAP, Careers through Culinary Arts Program in high school and the rest is history.
Did you take any classes in high school that may have helped you prepare for a culinary education?
While in high school, the C-CAP, Careers through Culinary Arts Program, had the greatest impact on me and gave me the foundation toward my career as a chef. I cannot speak highly enough of how great this program is!
This culinary program that was taught at my high school, Vo-tech or Technical and Career Education center, is an excellent program for students interested in pursuing a culinary career. Not only do you receive high school credit, but you gain skills that give you an enormous head start before attending culinary school.
This program also offers scholarships through culinary competitions that help a lot. I won many scholarships in these competitions as well as gained a lot of experience.
You are currently enrolled at Johnson & Wales in Charlotte. How did you decide this was the right school for you?
Originally I wanted to attend CIA, the Culinary Institute of America. But after being selected as a finalist in Johnson & Wales University's National Top Teen Chef culinary competition, I knew I made the right choice in selecting Johnson & Wales as the best culinary school for me.
Not only did I receive a large, renewable scholarship, but the school is closer to my home state. Johnson & Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina, is not only a new campus, but it has state of the art culinary labs and is in a great location. The staff that I met during the culinary contest were friendly and helpful as well.
What were you looking for in a culinary arts school?
Culinary school is very expensive. Before selecting a culinary school to attend, make sure the school has a great curriculum, reputation and is accredited. That it offers certified instructors and helps in job placement after graduating. Also, make sure the school offers other degrees such as bachelor and graduate degrees. It is also nice if the school has great living facilities and extracurricular activities as well.
Location is also very important when you live out of state. It is less expensive to drive to than CIA, which the nearest airport was two hours away by car. And last, after applying, check which school offers the best financial package. Even though culinary school is expensive, there are usually more grants, scholarships and aide than for public college.
What process did you go through when deciding if this was the right school for you?
When choosing which culinary school is best for you, check online to see which college offers the most benefits to help narrow the search. I chose Johnson & Wales in Charlotte after visiting the school campus and talking with the instructors.
After I saw how" state of the art" the culinary labs were, the expertise of the instructors and how nice the campus was, I knew I had made the correct decision.
Charlotte is a great southern, up and coming city which offers many job opportunities in the restaurant field as well.
Is there anything you would do differently now if you were looking for a school to attend?
Can you think back to your very first day of school and tell us what that was like for you?
The first day of culinary school is tough. You are starting out from scratch and you have to prove yourself to the chefs your cooking skills. There are talented students from all over the country each showing their different talents.
Culinary school is fun as well. Where else can you learn about cooking skills and eat and be exposed to the best food sampling imaginable! I have eaten some of the best food there is. Also, if you have a roommate that is a bakery & pastry student, you can often share the rewards.
I know every day is different and every semester you classes change, but can you describe to us what a typical day is like for you?
A typical day starts very early in the am and may last until 2pm. You need to be dressed in your culinary dress uniform. The classes may be long and usually I would stay after classes and volunteer for special events and clubs. That is where you get a lot of public experience. The weekends are spent either playing extracurricular sports or studying for tests.
How would you compare culinary school to attending high school?
I found that culinary school is much more interesting and challenging than high school. Each day is different and there is always new foods to try. You learn what you want to learn instead of what you are told to take.
There is also little time for high school drama. Culinary school is for students who are focused and know what they want to do in life. You get to meet interesting people of all backgrounds and instructors and speakers that have fantastic backgrounds.
What are you finding most challenging about culinary school?
I found that the advance dining room class was the most challenging of all my classes in culinary school. Only because I have never worked in that capacity and it was totally new to me.
Lots of young people ask me for advice about going to culinary school. What advice would you give them before they make a commitment?
The advice I would give new students starting out before committing to culinary school would try to get a job in a restaurant and gain "hands on experience." first. A lot of kids start culinary school and have never been exposed to what it truly is like to work in a restaurant. The good and bad, the long hours and hard sweat.
What questions should they be asking themselves before making the commitment?
Before making a commitment to starting culinary school, each student should ask if they are willing to be dedicated to work long hours in this industry. Are they flexible and can adapt to customers' needs. And are they truly "foodies", love what they do and are willing to learn.
What should they leave at the door?
All incoming culinary students should leave their "egos" at the door. Everyone in culinary school is talented. You should be willing to grow up and realize that this is not the time for partying and goofing off.
What can someone interested in going to culinary school do to prepare themselves while in high school to be successful?
While in high school, prepare yourself by taking culinary vocational classes if offered, this helps and gives a huge head start. Taking chemistry believe it or not is helpful as well.
Work part time in a restaurant even if it is dish washing. Hey, everyone has to start from somewhere. Even the best chefs in the world started out as dishwashers! Also, read everything there is about cooking and train your palate by eating at unusual restaurants.
What books would you recommend to someone thinking of going to cooking school?
My top three favorite books are:
- Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg & Karen Page
- La Gastronomic
- Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Herbst
What is the funniest incident that has happened to you since starting culinary school?
The funniest incident that happened was while I was assisting one of my chefs to cater a wedding. We were transporting a wedding cake to the wedding in a car, when my chef instructor applied the brakes suddenly and the cake fell apart. He never said a word, drove to the wedding reception site and then attempted to assemble and put back the cake together with a flower arrangement that was on the reception table.
The only thing that wasn't too funny was that he made me take the cake out to the wedding party and hope that no one would notice. Needless to say, we refunded the money and it became a great learning experience on how to transport wedding cakes safely and in one piece!
Now that you have spent time at culinary school, what one or two things stand out for you in your cooking that are an improvement to before you attended school.
I have learned in cooking school how to better adapt to customers' needs, whether it be the variety of cuisine or a diabetic diet. I have also become better in my food presentation and plating skills.
What would you like to do in the culinary field after you graduate from school?
After culinary school I plan to work in a variety of restaurants, gain much experience and travel to Northern Italy, France & Spain.
Where do you see yourself 5 years from now and what path will you take to get there?
Five years from now I plan to have been worldlier in my travels and have gained a lot of experience in the restaurant industry. I hope to meet more new and exciting fellow chefs.
In order to get there, I will have obtained both my Associates in Culinary Arts and a Bachelor in Food and Restaurant Management. I will continue to compete in culinary competitions while gaining new skills and learning new food trends.
Can you tell me a little about how you became involved with Chefs4Students.org and how the Reluctant Gourmet grant affects you?
I heard about Chefs4Students.org from the Fast web scholarship search site. I then read a lot from the site about all the tips it offered to fellow culinary students such as myself.
Being that culinary school is very expensive, I searched a lot from resources such as Chefs4Students .org and others to try to obtain as many scholarships and grants to help pay tuition.
With the economy as tough as it is, the Reluctant Gourmet grant was such a great help! Having won this grant has been such a great relief knowing that I can focus on my education without the financial burden.
Lastly, do you have a favorite recipe that you've learned while in school and can you share it with us.
There are many favorite recipes that I have learned in culinary school.
Here are a few, recipes will follow;
Lavender Ice cream
Poached Rabbit Tenderloin Roulade with Prosciutto, Carrots, and Herbs
Blood Orange Braised Beef Short Ribs
Thanks again for this interview and good luck on your culinary career adventures.
Thank you for the opportunity to conduct this interview!
Good luck, Chef Cannon! Your story is very inspiring! 🙂
Some interesting ideas for student recipies, one of my favourites was just to add lots of chilli to every dish to disguise my bad cooking!
Oh, let's be honest - cooking school is about knives and flames, blood and tattoos, swearing like a sailor, eating tons of fat, and pouring salt on everything. Everything!
There's nothing like it.
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