Culinary Student Interview with Ja Lisa McKeown

August 19, 2012 0 Comments

Culinary Student Ja Lisa McKeown

The Very First Reluctant Gourmet Culinary Grant Recipient Ja’Lisa McKeown

Future Chef Ja’Lisa McKeown is the recipient of the very first Reluctant Gourmet Culinary Grant in association with, a nonprofit organization responsible for putting students in contact with the funds they need to attend the culinary schools of their choice.

This is also one of many informative interviews with culinary arts students talking about why they decided on culinary school, what their experiences are a like and what they want to do after they graduate I look forward to posting. Anyone thinking of going to culinary school can benefit from reading this interview.

Ja’Lisa is from the Detroit, Michigan area and just turned 25 in April of 2008. She attended business school for two years in Florida after graduating from Renaissance high School in Detroit. She worked full time at a bank for over four years before considering a new career in the food service industry. In 2006 she decided to quit her job and “allow my passion for cuisine, teaching and people lead me to my future.”

She attended at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Michigan.

Thank you Ja’Lisa for participating in this interview. I’m sure you will succeed in your career and hope you get back to us and tell us about your adventure.

Interview with Past Culinary Arts Student Ja’Lisa McKeown

When did you know that you wanted to be a chef?

I never really thought about becoming a chef until after college, but the simple love of cooking was imprinted in my DNA. When I was about 5 years old and channel surfing on a regular Saturday, I came across a tall, energetic man with round glasses and graying hair …I was utterly captivated by his pronounced English accent and unbounded sense of humor. Added to that was his apparent love for food and affection for people. It was Graham Kerr, a professional nutritionist and food writer from England. After that day, I never missed his show.

During my childhood though, it never occurred to me that I could really do something that COOL! Kids were encouraged to be practical- a doctor, lawyer, or teacher when I was young- not fulfill their passions- or for that matter even find out what “passion” was, lol! As a youngster I spent almost every summer day in the kitchen with my great-grandmother (initially it began as a punishment for misbehaving). After adjusting to the redundancy of confinement, I was allowed to help her with masterful creations like open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches, peanut butter cookies, vanilla tea cakes, and 7-UP pound cake.

I soon found out that I was happiest when I was mixing, measuring, frosting, or frying. I got an Easy Bake oven for Christmas, so I could unleash my creative energy- on my own- whenever I wanted. Alas! A sweet escape from the tedium of early childhood, and the mundane kiddy after-school shows was at hand. So my latent passion for food grew exponentially within me, manifested itself as a hobby in my teens, and eventually exploded as my obsession and life’s focal point.

You attended The International Culinary School of Arts in MI. How did you decide that was the right culinary school for you?

Many years passed after my first college experience. As an adult I struggled greatly with returning to school because I had a full-time job and plenty of bills. I decided to attend culinary school in 2006 and enrolled in Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan. I was only able to complete my sanitation license because of the difficulty involved in class placement.

Schoolcraft has extremely limited seating for culinary classes- I was wait listed for 13 months. Finally in 2008 I transferred to the Art Institute of Novi (1st Art Institute in Michigan) and became one of its first students. Ironically I saw the Art Institute commercial for enrollment on TV (which I never watch) at a friend’s house in December 2007. I called and the nicest lady, Mrs. Lynn Mills returned my call.

I met with her the next week, only even half-convinced I could afford to take classes. She gave me all the info, prayed with me, and by the end of the week, I was a full time student. I am supposed to be here.

What process did you go through decide this was the right choice of schools?

I researched the school, compared the curriculum with Schoolcraft, spoke to the director of the culinary department, Chef Steven Simpson (who is the coolest guy), and also met the administration (because they can make or break a college experience- if you can’t get help when you need it, it’s hard getting through school).

What factors went into that decision? Location, Cost, Reputation, etc???

Well the location of the school was great- about 10 minutes away from my job and 15 minutes away from home. I was attracted to the Art Institute because of its national reputation- there are about 40 total, but this is the first Michigan location. I wanted to be apart of something new, growing, and improving on a regular basis. When the students make suggestions they are considered. The school is small enough to be intimate right now and I like having close relationships with the instructors and administrators.

What was your very first day of school like?

It was a little nerve racking. I was paranoid of going into class and being told that everything I do and know as a cook is W-R-O-N-G! I had an excellent instructor- Chef David Koshizawa. He laid out all the facts and expectations he had for the students. He warned the people who weren’t serious to leave immediately! After 11 weeks of hard-core culinary boot camp I’m ready for anything the school has to offer! (I hope, lol!)

What is a typical day at school like?

A typical day consist of: waking up at 5:30am to be in lab (5 hour hands on cooking class) in full uniform by 6:55am, right now I am taking a baking and pastry intro class so today I made Challah, honey wheat bread, brioche, and cinnamon pecan rolls- which were all Delicious!

Class can be draining, especially if there is down time and not a constant, rapid flow of activity- like when proofing dough. But it is mainly exciting to come and do something new every week.

At about 11:15an, I and 15 other tired, usually dehydrated students begin to do a total kitchen clean overhaul- this is the worst part of class because everyone is bereft of energy and natural enthusiasm for the day. People who were once sharing, kneading, and mixing graciously beside one another become clawing, griping, and resentful bodies that do more than anyone else.

Every corner, pot, pan, surface, speck, and tool must be polished to perfection. My chef is a stickler for professional skills- which is great. We won’t be lax about the kitchens in our own restaurants in the future.

At noon class is officially over, but rarely dismissed on time because of the over flow of cleaning time. I usually bring a lunch because lecture starts at 12:30. There is only enough time to change into jeans and ditch the baggy whites, hat, and apron for the day. Lecture lasts four hours, and explains the scientific side of baking concepts and theories. This is usually an easy time to surreptitiously doze off for a few minutes at a time.

Days are long….but not over. It’s off to work for me; I have to work a five hour closing shift. I’m a cashier because the schedule is flexible, and I can work my availability around school.

How difficult is your training compared to high school?

Well I was not one of those kids who attended a really cool high school that actually prepared students for the real world by teaching trades or life skills- so college prep was the name of the game. College prep is actually an ambiguously polished label for “nothing at all, and at all nothing.”

High school really did nothing for me as a student, I didn’t find out about my true purpose until much later. At the Art Institute training is moderate, but not at all overwhelming. I can see it in the eyes of some other students that this is not for them- for lack of experience/ desire. But I am used to standing, working, laboring, and being uncomfortable for hours on end to reach a desired end- because I run my own catering business. The physical exertion and required attention to detail is good for enhancing skills and abilities- but not at all difficult.

What did you like most about going to culinary school?

What I liked most is taking home good food everyday! Lol! No, really I liked doing/ learning things I’ve NEVER done/ heard of before. Everyone is at a different level in class, so we meet in the middle- sometimes. A lot of people learn more than I do in class just because of the differences in experience. However practicing things I already know is good for mastering skills and techniques- something a chef can never be too good at. Now that the basics are covered, I am looking forward to accelerated hands- on classes next quarter, and more business focused classes- because I am an entrepreneur.

What is the most challenging?

Honestly the most challenging thing for me is working in groups. Don’t get me wrong, it is mandatory that a culinary professional be capable of working in groups/ on teams for success in the industry. There are just some things that cannot be done by one person alone.

For instance: one person stabilizes a mixing bowl and whisks heated egg yolks and vinegar reduction vigorously as another painstakingly drips clarified butter in a hairline stream with an elevated ladle. But I am naturally a work-alone type.

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 most important thing you should do before going to culinary- or any school for that matter, is find out about YOU. Pray and spend time with yourself. Discover your likes & dislikes, strengths & weaknesses, things that excite you & things that make you cringe.

Going to college is a waste of time if you are doing it just to get to the next stage in life. Many people, I and friends included, have graduated from high school and taken the “next logical step” to college without a thought. It could turn out okay, but too many times it results in a disengaged drop-out or an accomplished graduate who lacks direction- or worse PASSION!

Then before you know it fifteen years fly by and you’re married with kids in a job you don’t love, and wanting to start over again. I always say that your passion is the thing you would do every day for free if you could. Find out what is and work everyday towards it. And don’t give in to pressure- from society, your colleagues, or your parents.

TAKE YOUR TIME; you’ll be glad you did.

What questions should they be asking themselves?

If you are sure that cuisine and culinary school is right for you, then you know it! It is a wonderful industry- and for me way of life. But if you’re on the fence you could ask yourself:

  • Do I… or Am I….
  • Do I love FOOD, and all things food- not just eating it?
  • Am I a hard worker? Am I open to criticism? …Open to change? …Take direction well?
  • …Work well in groups? …Respect others? …Love to learn? …Like to read/ study? … Have stamina?
  • ..Communicate effectively? …Reliable? …Prompt/ timely? …Multitasker/ multi-focused?

What can someone interested in going to culinary school do to prepare themselves while in high school to be successful? Please offer some examples.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty. So if I could hop in a time machine and give my 14 year old self a message it would be:

  • Go to a high school that offers a focused or even supplementary culinary education program. (These are very scarce in Michigan and thusly, my major goal is to create opportunities for youth in culinary education.)
  • Look for special summer enrichment programs at community centers or colleges (check the paper and the college web sites in your area).
  • Read, read, read…everything you can get your hands on about cooking. Go to the library, subscribe to magazines like Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and Martha Stewart. Learn as much and do as much on your own as you can. I think the self is the most under appreciated educator.
  • Practice interesting or even uninteresting recipes you find- you never know what you might love until you try it!
  • Tell your parents what you want to do, and what you know. Parents are more inclined to hear plans and give support when you’ve done your research.
  • Also, when you are of legal age, get a restaurant job! Try a place that promises advancement. You might start off as a buser, and work you way up to prep chef or sous chef by graduation. Trust me, the experience will be invaluable on your resume and in the classroom.
  • And last but undoubtedly most importantly, APPLY TO EVERY SINGLE SCHOLARSHIP YOU ARE PHYSICALLY CABABLE OF APPLYING FOR. Join a scholarship web site like WWW.FASTWEB.COM or WWW.CAPPEX.COM to help you find opportunities. You may be eligible for special scholarships based on you age/ grade alone. Starting the college fund hunt is easier earlier. To start, you should create a profile that answers questions about your goals, plans, involvement, and achievements. This will help you answer the most general questions in scholarship essays.
  • And I almost forgot, research colleges: go visit them if you can, call the administration, compare your top choices, and APPLY EARLY!

What books would you recommend to someone thinking of going to cooking school?

  • The Nasty Bits & Kitchen Confidential by Bourdain
  • Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
  • The New Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst are good choices.

The first two have inside info and real stories about the behind the scenes kitchen life- what you should know and not do. Julia Child is a queen. And the Companion is a survival guide reference book that tells you basically everything at a glance.

What should they leave at the door?

Attitudes, egos, presumptions, expectations, hesitance, sluggishness, distractions, attention deficit, and cell phones!
What characteristics does it take, in your opinion, to be successful as a culinary arts student?

Everyone is different. We all have our idiosyncrasies that describe us. However a common thread in the successful students is: true passion for cuisine, a willingness to learn and listen, ability to follow direction and take criticism, promptness, courtesy/ respect towards others, work well in groups, and read/ study often.

How competitive is it at school?

Initially I believe it was more competitive because students were strangers and were forced to work side by side. Now most of the people that started with me cooperate -usually. We know each others strengths and weaknesses. We know who is reliable, and who will undoubtedly screw up the mise en place.

So the general competition edge has worn off somewhat. We do have challenges from time to time where dishes must be plated in an allotted time period with certain restrictions- working with a randomly selected group of course. This brings out the competition in all of us.

What’s your favorite recipe you’ve prepared so far? Can you share it with us?

So far a relatively simple recipe that I made in pastry class a few weeks ago is my favorite. It is Basil Ice Cream. (Click on the link to see Ja’Lisa’s recipe)

What is the top mistake you made as a home cook that you don’t make anymore now that you are in school?

Buying a cheaper brand (of any product) to use in a first-time recipe.

What would you like to do after you graduate from school?

I am avidly pursuing expanding my catering business. I want to have a successful and growing operation/ building by the time I graduate. I also am working towards teaching classes full time by then.

Where would you like to be in your career 5 years from now?

Prayerfully I will be teaching culinary arts here in Michigan. I am developing a culinary education program for youths that I intend to grow into a full fledged school/ college.

Can you tell me a little about how you became involved with and how the Reluctant Gourmet grant affects you?

The Fastweb Scholarship is an amazing tool that all students should take advantage of. I found the Chefs4Students scholarship there, applied not knowing what to expect, and was picked to receive a $1000 scholarship! I am so thankful for the blessing. I appreciate everyone involved with this organization. It really makes a difference when you have help getting through school. I need all the help I can get, that is why I apply to scholarships every chance I get.

Lastly, please comment on anything you would like to say about the culinary arts industry, becoming a chef, or about going to culinary school?

Well it is my dream/ reality to become a successful culinary career professional, teacher, and mentor. I know that my passion for food has literally magnetized me to my current path. I love food, fun, people (especially kids), and parties- which is why catering and teaching are the areas I was made for.

I am obtaining an education in a field I am proud of and will hopefully leave a legacy in, through the youth. A true cook is anyone who has passion so strong for creating cuisine, that it’s the only thing they can think about.

A chef is a great cook with the discipline, skill, and organization to manage other cooks. There are many lines that fall in between appreciating cuisine and producing it. Students who love the world of food but can’t take the heat of the kitchen may be better suited for food writing, food photography/ styling, or even food critic. The industry is wide and is making room for itself in the world more and more each year.

I am happy to be a part, and encourage everyone to cook something- soon!

Thanks again so much for this interview.

Thanks, it’s been fun!

Last modified on Tue 10 March 2015 8:56 am

Filed in: Chef Interviews

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