Letter to the Young Chef
As the decade comes to a close, Chef Kelvin Fernandez shares advice with aspiring culinary professionals.
Food is life. We use food to survive and to celebrate. It's an important part of our day. It has the power to change your mood even if you’re having a bad day.
When you are starting your culinary journey, it is important to decide what type of food will be your staple. Work with great chefs and you will become a great chef. It's inevitable. I was lucky to begin my career at a young age. I learned quickly because it was my new love. I wanted to show up early, leave late and finish my work fast so I could help others. By doing that, not only was I learning faster, I was getting better. At first, I would always take my time. Making sure I perfected the craft of each task that was being placed in front of me. But once I was great at all of those, I was excited for the night to end so I could go and help the pastry team with plating desserts.
My career started in high school in a culinary cooking class, followed by my first restaurant job over the summer. I was terrified working my first job in a real restaurant, serving food for hundreds of people and learning from a chef with Michelin-starred restaurant experience. I started working garde manger (salads and cold appetizer), where many young chefs begin, if not prepping or washing dishes. I worked with some amazing cooks back then, and they are now amazing, talented chefs all over the world. I think the most important thing is not to be afraid to ask questions, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and always be a sponge. Confidence builds by practice, getting complimented by chefs and peers, and being an all-around team player. Not every culinary path is the same.
For the past 17 years, I have done so many incredible things, and I never forget where it all started. That foundation made me the man I am today. "Attitude determines altitude," said Alex Rodriguez, describing my work ethic. I never imagined accomplishing all the amazing things I have done in my life, but none of comes without hard work. Network equals net worth, but without showing your talent, saying yes to opportunities and hitting a home run on each one, more opportunities won’t come.
At the age of 22, I became the youngest executive chef in NYC and again I was terrified. If it wasn’t for the general manager believing in me, I wouldn't have believed in myself and taken the chance. I didn't think I was ready, but who is ever ready? If you continue to say no, you will never be ready. It's okay to fail. That's so much better than second-guessing and never knowing what might come from it. What I've learned from that kind of experience is how to know the difference between friendships and work relationships and setting boundaries. Know when it's time to have fun and when it's time to get to work. This was my first time managing a team, half of whom were older than me. It was the first time I had to fire some employees that didn’t want to work under someone as young as I was. I earned the respect of the rest by cooking for them, showing my talent and treating them the way I wanted to be treated, with respect.
Every path will be different, but the path to success comes with working hard and loving what you do.
Start your culinary career path at the Institute of Culinary Education.