Culinary Careers: Susan Stockton

Not too long ago, Susan Stockton, Senior Vice President, Culinary Production at Food Network, was a culinary arts student at ICE. I first met Ms. Stockton when she spoke about Food Network and Cooking Channel at the school in August 2012. As a recent graduate, I immediately began to imagine how inspiring it would be for current ICE students, prospective students, and other alumni to hear a bit more about her incredible journey, experiences, and accomplishments in the food industry.  

When I contacted her to request an interview on behalf of ICE, Ms. Stockton graciously accepted. We met at the Food Network offices at Chelsea Market. Here’s what she had to say:

FNMI’ve heard that you’ve had previous careers in film, as a florist, a caterer, and a graphic designer. What made you decided to make another career change and attend culinary school?  

I had a 12-year-old graphic design firm based in Boston in the late 80’s. At that time, Boston was in a recession, much like we are now. Clients were cutting budgets left and right. I’d also just met my husband. It felt like a good time to jump-start a new life with this new person—who had a new job offer in New York City! The last thing you want to do is open up a New York design studio in a recession.

That forced me to stop and ask myself what I wanted to do next. What made me happy? I’d had other careers, been schooled in fine arts and writing and had landed a job as an art director for a small film company. After a few years, I opened a tropical plant store in Boston with movie posters collected from that job and called it "Hollywood & Vine". I always tell career-changing students, everything you learn from past careers can help you leverage your next career. Just be sure to follow your passion.

So, that’s what I did. I’d always loved cooking and entertaining. I got that from my family. Every get-together revolved around huge spreads of food. And I’d been casually catering dinner parties for friends in Boston and really enjoyed it. So when it came time to move to New York, I felt the desire to begin again.  

How did you figure out a game plan?  

I didn’t! I had to stop one career. I passed along my business in Boston to someone who worked for me, which was very convenient, and Rick and I moved to New York. I realized I had to re-educate myself, so I threw myself back into school. I knew how to cook. I had been catering, but I was cooking from family recipes and cookbooks. I didn’t know proper techniques. I’d watched Julia Child’s The French Chef for inspiration. Once I arrived in New York, I heard that ICE (it was "Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School" back then) presented a fast track intensive that was very appealing to me. So I signed up for the professional cooking program and retooled my career.  

My original idea was to open a restaurant. Back in the late 80’s, there weren’t as many culinary career options as today. I worked in a small restaurant in the Village with long hours and loved it. But I knew I had to do something with better hours or I wouldn’t stay married for long, so I started pounding the pavement. I had a photography background from my graphic design days (plus, my father was a photographer, and I knew how to style food), so I wound up doing some freelance work for the Times for their Wednesday Dining & Wine section.

From there, I started networking, just meeting as many people as I could, and doing whatever I could in the industry: catering, food styling, testing recipes… When Food Network came on the scene, I was drawn like a moth to the flame. After freelancing for a while, I was hired as a chef in their midtown studio kitchen, where I had the honor of cooking with amazing chefs and cookbook authors. as well as a team of passionate foodies who were also drawn to the network.

In the beginning, it seemed as if we were really making the TV part of it up as we went along. Today, people come out of culinary school figuring they’ll immediately land some really plum job. But, what I look for and long to see are the people who are willing to try everything, really branch out and experience as much as they can, and then figure out what they excel at. Don’t refuse to do anything; take time to learn. Experience your professional life fully. That’s kind of an old-school way of looking at things, but that’s how I see it.  

How did you decide that ICE/Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School was best for you?  

Well, back then, you could go stage in a restaurant or you could attend a four-year program like CIA. But I already had a degree, and prior careers, so I didn’t want to do that. When I got to New York, I just started talking to people in the industry. After a bit of research, I chose Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School. It was pretty scrappy in those days – in a good way!

The first dot-com crash had just happened and a lot of people in my class were looking to retool themselves. They had dreamt of a career in digital and were forced to realize that was not going to happen. So, they decided that they’d be the next great chef, and I remember how shocked many were when they heard what a starting salary for a prep cook was!

It was hugely disturbing for people in my class to understand that you just had to pay your dues, having had some business experience, I knew that. You have to save enough money to enroll in the program, and to have a little bit of running room after, to stage around or whatever you have to do to get into people’s kitchens and just learn as much as you can in order to find your place. And there weren’t that many places! In those days, being a woman in the kitchen wasn’t that comfortable either, but I lucked out and ended up working for a woman chef.  

As far as ICE/Kump, you get out of it what you put into it. I knew I was going to have to stop everything and totally apply myself. And I just loved it.  

What’s your role right now at Food Network/Cooking Channel and how do you see the business evolving?  

I’m Senior Vice President, Culinary Production here at Food Network. I have the pleasure of heading up the amazingly talented Food Network kitchen team. Just like home, our kitchen really is the heart of our network. The 32 culinary professionals on staff live our brand and contribute to every facet to keep us on trend. I have to say, I finally have my dream job!  

Food Network has boomed since its early days. Originally, the kitchen was responsible for working on set with talent as well as cooking, styling, and scripting what happened behind the scenes for our TV food demos. Then our website grew, and much later our magazine launched, and the kitchen also focused on developing recipes, tips, and other food content for the home cook. As the network gained popularity, fans wanted more ways to engage with our brand. So our new business team brought us in to co-develop new ideas. In the past few years, we’ve launched an award-winning line of wines with Wente Vineyards called "Entwine" that was blended specifically to pair with food. The kitchen not only participates in the blending process, but they also feed a website with wine pairing recipes. We also develop and test cookware for our Food Network-branded product line at Kohls.  

Our latest big news is that we just opened our first Food Network Kitchen restaurant in the Jet Blue terminal of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Airport. We’re using this as a prototype for more in other cities. Our dream is to give travelers a taste of the town they’re flying to (or through) by building menus of our own recipes that are inspired by local favorites. Getting people to pull up a chair and actually taste the brand is pretty cool. We’ve never been able to do that before.

One of our challenges was how to stay local/sustainable while growing locations across the country. We addressed that by mapping out a 60-mile radius around the airport and sourcing ingredients and growers to make our dishes. We also like to curate the best food artisans from these locations and let travelers know where to taste some great product while they’re in town. Actually, this is nothing new for us; Food Network programs have celebrated regional food for years. Needless to say, our kitchen team is never bored.  

It took Food Network a while to actually produce a magazine, which is interesting because it’s diverse and doesn’t have the same feel as the other food magazines out there. How did that evolve?  

Hearst is the answer. They are an amazing partner for us. Maile Carpenter is our Editor in Chief. It took a lot of getting together to figure out what the magazine’s voice and look would be, and how we could work well together. Maile totally gets us. Her husband’s a chef, so it’s a very comfortable relationship. 

Our test kitchen and the Hearst editorial team work closely on each issue. Plus, Food Network is pretty unique in its food diversity, and I think the magazine reflects that. We’re a mash-up of home cooks, chefs, and a huge base of Food Network fans so the magazine must talk to a lot of people with varying skills and interests.

That audience ranges from busy moms looking for weeknight solutions, to parents and kids who like to have fun in the kitchen, and also includes people who may have a bit more time on weekends to make something more challenging. Our test kitchen shoots roughs of dishes they’ve developed and sends them to Hearst where they’re re-shot for the magazine. We proof every issue and test every recipe – even the recipes from chefs – just to be doubly certain they’ll work for our reader. There’s nothing worse than asking someone to invest money and time in a recipe that doesn’t work well or taste delicious.  

Do you have people putting their feelers out there doing research for you, listening to the industry?  

Sure, we have a research department as well as a culinary researcher. Our talent also tells us what’s happening in their worlds, so they add to our information gathering as well. My team travels quite a bit for work and when they’re in the field they naturally check out the local food scene in restaurants, food trucks, and grocery stores. We want our shows and recipes to reflect what our audience is craving, while also being relevant to everyone with ingredients they don’t have to search high and low for.  

We have a real mixed bag of cooks in our kitchen; people passionate about a specific cuisine, bakers, as well as people from different parts of the country and different ethnic upbringings. We try to reflect the diversity of our viewers. I’m originally from Chicago, so I have a different perspective than someone raised here in Manhattan. I know everything doesn’t revolve around New York (laughs)...usually (laughs).  

What’s the most exciting thing going on at Food Network right now?  

Lots. After nearly 20 years at Food Network, it seems like we’re running on all cylinders. Our website is on top of its game and the digital team has launched some amazing apps, which the kitchen has supported: check out Cupcakes, Soups, and Cookies. We’re looking forward to a number of new shows launching on Food Network very soon, and we’re in the process of writing a cookbook for one of our top competition shows.  

What is your fondest memory of Food Network?

Hmm. There are so many. But, I especially liked the camaraderie between chef, kitchen, band, and crew during Emeril Live. The pilot of this show was a revelation. The audience brought a new element to cooking shows. Cooking had become truly entertaining, and everyone, especially Emeril, was having a great time!  

We all know the food industry is big on giving back, but another memory (post-Katrina), was discovering that Scripps (our parent company) is a very charitable place to work. We spent a lot of time shooting in New Orleans, so when Katrina hit we were all just kind of blown away. One of the guys in our kitchen asked me, “What can we do? These people are hungry and no one is helping them.” That spurred me on to call corporate and say, “We’d like to do something…I don’t know what or how yet, but we’ll figure it out.” I mean, the Red Cross wasn’t even there yet, and Scripps said OK. I was very impressed that our company not only had a good heart but was also willing to take action. We weren’t able to enter NOLA, but we heard Gulfport, Mississippi needed assistance for first responders, police, and rescue teams who were devastated by days end.

The parts of town that hadn’t been blown away had been evacuated, so we set our small group of cooks in a grammar school cafeteria and cooked comfort food all day long. We had to cook with the pars in the school pantry, which was pretty bad! You know, huge cans of who knows what. At that point, we called Sysco and talked them into bringing a truckload of fresh food through roadblocks to Gulfport. Next, chefs were offering to come down to cook. Alton Brown and Ming Tsai were first on the scene dishing out food in the cafeteria line and cheering people up. Working for a company that supports social responsibility left a lasting impression on us all.  

What charitable organization do you feel most strongly about?  

Share Our Strength. I find them to be a very grassroots organization that works through strong partnerships with chefs and corporations to find solutions to big problems. Billy Shore announced No Kid Hungry in 2007-2008 and made us all focus on the fact that there’s a new face of hunger – right here in our own country. Food Network is Share Our Strength’s media partner. If you haven’t seen our documentary Hunger Hits Home, you should check it out.  

I also noticed that most of the Food Network chefs are paired up with this charitable organization as well.  

Well, chefs are an amazingly charitable lot; you know that. We’re all in the industry of feeding people and making people happy. Taste of the Nation (also a Share Our Strength event) has been around for years. So, chefs got in on the ground level helping Share Our Strength with their mission. Another recipient of Share Our Strength support is Food and Finance High School. I’m on their Board of Advisors. It’s a public school in Hell’s Kitchen that accepts kids from all over the city who are interested in building a career in food. Amazingly, there’s a fish farm on the lower level growing tilapia and a hydroponics farm on the second floor growing pineapples – not your typical public school.

Cornell has contributed to these labs, but the school needs a ton of support to keep running. It’s a pretty rough and tumble school, with guards and metal detectors at the door. But many chefs donate their time to teach and take interns into their kitchens. Students come away with a lot of learning about the future of food. I was there once showing somebody around the school, and I was trying to get one of the kids warmed up to talk a little bit, because they’re just so wonderful, and I said, ‘So, there’s a professor in the basement growing tilapia, and you have aquaponics two floors up, and I understand a connection will soon be made between the two systems so that the fish will be fed from the byproducts of the plants and vice versa.’  

I asked him, ‘Why are they doing that?’ He answered, ‘How else do you expect to grow food on Mars?’  

What do you think is the most serious food-related issue facing this country today?  

Obesity. Love it or hate it, I think Bloomberg really built awareness to the fact that we’re consuming way too many empty calories. I think moderation and education is where we need to focus. Through the 90’s and 00’s, we’ve literally blown ourselves up in size. So, I think it’s time to become a little more rational about what we eat and how much of it.  

What cookbook are you cooking from right now?  

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem. His lovely way of cooking is really on my mind right now. He has a couple of restaurants in London and a largely veggie repertoire. He’s really capturing Mediterranean and healthful whole, fresh, gorgeous food and crossing borders in a very non-political way, which is very interesting for a chef to do right now.  

What’s one thing you wish people knew about Food Network and Cooking Channel, something that people don’t ask you about that you wish they did?  

A lot of people don’t realize that there’s actually a real world, working Food Network kitchen. We're really committed to food, so we have experts who are cooking, writing, developing delicious recipes, designing product and researching for our website, shows, and magazine to give our brand credibility and strength.

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