Emerson Majano with Chef Antonia Lofaso and ICE's Chairman and Founder Rick Smilow.

This ICE LA Grad Is Thriving In an Unexpected Corner of the Culinary World

Emerson Majano won a scholarship to ICE’s Health-Supportive Culinary Arts program and found his way to the weird and wonderful world of specialty foods and professional kitchen wares.

A visitor to the Surfas Culinary District website is greeted with a “new products page” that includes things like Hotaru matcha milk jam and a professional-grade stainless steel soda siphon.

While the average culinary enthusiast is welcome to shop the store, which describes itself as a “chef’s paradise,” the depot and cafe sections are designed to bring everything a professional chef or restaurateur needs under one roof. Answering the needs and wishes of these chefs is Emerson Majano, a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education Los Angeles.

The food and beverage industry is full of interesting and usual jobs the average person never considers when they think about embarking on a culinary career, including Chef Emerson. After winning the C-CAP scholarship to ICE’s Health-Supportive Culinary Arts program (now Plant-Based Culinary Arts), Chef Emerson was thrilled to land an externship at the exclusive Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles.

“It was an amazing experience because I got to see [techniques and] ingredients I didn't know existed, and put into practice what I learned in culinary school,” Chef Emerson says.

Chef Emerson's full title at Suras Culinary District is Sales Rep, Chef Consultant and Chef Assistant. But long before he was helping LA chefs find obscure molecular gastronomy ingredients or specialty equipment, he was a little boy in Honduras learning to cook — in secret.

“My dad didn't want me to cook,” Chef Emerson says. “He told me ‘You shouldn't be in the kitchen, that's a woman's thing. You should do something that a man does.’”

But Chef Emerson had someone in his corner who supported his passion.

“My grandma got so mad," he says. "She said, ‘Your dad is wrong, it’s not only women who cook.’”

His grandmother was committed to making sure her grandson understood the opportunities that existed for men who were interested in cooking. At the time, "MasterChef USA" was airing in Honduras with a Spanish translation.

“My grandmother said, ‘We’re going to watch this show so you can see all these men cooking,” he says.

From that point forward, Chef Emerson immersed himself in learning everything he could from his abuela, sourcing fresh produce and gathering eggs from the chickens in his backyard. And all the while, he kept this secret from his father.

“When I heard the car engine pulling up I knew my dad was coming, so I would run to change my clothes and put on cologne to hide the smell of the smoke from the clay oven we used, and find something else to look busy with when he came in the door,” he says. “My grandmother had my back, [and] said ‘Don’t worry, I'll never say you were cooking with me.’”

Emerson Majano and two chefs in front of Surfas in Los Angeles.

When Chef Emerson’s parents divorced and his abuela passed away, he and his mother moved to the US. He suddenly found himself in a local Los Angeles high school looking for a way to improve his English and find a way to navigate this new world.

“Everything was completely different — and not what I expected it to be,” he says. “[Los Angeles had] a lot of different cultures, a lot of different flavors and many, many things that blew my mind.”

That’s when C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) came into his life.

When one of his teachers and mentors asked him what he wanted to do after high school, he was at a loss. The only thing he could think of was that he loved to cook, but even with his disapproving father thousands of miles away, he was hesitant to admit what he had kept a secret for so long.

“I said I liked cooking — I didn’t admit that I loved it," Chef Emerson says. "And [the teacher] said ‘Well we have this after-school cooking program maybe you would like.’”

With his mother’s support, Chef Emerson threw himself into the C-CAP program, eventually winning the city-wide competition and a scholarship to ICE’s Health-Supportive Culinary Arts career training program at the Los Angeles campus.

Chef Emerson still remembers the moment he found out he won.

“[The C-CAP directors] called me and said ‘We have some news,’ and when they told me I won the scholarship to ICE I just immediately started crying," he says. "My mom asked what was wrong and I told her I’m the first person in our family to go [past high school] and she said ‘Abuela did this.’ I couldn’t believe it, my dream was coming true.”

Not only did Chef Emerson feel guided by his grandmother, but the Health-Supportive program specifically felt like a return to his roots.

“I was so excited because the Health-Supportive program reminded me a lot of my grandma, using all plant-based organic, everything from her garden,” he says. “And it was amazing being at ICE, it completely changed my life.”

After graduating and completing his externship, Chef Emerson met the same fate as so many in the hospitality industry did when the COVID-19 pandemic hit — the restaurant where he worked closed. Around the same time, he was looking to invest the $500 reward he received from Chef Monti Carlo as a C-CAP winner into expanding his culinary tool kit.

Looking for guidance, he went to one of his ICE chef-instructors to find out where serious professionals get their wares.

“Chef Mike [Pergl] said, ‘We’re going to Surfas. That’s where chefs shop,’” Chef Emerson says.

Completely delighted the minute he set foot in the store, a conversation with the manager quickly turned into a job opportunity of working in the prepared food section in the kitchen.

Chef Emerson started thriving at Surfas — so much so, that he transitioned into a sales position. He now spends his days ordering ingredients, assisting chefs or amateur cooks in finding specific tools or ingredients and helping customers find substitutions for their recipes, putting to use the knowledge he gained in the Health-Supportive program.

When Chef Emerson reflects on what it took to get to this point — sneaking around to learn to cook, teaching himself English to succeed in his high school cooking program and braving the unknown to attend culinary school in Los Angeles — he can’t help but be proud.

“I remember I was about to quit, like a month before our classes were done because I was so exhausted from working, commuting an hour to school, getting out late and then doing it all over again the next day," he says. "But I [thought to myself] ‘Keep pushing. Don't forget what your goal was — to get that diploma.’ And now I can say I've made it.’’

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