Submitted by Jailene Souza on January 4, 2020 7:24am
What an inspiration she is!
Susete Araujo (Culinary, ’19) is not one to shy away from unfamiliar territory. The Brazil native moved to the U.S. at the age of 20 to continue studying marketing and design at Suffolk Community College on Long Island. Afterward, she headed west to L.A., where she enjoyed watching her friends react to her homemade meals. That passion for creative arts and desire to cook from scratch led her to enroll in the Culinary Arts program at ICE’s Los Angeles campus.
She landed a coveted spot at Chicago’s Alinea for her externship, and after five months, was hired as a full-time commis. We chatted with Susete to learn more about working at the world-renowned, Michelin-starred restaurant and what drives her each day.
Why did you leave Brazil?
I was raised in Rio and started traveling by myself around 16 years old. I went to England at 17 to join my sister who lived there. Initially I went to learn English, then I got a job as an au pair. It was the first time I was in another culture in a different country speaking another language. It was a great experience and I knew that I wanted more. After a year, I went back to Brazil to study and go to college for fashion design. I liked it, but I wanted to do more.
How did you make the transition to culinary studies?
Some years ago, a friend challenged me to become vegan with her. At first, I hated it due to the fact that everything was tasteless, premade or artificial. I loved the ideology behind it, so I decided to cook everything that I was going to eat from scratch. Months went by and I realized I was getting so much more involved, I started becoming curious about culinary creations and reactions and why ingredients were prepared a certain way. The artistic experimentation in fine dining caught my attention so I started researching chefs and the history of restaurants, and it was a combination of me wanting to be creative and this passion for cooking that led me to culinary. I started cooking for friends to see their faces while eating my food.
At 25, I decided to change careers and go to culinary school. That being said, I was committed to thrive and be the best I could — I wanted to learn from the best and work for the best. I needed to be the best I could be. That has always been my main goal.
What motivated you in culinary school?
At ICE, I had the reassurance that I was on the right path. What motivated me was my passion, my goal to make something better. Lead Chef Rossi told us to try to become the best at one thing and then move on. My motivation is to be the best at my station: Every day it needs to be better than the day before. My motivation is constant evolution and improvement.
Have you noticed this payoff?
A few weeks ago, my sous chef and executive chef mentioned having loved a rabbit liver mousse I made, commenting that it was nearly perfect. That made me think I am moving in the right direction. I feel much more confident now. I am doing the right things naturally and not out of pressure or fear.
How did you get your externship at Alinea? What was the process like?
I saw on Instagram that they were hiring and thought, it’s never going to happen, but I’ll send in my resume anyway. I applied and had a phone interview scheduled pretty fast. I told them during the interview that I wanted to work at a restaurant where I could build a career and challenge myself. Next, they called me in for a two-day stage. The stage was pretty difficult and intense, but I did what I could and I was open to learning. At the end of service, I was exhausted. The executive chef called me over and offered me a position as a chef commis. My first response was, “What? Are you sure? I have zero experience.” The worst thing you can say to a chef is to ask if they are sure about something. But Chef Simon explained that he wanted me to come in because he knew I was going to be properly trained, and just like me, his first restaurant job out of culinary school was as a commis at Alinea at age 19, 10 years ago. He said, “If I did this, I think you can do this too.” Then he told me I had two days to give him my answer.
What is an average day like as a commis at Alinea?
I currently work at the fish station, which honestly, I have so much love for. Alinea serves 12 courses, and the fish station makes five of those. The commis starts early in the morning at 6 a.m. First, I work on my prep list for the day. It’s also important that I communicate with any new commis at the fish station, to make sure they have priorities for the day and to answer any questions. I make and prep sauces, crackers, protein mousses and emulsions. We have two kitchen breakdowns: one in the morning and another in the afternoon. We welcome in all the chefs and chefs de partie, to go over what we have done, what’s yet to finish and any concerns for the day. The day also consists of an herb party and picking flowers, a back-of-house meeting, staff meal prep, deep cleaning in all areas, and managing time and speed in order to learn new projects and get involved in other stations. An average day as a commis at Alinea is about constantly moving forward.
It sounds challenging. What keeps you going?
I wanted it from the beginning. I cried for the first two months, every day. I made so many mistakes; I dropped things; I broke things. But it’s always been about the commitment I made to myself and to the executive chef. Maybe what he told me he tells everyone else, but to me, it means something. I look at these chefs and I think that they are amazing and they can teach me. If I can change something, I can change myself. I’m learning so much and I feel so comfortable in that kitchen. I believe the food we make exceeds any expectations: It brings people from all over the world to eat there. There’s passion for the flavoring, higher standards for cooking, concerns about developments and a hunger to stay on top of the game every day.
How has this role helped you grow as a chef?
This role is teaching me how to be a chef. It’s introducing me to new flavor profiles. It has improved my knife skills, taught me about emulsifications, stabilizers, reductions, stocks and sauces. It’s teaching me how to think like a professional cook, how to manage and to problem solve. I’m starting to develop my leadership skills, how to speak to and train people, and I’m finding my own style in the kitchen. Alinea is a second culinary school.
How did ICE prepare you for your position?
ICE was what helped me create a basis for my professional culinary career. I learned the foundation of cooking techniques, mother sauces, animal butchery, the importance of creating a production schedule, knife skills, handling of professional instruments, how to read and translate a recipe, food safety handling, kitchen etiquette, kitchen vocabulary — those things make a huge difference versus going into the industry blind.
ICE prepared me in a professional way, so when you come in you’re more prepared, you know the hierarchy, you understand the product. ICE was an amazing place to start off and I learned so much there. I wouldn’t trade my time at ICE for anything — it was highly important.