Unique Culinary Careers: Claire Handleman

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book's release, they have been discovering even more interesting career paths in the food world. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature, “Unique Culinary Careers.”

Claire Handleman describes herself as a “freelance cook.” She completed the Culinary Arts program at ICE in 2006. Now, she works as one of our Kitchen Assistants, helping cook for a variety of private events. She does similar work helping with banquets at Del Posto and catering with Olivier Cheng and Abigail Kirsch. But in addition, she has worked with Food Network and The Cooking Channel. You may have seen her on Cook Like An Iron Chef with Michael Symon. Never one to turn down an interesting opportunity, she also travels extensively and chronicles her journeys on her blog, Passport to Eat.

What has your career path been like?

I feel pretty lucky that I’ve had so many different opportunities within the food world, whether it's writing about food, cooking in four-star restaurants, such as Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, and Del Posto, or cooking on a TV set. When you're totally passionate about your job, nothing feels like work. I rarely wake up and think “I don't want to go to work today.” Work doesn't feel like work to me. I’d do it for free (and have very often worked for free) because I love it. I seize every opportunity to learn. If someone needs help with a cocktail event, which I know very little about, I'll do it. If my friend needs a hand with a backyard BBQ, I’ll do it. There’s always something to be learned from every situation. And in taking every opportunity, I also get to meet a lot of people. That's how I can keep diversifying my skills. I also push myself to do things outside of my daily jobs. I want to constantly be working on something and working towards a goal. My next goal is to teach people about how to travel and what to eat around the world.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I like the variety. I worked full-time in kitchens for a bit, and after a few months, I was antsy to move stations. If I feel I’ve learned something well, I want to move on and keep learning. It’s hard if you've been working a station in a restaurant for a year. It becomes routine, and that's not exciting for me. I also travel a lot. Food and travel is my dual passion and it's really important to me to try to taste everything (It's a big task, but I’m whittling it down, slowly but surely!). I’ve done an extensive amount of eating and traveling the past eight years and freelancing gives me that opportunity. I work really hard for eight months out of the year, and then I take off three to four months during the winter. I head somewhere warm and eat! Not only do I feel super fortunate that I love my work — the food that I’m cooking, the chefs I work for and the cooks I work with — but I get to explore the world gastronomically because I’ve created a lifestyle that allows me to do so.

How did you ICE help prepare you for your job?

Well, I considered going into kitchens without school experience. But ICE really gave me the familiarity with a kitchen setting, with cooking terms and most importantly confidence. I did my externship at Jean Georges, and I think school acted as a bit of a comfort blanket for me. I wasn't sure I had all the skills I needed, but I knew that I must have some since I passed all my modules. I also had great teachers — chefs who really pushed us to push ourselves. I used to stay after class most days and work with Chef Chris on his recipe testing. He always gave me a hard time, but he's very nurturing and passionate about his work so he'd let me tag along and lend a hand. I still keep in touch with many of the Chef Instructors because they turned into friends and colleagues. And I constantly pester Director of Student Affairs Andy Gold to keep me in the loop. I email him when there's an event I’d like to work or a job that sounds up my alley. ICE has been great not only for the techniques and recipes but for the support and connections they have within New York.

Do you have any interesting upcoming projects?

I’m heading to Asia in January to work for a few months. Last year, I ran into Jim Meehan (of PDT) in Hong Kong and he introduced me to a friend who now needs a hand with food and beverage in a few hotels in Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. So I’m heading out there for a few months to help with that. Getting to spend a few months eating papaya salads sounds very appealing and I’ll catch the beginning of durian season!

What’s your number one piece of advice for people hoping to get into the food world?

You have to love it. It can't be just an inkling of interest. It’s really hard work, and it doesn't always pay well. The reality is that the hours are long and it's hot in kitchens. I was warned not to pursue my passion because it would turn into a job with obligation and necessity. But that advice couldn't have been further from the truth. I think all my accomplishments stem from the fact that I love my job. Cooking is a great hobby, and if you're not sure, try a few classes. Get a sense for a kitchen, stage in a few different restaurants and try to get a feel if this lifestyle can work for you.

Interested in starting your own unique culinary career? Pick up a copy of Culinary Careers and get started now.

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