Unique Culinary Careers: Ed Debiec

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 culinary career paths. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature: “Unique Culinary Careers.”

We’ve already met some professionals who have dedicated their passion for the culinary arts to helping others learn to cook or find careers in the restaurant world. But there are also careers that put a passion for food to work helping to feed the hungry.

Ed Debiec, a 2006 ICE Culinary Arts alum, is the demonstration chef at the Desert Mission Food Bank, a part of the John C. Lincoln Health Network in Phoenix, Arizona. There, he helps educate the food bank’s clients about nutrition and cooking to promote healthy eating. Debiec graduated from the ICE program when he was 62 years old and has gone on to find a career than makes him in his own words “a truly happy man.”

After he stopped by to catch up with his old Chef Instructors a few weeks ago, we asked him about his line of work and what it means to him.

How would you describe your job?

The demonstration chef’s job is varied, challenging and interesting. Mainly, the job is to deliver nutrition education to clients and students — presenting recipes, providing samples for clients to taste, delivering outreach programs to schools and community centers, cooking demonstrations, serving as a resource, quality control, healthy eating, and sanitation all make up the chef’s job.

How did you get this job?

Actually, I applied for the job three times. The first time, I was granted an interview, and then felt I did well but did not get the job. The second time I was not even given an interview. I knew I was right for the position, so I started volunteering at the food bank. When the current chef took some vacation time, I was asked if I would volunteer my cooking for a few days. I did well but then went back to a regular volunteer’s job. When the chef became ill and had to take an extended leave, I volunteered to cook some more. Eventually, the chef had to quit, so I applied again and was hired on the same day of my interview. I have been in the position for a year and three months. Previously, three different chefs were in the same position in the span of one year.

What has your career path been like?

My career path has been all over the place. I worked in my university’s cafeteria when I was 19; sold shoes and threw newspapers while in college; worked in the college bookstore; taught middle and high school; cooked in low-end restaurants; drove a school bus; worked as an educational consultant; served as a facilitator for offenders in domestic violence classes. Finally, when I was 62 I followed my dream and passion, enrolled in ICE, interned at a catering business in Nashville, Tennessee. Once I graduated, I never thought I would actually work in the foodservice industry. But all my life’s work has brought me to my current Demonstration Chef’s position and I am a very happy man.

What inspires you?

People, all kinds of people. I am fortunate to have known many wonderful people who have taught me a great deal. Everyone from the young students I cook for to the older men and women who come into the food bank because they are facing difficult times. From the volunteers who give of their time and energy in a demanding environment to my co-workers and boss who work hard for little pay but receive a great deal of appreciation. From my college professors to the Chef Instructors at ICE who taught me the fundamentals and showed me I could hold my own. Also, my love of cooking gives me inspiration.

One important part of the Demonstration Chef’s job is to use the food at hand to cook simple, healthy recipes. Often, there is no fresh product but this is the same situation our clients face every day in their own pantries. So, I improvise, find ways to adapt and look for the healthiest choice I can make that day to help our clients understand that simple, healthy eating does not have to be expensive or consist of exotic food items. Simple and healthy (and inexpensive) is within reach — all we have to do is learn how to use the resources available to us.

What were some unexpected challenges?

This question makes me laugh. Challenges are the norm at the food bank. Unexpected is the expected. Some days we have an abundance of food and volunteers are suggesting all kinds of things I “should” be making. Other days, truly, the cupboards are bare and I put together a peach crumble with canned peaches and the ingredients at hand. The other major challenge is my “kitchen” which consists of a small toaster oven, a two-top electric burner, an electric skillet, a blender and assorted kitchen supplies. Since space is limited, I set up my kitchen every time I cook, moving equipment around so I have space to prep and cook

What is a typical day like?

No day is a typical day. Some days, I can prep and cook three recipes and have time to do paperwork. Other days, I serve as the stocker for the food bins since we are often short-handed. On those days, I do not cook at all. None of this, of course, is new to seasoned chefs since everyone does what is needed in a kitchen. Sometimes though the parameters of what is needed to go far from the norm for a chef’s routine.

Do you have a story about a particularly great day?

Most days are particularly good days. The days I get to cook and help people with food choices are the best. One particular day, early on, stands out because I was serving my own recipe for a yellow squash casserole. I am only allowed to serve in two-ounce cups since we are not a restaurant. A young boy, maybe eight-years-old, came to my kitchen four times, holding up his cup, but too shy to ask for more. That was a plus day that brought tears to my eyes.

On another good day, a young, homeless man came into the food bank, after receiving his emergency food bag from the main office. He had no can opener and wanted to know if he could trade some of his food for things he could eat. I supplied him with the opener and he told me he had not eaten for three days. Upon leaving, he proceeded to eat an entire jar of peanut butter, using his fingers for a spoon. Sometimes, I make gelatin with fruit to sample during the hot summer days in Phoenix.

One day, a young lady came in, looked at the sample and said, “Did you make that?” I smiled and said, “Yes.” She countered with, “All by yourself?” At first, I thought she was kidding but soon understood she was very serious when she followed up with, “I have never made Jello-O in my life!” I asked her what she served in its place for her children. She answered, “Oh, I just buy it ready-made from the store.” Helping her understand that she was paying for mostly water and that gelatin was easy to make at home was a highlight of my early days at the food bank. There are lots of small victories and satisfying moments.

How about a bad day?

Bad days are rare but they happen and they revolve mostly around not having enough food to give to our clients. On one day, we had to close early because we had nothing to give; even the seasoned workers were in tears when we had to turn people away.

What is your favorite thing about your job?

This is an easy one for me — helping people. But not in the sense of a handout. It’s always in the sense of a hand-up for people who are in crisis and need a little help getting through the next few days or weeks or months. From the teenage mothers with two little ones in tow and the elderly gentlemen who have lost everything in these difficult economic times and many others — all are treated with dignity and respect and are allowed a sense of worth when, perhaps, their senses have been battered and they question their current lot in life.

What has been the most challenging thing?

Actually, two major challenges are faced each day. First of all, the challenge of cooking with limited resources – food, equipment, space, and the other demands of the job. Secondly, staying positive so that the food bank experience will be as painless and non-threatening as we can make it.

How did ICE help prepare you for this job?

ICE was, and still is, an inspiration to me. When I first enrolled, I was sure I would never cook for a living. All I wanted to do was learn to cook better for my family and friends. As time went on, my passion for cooking — stoked by the Chef Instructors who were positive, caring, and experts in what they did — became a driving force to push me to be better. When I started as the Demonstration Chef, I was confident I could do the job. I had the tools, knowledge, and drive to succeed and help. ICE gave me the foundation for success.

Anything exciting coming up soon?

The Desert Mission programs, part of the John C. Lincoln Health Network, have started a pilot program for Childhood Obesity Prevention. We hosted a kick-off for invited families early in March 2012, and have started the actual program with 27 children who are overweight or obese. My job will be to help provide nutrition education for the children, along with simple, healthy foods they can cook at home, by themselves and/or with their parents. Secondly, the Desert Mission is trying to expand the role of Demonstration Chef. If some grant monies come through, we are hoping to hire another chef so that we can provide more services to all of our clients.

What is your advice for anyone looking for a similar career?

Learn all you can. Read. Be willing to adapt. Be flexible. Know that not all culinary experiences need to be five-star dining. Many people need and want help in understanding that healthy eating is the key to healthy living. Know that just being able to teach a few people how to put together a dinner that is healthy, affordable, and fun to do is a contribution that has long term results, not just for those learning but for those of us teaching too.  

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