Unique Culinary Careers: Irene Wu

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.

Irene and Rita Wu
Irene and Rita Wu

DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature, “Unique Culinary Careers.” Students at ICE study for careers in the kitchen but also for careers in the front of the house running and managing restaurants in the ICE Culinary Management program. While working at ICE, Irene Wu was inspired by the students of ICE and decided to embrace her lifelong passion for food and take on managing the newest location of her family’s restaurant Baumgart’s in Nyack. The family-run restaurant offers a Chinese and American menu, complete with an ice cream bar for dessert. Wu, the restaurant’s Operations Director, manages the staff, ordering, and day-to-day operations. We talked to her about what it’s like to be on the other side of the kitchen, owning and operating your own culinary business.

How would you describe your job?

I operate and manage the front of house at one of my family’s restaurants. We are a family-owned pan-Asian and American restaurant in the New York and New Jersey area. Originally, Baumgart’s was an ice cream soda shop in the ‘40s and ‘50s. My parents bought the space in 1988 and basically just started serving what they knew, which was Chinese food. They also kept the diner decor and the best of the homemade ice cream. From there, people really enjoyed it and we were fortunate enough to expand to multiple locations. We opened in Nyack in September 2011.

What has your career path been like?

My parents never forced me to work in the restaurant and I actually never had any interest in it. I graduated from NYU with a degree in Communications Studies and started my career in marketing and advertising. I worked on marketing visuals and creative. It wasn’t until my job at ICE that I started to look at food as a possible career path. I loved seeing and feeling the energy of the students and Chef Instructors working in the kitchen classrooms and was inspired by their enthusiasm for the food business.

What were some unexpected challenges?

I knew my lifestyle would be different and that it would be hard. I spend most of my days working at the restaurant. That was especially hard since I changed paths and I was used to a nine to five schedule. But the hardest thing for me as a manager has been being “on” all the time. It’s hard for me not to feel emotional about decisions. If I’m in a bad mood or I’m upset or angry that someone didn’t come in, I still have to maintain a professional face. And that can be very frustrating.

Do you have a story about a particularly great day?

One great day was when we turned 150 covers in one night. Since we were new, it was a big deal for us. Another great day was back when we first opened and we had someone come in and propose to his fiancée. We helped him get the engagement ring in a Shirley Temple. He proposed on our outside deck with a beautiful view of the Hudson. We were so happy that he decided to share that experience here. We gave them a red velvet cake and champagne on the house from Baumgart’s. It was a very beautiful moment.

How about a bad day?

We’ve had days when servers call out so we’re short staffed or the bathroom is leaking, but those things happen. Something that was bad for me was something you’d actually think would be a good day. When we first opened, we had some press in the Journal News. We knew we would be busy the following weekend, but we weren’t ready for the rush. We didn’t have enough people on staff that day. And since we were new, the staff was still new. They didn’t know dishes well or have as much training as they do now. I look back to that day and think that we could have done so much better.

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

The most satisfying thing is the sense of ownership I have with the things I do. Since I helped open and develop the restaurant, it’s kind of my baby. I helped it grow. The best feeling is when we are busy on a weekend and I’m watching the floor and I feel a sense of flow and everything just clicks. I love when things are moving at a nice pace and everyone looks happy. That’s the best feeling.

Anything exciting coming up soon?

This is our first summer season, so I’m excited for that. We’re developing our happy hour and working on the cocktail menu that we just started in January of this year.

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

Stay focused. Everyone knows it’s going to be hard. You’re always going to have to juggle a lot and it takes up a lot of your schedule. Just stay focused and realize what your end goal is and you’ll get there. Don’t take little things too seriously.. Don’t get upset with little things like an order that doesn’t come in, or staff being late. That stuff upsets me, but it’s wasted energy. It’s best just to figure it out and move on. Also, you should be open to learning. The best servers are ones that watch everyone and know how the whole restaurant operates.  A manager should know how to be a dishwasher and an expediter. They should know how every department works. And of course, hire intelligently. Knowing first-hand the education people get at ICE and quality of instructors, if someone came to me with ICE on their resume they’d go to the top of my pile.

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