Jakob Hammer: Culinary School Insider
One of my favorite types of articles are the industry-insider sort of stuff. What do experts know that we don’t know? Unfortunately, I couldn’t get an expert this week, so I asked my friend Jakob Hammer to join me instead. (Only kidding!) Please enjoy our light-hearted conversation about the behind-the-scenes of culinary school.
Q. You recently graduated from the culinary program at SBCC, right?
How would you describe the CC culinary program?
I would say that it is a program that is extremely good at giving you the skills required to go out and pursue your own interests in culinary arts. I don’t think it necessarily has the time or budget to give you a strong, broad theoretical education, but I think the teachers are very good at teaching you how to cook and how to learn about cooking yourself, which I think is the most important thing.
Would you say you feel prepared to go out and get a job in a kitchen?
Yes, definitely. It’s really a trade program, it’s not something like the Culinary Institute of America, for instance, that is both a trade program and you’re getting a bachelor’s in culinary arts, which teaches you the history of food, the history of gastronomy, which is a different field entirely. But it’s a program that is very good at getting you to a point where you could walk into a restaurant and feel comfortable applying for a job.
What makes a successful culinary arts student?
I think you’re lucky if you’re very organized and detail-oriented, if you have a good internal clock and sense of time, a drive to work fast and stay focused. But that’s just a bonus. The most important thing is that you’re interested in and curious about food.
You’ve now worked in a number of different kitchens. What do you think people who haven’t worked in a kitchen don’t know about professional kitchens?
I think when people think of the culinary industry, they think of the people standing in front of the stove cooking your food and giving it to you when, in reality, that is the very end of the process. I would compare it to an orchestra. People may think that being a professional cook is putting together a finished plate or cooking a piece of fish or pasta and serving it to the customer. But that would be like saying the final performance of an orchestra is everything they do. It kind of ignores the practice and rehearsal and planning, all the minutiae that goes into it. I would say that running a restaurant is very similar to putting on a play every night. There’s all the work that goes into the background and at the end, the very end, your final performance is the culmination of all that effort.
Why do people think of chefs as being so cool? Is it all the tattoos?
I think people associate it with a lot of other industries that are dominated by powerful men, leaders who shout at people, and tell them what to do, and have a strong vision – and maybe that’s just the least charitable interpretation of it. But I think it has this association with very practical rugged skills and that association attracts a lot of people to it.
Is the gendered-ness of the culinary industry something you think about a lot?
I definitely think a lot about it. I think the worst parts of the culinary industry are because, as an industry, it is very protective of its own “toughness.” I’ve read accounts of women who become successful chefs, and the message becomes: Look! They put up with just as much abuse as everybody else! Isn’t that great!
Nobody should have to do that for a job, that’s awful. I think that lots of times people go into fields that are driven by passion, where you’re expected to be doing the job because of your own intrinsic enjoyment of it and because of this, I think poor treatment of employees gets swept under the rug as “just part of it.”
What else would you say attracts people to the culinary industry?
I think there’s a strong attraction to the environment, it’s very fast-paced, very performance-oriented. When you’re in the kitchen and everything is working well, it’s really fun – sort of going back to the idea of putting on a play. You also get a sense of camaraderie with the people you’re working with. It’s really hard work, but when you do it well, it’s very satisfying.
Okay, before we go, it’s time for some rapid-fire questions. Best taco in town?
Split between Tacos Pipeye and El Bajio.
Best ice cream in town?
Rori’s in Montecito. But also, I want to give a shout-out to Mangione’s Italian Ice Co. on State Street.
What is your least-favorite type of prep work?
What is the most overrated ingredient?
Avocado! In California, specifically. I like avocado, but you’re putting a big piece of fat on whatever you’re making, and dishes just don’t always need that.
You’re probably going to get hate mail for that last answer. Moving on – favorite potato chip flavor?
Salt and vinegar.
What is the most underrated seasoning?
Sometimes, I think people work way too hard not to just put a little MSG in their food. I think we’re coming full circle and people are starting to appreciate MSG again. It might even start to become overrated.
Do you think as a culinary student you have a lot in common with ballerinas? Why is everything in French?
I do think I have a lot in common with ballerinas. It is a skill that is simultaneously very physical and artistically focused – you can’t have one without the other. You have to be able to execute your vision in an extremely timely and specific manner, in order for the thing to come out correct in the end.