The New York Culinary Experience Interviews Part I: Chef Alain Sailhac

The New York Culinary Experience (NYCE) is fast approaching. It begins this Saturday, October 2 at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. This is a great program that allows the attendees to learn hands on skills and cooking techniques from some of the world’s best chefs. That’s right; you get to cook with the masters. And what’s great is that you do not need any prior culinary experience. You truly learn first-hand. By attending the New York Culinary Experience, you also have the opportunity to support The Future Chefs Scholarship Fund. This fund was created to help aspiring chefs to attend The French Culinary Institute by offering financial aid. For more information on the program and how you can purchase tickets, check out http://nymag.com/nyce/.

Chef Cesare Casella (Courtesy of Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

The New York Culinary Experience runs the length of the weekend (October 2-3) with sessions in the morning and afternoon. Some of this year’s culinary giants include Alain Ducasse, Cesare Casella, Johnny Iuzzini, Jacques Torres, Marcus Samuelsson and Todd English to name but a few.
I recently had the opportunity to interview two NYCE participants, Chef Alain Sailhac (a teacher) and Eileen Farr (a past and present attendee). Chef Sailhac is the Executive Vice President and Dean Emeritus of the French Culinary Institute. Ms. Farr is a retired educator. She is an avid cook and baker, who also enjoys to travel. I will feature both interviews in two parts. The first is my interview with Chef Alain Sailhac, which you can read below.

Tony Mangia: Chef Sailhac, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you became a chef?
Alain Sailhac: I became a chef because I wanted to travel and someone told me that if I became a chef, I would be able to travel the world. So that is what I did. After about 6 months as an apprentice I realized that I had a deep passion for cooking and continued on to be who I am today.

TM: What is your earliest food memory and what taste reminds you of childhood?
AS: Rabbit cooked in red wine with mushrooms that my mother cooked on Sundays. We called it Civet de Lapin. Taste that reminds me of childhood – Bugnes, dough fried with confectionary sugar on top. It is served year round, but very important at Easter. I can taste it just talking about it.

TM: What is your role with the New York Culinary Experience?
AS: To cook and share with my 24 students that love of cooking bouillabaisse, which is an extraordinary dish from Provence, in the south of France near the Mediterranean Sea.

TM: How would you describe the New York Culinary Experience for someone who may be interested in attending?
AS: The New York Culinary Experience event is an extraordinary one, where students are plunged into a swimming pool all together, even if they don’t know how to swim. The chef is with them all the time, with assistants for every group and incredible facilities for learning. Even if you have never cooked before, you will be immersed in two and a half hours of great instruction from top chefs. And you have the chance to taste and take home delicious food.

TM: By being a part of the New York Culinary experience, people will also have the opportunity to support The Future Chefs Scholarship Fund, which offers financial aid to aspiring culinary students to attend The French Culinary Institute. Can you please tell us a little bit about this scholarship fund?
AS: The Future Chefs Scholarship fund is a program that offers scholarships to aspiring chefs so that they may have a chance to attend The French Culinary Institute. It is a wonderful program that gives a leg up to students who might not otherwise have the chance to attend culinary school.

TM: As Executive Vice President and Dean Emeritus of The French Culinary Institute (FCI) in New York City, what advice could you give to a person who is considering culinary school?
AS: My only advice is for you to come to the school, visit the facility and if you like it, ask the representative to arrange for you to sit in a class for a couple of hours to get a feel for it. If you feel like it is your school, if it touches you with a passion, if it feels right, then it is the right school for you. If you feel it, do it. If not, you will end up regretting it. Do not hesitate, jump on it. You will gain a lot of experience and be able to use it to your advantage in your career.

TM: Can you tell us a little bit about the French Culinary Institute?
AS: The FCI was founded in 1984 by Dorothy Cann Hamilton, who believed that teaching people to cook was important since she came from a family of teachers. Against the advice of many, she followed her dreams and opened the school. Since then the school has been growing and growing to what it is today. We have over 1,500 students a year coming from all over the world and the school is extremely well known in the world and is very well-respected by all in the industry. Our alumni network is vast and employers trust that when they hire an FCI graduate, they are hiring someone with all of the knowledge necessary to succeed. We help graduates with job placement, not only when they graduate, but throughout the rest of their careers.

TM: If culinary school is not an option for someone, what advice can you give them for starting a career in the restaurant industry?
AS: There are many ways, but it is not a very good idea to start with the direction of only one chef. It will be much harder and take much longer. In culinary school, you learn all of the necessary techniques, not just the ones that you learn from one or two chefs from one or two restaurants. The FCI has many different classes with extraordinary curriculums that give students that advantage over one who has not been formally trained.

TM: What is the difference between a cook and a chef?
AS: You have to be a cook for many years before someone recognizes your skill and talent to lead in the kitchen. As a chef, you have to be leader, a diplomat, and very passionate about your work and everyone in you brigade. This way you have a great team in the kitchen. The chef alone cannot do much, but a chef with a great team will produce exquisite cuisine.

TM: Why do you think cooking, whether professionally or in the home, has become so popular over the last 20 or so years?
AS: Through the increase in wonderful food and cooking magazines and of course the 24 hour Food Network on television, people have discovered that cooking is important because you have the chance to give pleasure to many people. If you cook in your home, you give pleasure to your friends and family which in turn gives you lots of happiness. If you cook professionally, you make many people very happy. The excitement of one day becoming a chef and giving that pleasure to other people has become something a lot of people now desire to do.

TM: What are some of the most important techniques every cook should master?
AS: All techniques are very important. There are many small techniques that make many great dishes. I think one of the most important techniques is to know how to cook fish and meat properly. Everything else on the dish can be perfect, but if the fish or meat is not cooking properly, then the whole dish is ruined. Seasoning is also very important to know about, since they enhance the flavor of the dish. A dish can also be ruined without the proper seasoning.

TM: What is your favorite ingredient to use in your cooking?
AS: Olive oil

TM: What is on the horizon for you?
AS: Nothing else but cooking and pleasing people. Seeing happiness in every class that I walk by, every single day. Seeing the student’s happiness is something that makes me very happy as well.

Chef Alain Sailhac & I at the 2009 NYCE

I would like to thank Chef Sailhac for his time in answering my questions.  Stay tuned for my interview with New York Culinary Experience attendee Eileen Farr, which will be posted soon. I hope to see you at the New York Culinary Experience this weekend. Enjoy!

Living to eat,
Tony Mangia

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