The New York Culinary Experience Interviews Part II: Ms. Eileen Farr

Jacques Torres talking chocolate at last year’s NYCE (Courtesy of Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

The second part of my blog on the New York Culinary Experience (NYCE) focuses on an interview I had with Ms. Eileen Farr of Coconut Grove, Florida.  Ms. Farr has been attending the NYCE regularly for several years.  She is dedicated to this short term cooking school and plans her calendar around this event.  Here is my interview with Ms. Farr.

Chef Marcus Samuelsson (Courtesy of Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Tony Mangia: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  Do you work in the foodservice industry?
Eileen Far: Although I would dearly love to work in the foodservice industry, I don’t. I am simply a good amateur cook who enjoys cooking and baking. Several times a year, I prepare a food event for several of my friends ranging from groups of forty to a maximum of seventy-five to eighty guests. I do prepare everything from scratch with only some prep assistance from my housekeeper. In her earlier days, my mother would occasionally assist me in baking and arranging the dessert presentations.

I was a public school teacher in Florida for thirty years, and have spent the past seven years since my retirement indulging my passion for cooking and baking. I have attended cooking schools in Tuscany, the New York Culinary Experience, several celebrity chef weekend retreats, the celebrity chef cooking series in Miami, and will attend a cooking school in Venice this fall.


TM: How did you first hear about the New York Culinary Experience?

EF: A couple of years ago, my husband enrolled me in the New York Culinary Experience as an anniversary gift. I have attended every year since and will continue to do so as long as it continues. I plan my calendar around the event. There is no finer short term cooking school experience available in the United States.

TM: How would you describe the New York Culinary Experience for someone who may be interested in attending?
EF: The selection of a culinary school experience, be it a boot camp or an interactive event such as the New York Culinary Experience, depends in great part on the level of participation you are seeking. Cooking experiences range from the dilettante level to those for participants who truly enjoy expanding their skills. The New York Culinary Experience is for the true “foodie” who wants hands on development of their existing or non-existing talent.

The New York Culinary Experience is the perfect blend of participation, rubbing aprons with the chefs while preparing dishes alongside of them and learning bits and pieces of each one’s special technique. Holding the event in New York at The French Culinary Institute offers each participant the ultimate in personal access to the desired chefs, restaurants and culinary facilities.

I found that each chef’s personality is the single most important factor of any culinary experience. Nothing spoils the event more than a chef who is in love with his own press clippings. The New York Culinary Experience really harnesses that depth of talent to select only the top chefs who actually seem to enjoy working with amateur chefs. Beyond the obvious factors of menus and techniques, I recommend researching each chef’s reputation for interacting with patrons and non-professionals.

The New York Culinary Experience has taught me to explore the culinary venue with a new appreciation and more educated taste buds. I no longer just pick a “name” restaurant or the new “hot” venue, or a stock dish. I am more selective while at the same time more open to different culinary adventures.

In addition to the practical training, the event offers the more traditional panel discussions during two lunch events. Some of the chefs even welcome the students to dine at their restaurants to really experience the chef’s individual vision. Although that is not included in the curriculum price, it is really a worthwhile experience to enjoy restaurants that might not otherwise be accessible for reservations several months.  You can find the full details on the event website, http://nymag.com/nyce/ which is one of the more informative on-line sites.

TM: How did you decide on the sessions you wanted to attend?  Were there certain chefs you really wanted to see? 
EF: I found that having a behind the scenes organization such as Conundrum Marketing is highly important to the success of the event. From lining up the right blend of chef specialties to the actual facilities, curriculum and schedule of classes the organization team is critical in assuring that the right combination is represented. I worked very closely with them to select the exact classes and chefs that were right for me. In some cases, they steered me away from certain chefs I thought I wanted and to others with whom I was unfamiliar.

TM: Did you have a favorite session?  If you did which was it and why?
EF: My personal favorite was Jonathan Benno from Per Se. His humor, attention to detail and willingness to really work with each student was outstanding. He is as personable as he is accomplished. The knowledge that he and his fellow chefs carry in their heads is amazing. They can imagine tastes and the effect of different spices, herbs, and ingredients before ever creating the actual dish. In the words of the PGA, “These guys are good!!!” There is light-years of difference in the ability of a professionally trained master of his craft and the best amateur cook. When a chef adds a “pinch” of something, he or she knows exactly how much that is. Every time they prepare a dish it is slightly different. Ingredients and flavors vary from day to day and from utensil to utensil.

TM: What is it like to learn from these amazing culinary masters? 
EF: The best feature of the whole culinary experience is working side-by-side with, and learning from, chefs who are masters or mistresses of their craft, having them watch and correct you as well as learning their techniques and tips in a personal setting. The one-on-one interaction with the chef and camaraderie with other students is stimulating and exciting. Knowing the details of how that particular chef prepares his or her signature dish or area of expertise enhances my appreciation for fine food. Not necessarily fancy food, just fine food prepared exquisitely.

The most surprising feature of the weekend is just how personable the chefs were in a real life setting and how willing they were to interact with students who were truly interested in learning as opposed to just being able to claim an acquaintance with the chef. I gained a new perspective on the use of ingredients that would not ordinarily be considered complimentary, but can be used creatively to create a taste adventure.

TM: Do the chefs interact with the students?
EF: Working side-by-side with a famous chef can be intimidating to say the least. However, I found that the chefs at the New York Culinary Experience were extremely personable, open to questions and more than willing to share techniques and tips with the students. Each of them had sous chefs to assist the students in hands on preparation of the dishes. There were more than enough ingredients for every participant to prepare and plate the identical items. Since this is one of the world’s most renowned cooking schools, there are multiple kitchens which are fully stocked with every utensil and ingredient.

TM: What is it like watching the chefs cook in person compared to watching them on television?
EF: One of the greatest tips I learned was the use of herbs and spices to vary a dish. While I have always used herbs and spices in my cooking, these chefs play them like a symphony conductor. Standing next to the chef while he works his magic spatula or whisk is totally unlike watching them on television. No matter how close the camera work, you can only appreciate the aromas and true results in person. The instantaneous interaction between student and chef adds a depth and quality to the program that can never be fully replicated on television.

TM: Do you use the techniques and recipes you’ve learned at the New York Culinary Experience in your home cooking?
While I have always been a cook who strays from the printed recipe into cooking by feel or taste, the New York Culinary Experience has given me a whole new level of confidence to experiment with different combinations of ingredients, flavors and tastes. In addition to enhancing my skills in the kitchen I have begun to be more creative in using ingredients that are not traditionally used together. I look forward to each year’s session to continue my progress.

TM: Which cuisine would you consider your favorite and why?
EF: My personal favorite cuisine would embrace most Mediterranean cultures. I cannot limit it to just Northern or modern Italian or Turkish, Greek or Moroccan cuisine. After attending the New York Culinary Experience, I now combine all of these into a gastronomic grouping blending aspects of each into a newly expansive selection of dishes. In my cooking I rely heavily on herbs, especially basil, cilantro, and related varieties.

Chef Bill Telepan of NYC’s Telepan Restaurant (Courtesy of Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

I want to sincerely thank Ms. Farr for answering my questions so thoroughly.  I look forward to attending this year’s event and writing about it here on my blog.  I urge you to find out if space is still available for this event.  These are once in a lifetime experiences to be taught by culinary masters.  For more information on the New York Culinary Experience you can check out http://nymag.com/nyce/.  Enjoy!

Living to eat,
Tony Mangia

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