Friday, January 08, 2010

Hail to the Chef: Kelly Schirm, Chef Instructor at Le Cordon Bleu, Sacramento

Chef Kelly demos two of the five mother sauces: bechamel and velouté.

I was very happy when my Chef Instructor, Kelly Schirm agreed to be interviewed for my "Hail to the Chef" series. Chef Kelly led my first term at Le Cordon Bleu, and like me, she has a passion for making desserts. She also has worked in Napa at Brix Restaurant, and from the first day of class, I would geekish-ly interject any wine discussions I could get away with, in an attempt to learn more about my beloved Napa valley and what it might be like to work there.

I want to thank Chef Kelly for leading my class, helping to build my kitchen skills, and allowing my readers and I to know more about you:

1. What made you want to become a chef?
I was at a cross-roads in my life and wasn't sure what to do. I had always loved helping my Grandma in the kitchen and loved cooking/baking, so I checked it out online. Within days I was signed up, with knives and books. It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

2. Where did you receive your training?
I attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena (which I believe is now named Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts - Pasadena).

3. Who have you worked with that you have really admired?
I would say the person I worked with that I most admired would be Chef Christopher Wilson. He was my first Pastry Chef out of school and he taught me most of what I know today. He had incredible skill, but also gave me the confidence I needed to succeed.

What is a typical day like for you at a restaurant?
It all starts with the drive to work. First thing, planning your day and organizing your thoughts. Once at work, you gotta hit the ground running. Always working like you're behind so you can be ahead (you never know when something might go wrong). Multi-tasking to get the prep done is key, and knowing what is needed 1st, 2nd... Once a service starts, the prep work isn't done, just combined with service work, making sure everything gets done for the day. At the end of the day, it's full of prep-list making, inventory and planning... and don't forget the cleaning.

5. What are/who are your primary cooking influences?
I am strongly influenced by seasonality, along with taking comfort foods and making them work for fine dining.

6. What are your favorite and least favorite foods to prepare?
I love making meatballs and pasta and I love making custards and cakes. I really don't like making anything that requires putting meat through a tamis. I'm not really a fan of eating them, however, it's more time consuming than I would like.

Cake photo taken from Chef Kelly's Photo Portfolio

7. Please tell me about your most overwhelming moment in the kitchen.
The most overwhelming moment would be the night I was scheduled alone in the Pastry Kitchen (at Brix), when we unexpectedly had a night of 200 tops. The thing about desserts, is that they don't hit until later, and then all at once... so I ended up plating 200 desserts without any help. I was so far in the weeds for a moment there, but I realized I could only do so much at once, and pulled through. At the end, it was the greatest feeling.

8. Who are your favorite chefs or famous chefs?
I would say that I am a fan of Jacques Torres and Gale Gand. They have such skill and confidence in the pastry kitchen and have done so much I admire. I'm also a fan of Ewald Notter's sugar work, he's amazing. On the savory side, I enjoy Jacques Pepin and Mario Batali, classic skill and amazing work ethic.

9. White wine or red wine? Do you have a favorite wine varietal/label?
I tend to lean toward whites in general, however, my favorite would be the Luna Sangiovese.

10. What is your "can't live without" kitchen tool and why?
I have a few, but I would say the one thing that I use that is so versatile is my small offset spatula... it really has so many uses and I'm lost without it.

Please tell me how you go about planning your menus.
Planning a menu, first thing I think about is the season. What's in season? What flavors go well with those items? Once I have a flavor profile set, then I think of the different things I can do to make it work. For example... I was pairing a dessert with a menu, and came up with the following profile - mangoes, lavender, vanilla. So I looked back at the things I had seen or done, and what struck me was a mango tapioca cream (mousses) that I had done. When I had, it had been over a thyme pound cake, but that flavor wouldn't work, so I thought that I could make a lavender pound cake instead. I would then have vanilla in the sauce and a hint in the mousse. What I created was a success, so much so they asked me to put it on the regular menu... flavors and items they couldn't have imagined working did. One thing to consider (that some people forget), your customer. Just because everything comes together and is wonderful, doesn't mean people will buy it.

12. If you had a different career choice, what would it be?
I'm not sure. I've been an Administrative Assistant and originally went to the University of Iowa to be a Biochemist. I wanted to cure cancer, but instead I just make people happy with food. I also considered becoming a math teacher, but then I remembered the students in my math class... some people just don't like math.

13. What are the most important things to remember (can be relative to anything) while working as a chef?
Always remember that everything you do in the kitchen reflects on you... whether it be showing up on time, or cleaning. Never sit around and complain about what others should/shouldn't do. If they didn't get something done, oh well, you've got to now, because it's got to get done, and complaining about it just takes time and makes it harder. Having that mind-frame will make you more successful and a desirable employee.

14. What is the most important thing you have learned in your culinary career?
Be confident yet humble, never stop learning, and never be too "important" to get your hands dirty.

15. What has been the most gratifying about teaching for Le Cordon Bleu?
Not just teaching the technical skills to go out in the industry, but teaching skills to make better employees (i.e. organizational skills). Nothing makes me prouder than that moment a former student comes back and gives a story involving how they used something I taught them and their Chef was impressed. It makes me feel like I've done my job.

16. What is your favorite topic to teach?
Baking and Pastries... I love all areas of the kitchen, but that's my true passion.

From which of your colleagues at LCB have you learned the most?
She's out on leave now, but I've learned the most from Chef Jennifer Ottow. She really showed me how to do my job better and focus the information.

18. Best meal ever?
The best meal I've ever had even surprises me because it was more than the food, it was everything. When I was in Chicago for a culinary competition, we went to a restaurant called Chilpancingo. It's a family style Mexican restaurant that serves all cuisines of Mexico. It was a warm setting, beautiful decor, the service was impeccable and the food was great. We didn't order anything, as the Chef sent everything to us (he knew why we were there). It's been 8 years and I still remember the meal.

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