Christopher Koetke: It is in the struggle that you really learn to achieve.
Christopher Koetke, Vice President of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts
GMW.cn: Hi, Mr. Koetke, thank you very much for joining the interview with GMW.cn. It is our great honor to have you here. So let us move on to the first question. You became fond of cooking at a very young age. What made cooking so amazing to you at that time?
Christopher Koetke: This is a funny question, because when I think about it…When I was twelve years old, I knew in one moment that this is what I want to do. Why? I don’t know. I was in the back seat of my parents’ car. I remember being stressed about what I am going to do someday. It just came to me. I talk to a lot of people who say “I am 25, I still do not know what I want to do”. I was lucky. So from 12 years old, I just knew this was what I want to do. I started taking cooking classes. I started my first restaurant when I was thirteen. I was with a French chef in a small French restaurant. I guess that writes the history. When I started at thirteen, I knew nothing about restaurants. My family was not on a restaurant business. It was such an unusual environment. I still remember every kitchen has a different smell, has a different feel. And I remember walking into the professional kitchen for the first time, and how strange it was, how the stoves were different, how the refrigeration is different. I remember being scared in the walkin cooler as if I would get locked inside. I remember one of the first things I made was mayonnaise. When you make mayonnaise, you take egg yolks. You put egg yolks in a bow with some muster, a little vinegar or lemon juice. You whisk it. And you add oil very slowly. As you add oil, it gets thicker and thicker, and harder and harder. When I started the first time, the chef gave me a bowl. That was this big. And I don’t know. Maybe there were 28 yolks in the bowl. 28 yolks make a lot of mayonnaise. And I was thirteen. I had no muscles. The chef gave me a big whisk. He said:” Start stirring.” I thought this was really exciting. As I was stirring, he started pouring the oil very slowly. After about 45 seconds, I realized…”Do I keep stirring, chef?” “Yeah, keep going, keep going.” “Okay.” After about two minutes, my arm was burning. It was on fire. He told me:” Do not stop. Do not stop.” I would never forget that. I was too scared to stop. Somehow I just kept going.
GMW.cn: During the past 36 years as a chef, have you ever been tired of your career, or wanted to give it up? What drove you to carry on?
Christopher Koetke: I think everybody has those moments, when you had a really bad day. Those days do happen. Maybe things were very difficult. Life is not always perfect. Life is not always easy. It is one of the things that I tell students all the time. Life is up and down. Restaurants can be perfect one day and the next day, they can be less than perfect. I never being to the point ever of saying I am done. I think there are some days when you pull your hair out, because it is not going right. But what happens in our business is that when you are truly passionate about this. We say as the bug bites. When the bug bites, it is very difficult to leave that, because it bites you for life. I see people over the years who run the food business, and they said “I need to stop. I don’t want to do it.” And they see me years later, they are back to the food business. Because it is really something that is really passionate. I tell my students you should have three things to be successful. You have to have passion. You have to have discipline. You have to have intensity. And it is the passion that keeps you going back for more time and time again, even when it is difficult. Because when things are difficult, many times, that is also when you are growing the most as a professional. And it is in the struggle that you really learn to achieve.
GMW.cn: As a world-class chef, would you like to share your most unforgettable culinary experience with us? Who were you cooking for? Were there any stories behind?
Christopher Koetke: I have had the very good fortune of cooking for a lot of very famous people. The Rolling Stones. President Bill Clinton. Several times. He is a very interesting person. I would say very charismatic, very nice just to talk to. The Rolling Stones, very interesting, way earlier in my life, potentially open a club with them in the UK. The person I cooked for, who was I think the person that…When I heard he was in the restaurant, I was completely amazed. His name was Jonas Salk. Jonas Salk, not a lot of people know who he is, he since passed away. But Jonas Salk is one of the people who maybe had an impact on many people’s life globally, because he invented the polio vaccine. When he was in the restaurant, I was…” Wow, that is somebody.” It was really an honor to meet him.
So I cooked for a lot of interesting people. I have a lot of great stories. Adventures…I should say, adventures in cooking. When you are in this business long enough, you want to do something really crazy sometimes. And saying, yes, it is pretty crazy. But I think one of the stories I love to tell is: there is a woman, also passed away, Julia Child, who became very well known globally with the movie Julie/Julia. When I was young, about fifteen and sixteen, the woman who was my mentor at that time said why don’t you write a letter to Julia Child. I said: ”how could I write a letter to Julia Child. She is huge and famous. I was just a boy of fifteen years old hoping to be a chef one day. I took her advice and wrote to her. I will never forget. She wrote me back. We wrote back forth for a couple of years. She always answered my letters. This is the story I love. When I was probably about sixteen, I heard she was going to be in Chicago at a culinary conference. So I told my mom: “Mom, you have to drive me to Chicago. I am going to meet Julia Child.” My mom is like: “What?” So she drove me to Chicago. She was in a fancy hotel. There was a conference. I remember walking into the room. It was just after somebody has done a sort of things. Everybody is standing around in groups chatting. I saw her because she was tall. It was easy to spot her. I walked up. There was a group of people. I stood outside the group. You know, I am sixteen. I am very nervous. At that point, I am thinking what I am doing here. So I just waited. At one point, she looked over. She looked at me like “who are you?” I said:” Ms. Child, I don’t know if you know who I am, but…” She looked at me and said “I know exactly who you are.” She broke from a group. She came over. She put her arm around me. We walked up to the front of the room. We talked. Then she said:” Oh, I have to introduce you to some people. You know, come here, come here, meet Anne Willan. She runs a school called La Varenne in Paris. She says you must go to Paris someday. You must study there someday. I was completely amazed.
I could tell you so many stories of people who I met, who became friends, people who gave me opportunities that I am so grateful for. I spent a year studied wine very seriously, travel around the world. I had many opportunities to taste extremely rare wines with wine makers who just opened wines out of hospitality. So as I looked back, 36 years in this business, all I could say is how grateful I am of many people who help me to get here, because nobody ever gets somewhere without a hundred people helping them along the way. I think that is actually one of the reasons why I am in education, because I didn’t expect to be in education. This was, seventeen years ago, I happened to go to education. I thought I would do it for two years. And here I am seventeen years later. I think part of it is recognizing that we are all put on this earth to do something. And the thing for me is to give back and to help the next generation. So I found I love teaching.
GMW.cn: You have been devoted to culinary teaching professions for years. You were also in Beijing for a culinary workshop last year. As a master in this field, what tips would you give to new-comers to culinary arts?
Christopher Koetke: Number one, you have to love it. You have to love our business. You have to be passionate about it. You have to be passionate about food, because it is a hard business. This is not an easy business. But if you are passionate about it, it works. Number one, you get to be passionate. Number two, you have to be right work hard, because it is not easy. You have to have a discipline to take your passion and turn it into a dream. If you have those two, then you put in intensity. In other words, You get to work hard. Kitchens are intense places. People don’t just sit around and relax. They are hard places. You do a lot of things that move fast. You have to love that style of life. For the people who do, like me, I mean, I love that. As I always say if I have to work behind a desk all day, I would go crazy, because I have a lot of energy. I want to be doing things. That’s sort of what I take. So a lot of people say how do I know it was for me. I like to cook. How do I know it was for me. One of the first things to do is to try to experience a professional food environment. Just see what it is like, because there is a difference between cooking at home and cooking in a restaurant. Now, people who go to the restaurant, give it a try and it clicks, like I said before, the bug bites. And they know. I was in India two days ago. I spoke with a student there, who was telling me :”I was in a school. I was trying different things. One day I was trying culinary.” He said that was it. I just knew. The minute I was in the kitchen, and I felt it. I just knew. You get to see. You get to feel the passionate. When you feel that, it was really a good first step.
GMW.cn: If you are asked to choose one dish to describe China in your perspective, which one would you choose? Why?
Christopher Koetke: First of all, China is this big. China is so unbelievably diverse. And I am amazed, every time I eat here, every meal I eat, how many things I taste that I never ever had before. So let me just say, first of all, that the food here is absolutely amazing. I will tell you. The last time I was in China. I had a few dishes. They were in Shanghai actually. I made a request to have this trip again. One of them that I told more people about around the world was a dish of baby eels. They were unbelievable. There was also a roasted fish head. A big fish head covered in onions. It was incredible. I cannot say a dish to describe China, because that doesn’t do China justice. There are other countries in the world, couple of other countries, that have unbelievable diverse cuisines. India, for instance, incredibly diverse. Mexico, incredibly diverse. So to choose a dish, disrespect of the rest, is too hard. What I would say is I put China in a category of countries that have a great cuisine. “Great” in my opinion means has to be interesting, has to be delicious, has to be really diverse, has to be depth to it. There are so much depth and tradition here. I love coming here. I eat way too much.
GMW.cn: Chinese culinary culture is profound and extensive, with many characteristic cuisines. How could Chinese culinary culture be more popular to the world?
Christopher Koetke: It is popular. But I think, what has to happen with Chinese food, is in many instances, that Chinese food being taken to other countries is not necessarily the favor of Chinese food in China. And it is a little tiny piece of Chinese food. It is no different from what you see in India or in Mexico. When Mexican food leaves Mexico, you lose something. So I think what has to happen is that there needs to be more effort to export the real food, because right now, one of the big global trends is for authentic local food, not just on location. But more and more people are travelling around the world. And they kind of know what they should be like. Therefore, there is an opportunity for talented chefs, for business people. And remember that, chefs are business people automatically. There is an opportunity now to go beyond.
Contributed by ZhengYi & Lu Chengye
Vice President of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts
Life is up and down. Restaurants can be perfect one day and the next day, they can be less than perfect. I never being to the point ever of saying I am done. I think there are some days when you pull your hair out, because it is not going right. But what happens in our business is that when you are truly passionate about this.More>>
- "So as I looked back, 36 years in this business, all I could say is how grateful I am of many people who help me to get here, because nobody ever gets somewhere without a hundred people helping them along the way."
- "I should say, adventures in cooking. When you are in this business long enough, you want to do something really crazy sometimes. And saying, yes, it is pretty crazy."
- "I think everybody has those moments, when you had a really bad day. Those days do happen. Maybe things were very difficult. Life is not always perfect. Life is not always easy."
Consultant producer:Zeng Fanhua
Designer: Zhou yueqin
Art Editor: Li Wenfeng
Executive Editor:Zhou Yueqin