Friday, June 24, 2016

Humans of The CIA: Chef David McCue '93

by Joseph Haffly, Associate Degree in Culinary Arts, excerpted from La Papillote

Chef McCue is one of the many personalities here at the Culinary Institute of America that everyone has heard about at least once. Most know of his Facebook page highlighting some of the innocuous student behavior in the kitchen. We have also heard, or will hear, at some point about the burnt museum that he has collected over the years. But what else is there? What kind of stories and advice does Chef McCue have? I had the opportunity to sit down with Chef McCue and give him some questions in hopes of entertaining and enlightening answers. What I got was exactly that. 

Q: What can you tell me about your time working with Martha Stewart?
A: I rather enjoy telling stories. I would have to say that my time at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia was some of the more content rich harvesting stories. It was a very good experience.

Chef McCue continued to tell me of the process behind working in a television studio. He worked on production of recipes and finished items to be featured on the show. The onscreen production of recipes required everything to be broken down into many more steps than one might expect. During the filming, Chef McCue would need to have a showpiece for every step of the recipe from start to finish. This kind of production required excellent time management and precise repetition. 
During his time with Martha Stewart, Chef McCue also catered to her, as well as guests of her show privately. Some of the more well known individuals for whom Chef cooked for are John Cleese, Cyndi Lauper, Aretha Franklin, former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, Chef Julia Child, and Chef Jacque Pepin. On occasion, Chef McCue was also hired for private catering. At one point, he found himself in the Manhattan penthouse of 'Sting'. Over the course of catering Sting's rainforest charity event, he met 'Madonna' and finished the night off by sharing a beer with James Taylor. This is just one of the many stories from the rock n' roll years of Chef McCue.

Q: What advice can you give to students looking to go into food media? Anything they should focus on strengthening?
A: Be very meticulous in your work. Become a perfectionist, it doesn't hurt to be OCD. You also need to be able to keep your head down and work. A career in food media, as with any kind of media, is a lot of hard work. Seeking out a mentor with experience in such a career to help you prepare for this type of career is not a bad idea. You have to work hard and love what you do. Just remember that if you don't work hard, you don't get rewarded.

Q: What is one of your greatest frustrations with students?
A: Apathy. I can deal with anything; naivety, ignorance, lack of talent, any kind of injury. If you want to learn I can teach you. But, if you don't want it then I don't want you in my kitchen. Apathy is the worst attribute in my opinion. Most students underestimate the amount of work. They always refer to the Food Network and TV shows. A lot of students get the wrong idea from TV and have a rude awakening when they get into a real kitchen.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your students?
A: Seeing their changes. Having a student come in with little or no ability in the kitchen only to see them leave with a noticeable improvement in their abilities. Mentoring students who come in and are fighting for something, fighting to make it through, almost like they're fighting for their lives. The positive change that I have on students, that's what I enjoy about this job.

Q: Do you have any tips for new students?
A: Saying 'Yes Chef" will save your life. Never any excuses, we don't want excuses. 'Yes Chef' means 'I hear you, I understand you, and I will make it so.' Be respectful. Again, no excuses and no lies, just do what chef says. If you are wearing whites in a kitchen then everything is your responsibility. Remember, if you want responsibility then you have to respond with ability.

Q: Can you offer any advice for students wishing to work abroad?
A: Do it! We as chefs can work anywhere in the world. Food is essential and it is everywhere. I recommend making an effort to learn the language of the country you try to find work in. Not knowing the spoken language only makes the learning curve harder. Just make an effort not to be a tourist, most people don't like tourists. If you want to be successful abroad or at home then stay humble, always.

Q: What do you think makes a successful restaurant? 
A: Put the right concept in the right spot. It really does come down to location. You can have an amazing menu and restaurant layout, but if you're in the wrong neighborhood it's game over. As far as a menu goes, it is built on three legs. Leg one is proper seasoning, leg two is proper serving temperature, and leg three is making sure it is properly cooked. You can do two of the three really well, but if one is missing then the whole thing falls down. Most importantly is to make sure you are happy. If you aren't happy then your work will suffer and that will show. Most people don't know what makes them happy. Find what makes you happy before committing to opening a restaurant. 

Q: Can you tell me about the side towel scholarship?
A: When I first started teaching at the CIA, I mentored under a young man by the name of Barry. He would collect any forgotten side towels and resell them to students for $1 each and deposit the money into a jar. I adopted this practice and eventually we realized that we were gathering a lot of forgotten tools, aprons, and towels. We continued to offer them to students at a greatly discounted price and used the proceeds to start up the side towel scholarship. Since then, we have also added McCue t-shirts to the list of items for sale. All earnings from sales goes directly to the scholarship fund; 100% of it. The scholarship is awarded to the good and hard-working students so that we can make sure they can stay in school. To date we have helped over 200 students reach graduation with this scholarship.

Thank you, Chef McCue, for taking the time to help the students who need it. 

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