Wednesday, April 15, 2009

So You Think You Might Like: Cooking

Who the fuck do you think you are? All you want to do is eat cupcakes and experiment with truffle oil all day, and you think you can get paid for it? Actually, you can. Katie Olson graduated from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana with a BA in Hospitality Management in 2008. She also has a black belt in bread making and a terminal degree in gorgeousness. You think I’m kidding? When Katie isn’t getting paid to cook in a five star hotel in Tokyo or an ashram in India, she’s getting paid to stand around auto conventions and warm people with her personal glow. So we interviewed her.

F***ART: What made you decide that food was your thing?

KO (also the abbreviation for Knock Out. Just sayin.): My endless interest in food and the desire to be able to make more than satisfying food for anyone and everyone! I also spent countless hours playing with simple ingredients and ending with different results. Food is a science and I love that aspect of it. I also love playing with the different elements of food such as color, texture, flavor, temperature and so on.

F***ART:Does the majority of your cooking skill come from training, or personal experimentation?

KO: Largely personal experimentation, though I must say a lot of my food knowledge has been either built or reinforced in professional kitchens.

F***ART: How much creative control does a chef have over her menu at a large enterprise, such as a hotel?

KO: Taking into consideration the target clientele, a chef can certainly be creative with their menu, within boundaries. For example, if I was working in a large kitchen that caters mostly to older generations it would be difficult to sell much outside of comfort foods of the past. However, if I was working in a new, trendy hotel there would be much more space for creativity with the menu. Unfortunately I find that very often the more creative I get with food, the more expensive it is, therefore potentially hindering my ability to write a menu that is out-of-this-world creative. Not to say that one cannot be creative and cheap. It happens, but to do so in a fine-dining atmosphere would be a challenge!

F***ART: Do you have a favorite ingredient or kitchen tool?

KO: I love black pepper and incorporate it into many foods because I find it often adds that little bit of extra flavor I’m looking for without stifling the natural flavors of the food I’m preparing. I love spices, however keeping it simple and natural is very important to me. If I had to pick two favorite kitchen tools it would be a knife and a food processor. There are so many ways to be creative with foods just using a knife! The food processor is just fantastic for cutting down the time it takes to prepare things such as creamy soups and sauces.

F***ART: How would you rate the hospitality department at UIUC, as compared with other programs?

KO: I have not witnessed the way many other schools have developed their hospitality program. I can say that the program at UIUC is small and intimate which can really help one develop relationships with peers and faculty. The program was very well-rounded, and being at a reputable university is another plus. There is not a whole lot of money given to the program, therefore as students we are responsible for working at fund-raisers and in the kitchens to raise money to keep our program alive. Thankfully some alumni from our program are successful and have donated a lot of money to provide a better working environment for the students. I think the department has a lot of room for development, though it is working hard and fast towards such goals.

F***ART: What advice do you have for those aspiring to cook professionally?

KO: Start from the bottom. If you have never washed dishes in a professional kitchen, do it now. You have to start somewhere and in this business, and that is the place. Work hard, be true to yourself and always remember that many chefs have very few social skills so don’t take them personally. Also, push to be well-rounded in the kitchen; mastering every position from dish pit to expo and sauté will greatly advance you as a person and a good chef.

F***ART: Anything else to add?

KO: Don’t be afraid to experiment. Also, you will learn much more in an uncomfortable environment than not. And Emily Stuart is my hero!

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