Q & A with Chef Sean Ehland, Part 1: From Culinary High Schooler to Noma Stagier
It seems some chefs just can't sit still these days. As Jonathan Gold mused in A Movable Beast, it's no longer essential that chefs simply keep to their kitchen. We have chefs who pop up, chefs who make guest appearances, chefs who get in trucks and roam the streets. Now, among the nomadically-inclined emerges chef Sean Ehland, an up-and-comer from Pittsburgh who started climbing the kitchen ladder in high school. If his name sounds at all familiar, it's probably because he was nominated for a James Beard Award this year in the Rising Star category. On the rise he is, considering that after only a few years of working as an executive chef, he can add a stint at Noma, the Danish restaurant currently considered the best in the world, to his resume.
After Noma, Ehland spent some time foraging in the fields of rural Denmark, serving the finds of the day to hungry customers at Dragsholm Slot castle. He's brought the journeyman's life back to the States, and is currently working as a stagier (one who stages: briefly works for free to learn new techniques or cuisines) at Husk, a farm-to-table restaurant in Charleston. Where will Ehland end up? He's not sure yet.
In this first part of our interview, we discuss the merits of beginning training at a young age, as well as how he badgered his way into Noma's kitchen.
Squid Ink: How and where did you get started cooking?
Sean Ehland: I've always had an interest in it. I went to a vocational high school. There was an option to go to a high school where I studied culinary arts for half the day. My family was very supportive and nurturing of the whole thing, so they encouraged me to go to culinary school.
SI: Really? You went to a culinary high school?
SE: You go to culinary school for half the day, you have to apply for it, and then high school for the other half of the day. So I took all my required credits at my high school, then I got the bulk of my [culinary] credits through this vocational school. It was a free culinary school, basically.
SI: Did you go onto culinary school after that as well?
SE: Yes, I went to Pennsylvania Culinary.
SI: That's particularly interesting considering the conflicts certain culinary schools have faced recently here, as well as in Pittsburgh. As you may be aware, Le Cordon Bleu is facing a class action lawsuit. Students are alleging they're led to believe they'll become chefs upon graduation, but things don't end up that way. There seem to be conflicting opinions among chefs on whether or not you should even bother with culinary school anymore.
SE: It's pretty much like any college institution, I feel. You get out of it what you put in. It's easy just to do the bare minimum and pass, then when you get into the workforce, you're completely clueless.
I had a firm belief that I should be working in the kitchen while I was in culinary school. It's like any higher institution. You don't go to your first four years of med school and become a doctor.
SI: Like Eric Greenspan, a local chef here, once said, 'Nobody graduates business school and says, Where's my company at?' As in, 'I'm ready to be a CEO now.'
SE: It's true.
SI: I'll bet there's probably a certain population of people who go to culinary school because they like to cook, but have no idea how difficult the industry really is. It sounds like you really knew what you wanted to do at a young age, though.
SE: Yeah, I kind of just fell in love with the whole kitchen lifestyle.
SI: Once you got out of culinary school, where did you go from there?
SE: I spent most of my career with big Burrito Restaurant Group. Mad Mex is the big chain that they own, then they have about five specialty restaurants. I worked at Kaya as a line cook for maybe a month or two before I started culinary school, then worked after school there full-time. I was promoted to sous chef right before I graduated, and I did my externship as a sous chef there. I did that for about two years, then I decided I needed a change.
I originally was going to Europe to stage, but I was about 20, and didn't have any Michelin star experience so I didn't really get any responses back. It was I guess before the hype of the restaurant business, like before all the TV shows happened. I think it was a little more difficult, I think, to get into places abroad.
So I just ended up going with a backpack to Europe and ate everything I could. I came back to Kaya after that for a little while, then I just kind of worked through the big Burrito system.
SI: How long ago was that backpacking trip?
SE: 2006, I believe.
SI: Then at some point you became the executive chef at Kaya.
SE: Yes, although first I ended up going to Casbah for a year and a half and Soba for a year, then I applied for the open executive chef position at Kaya and I got it. Which was really cool because I started as a low man on the totem pole then eventually ended up running a place, which was really, really cool for me.
SI: And you were nominated for a James Beard Award in the Rising Star category.
SE: That was this past round.
SI: How has your cooking style evolved over the years? What do you consider your culinary identity?
SE: Well, for the last 5 years it's been primarily Latin influenced: Cuban, Mexican-influenced, heavily, because that's pretty much all I've done. I really just evolved into that.
But recently going to Scandinavia and experiencing much more subtle flavors and more delicate processes has been very eye-opening.
A lot of times I just cook what I feel, as tacky as that sounds.
SI: How did you get this opportunity to go to Noma?
SE: I was looking for a change. I spoke to Bill Fuller, the corporate chef at big Burrito, about what I could do next. It came down to sending about 30 resumes out all over the world, and no one really got back to me. So I eventually started emailing relentlessly.
I believe I sent an email to Noma's reservations email account on a regular basis for about three months, and they finally got back to me and gave me a window of open time. They kind of said, 'Any time within these three months is okay,' and I was blown away. Obviously, an opportunity like that came, and I could not ignore it. I had to start saving a lot of money to do it, but I just made it happen.
SI: So you got through using the same email customers use to make dinner reservations?
SE: Yeah. On their website, it's not like other restaurants that have a career link where you can send your resume. It didn't exist there, and I didn't know how much it would cost for a phone call or if they would even pick up or talk to me.
SI: That's pretty amazing.
SE: Yeah. A friend of mine I met there, we actually traveled through Europe cooking, he actually showed up there with all of his luggage at the back door asking for a stage, and they ended up taking him as well. They're really open to taking people into their program. It's kind of funny how I got there, I guess. Just by being really annoying.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview in which we get a glimpse behind Noma's curtain, as well as for a recipe from the chef later this week.
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