Ari Rosenson, Chef de Cuisine at Cut, has had a career that's both atypical for a chef, and practically an anomaly in just about any industry during this era of diminishing corporate loyalty. That's because Rosenson has worked for Wolfgang Puck since he was a teenager. Yes, you read that right. As in, high school age.
And in another old-fashioned twist, Rosenson has his mom to thank in no small part for jump-starting his professional calling. Keep reading to find out how childhood chutzpah and teen tenacity lead to spending many years working up through the kitchens of Los Angeles's most famous chef. Check back later for part 2 of our interview with the Calabasas native, and Rosenson's essential grilling guide.
Squid Ink: A lot of how you got started was because of your mom, right?
Ari Rosenson: Absolutely. I'm 10 years old, I like cooking, didn't really know what. There was a newspaper article my mom had cut out on Wolfgang and the USDA and sauces or something like that. There was a big fight. They said pizza couldn't be pizza unless it had sauce. I had to do a biography, so I came home from school and I saw the article and I said, “hey Mom, I want to do it on this guy.”
SI: A school project?
AR: Yeah. She was like, OK, although she thought I was B.S.ing a little bit. And so I hit 411, got Spago, and I was stuttering a little bit. Basically I got to the words “I want to meet Wolfgang,” and then my mom grabbed the phone out of my hands. She talked to Wolfgang's assistant, was like “my son has to do this school report, would Wolfgang be interested in doing it?” And they said yeah, no problem. Wolfgang had to cancel a couple times for different reasons, and on the third time — I think the day before the report was due — I got to go to Spago, my mom was my “photographer,” I had a little recorder, and I did this whole interview with him. It was fun.
SI: How much time did he give you?
AR: Two or three hours. We spent an hour before service chitchatting about food, he brought me upstairs, put the chef's outfit on me, gave me the full tour of the kitchen. I told him I had my signature omelette I made for my mom in the mornings. And then I showed him how to make my signature omelette, he was like, “oh that's wonderful!” Then he dropped me off with the pizza guy who showed me how to make pizzas. My mom and I had dinner. It was great.
SI: So how did you stay in contact with him?
AR: Every birthday dinner I would want to go to a different Wolfgang Puck restaurant. Spago, Eureka, Granita, Chinois. On my fourteenth birthday I went to Granita, and Wolfgang was there and I said, “remember me?” He said, “yeah yeah I remember you.” I said, “I still like cooking, how do I get a job?” “You come work for me. You could either go to cooking school or become a chef at one of my restaurants.”
Cut to two years later; 16, had a car. So I sent him a FedEx package with my picture with me and him, and was like, “you promised me a job, can I have one?” The next day his assistant called and said call the kitchen manager, you have a job.
SI: Where did you start?
AR: I started as a prep cook. The first week I cut every finger on my hand. I didn't know what to do. My mom thought they were going to fire me because I was a liability.
SI: You've been with Wolfgang Puck ever since?
SI: Did you go to culinary school?
AR: Never went to culinary school.
SI: What was your progression through the chain of Wolfgang restaurants before winding up at Cut?
AR: I worked at Spago West Hollywood. A little bit on garde manger, hot prep, cold prep. All the prep stations. A little of the kitchen manager, did all the ordering. Then moved to Spago Beverly Hills. I went from one end of the line to the other, basically. I worked from the lowest position on pantry to every station, to pasta, the fish station, the grill. Then worked my way through up through the ranks of sous chef, from regular sous to exec sous. And when they opened Cut I was made Chef de Cuisine.
SI: So what do you think chefs can learn staying in the kitchen versus doing the culinary school track?
AR: I think culinary school helps. It depends what you take from your different situations. I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of very talented chefs, and I realized that. So I thought, why should I go to culinary school if I'm learning the same things? Because I saw a lot of kids come out of culinary school at the same level I was at at the time. I was 18, at that point I had the choice of going to cooking school or staying at Spago, and I decided I'm gonna stay at Spago and see what I can learn. It's definitely brought me to where I needed to go.
You have a lot of opportunities to see things you don't learn in culinary school. Like doing large events, the Food & Wine Festival, meeting a lot of very interesting people, dealing with purveyors. A lot of that business interaction you don't learn in cooking school.
SI: Which alumni of the Wolfgang Puck camp do you feel like you've really learned from?
AR: Who I'm still learning from is Lee Hefter, first and foremost. He's definitely taught me almost 75-90% of what I know. More than the cooking aspect of it, I've absorbed so much of what it takes to be a chef. Being able to endure the grinds, the mental aspect of it. Not accepting mediocrity. Knowing right from wrong, basically. And Sherry Yard.
SI: What about chefs who have passed through the kitchens of Spago and other Wolfgang Puck restaurants and gone on to other restaurants?