Four years ago Marco Bahena was an aimless high school student, wondering in which direction life would take him. Then he took a cooking class at school and everything came into focus.
"To be honest I was a bit of a mope in high school. ... I didn't really know what I wanted to do and was a bit of a lost puppy just going through the motions," says the 2007 graduate of Adlai E. Stevenson High School.
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"I took the (foods) class with the presumption that the worst-case scenario would be that I would go to college and at least know how to make something other than ramen and Pop-Tarts," he says. "It only took a few days with (chef instructor Andrew Meyer) before I realized that I wasn't just going to be taking a couple of pasta recipes home."
Now a culinary arts student at Kendall College in Chicago, he was just named 2011's "Almost Famous Chef," the title given to the winner of S. Pelligrino's student chef contest.
Bahena, 21 and living in Chicago, won the regional competition earlier this year and just returned from California's Napa Valley where he bested nine other student chefs for the top honors and the 13,000 prize.
Do you have any early cooking memories? Growing up, I was always inspired by my mother's home-cooked meals. She would switch between traditional Mexican dishes, as well as playing around with American-style dishes. No matter what she made, it was always the best thing I ever ate. Working with her and grandma is what I think really kindled my interest in food. I distinctly remember having tamale-making get-togethers with the family during Christmas which was an event I always and still look forward to.
When did you realize you wanted to be a chef? Was there someone who guided your decision? It really all started from my high school tech campus program. The head instructor, chef Andrew Meyer, was the first chef who really inspired me. I immediately saw him as a mentor and knew that he was going to change me for the better one way or another. He eventually helped give me the courage, passion and determination I needed to take food in a serious direction in my life.
What was your first restaurant job? My first restaurant job was at a small restaurant/bar in my hometown of Vernon Hills. They were desperate for workers, and I was desperate to cook and learn. I was 17, had never had a real job before and they threw me on the hotline at day one. It ended up being a great learning experience … of what not to do. I was thrown into the gritty end of the restaurant world and left feeling salty. I learned from it and moved on hungrier than ever to do it again.
What is the most important lesson you've learned in culinary school? I think many people who go to culinary school will end up as good cooks. Something that really hit home for me during my time at Kendall are the lessons in integrity; learning to be respectful of the food we use and all that it took for us to get it, as well as going about daily kitchen routines the proper way. You can cut corners many different ways in life but it's how you get from point A to B that defines your character.
What prompted you to enter the Almost Famous Chef contest? I entered this competition to continue to expand my capabilities as a cook. The S. Pellegrino competition gave me the rare opportunity to learn from chefs and competitors from all over the world.
How did you prepare for the contest? It was a lot of trial and error development and constant practicing at school between classes. I worked with a lot with my instructors, chefs Michel Coatrieux and Benjamin Browning, to eventually get the final dish. I would create the dish fully plated two to three times a week as well as practice individual components with the little spare time I had. On top of that there was a lot of concept development for the dish that was constantly changing the more I practiced the dish up until right before the competition.
Do you think cooking has become to competitive sport? I don't think sport is really the right word for it, I would say it has become a very well-respected craft. I think looking at food as a sport would, in a way, disrespect the food and the history behind it. Though I do love how restaurants and chefs are gaining more respect and notoriety for the hard work that they put into their craft.
What's your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I really love eggs. They taste great and have so many uses on both the savory and pastry side of the kitchen. They can be used for sauces, as binders, by themselves and who can resist eggs with an oozing yolk for breakfast? Something I have just been introduced to is the duck egg. They are like regular eggs but a bigger, richer and tastier brother.
What is your favorite comfort food or guilty pleasure? After a long day at school or work, I can't resist digging into a big pile of wings from Wing Stop -- the lemon pepper and original hot wings paired with the seasoned fries is an irresistible junk food combo.
What advice do you have for 20-somethings unfamiliar with the kitchen? The food industry is one that is built around people who are very passionate about food, which is a trait that is necessary to make it. My best words of advice would be to find your motivation that keeps you excited about food, and don't forget it. Whether it's a chef, a quote, or a particular dish, use it to push you toward greatness.
What do you do in your free time? I absolutely love riding my bicycle in Chicago every chance I get. Whether I'm riding to get somewhere or just going for a cruise, I love to weave through city traffic and the lake shore's beautiful trails.
I'm kind of a nerd too in the sense that I will spend hours on end digging through books, videos, magazines or pretty much anything I can get my hands on pertaining to food. Recently I've been doing some reading on Eric Ripert and the sustainability of fish.
What is your next step or career goal? I plan on staying in Chicago to continue working and learning about food. Chicago is such a great resource of different chefs and restaurants that it would be crazy to leave. Where exactly I'm not sure, but it's hard to land in a bad spot with so much talent here.
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