Jennifer Kim has come a long way from the microwaved Chef Boyardee and burned chicken of her not-so-distant youth and is looking forward to a delicious journey in the culinary world.
Kim, a student at Kendall College in Chicago, heads to Napa this week for the S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef competition. Her duck breast wrapped in chard with golden beet purée, braised radishes, fried polenta and pickled mustard seeds bested the competition at the regional semifinals in January. On the line this weekend: $22,000 in prizes and an internship with a master chef.
The 2001 graduate of Schaumburg Christian Academy admits she was more comfortable on the basketball court than in home economics and this was not the path she thought she'd follow.
"I was a latchkey kid, so most of my early food memories revolved around timing myself between commercial breaks to see how fast I could microwave a can of Chef Boyardee for me and my brother," the 28-year-old recalls.
After high school she headed to University of Illinois at Chicago as a pharmacy student. After two years of that she went into retail and stayed with that for four years before realizing the kitchen was where she belonged.
We snagged her for a few minutes before she jetted from her Wicker Park home to Napa.
When did you realize you first wanted to be a chef? My journey into the culinary world really began with a horrible incident during my freshman year in college. A few friends on the dorm floor decided to hold a potluck and I, whom at this point had little to no culinary experience, decided to roast a whole chicken. Twenty minutes later, gray smoke started to billow from the oven door, filling the kitchen with a thin veil of white mist, the pleasant crackling from earlier quickly turning into a violent hiss as small flames lapped out of the door. In a panic, I grabbed a small glass of water and threw some of it into the bottom of the oven, creating an even bigger blaze. Needless to say, the RA evacuated the whole complex and I watched in embarrassment as the fire trucks came roaring around the corner.
The next day, with the taste of failure still fresh in my mouth, I started to research what I did incorrectly. Slowly through forums, cookbooks and textbooks I began to learn about the basic principles of cooking; it soon turned into a hobby that stuck with me throughout my two years at college and also into my first career as a retail manager.
The fulcrum into my culinary profession truly began when I received "The French Laundry" as a gift. I read an excerpt titled "The Importance of Rabbits" and suddenly I viewed food in a completely different way. Thomas Keller's philosophy on food and cooking had a huge impact on me.
What was your first restaurant job? My first restaurant job was at a casual lunch cafe working as a short-order cook. I was extremely fortunate that they made a lot of menu items from scratch so I was able to learn about different methods of cooking. It also helped me to narrow down what I was looking for in a restaurant and what type of work environment I thrived in.
What is your favorite class at culinary school? I'm currently taking Sustainability and I really enjoy the perspective of how local and sustainable products affect us not only as chefs but also as a society.
What is your favorite ingredient and how do you like to use it? I love using vinegar because it is such a versatile product to have in the kitchen. It can be used as an enhancer, flavoring component, condiment, tenderizer, preserver, cleaning agent, etc.
What is your favorite comfort food? In the winter I love braised meals. It reminds me of being snowed-in, the oven radiating heat, the smell of the meal permeating the house for hours.
Do you have any favorite reality TV food shows or thoughts on how they portray the industry? In the end, cooking and reality shows are all about entertainment; it does not always accurately portray chefs or the industry.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? The S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Competition has already opened many opportunities to be mentored by amazing Chicago chefs such as David Posey (Blackbird), Jean Joho (Everest), Joncarl Lachman (HB Home Bistro) and Chris Macchia (Coco Pazzo). This has led me to expand my scope of where I would like to go in my culinary career.
After graduation my aspiration would be to work for David Posey, chef de cuisine at Blackbird. I feel that his food is always executed creatively and flawlessly in addition to his amazing eye for detail.
In the next 10 years I hope to be working as a chef de cuisine or chef-owner of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Tell us about the recipe that got you to Napa? What was the inspiration? The dish for Napa is a physical embodiment of where I currently am at this point in my career. It crossbreeds classic French techniques, which was taught to me by an amazing chef at Kendall, with a simple Midwest mindset of letting the food speak for itself. If a farmer took the time to care for and tend to his or her product, we as chefs should honor that by highlighting the natural goodness of that product as much as possible.
As paradoxical as it may sound, the best advice I can offer when making this dish at home is improvisation. A recipe is really just a guideline, not an instruction manual. Beets can be changed to sweet potatoes; turnips can be used in lieu of radishes; don't have a tamis? Hey, no worries. Your mousseline will just be a little more "rustic." It's all about taking the core of the dish and making your own personal interpretation. That's what I love about cooking.
We're running a portion of Kim's winning recipe, for her complete recipe, head to dailyherald.com/entlife/food. You can also follow Kim as she competes against the nine other regional winners for the title S. Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef at almostfamouschef.com.
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