Thursday, June 07, 2007

Assets in the Kitchen

Chef Juan Pablo Chavez did what many of us only dream of. He ditched his corporate job to become a chef and pursue his passion for food.

I’m standing in his well-stocked kitchen in upper-Manhattan. Chef Juan Pablo is a solidly-built, animated man with a broad smile. He is slicing vegetables precisely with a swift, smooth motion and preparing them for blanching. He is assembling Chicken Mole Verde, which simply put, is chicken with green sauce, a family-style dish that would likely be served in his native home of Mexico City.

Shimmering tomatillos, green beans and zucchini are plunged into the salted boiling water. Chef Juan Pablo explains that the water must be generously salted so that the vegetables absorb the flavor. Chicken thighs are poaching on another burner.

The bright, lively ingredients are a metaphor for how the former economist has re-invented his career. What prompted someone schooled in capitalism and educated at the London School of Economics, to trade the classic guns and butter business model for Plugra European-style butter and a chef’s knife? It is a story of self-actualization.

“I have always had a big passion for cooking but have never had the guts to give it a go and make a career out of it,” he explains. “After close to 10 years in the corporate world, I decided I had to prove to myself that there was no reason not to give it a try.”

Chef Juan Pablo says the decisive moment happened quickly, and was even a little scary.

“While I had been considering it for a long time and discussing it with my partner, I decided to start taking the chef courses on the weekends, while still working. I think that once I signed up for the course, I already knew that it was a done deal and just a matter of time before I stopped working in the corporate world. It was scary due to the obvious unknowns at the time, the perception that my income would suffer severely on the short-term and that of course there was no guarantee of success.”

He studied at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York with on-the-job training at Manhattan culinary meccas Per Se and Le Bernardin and consulting with Whole Foods. Following training, Chef Juan Pablo founded Healthy Meals JPC, a business that offers personal chef services and healthy meals for gourmet tastes. Sort of a culinary road warrior, he goes right to the kitchens of families in New York City to prepare fresh meals and customized menus. His repertoire includes such enticements as Chilean Sea Bass and Grilled Mango Salsa, Butternut Squash Kasha Salad, and Lemon Tiramisu.

“I wanted to be a freelancer rather than be enslaved by working for a long period at a restaurant,” he explains. “Being my own boss, and mixing that with creating high quality food for people that appreciate it was the primary reason. It also provides a far wider range of business opportunities than the narrowly defined restaurant business and the relationship with the clients is far more personal and rewarding.”

I am curious to know what life as a business-owner and chef offers that his former career in economics did not.

“It is hard to say that this career offers me something that the other did not,” he says. “I love economics and still do, but after a time, I guess it turned less challenging, at least in the banking environment that I was in. Of course, the new career would be a challenge in many ways, not the least a physical one due to the stamina needed to cook around the clock. It also allows me to see in a very close way the efforts of my work. When cooking, one knows whether the result is good or not right after preparing any dish!"

I can relate. I press on. What are the most dramatic differences between the corporate world and life as a chef? He offers up a list:

“Very different schedules. The use of very different skills, more physical than intellectual. A lot more interaction with people of all different walks of life. The cozy world of a corporate world is miles away from the daily uncertainty of work as a chef.”

So, if you’re feeling the lure of a career in the kitchen, what’s Chef Juan Pablo’s advice?

“Discuss a lot about the issue with your loved ones as they will clearly be affected. Don't be afraid! It may sound too typical, but you must follow a professional course, perhaps part-time while still working at your other profession, and do plenty of trails in restaurants to get a better grasp of what it will entail.”

This particular evening we will sample, not only Chef’s Chicken Mole Verde, but a fresh fruit terrine of red and blue summer berries and rose wine. Chef Juan Pablo specializes in healthy ingredients and ingenious color and flavor combinations. I ask where he gets his inspiration for new recipes.

“Absolutely everything around me,” he says. “It may sometimes be a movie, a TV show, a special date like Cinco de Mayo or July 4th or a diet I may be following. I have even come up with recipes for people with special needs, like diabetics, that need not apply exclusively to them and can be very tasty. Of course, I look for inspiration from seasonal produce, as well.”

Chef Juan Pablo gathers hefty handfuls of fresh green herbs – parsley, mint, cilantro and chives – and adds them to a blender with some of the poaching broth. The ingredients in the blender swirl into an emerald whirlpool. He removes the cover, and pours the Mole Verde over the warm chicken and vegetables. I inhale the intoxicating, remarkably fresh fragrance of a kitchen garden on a warm spring day.

You sure don’t get that kind of aroma from an economic forecast.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved


Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Wonderful interview! Chef Juan Pablo has such an interesting combination of skills and interests. Sounds like you had a great time in the kitchen with him.

Susan from Food Blogga said...

How inspirational! I'm sure this will always remain the fondest of memories for you.

Jann said...

It must have been a wonderful meeting, followed with great food~thank you for sharing!

Anonymous said...

what an inspiring story! I wish I will have the guts to follow my food dreams soon. It is indeed a big step but seems very rewarding!