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Women in Culinary Leadership Grant Recipient Alex Hare

Maggie Borden

May 27, 2016

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Photo: KC Kratt Photography

After three years crafting naked cakes and cereal milk soft-serve at Momofuku Milk Bar, Alex Hare moved back to her native Buffalo, New York, to make her mark on the city’s pastry scene. As one of the recipients of our 2015 Women in Culinary Leadership grants, Hare got to push beyond the piping station and experience the myriad roles and responsibilities of a restaurant group through a six-month mentor/grantee program at One Off Hospitality Group in Chicago. As our 2015 WICL programs come to a close, we spoke with Hare about her experiences, how learning about wine can impact your cooking, and what it was like to stage at the Beard House.

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JBF: Your program emphasized both front- and back-of-house training. Do you feel like it was important to be exposed to both sides of the restaurant world? What was the best lesson you learned from working FOH?

Alexandra Hare: When I first started learning French, my teacher once said, “If you pay attention, you'll learn just as much about English as you will French, and that will help you in the long run with both.” The same can be said of working both back- and front-of-house; you can easily find your space in one, but I think it's essential to have experience in the “other side” because it informs so much of your understanding by appreciating the industry and what we do as a whole. Understanding what happens when a plate leaves the pass helps me be more conscientious back-of-house, and knowing what happens before a plate hits the table helps me connect with the guest and their experience.

An ongoing thread in my experience was the idea that we are all working towards crafting a unique and enjoyable experience for the guest, right from the moment the interaction begins, from when the reservation is made, or when they walk in the door. Each person along that chain does their best to guide the guest to the experience they are looking for, while showcasing the care we put into each step. 

One of the most notable pieces of that is that at no time should the guest be abandoned—in case a guest needs assistance for whatever reason, any team member can absolutely step up and assist, because that's what we're all working towards. Another piece of this is treating every guest as a person. No one has good days all the time, and instead of seeing guests who seem unhappy and writing them off as difficult, taking a moment to see it as an opportunity to turn their day or their night around makes all the difference.

JBF: How did your experiences in the WICL program impact your future focus as a chef? You mentioned wanting to explore the interplay between pastry and cocktail programs —are you working on that currently, or do you have plans to pursue it in the long term?

AH: Instead of walking away with one goal or one idea, I've been exposed to so many different ways of working towards the same end. I feel like I don't have tunnel vision, and that is helping the shop in seeing how others can bring about a fully realized guest experience. I am not currently working with the bar team, but have been mulling around ideas for collaborating in the future.

JBF: How did being in the program affect the way you view yourself in the kitchen? Did having a learning role empower you more to ask questions and assert yourself?

AH: The impact of this experience has been huge. By being in the position to focus on learning, I was so fortunate to be with a team that was more than happy to answer any question I had, be it big-picture or small-detail. Being able to express those ideas and see how others understood them has really shaped my perspective. I know that it is more than okay to admit you don't have the answers, but it is even better to seek them out when you can.

JBF: Looking back on the program, what was the biggest challenge to overcome, and what did you learn from it?

AH: I like having all the answers, knowing the outcome, and being very prepared (this could be the pastry chef in me talking—but no matter what, it's true). Before starting in the kitchen, I tried to memorize the menus, for example. When working with our wine director, however, I couldn't memorize everything I needed to know about wine the night, the week, or even the month before—because there was so much to know. I walked into that first day as a clean slate, and realized just how much I didn't know very quickly. Learning as an absolute beginner was intimidating, but not impossible, and it ended up being a very refreshing, although initially nerve-wracking, experience.

JBF: What is the most useful skill you picked up from the program? What is your favorite piece of knowledge that you learned?

AH: Overall, I trust myself more; I have a greater depth of understanding, and know that I can accomplish so much more than I would have given myself credit for. So much of this experience showed me how to achieve, how to craft a team, and how to work together to get things done.

In terms of actual skills I learned, the most useful examples would have to include: navigating all of the various computer programs we use day to day; how to properly cost dishes; and how to assemble incredibly delicate filled pastas.

When it comes to my favorite pieces of knowledge (separating them from the background that informs the skills I learned), understanding how grape-growing regions produce a spectrum of wines, and the differences between varieties of fish are some of my favorite takeaways.

JBF: What are you currently doing at Nico Osteria/One Off? Where do you hope to be in five to ten years?

AH: I'm currently based in the pastry program, but came exclusively to pastry after time in pasta production and savory cook roles. Given what Nico has needed, and my background, I've been able to rotate around where necessary, which makes it feel almost like my WICL experience never ended. I've also continued working closely with the catering program and have been lucky enough to take part in a number of off-site events.

In five to ten years I may not call Chicago home, but I hope to use the lessons I learned here. I've been drafting some loose and some definite plans for a future project, and hope that over the next few years we'll be talking again about that project actually taking shape.

JBF: Do you have any advice for young women in the industry?

AH: So much advice! Reach out to one another; don't be afraid to speak openly and do whatever you can to lift up your fellow women in the industry. Challenge yourself and each other to change the status quo if you don't like what it means now. Use all of your resources and do your best to show and share your gratitude. Times are changing and I hope that with those changes anyone who wants to, regardless of gender, race, identity, sexual orientation, or ability, who wants this industry to be his or her home, can know there is a place and a space for him or her. Additionally, if I personally can be of any assistance, I am more than happy to help and connect however I can. 

JBF: Can you tell us about your experience during your week-long stage at the Beard House? How did it compare to your other experiences in New York City (at Milk Bar, for example)?

AH: My week in New York City was the first time I had spent any length of time there since moving at the end of 2013. It was such a rush to be back, and I could hardly believe that I was there to cook at the James Beard House. For those who have not had that chance, it's not a large sprawling space (unlike the commissary at Milk Bar, which I was also able to visit on a day off). It was such a cozy space and so much magic comes from that kitchen, even before the cutting boards are set up and the knives are pulled out.

I chose that particular week because Adam Goetz, a chef from my home city of Buffalo, was kicking off my time there, and I was so elated that the timing worked out. Spending time in such a hallowed space, with people who shape a culinary community I know and love, was so important to me. After the dinner I talked with chef Goetz for a moment, and it was exactly the conversation I had hoped for—someone who knows home, who saw the service firsthand, and honestly wanted to encourage me to make the most of the rest of my time in New York.

During my last night at the Beard House, I brought out a New York City subway map, and did my best to get everyone to sign it. It now hangs in my bedroom as a reminder, as a souvenir, as a goal to work towards—to be able to return to the Beard House and cook there again.

Learn more about the 2016 Women in Culinary Leadership program.

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Maggie Borden is associate editor at JBF. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.