2008 JBF Scholarship Recipient Leslie Martin
2008 JBF Scholarship recipient Leslie Martin wrote this essay about finding a culinary path. She is currently enrolled in the Baking and Pastry A.A.S. degree program at the Art Institute of Colorado in Denver.
I started waiting tables at the age of 18 in an eclectic, upscale café on 47th Street in Kansas City, Missouri. I worked there for five years before deciding to go work for Michael Peterson, then executive chef of the Grand St. Cafe. I spent the next ten years at Grand St. waiting tables and working on my bachelor’s degree. But I eventually realized that the years that I had spent working in the restaurant industry (which I embarked upon when I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with my life, and just needed to pay the rent) had become a career path that I was deeply invested in and passionate about. This realization snuck up on me, and was quite a shock when I graduated with my bachelor’s in 2006. I realized that I had to make a choice to either pursue a job outside of the restaurant industry, a notion that seemed implausible, or spend the rest of my professional life devoted to the culinary arts.
I realized that I had to make a choice to either pursue a job outside of the restaurant industry, a notion that seemed implausible, or spend the rest of my professional life devoted to the culinary arts.
By the time I had finished my B.A., I had already relinquished my position waiting tables and moved into the kitchen, working closely with executive pastry chef Amy Berlau. I spent the next two years learning the basics of working in a restaurant’s pastry program: I thoroughly immersed myself in the back of the house, loving every exhilarating and (sometimes painful) moment, struggling to perfect my craft while I learning from my mistakes, and trying not to let my successes go to my head. My years of waiting tables trained my eye to be able to “see” what it was, exactly, that I was looking for, and having to start over in the kitchen taught me that good food doesn’t just happen, that it is a long, slow process. It’s a process that requires patience, persistence, focus, and attention to detail to get it right, to culminate in that moment when another person bites into your art and exclaims, “That’s freaking delicious!” And then it’s gone.
One of the most puzzling and troubling aspects of my work involved our nation’s sense of disconnect with the food we purchase and consume. My father’s parents were both Kansas farmers, back in the day when organic farming was the norm, slow food was good food—that was just how it was. I remember my grandmother telling me stories of her childhood spent on the farm. Stories of watching baby chickens hatch, of putting them in a cardboard box and setting it close to the fireplace so that the chicks would stay warm. She would tell us about how she and her brothers would watch them grow and pick out their favorites, while always being careful not to name the young chicks so as not to make it harder later. I remember her taking me to the tiny farmers’ markets in southeast Kansas as a child; buying ears of corn and bags of peaches off the backs of the farmers’ flatbed trucks, most of whom she had known for years. I remember the cherry tree that grew out in their front yard next to the gooseberry bush that provided us with lush, brilliant fruit that made the most delicious jam. I remember the years of trout fishing and quail hunting with my dad and my grandfather, and as I start to reflect on the notion of what food is and where it comes from, I realize just how valuable this type of upbringing has becen in helping me shape my perspective. My approach has always been to get as close to the earth as possible when selecting the grains, produce, and proteins I wanted to work with, and this realization prompted me to consider attending culinary school, to receive the formal training I needed to bring my vision of slow, natural, delicious food to the status quo.
My father’s parents were both Kansas farmers, back in the day when organic farming was the norm, slow food was good food—that was just how it was.
Kansas City, at the time, didn’t have a culinary program that I felt would give me the education in classical technique I was seeking. After months of research I enrolled in a culinary degree program at the Art Institute of Colorado in Denver. I’ve been in Denver for a full year now and anticipate graduating in the spring of 2010. I feel this particular program has given me a reliable foundation. I imagine myself eventually working with more advanced techniques in cutting-edge food trends while maintaining a sense of culinary integrity and staying true to the flavors and the source of the product with which I’m working.
I would like to believe that I am open-minded enough to bring this sense of integrity to any culinary genre I pursue. I am currently working full-time in Denver, in a vegan scratch bakery that also offers a wide range of gluten-free items. While it’s sometimes challenging to create delicious pastry without the luxury of dairy or gluten, the basic concepts still remain the same, and the added challenge helps me expand my skill set while remaining committed to my art.
I believe that if you’re working with a sense of integrity, with love and devotion to your craft, then the end result wil be delicious and something to be proud of. I’m satisfied with the professional decisions I’ve made and excited to see what the future holds. I’m not sure where I’ll wind up, but I hope it’s a place where I can work with my hands, using this culinary philosophy I worked hard to develop to enrich the lives of the other people I serve, if only for a moment. It is, after all, these strung together moments that make us who we are, and later remind us of who we want to be.
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