2009 Stella bernard

I had attended a specialty culinary school in Burgundy last summer and performed a one-month stage in Paris. [A "stage" or "stagier" is an apprentice/apprenticeship.] Three months is too short to learn even the basics of French cuisine. I decided to return this year and stage again. My original plans were to stage in two kitchens here France. However, one of the restaurants I had chosen had closed and the other was already full with trainees. This set me on a path of writing many chefs requesting a stage. I was very optimistic at first but after dozens of unanswered letters, several unfruitful phone calls, and a few unsuccessful interviews I was ready to call it quits.

Maybe it was that point of desperation that made me cast caution to the wind with one last batch of letters to the best kitchens in Paris. I figured they couldn’t do or say anything more than I had already endured and at least I could say I exhausted all my possibilities.

When my phone rang with an unknown number, I had to consciously force myself to breathe. On the other end of the line was Chef Philip Braun, one of the top men of the Joël Robuchon empire and executive chef of the flagship restaurants here in Paris. After a short interview I was invited to join the team at L’Atelier as a stagier. After a long and difficult road I had arrived at the opportunity of a lifetime!

(I don’t know if you REALLY want to know the truth here!) Remembering how graciously they accepted me, I now know why. This was no playground Charlie Brown; this is the big time! The restaurant works on an extreme schedule by American standards, making it quite insane by French ones. My schedule is three days on, three days off. Each day starts at 8 a.m. and ends around 12:30 a.m. Save your math skills, that is a 16+ hour day with a one-hour break in the afternoon.

I originally chose Paris because I have a handful of friends from my previous travels, but also because much of the city is multilingual. I arrived with the most minimal amount of French, but now converse openly, although simply, with my friends and coworkers. This takes effort, practice and a bit of humility, as I often make poor pronunciation or word choices.

I think I have always had a love for food. My Father is Cajun and my Mother is German/Polish. I grew up eating a variety of foods and learning how to make them. My mother also took some night classes at MATC’s West Allis campus back in the 1980s in cake decorating. She spent many years perfecting her skills and even made my sister’s wedding cake. This exposure grew deep roots for love of food. But I think becoming a chef didn’t enter my arena of thought until I was looking for a new career.

After talking to other chefs, the choice to attend MATC was very clear. It was local, the price was right, and the reputation for graduating good cooks was well known. Also one chef told me something very important which I often pass on to aspiring culinarians … "soup is soup." When you are learning the basics, it is all the same. You can attend a school with a big name and high tuition, but you get out of your education what you invest. The name on your diploma does not make you a chef. It is your soul, your passion, and what you do with it that puts you on the path to success.

As I mentioned, any school can teach you the basics. But it is when you want more that a teacher proves his/her own worth. Often I was asking for something different, harder, more exotic. I needed to prove I was serious and that I had mastered the lessons taught first. But soon, instructors were ready to match my desires with something more challenging. They were interested in my development outside of school and helped me find volunteer opportunities and my first real kitchen.

I can think of many occasions but it is not the happiest moment I remember most, but one of the saddest. It was my last day in the kitchen of Cuisine [MATC’s student-run restaurant and dining room]. During the last week I had the assignment of Sous Chef, meaning I had to report 30 minutes earlier for class to cover the day’s production list with Chef (John) Reiss. As I buttoned my coat and tied my apron for the last time as an MATC student, I felt tears running down my face. My chest was so tight I could hardly breathe. I turned to Chef Reiss and simply said "There wasn’t enough time! We could have done more." There I was a grown woman, falling to pieces because it was the last day and there was so much more I wanted to learn.

I remember the first day of orientation and the instructors introducing themselves. One of the students ahead of me in the program pointed out Chef Reiss and suggested that he had a reputation for being a very hard instructor. There was a murmur of agreement from others. In truth, John Reiss is a hard instructor, but also a good and fair one. He pushes you to live up to the standards of our industry. A real kitchen isn’t a place for the weak or tender hearted.

My first opportunity to work with Chef Reiss was for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Single Plate competition. I was one of many students competing for MATC. Often we worked late into the night perfecting recipes, plate design, and the art of glazing. His dedication was amazing. With his help, MATC swept that competition capturing the top three places with gold medals. During my two years at MATC he was also my coach for the American Culinary Federation Hot Food Challenge, my instructor, and my mentor. Today I count him as a colleague and friend.

Like many students attending MATC, I was seeking a different career. I had worked in different professional industries for many years before deciding I wanted a new career. I say it often "I don’t just love to cook, I live to cook." Finding culinary arts was a discovery of my life’s passion. Even though the days are long, the hours difficult, I couldn’t imagine being anything else than a chef.

The future? Well, I really don’t know. It seems to me any door I want to approach now feels open. I would like to remain in the high-end fine dining kitchens for a few more years, but I also have a strong desire to teach. Since I have started down the culinary road, I have found that the most amazing opportunities tend to just happen. Whatever my next step, I am sure it will present itself in due time.

Great American chefs know their training isn’t complete without a stint in European kitchens. The standard for fine dining was first established by the French and the tradition continues to this day. An apprenticeship in a European kitchen will sharpen your culinary skills and give you a competitive advantage in the kitchen and in your career. An opportunity like Stella’s comes along once in a lifetime.

Stella was a focused and driven student. She was always looking at the top and how she could get there. She was a driving force behind the American Culinary Federation student hot food competition team at MATC. She was very involved with the local ACF chapter. She worked at some of the better restaurants in Milwaukee, including Roots. She sought out the advice and guidance of local, regional, and nationally known chefs.