Pursue it With Passion: A Chef’s Perspective
~Written by Carolina Fojo, East Coast Fellow for Bon Appétit Mgmt. Co.
As the East Coast Fellow for Bon Appétit, I travel to college campuses to discuss food sustainability with students, and with our staff and chefs. I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Chef Justin McArthur, a recent addition to the Bon Appétit family at Case Western Reserve University. He’s been working with Bon Appétit for 4 months, but in the food industry for 14 years. He shared some of his thoughts on the industry, his career, and his passion for what he does.
When did you first become interested in pursuing food as a career?
It’s the standard story; I started off as a dishwasher. My best friend got a job, so I decided to apply. So we were both dishwashers. Then the cooks all quit, and they put my friend and me on pizza and salads and desserts. It was a real blast! I’ve always loved food since I was a kid. That job really opened my eyes to what you can do with it and what really good food is about. Then I ended up going to my vocational school, and eventually culinary school.
What’s your favorite thing about what you do?
My favorite thing is the relationships and the people, inside the kitchen and outside the kitchen. Variety is the spice of life—and in this job, you get to meet a really unique mix of people that food brings together.
Service is also a big part of it. In the kitchen, I really like trying to serve my team and build them up, working with everybody, trying to improve their skills, giving them some confidence. Outside the kitchen, its customer service; and when you see people eat and be satisfied, even for a small portion of their day…there’s a gratification in that.
Do you have any idols, or people that you look up to, in terms of your career?
That’s a tough one. I’ve had a lot of good teachers, and so many give you something worthwhile, it’s hard to pick just one. I guess everybody brings you something, and you try to take the best qualities that you see in people over you and under you, and you try and put those things into practice. You gotta be yourself—let yourself and what you love shine through.
Are there any ingredients that you’re really into using right now?
I have a real love for southwest flavors, Latin flavors. Poblano peppers I think are really versatile. Since working for Bon Appétit, I’ve also been forced to try some new ethnic styles as well, and I really like Lebanese style now—the hummus and pita and wheatberry, the tabbouleh… I’ve really become fond of that.
Also, in the springtime, I really like to go not just local, but native. I like to go and pick mushrooms. You know, just getting outside and walking; it’s just something I find to be really neat. I’m trying to find out more about what grows around here, and part of it is just finding it. It’s a real prize when you find something!
Do you like to cook for yourself at home?
Sometimes. It’s always more exciting when you’re cooking for others. You know I could eat cereal day in and day out and be fine. But when you’re cooking for somebody, that’s when you really wanna do something nice.
So you don’t ever serve cereal to your family when they come over?
By request only!
If you had to choose one ingredient to eat for every meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Hmmm… Can I choose a family? Is that cheating? (No, that’s fine.) Ok, then the Allum Family. That way you have leeks and shallots and garlic, onions, chives and all that stuff. Yeah, you could work that with every meal. Well, maybe breakfast would be hard. (You could always make yourself an omelet). Yeah, that’s right! You could put that in an omelet, or some home fries. I guess you can’t really do cereal though…
Do you have any suggestions of easy/cheap/healthy meals that college students can make?
Hmm… How about chicken salad with yogurt instead of mayonnaise; it’s healthier. And chicken salad is so versatile. All you need is your craisins, your celery, onion, Dijon, and honey, with the yogurt. And that really is just a fantastic chicken salad that goes anywhere with anything. Do it in a lettuce wrap if you want to lower your carbs. You can make a big batch of that and it really doesn’t go bad. You’ve got at least a week on it!
What advice do you have for people who are interested in becoming chefs?
I think “chef” has become kind of a marketed term. It’s something that you are always working at, not really something you “achieve”. I think it’s always about a determination and dedication. You know, ‘cause with food, every meal is a challenge. There’s a repetition and certain monotony that comes with it, and you have to really find satisfaction in each little victory. Getting better with your knives and your seasonings. Learning how each ingredient works a little differently. Working to making each thing that much better the next time around.
It’s not easy, and you have to be able to find that fun and humor in the middle of the fire. It’s day in and day out, you know? But yeah, pursue it with passion. You put so much of yourself into it, and it’s a blast. I wouldn’t change it.