Thursday, January 24, 2013

Chef Michael Poole - Firefighter and Cordon Bleu Grad

Chef Michael Poole trained at the world-famous Cordon Bleu in Paris and has gone on to win several prizes for his artisanal chocolates in the United States. In Part 1 of this exclusive interview, he relates the story of how he fell in love with cooking, became intrigued with French cuisine, and pursued his culinary training in Paris.


Chef Michael Poole at the Fall 2011 Luxury Chocolate Salon in San Francisco
Image courtesy of Chef Poole

ETBP: You have an intriguing career – firefighter, gourmet chef, and chocolatier! How do you find time for all of this?

MP: It's not easy! At first I would get overwhelmed taking on too much work (catering) and then going to my firefighting job. Over the years I have learned how to balance working for the Fire Department, cooking, making chocolates, and taking time for myself by going on vacation.

ETBP: Your love for good food stemmed from your grandmother’s kitchen. At what age did you decide that you wanted to pursue cooking professionally?

MP: Becoming a cook at the firehouse was the beginning of my passion for cooking.

I was twenty-one years old and it was early in my fire department career. I started off as the fire station cook. I was assigned to a busy downtown fire station in Seattle. I was cooking for twelve hungry firefighters who liked good food and lots of it. During that time I became very passionate about my food and cooking. I would buy cooking magazines like Bon Appétit and Gourmet and try out new and complicated recipes.

I would shop at the Pike Place market buying fresh vegetables and seafood, where there was a butcher who always called me “fireman.” He would ask me what I was making. I would tell him and he would share some of his recipes and techniques with me for cooking a certain dish.

After a few years of cooking, I decided to start up a food concession business. During the summer I would set up my food booth for the local fairs and festivals. I named my concession "Sweet Jamaica," and I specialized in Jamaican Jerk Chicken, rice and peas, Jamaican Pattie, and tropical fruit juice. It was best to sell product at the fairs and festivals that no one else was selling.

ETBP: Do you have Jamaican heritage?

MP: No, but at that time I had a Jamaican girl friend who lived in Vancouver BC. In Vancouver there is a big West Indian community, while discussing this with her, she suggested I sell Jamaican Jerk Chicken. In Seattle, at that time, there were no Caribbean restaurants.

ETBP: Are you aware of / connected with the Jamaican community in Paris?

MP: I am aware of the Jamaican community in Paris. While attending school I use to attend functions given by the Jamaican community.

ETBP: When did you decide to apply to the Cordon Bleu and why?

MP: My interest in Le Cordon Bleu did not come all at once. As I think back on it, there were several different influences at different times, none particularly significant.

Once I had been cooking for about 20 years, I became very passionate and wanted to learn more. During that time, I became interested in French cuisine, the culture, and the mystique about French food. French chefs have the reputation of being some of the best chefs in the world. Catering lunches for fashion photo shoots deepened my desire to one day attend a culinary school. On the photo shoots, the crew — the models, photographer, and art directors — would eat out at fine restaurants all the time. They were always talking about food, where they were going for dinner, restaurants they had already visited, and how the food compared at the various places they had dined. Therefore, I wanted my food not only to be delicious, but also to be as memorable as some of the dishes that they had at the fine restaurants where they dined.

At first, I worried about cooking for these sophisticated people. I thought of myself as merely a firehouse cook. Each day that they liked my food, I worried about what I would make the next day. How would I ever top myself?

Lacking confidence, I assumed that I had just lucked out that day. Somehow, day after day I continued to fool them. Time after time, each crew liked my cooking. The next thing I knew, I was the most requested cook for the photo shoots. I would get all the good jobs traveling to locations like La Jolla, Santa Barbara, and Fort Meyer Beach, Florida.

ETBP: Tell us about the program that you followed at the Cordon Bleu – length of time, number of courses, exams, internships…

MP: The first year I started out in the Diplôme de Cuisine intensive course – Cuisine de Base (Basic Cuisine). This is a six-week course, going to school six days a week three classes a day with very little down time to experience and see Paris. During the first semester of cuisine classes, I decided I wanted to do the whole Grand Diplôme program, which is a comprehensive combination of cuisine and pastry classes.

The second year I took Pâtisserie de Base Intensive. This was also a six-week intensive class, but only in pastry. I took this course in August, the hottest time of year. Because of the heat and a lack of air conditioning, I learned techniques during this class that were invaluable.

The third year I took the regular 10-week courses in intermediate cuisine and pâtisserie. Taking the two courses simultaneously was much better because I had time to really process what I was learning and I also had time to see and enjoy Paris.

The fourth year, I took Superior Cuisine and Pastry, which was another 10-week course. During that time I started working and training with a former student who had graduated and opened a small chocolate factory outside of Paris. After I graduated and received my Grand Diplôme, I stayed for another three months for a cuisine stage (apprenticeship) at Restaurant le Chiberta, 3 Rue Arsene Houssaye, Paris 8th.

ETBP: Which appeals to you more – preparing savory dishes or sweets such as pastries and chocolates?

MP: I enjoy both.

ETBP: Did you do any professional cooking while you were attending the Cordon Bleu (private chef services, restaurants…)

MP: I did not do any professional cooking while I was enrolled in courses at Le Cordon Bleu. I felt that there was so much for me to learn that I was just a student. However, I did complete my stage after I graduated. During the times when I was stateside, I worked as a professional cook at restaurants in Seattle, and I also had a catering business.

ETBP: Please give us a description of your experience as a stagiare (apprentice) at the Guy Savoy restaurant Le Chiberta.

MP: In 2003 Restaurant Chiberta had a different chef whose name I can’t think of right now.

It is true that French chefs yell. Or at least this was my experience during my stage at Le Chiberta.

At that time Le Chiberta was a 2-star restaurant; it was open for lunch and dinner. I would start work at 9:00 am, work until lunch was over about 2:00-2:30, and return at 6:00 pm for dinner service. I would complete my day around midnight.

The first week none of the other cooks would talk to me. This is a type of hazing that is customary in the industry, particularly in France. After I made it through the first week, things changed.The cooks started talking to me in English, but the chef told them not to speak to me in English.

On a typical day, the cooks would arrive and start the prep. The chef would keep a sharp eye on me, and if something wasn’t perfect and I mean perfect it was “merde” (sh__). The next time he would come by and say “Si vous voulez être un chef Français, vous devez apprendre à travailler vite!! Vite, vite, vite!” ("If you want to be a French chef, you must learn to work quickly! Quickly, quickly, quickly!")

We would make lunch and dinner for the staff, then sit down and eat. After our meal we would put on our toques, and the yelling would start and continue until food service was over. The chef or sous chef would yell “Nettoyez, nettoyez toujours! Qu’est-ce que c’est? Merde americain? Vite, vite, vite!” ("Clean, always clean! What is this? American sh__? Quickly, quickly, quickly!")

Come back next week for Part 2, when Chef will talk about his signature chocolates and his views on French and U.S. culinary culture.


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