How to Become an Executive Chef by 24?
Interview with a Culinary Arts Academy alumni from Sweden
This week we had a pleasant opportunity to catch up with one of our Culinary Arts Academy’s graduates, born in the Philipines and raised in Sweden. Passionate about baking from a very young age, John, 24, has recently started leading a team of chefs at a luxurious Swiss hotel with glorious alpine views.
Everything is possible when you put your mind to it, but having the proper education, he says, has been essential for his career. In this interview, John reflects on his journey to success at such an early stage in life, shares his ambitions for the future and reveals the secret to making the most delicious chocolate-dipped sweets.
Congratulations on your recent promotion to Executive Pastry Chef at Hotel Schweizerhof Zermatt! What does this promotion mean to you?
Thank you so much. This promotion means a lot to me, especially in my career; it is a big stepping stone. I am proud that my passion for culinary art has led me to this point. I am also grateful to the people that believed in me and gave me this opportunity in the first place. So big thanks to our Executive Chef Stephan Benkendorf and General Manager Roman Omlin!
What is the most exciting part of being a pastry chef?
To me, it is the process of baking itself — everything from the precise and careful measuring of the parts to that magical moment when everything mixes together and, eventually, becomes something wonderful and delicious. I love it all! But, perhaps, the best part is when I get to make somebody feel special by creating something just for them.
There is, however, more to being a chef than just making food. I also love learning and sharing the skills I’ve gained with others.
You have found your passion for culinary art already in your teenage years. Was there something that specifically inspired you to get into that?
Funny enough, I was, for some reason, never allowed to bake at home on my own until the age of 15. My mother always said that someone must be home to help me or I would burn the house down, haha!
However, I think I’ve always been interested in cooking and baking. My first experience in baking was at school when the whole class was assigned to bake gingerbread for the home economics subject. Later, when I was 13, I bought my first baking book and started experimenting at home.
Growing up with Filipino parents in Sweden, did it influence your taste preferences?
Yes! I grew up surrounded by the two cultures and many different flavors. Depending on what we wanted to eat or what we had in the fridge, we sometimes cooked an improved version of a Scandinavian-Asian meal, combining the exotic and the European cuisines.
Filipino cuisine has mainly been influenced by various international cuisines, from American and Spanish to Asian, particularly in China and Malaysia. This is partly due to the country’s colonial past. So my flavor palette is truly expansive and unique in that sense.
Growing up that way definitely had an influence on my approach to making pastries, too. I often arrange my ingredients adding a Filipino twist, making them into colourful and mouthwatering confections.
You have some impressive moments in your career. What moment are you most proud of?
It would have to be winning the Gold medal in the Culinary Olympics in Germany in 2020. I competed as a team member of Skåne Kulinar, which is a Swedish national culinary team promoting regional food culture and participating in international competitions. It was a great achievement for me because the competition was exceptionally tough.
How do you think you were able to arrive at where you are now? What part in your journey did Culinary Arts Academy play?
Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland opened many doors for me after I graduated. I was able to receive plenty of job offers anywhere in the world. I owe it to the highly experienced lecturers who helped me build a strong foundation of knowledge that has allowed me to excel in my career and achieve my dreams.
I can say that I have grown exponentially both in the kitchen and as a person. Moreover, I’ve gotten to meet many interesting people with whom we are great friends and with whom I am still in contact regardless of our geographical distances. This program really is the complete package and is a treasure for the culinary world.
What were your interests, and how were you able to nurture those at the academy?
I was always very curious and involved, and the school offered several venues where to explore my different interests. I volunteered at the Student Ambassadors Forum, where I signed up for the roles of a Culinary Ambassador and a Communications and Social Media Ambassador.
As a team, we worked toward reducing school food waste. We aimed to organize and promote workshops or exhibitions for the students, mostly the chefs and culinary students, to increase their understanding of sustainability and food waste, alert them about the problem, and inspire them to make a change.
Where did you intern during your studies in the academy? What have you learned there?
Yes, I went to the Swiss Alps and interned at the exclusive 5-star and Michelin-starred hotel called The Chedi Andermatt. I have learned these three rules: to have patience, pay attention to detail, and respect. Do not forget to have fun and to evolve all the time!
What are the career possibilities for somebody who has graduated with a culinary degree?
Career possibilities are endless. I went to the Culinary Arts Academy with a lot of people who later began their own businesses, some of which were pastry shops, while others were restaurants. Also, friends who have earned a name for themselves in the culinary industry.
So long as you are enthusiastic about what you are doing, I think there will be plenty of opportunities on the table. My best advice is to always surround yourself with individuals that share your passion, are like-minded, have similar goals to you, wish to achieve them and help you achieve yours too.
What is next for you in your career?
I am only 24 years old, and I believe there is still so much to learn along the way. With every new challenge, I hope to gain more confidence and increase my professional network to create more future opportunities for myself and others.
I have very high expectations for myself, so I always have goals that I am working towards. My ambition now is to earn an industry award while working in an environment that rewards talent and surrounds me with other like-minded individuals.
What is one thing you would like people to know about chocolate?
Oh, I love pastries and desserts with chocolate. Just thinking of chocolate cakes and fluffy mousse makes me smile silly! I can share a few tips on how to make a chocolate dessert better.
For example, if you want to dip something in the chocolate or make beautiful decorations with it, remember to temper it first. Heating and cooling chocolate gives it a smooth and glossy appearance, prevents it from melting on your fingers, and allows it to firm up wonderfully for dipped and chocolate-covered goodies.
Also, watch out for water! If you melt chocolate in a water bath, be careful not to get water or steam in the chocolate, or else it can become grainy.
Thank you for the tips! To wrap up, what is your favorite dessert at the moment that everyone should go and try?
Burnt Basque cheesecake with fresh berries!
Thank you, John, for sharing. It was lovely catching up with you. All the best to your future endeavours!