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Student Chef Interview: Dominique Toa

Every backyard gourmand has wondered what it would be like to wield their creative talents on the line of a posh downtown eatery instead of making sure that Aunt Helen’s steak if cooked well done. But creativity, though vital, is only one facet of a student chef’s work as he or she trains in a restaurant.

When asked, “What is the single most important tool for a student chef?” Dominique Toa, student chef at Vermont’s New England Culinary Institute (NECI) that, “an ability to improvise, every second of the day” is key. Adaptation to a business climate that changes several times every day is an essential skill.

The daily responsibilities of a student chef at NECI involves the creation of daily specials, preparation of payroll, phone calls from vendors, hands-on kitchen work, a slew of meetings with kitchen and service staffs, food expediting (making sure that outgoing plates meet rigorous presentation standards) and several job interviews. “Every team member must work together to make the restaurant successful. Probably my biggest responsibility is making sure that I am the best team member that I can be.” Dominique explains.

For Dominique, the cliché of the overbearing chef as taskmaster is absurd. “Every successful kitchen must be professional, and it must also be fun.” Dominique is constantly making the rounds at his restaurant, cracking jokes with the line cooks and playing pranks on restaurant management. The reason for this attitude, which Dominique insists is an industry wide ethos, is a counter-measure to the intense pressure that a restaurant staff will feel when the restaurant is packed shoulder-to-shoulder and is still receiving a stream of guests through the door.

While satisfied by both a legion of faithful customers and a cheerful team of students and professional staff, Dominique is acquiring a world class education while gaining invaluable experience in a top notch restaurant.

Even with all of his responsibilities, Dominique still gets the chance to do what every wannabe culinary star dreams of…play with food. Before Dominique leaves for the day, he grabs a flaming skillet from the sautee station and plates a special appetizer of seared foie gras with Amerino cherry sauce for a group of VIP guests. Nearby line cooks stop what they are doing and watch, partly out of curiosity and partly so that they can learn – as they always do – from each other.

Schools to consider: