What I've learned as a performance chef

December 5, 2019 Akos Szabo

My mother’s side of the family is from Guatemala, and my grandma did a lot of the cooking in our home. She taught me how to scramble an egg even before I could see the top of the stove and shared some of the traditional recipes our family loved.

One of my favorite traditions was getting the family together just before Christmas and staying up late to make tamales with chicken and olives, wrapped in a banana leaf.

While home-cooked food is the center of many of my fondest childhood memories, it could also be scarce. Unfortunately I didn’t always know where my next meal was going to come from. I wanted to become a chef so I could cook for people that maybe couldn’t cook for themselves. So I always have a personal rule that no one goes home hungry from my kitchen.

Early in my career, I lived in Indianapolis where my roommate and I were cooking together in the best restaurant in the city. So when we wanted to take the next step, we felt like we had reached our limit. We’re already working at the best place here, what else is there? We knew we needed to move outside the city, but every place we applied to wanted a culinary degree. It became clear to us that we needed to expand our knowledge.

My sister had recently moved to Arizona and raved about the weather so when it came time to choose a culinary school to attend, I chose Scottsdale Culinary Institute.

I think you get out of school what you put into it, whether you go to Yale or Scottsdale Community College — you create your own path.

We invited all our friends and family to have one last dinner, saved up enough money to get a U-Haul, and moved all of our stuff down to Arizona. Then we just bootstrapped it to make it happen. While we were in school, we worked two, sometimes three, jobs and then catered on the weekend to pay our bills and work toward our goal of graduating without student loan debt. I think you get out of school what you put into it, whether you go to Yale or Scottsdale Community College — you create your own path. It’s about how hard you work.

One of the jobs that shaped my career the most was my internship at Mary Elaine’s, the French-Mediterranean restaurant at the Phoenician Resort and Spa. At the time, it was one of 13 restaurants that had earned the Mobil Five-Star, AAA Five Diamond, and Wine Spectator Grand awards. It was a tough environment to work in right out of culinary school, but I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t learned from my chef, James Boyce.

Throughout my career, whether I was working in Phoenix, Chicago, Southern California, or during an internship in Spain, I’ve always focused on working with the best chefs I could find. Sometimes to be able to learn from those chefs, I’d work long hours. At one point, I remember working over a hundred hours a week, and that was hard on my home life, but the sacrifice was worth it. I think one of the struggles that a lot of chefs can agree with is finding that work-life balance.

To find a work-life balance as a chef, you have to be able to rely on the rest of your team and keep them engaged and inspired.

To find the best balance you can, you have to be able to rely on the rest of your team. At EXOS’ Arizona facility there are only three of us so it’s a very team-oriented environment. It has to be. In order to get everything done, we have to coordinate carefully.

One day I’ll take care of all the butchering, and the cooks will take care of the sauces. Another day I’ll do all the sauces, and they’ll do the grains. I’m not sure how much more of a team environment you can get. Outside of the kitchen we work closely with the EXOS dietitians to make sure all the meals are created with our athletes’ optimal performance in mind. We rely on each other a lot to create the best experience for our athletes and guests.

Are you thinking about becoming a chef? Here are some lessons that have helped me in my career.

1. Support your community.

Sourcing wonderful organic ingredients from local farms around us stimulates our local economy. At our EXOS kitchen, we create dishes using ingredients with a unique story and unrivaled nutritional energy for our guests and athletes, showcasing what’s local and organic. We also have a relationship with a company that takes our compost and turns it into fertilizer, and then grows vegetables for us, so we’re a sustainable account.

2. Be good stewards of Mother Earth.

Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword anymore, it’s a necessity. I compost all of our food scraps at work and at home, not because it’s cool but because I want to reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in landfills. From the trash bags to the napkins, cutlery, and plates, everything we use is compostable. In addition to wanting to be friendlier to Mother Earth, I was inspired by the example of adidas, one of our partners, who is dedicated to a sustainable culture more so than any other company I have experienced. Mother Earth can only continue to provide us with nutritious gifts if we do our part to take care of her.

3. Cook with love and provide the best product you can.

One lesson I learned early on is “if it doesn’t taste great, nothing else matters.” If no one wants to eat healthy food, they can’t get the nutrients from it. Being able to provide an optimum source of fuel to our athletes, and then to surpass that athlete’s expectations, is truly inspirational to me.

4. Invest in your team.

It takes time and sometimes growing pains to find the right people to add to your culinary team, but it’s so very important to grow a team that fosters a positive working environment, shares a similar vision / passion about food, and encourages respect for one another. Build trust with integrity. If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it, no matter what.

5. Always grow and evolve.

Being a chef is a craft that takes a lifetime to master, and it’s much more than just cooking. The culinary industry has evolved immensely over the last few decades and it’s our responsibility as chefs to meet the demands and needs of the people we serve. We have an obligation to know what’s in the food we serve, because our guests can be greatly impacted by food allergens and they are literally putting their well-being in our hands. It is a huge responsibility that we cannot take lightly.

Interested in bringing your talents to EXOS? Visit our careers page.

About the Author

Akos Szabo

Bringing more than two decades of culinary talent and knowledge to the table, executive performance chef Akos Szabo leads the kitchen at EXOS headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona.

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