Exploring multicultural cuisine

Charles Reinhardt '01 might have made a great brain surgeon. Or fire fighter. Or maybe even a currency trader. Ambitious, goal-oriented, and utterly focused on the task at hand, Reinhardt seems like the type of guy who would never let you down, but if by chance he did, he'd go out of his way to make it right again.

Thankfully, he has decided to become a chef.

While fighting fires and disease were never in the cards, Reinhardt did get a job right out of Kenyon trading foreign exchange in Chicago. Every evening, riding the elevated train to his office--he worked the Asian market shift--he would pass Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. Somewhat familiar with the industry--he had been a cook at a lobster restaurant on Cape Cod one summer--he began to fantasize about taking classes and cooking for a living.

"It started to capture my imagination," says Reinhardt. So he began taking classes during the day while working full-time at night.

The school, which focuses on classic French cooking, inculcates in students a respect for the hierarchy of a professional kitchen. "It was very regimented," says Reinhardt, who now cooks at the Jefferson restaurant in Manhattan's West Village (121 West 10th Street). "'Yes, chef, no chef,' you were constantly under pressure," he recalls. He learned never, ever to speak back to the head chef. That didn't mean there wasn't room for creativity--it just wasn't your own.

"You express the creativity of the chef," Reinhardt explains. "If you have a problem with authority, this [the restaurant business] is not the place for you. In good kitchens, that's how it works."

Reinhardt wasted no time putting his education to use. Laid off from the exchange market when the economy went south, he got a job as first cook in the kitchen of the Drake Hotel in Chicago. While still at Le Cordon Bleu, Reinhardt had cooked for banquets and buffets, as well as the garde mange line at the hotel's Cape Cod restaurant, known for its seafood.

"It was so exciting," says Reinhardt. "I was working not only with really good chefs but with Malaysian, Chinese, South African, and German sous chefs. So I learned my teriyaki sauce from a Japanese chef, and how to make spaetzle from a German sous chef."

After about a year, Reinhardt moved to New York, still considered the center of the universe for cooking in this country. Jefferson, where he's cooked since he arrived, does something called New American Cuisine, imposing an Asian influence on native ingredients. (Think venison and quail with chilies.) The owner is Chinese-Malaysian, and the chef du cuisine is Japanese.

Like most young chefs, Reinhardt plans to soak up as much knowledge as he can in New York before heading to Europe for an apprenticeship in one of the great French kitchens. A decade from now he hopes to be back in this country, running his own show.

Cooking is grueling work. The hours are long, the work at night, and the performance anxiety high. Reinhardt thrives on it. "I have a personality that works best under stress and pressure," he says. "It's fun and exciting to be with a team where you can have the best day of your life every day."

His advice to others looking to enter a professional kitchen is persistence. Meet as many people as you can, he says. Culinary school is a good idea, but success is not about grades--it's about "your own dedication, how you present yourself, and how you work under pressure."

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