For this new series, we are speaking to former students of the Basque Culinary Center – a gastronomic university – in San Sebastian, Spain, who are now pursuing careers in food outside of the restaurant kitchen. We aim to show that there are many opportunities for chefs beyond the four walls of the kitchen, despite the challenges of the global pandemic.
Our first interviewee is Patricia Jurado Gonzalez, 24-years-old from Blanes, close to Barcelona. Having studied for four years at the BCC she is now a teacher fellow, lab manager and public lecture coordinator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School Of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University in Boston, working within food.
Tell us about your experience of studying at the Basque Culinary Center.
The BCC is where I got my degree in gastronomic science and culinary arts. It was the best experience of my life, because the methodology is learning by doing. They use a lot of active learning; you have internships every year – you get to go to a different restaurant or food-related place in the world. Another good thing about the BCC is that we worked with real projects. From the first year, you are already working in the restaurant of the BCC, it’s hands on, which is very engaging and they stimulate teamwork. In the first year they make you do a personality test and based on your results, they create teams and you have to work together for two years with the same team. So you learn to work with people from different disciplines from around the world with different goals, different objectives. I would highlight that the BCC gives you a very holistic vision about gastronomy in general. In the third year, you have to choose a path: business, avant-garde, or science. I chose the science path, but I was in love with all of them.
What's the single greatest lesson you took from your time there?
It’s really hard to say one, but I would say to value the multidisciplinary world. I think that for chefs it is super important to work together with designers, business people, scientists, biologists, artists, and historians. I just feel that being at the BCC helped me to be able to work and talk in the same language with people from other disciplines, and to gain abilities and skills to be able to work on multidisciplinary projects, that then was super important when I got to Harvard.
Why did you decide not to pursue a career as a restaurant chef?
I started out as a chef, doing internships in restaurants all around the world, working in the summer, in different restaurants here [in Spain]. But then I decided to change my path because I am a very curious person. In science and the academic world you don't have the repetitiveness that you sometimes have in the restaurant – restaurant life tends to get very routine. In the academic world, in the first semester, you teach one class, in the second semester another class, different students, different methodologies, different research projects, different collaborations. It boosts much more your creativity and motivation. I love food, I love gastronomy, and I love being there, the flavours, the smells, the restaurant life, but I just feel that it is much more creative to be in the academic world.
How does your training as a chef inform your current role at Harvard?
Right now I'm teaching two classes: Food Fermentation, and Science and Cooking. There are other teacher fellows in this class, but I feel that I am the only one that really has a culinary background, because the others are scientists that know about food. But I'm a chef that knows about science. I think that gives you an advantage. Also, the sensory analysis skills that we got at the BCC are super important. You can understand that, for example, a steak needs to brown on the outside, and that this is called the Maillard reaction and that the inside needs to be warm enough to denature some proteins but at the same time raw. Having the sense of how to cook this steak, how to get these amazing reactions, having the sense of how to go farther with your steak, I just feel that you have to have cooked this steak to be able to know about it.
Also, when you are in a kitchen you have to be really organised, you have to have your mise en place. When I went to the academic world, I saw that some scientists are a bit messy and that being first a chef and then a scientist helps you to be super organised. At the end of the day recipes are the same as methods: you have to have a pattern and they have to be reproducible. Another skill is public speaking. Even though it doesn't feel like it when you are in a kitchen, you have to communicate a lot, you have to be proactive, and you have to have a rhythm. And multitasking. Scientists sometimes get overwhelmed in the lab.
Is there a lot of demand for food related courses at Harvard? What kind of students do these courses attract?
Surprisingly, there is a very high demand even though there is not a degree for food. The main class that has the highest demand is one that is taught by Michael Pollan. It mixes sustainability, food, food agriculture, food systems, politics and writing. It’s a writing course, but related to food and food systems. It is super hard to get into this class. At Harvard, it doesn't matter which degree you are pursuing, you can take other classes, up to 14 that don't have anything to do with your degree. You can get your science credits for your degree, taking one food class, and this is what a lot of students do. The Science and Cooking class, in its first year – the founders were Ferran Adrià and other big name chefs, along with Harvard professors – there were more than 800 students that wanted to take the class. We have freshmen, seniors, sophomores, people that are doing economic degrees, social sciences, computer programming... this creates a special environment with people from different backgrounds.
Some of the students that take these classes get very engaged with food and when they finish Harvard, pursue a food-related career. For example, Joanne Chang. She is a pastry chef who graduated from Harvard. She's a mathematician. When she finished at Harvard – she took Science and Cooking – she decided that she wanted to cook pastries, and now she has one of the most famous bakeries in Boston, called Flour Bakery. She gives a lecture every year in the Science and Cooking class.
Aside from Ferran Adrià, which other big name chefs have come to speak at Harvard?
When the course started in 2010, all the speakers were from Catalonia, like Joan Roca, because Ferran Adrià was one of the founders of the course. But then it evolved, being super international. For example, this past year, we had people from Asia, we’ve had people like Selassie Atadika from Africa, explaining about African fermentations and African products that are very unknown around the world. But also Spanish chefs are predominant, like Carles Tejedor, that are not super-famous worldwide, but they are doing very cool things with textures and different stabilisers. We have Dave Arnold, he talks about heat transfer. And then we also have Harold McGee each year. At the end of the season, we have José Andrés. He gives this inspirational speech every year that I think is already a classic in our series.
What are the best and worst things about your job and how has the pandemic affected your daily work?
The best thing about my job is that it's constantly changing and evolving, and every day is different. It's a very active job. It boosts your curiosity every day, you have to learn new things constantly, and you have to renew yourself because each project has different demands. You have to be constantly reading and proactive. Also, I meet a lot of chefs. I think the bad side maybe would be that I am getting a little bit disconnected from gastronomy itself. And the pandemic obviously has changed my life completely. Now, I'm in Spain instead of being in Boston doing a thousand things in the lab. So now I work more from home. We teach using zoom, which is not really cool, because all the classes that we teach are hands-on classes. You need to adapt, the students are doing things in their kitchens, but it is not the same. At home, it's hard to be motivated.
How do you see the role of the chef evolving in the future and how will academia feed into this?
I think the academic world has a lot to say to chefs. We can see right now there are so many academies, universities, and institutions that are offering different ways to teach chefs. I feel like chefs are going to need new skills in the future that maybe they didn't have to have 10 years ago. For example: business administration. The business side is important and you need some academic knowledge for this, someone to teach you, even though by experience you can learn. Also, fermentation is a super trendy topic and it is all biology. I feel to understand food and to be able to create new textures, new dishes, you're going to have to know a bit about biology, a little bit about physics. How are you going to describe the texture of your food or how viscose something is? I feel having this basic science knowledge, having this basic business knowledge, can help you to boost your restaurant. Also, a little bit of design – designing good dishes, putting them in context, having a nice concept. And chefs can have a great impact in society – sustainability, food systems, food agriculture and how as chefs, we can make better decisions.
I think that chefs in the future are going to have to reinvent themselves a bit. As we've seen in Boston we have Spyce, an automated restaurant that is run by robots. I feel just cooking won't be enough. Chefs need communication skills, for example, they need to be able to speak in public. Now chefs are entertainers, we see a lot of Netflix shows about chefs, a lot of TV series, YouTube channels, Instagram recipes.
You’ve talked about losing your connection with gastronomy. Could you see yourself working in restaurants again in the future?
I actually can, but more on the R&D side. Since I chose this science path, I just think that working in a restaurant as a chef or as a cook, it's just so much effort and the schedules are a bit hard, it requires a lot of discipline, hard work and also it tends to be a little bit repetitive. I would love, for example, to start a pizza business. I love pizza and I would love to stay for two years travelling in Italy and put something here in my hometown. But I think that I would get kind of bored of this type of work. I just feel that I love pedagogy, teaching, and science. I just love to ask questions and learn new things. I love the flexibility of my job, of not having a super-structured schedule or role that I have to do every day.
What would your advice be to chefs who are worried about a lack of kitchen jobs due to the effects of the global pandemic?
Chefs now have so many opportunities. The food industry needs people that are familiar with sensory analysis, with food processes. For example, big businesses like Starbucks, they want people in R&D that know about the science of coffee, at the same time know about the culture of coffee, and at the same time have tried a lot of coffee. Also, I feel like chefs have a lot to say in journalism, there are a lot of new recipe pages. Also, in the academic world: a lot of universities around the world are starting to offer culinary academic degrees. I feel like chefs could work also in the academic world, teaching other young chefs. So I feel that there are so many jobs right now opening up for us. I assume that in the future, you are not going to need a person that knows a lot about one thing, you are going to need that person that knows a little bit about everything. So this is why I feel a chef nowadays has to know a little bit about everything and you will have a world of opportunities to work.