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You Have to Be Hungry: An Interview with Chef Michael Rolon

Not everyone likes to play in the kitchen, but for some, the idea of a career in the culinary arts is the ultimate fantasy. But how do you know if you’re cut out for it? Chef Michael Rolon, the executive culinary instructor at National Culinary School, knows a thing or two about what it takes to survive in the industry. Below, he talks asparagus, Gordon Ramsey, and the importance of hunger when it comes to launching a culinary career. (Hint: it’s probably not what you’re thinking).

Tell us a little bit about your first culinary awakening.

There are a few of them, but what immediately comes to mind is how one of my brothers would always take me to nice restaurants in LA when I was in high school. He was rather well off, so it was top-notch every time. There was one restaurant called Citrus on Melrose Avenue, and they had this asparagus salad. I wasn’t a salad person, but I was an asparagus person. I remember this salad was so simple. The asparagus was like pencils, very thin, and the dish was ice cold. It had this shallot vinaigrette. To this day, every once in awhile, I try to recreate it. It was very memorable.

How did your journey in the culinary arts continue from there?

After high school, there were a couple years of downtime when I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My girlfriend at the time mentioned that she had a friend taking culinary art classes at the junior college by her house. So I went, checked it out, signed up, and took a few classes.

Then I flew out to New York with one of my brothers to check out New York Restaurant School. It was winter, and I immediately fell in love with the city. To see people bundled up, the fast pace, the Christmas lights, it was so wonderful, and decided to stay for school.

When I finished school and came back a year later, my first job was at the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach. I started out as a prep cook, chopping vegetables, chopping garlic, and so on. I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef, but when you get your first job, you just take anything they give you. But, I went and found the pastry chef at Surf and Sand, and I asked, “Do you need help?” From that time on, I started doing pastries, but the other chefs would also teach me how to do butchering and other things. So I was well rounded. I didn’t limit myself, but my main focus was pastries.

Let’s talk about talent versus education. Is one more important than the other when it comes to culinary arts?

If you look for job listings, every job asks for a culinary degree preferred. All you have to do is look at Craigslist or Indeed to see that the culinary degree definitely gets you to the front of the line. Talent matters, too, but it’s important to remember that you’ll have to pay your dues no matter how much talent you have. You have to start at the bottom, and it doesn’t come overnight. Plus, you can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have work ethic, you won’t get very far. Work ethic means everything.

What would you say are the top 3 skills necessary to thrive in the culinary industry?

Sanitation and cleanliness are definitely on the list. You have to be able to keep your chef coat and your station clean. You also have to be organized. And you have to be able to follow directions. Those are three things that make a good foundation. Even the knife skills can come after that.

What are the most important personal qualities necessary to survive in the culinary industry?

Attitude is always important. You need to have a good attitude. And you have to show that you care. Your posture says a lot. The other day, there was a girl just leaning, and I wanted to say, “Stand up tall. The way you’re standing right now says you don’t care, and you’re not into it.” You need passion. You need to be hungry. Not just for food, but for knowledge and experience.

What makes National Culinary School such a great choice for someone interested in a career in culinary arts?Chef Rolon cooking with student

National Culinary is a small school that’s family owned, so it’s personable. Students get a lot of personal attention. We always use high quality products, which can make all the difference. We also have a good rapport with our students. I’m not some tyrant. People watch too much TV. I had one former student who said, “Gordon Ramsey says this and that. I want to be taught the way Gordon Ramsey teaches.” I’ve been there, I’ve been yelled at and everything else, and you really don’t need it to become a good chef.

At National Culinary, we give you a solid foundation of basic skills and knowledge that gets you to the front of the line in your job search as you set out on your culinary career.

Ok, before we sign off, let’s get a quick-fire rundown of some of your personal favorites:

  • Favorite thing to eat: A piping-hot chocolate cookie with an ice-cold glass of milk.
  • Favorite dish to make: A good steak and some roasted potatoes.
  • Favorite thing to brag about making: Chocolate bonbons. I send pictures to my friends and show them how I got the filling just right. Soft, but not too soft.
  • Favorite kitchen tool: A whisk.
  • Favorite cooking show: Moosemeat and Marmalade.

Get your culinary career off the ground at National Culinary School!

Whether you’re interested in attending culinary school or baking and pastry arts school, Chef Michael and the rest of the crew at National Culinary are committed to providing you with an affordable quality education that will prepare you for a career in the culinary industry. Fill out our online application HERE or give us a call at (619) 249-5180 to schedule your free introductory class.