Career advice from the experts: Food Network VP explains how to make it to the top of the culinary world
Hcareers' Q&A with Katherine Alford, Senior Vice President Culinary, Food Network & Cooking Channel
A passion for food and love of teaching are the key forces behind Katherine Alford’s success. In her current role as Senior Vice President Culinary at Food Network, which is distributed to over 100 million U.S. households, Alford oversees the busy “Test Kitchens,” developing recipes for Food Network Magazine, cookbooks, network shows, FoodNetwork.com and CookingChannel.com.
At the start of her career, Alford studied at the New York Restaurant School and then worked in several of the city’s top kitchens, including the ultra-trendy Commissary restaurant and Hubert’s. She later studied at the L’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris and returned to the U.S. where she became Sous-Chef at the 4-star Quilted Giraffe.
A desire to teach took her to Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now Institute for Culinary Education) as director of instruction in 1989. She also served as special events chef for Gourmet and taught classes nationwide.
Later, she worked on the award-winning Union Square Café Cookbook, and has contributed to Food & Wine, Cook’s illustrated, FineCooking and Food Arts. She’s appeared on various national and local TV shows as a guest chef and food expert and authored the book Caviar, Truffles and Foie Gras (Chronicle 2001).
HC: What does it take to be a very successful chef?
KA: Passion, curiosity and focus. You have to be driven about your craft and technique, open to learning constantly, and not afraid to fail. You need to develop your palate the way a singer opens their vocal range.
Being in food connects you to amazing people, customers, farmers, fisher folks, crafts people and a community of entrepreneurs. Food people are a unique mash up of an athlete, artist, musician, and scientist – creative, unique, passionate and typically uncompromising.
HC: How does someone become a successful chef – what experience do they need?
KA: Go to cooking school for the basics. Consume everything available to you about food; read, travel, eat and work in great teaching disciplined kitchens.
HC: What’s the job really like for high-profile, very successful chefs – behind all the glamour?
KA: The hours can be long and the work hard, but if you have the drive, it can be an amazingly satisfying career. With added context – being a chef is grueling, hard work, you can have an amazing day in a restaurant and the next day, you have to do it all over again. It is hot, traditionally work space is tight, you might be yelled at all through a service, and it takes a physical toll. But, it is a hard job with amazing rewards (generally not financial) because those who are driven by the passion of food want to share that passion in what they plate and tend to thrive in the often frenetic conditions a professional kitchen offers.
HC: What is the career path leading up to this?
KA: You take opportunities where you will learn and be stretched. Be open to new challenges – work in great kitchens, but also on a farm or a fishing boat, making cheese, or spend time in a butcher shop. Understand the food system – not just what is on the plate at the end. Find mentors that respect food, their producers and staff. Don’t be afraid to take risks.
HC: What kind of personality or interests does it take to be a successful chef?
KA: Curiosity. I know chefs that are great photographers, hunters, musicians, campers, runners, potters, travelers. Personality - -passion, discipline, rigor and focus. Think athletes.
HC: What kind of degree/training/certifications should you have if you want to be a chef?
KA: Today chefs are multi-taskers. There is no one size fits all chef. If you are a chef-owner, you are also running a business. Get some business, marketing, and management education and basic writing skills as well as the creative cooking skills. Some chefs never go to cooking school – instead, they start as a dishwasher and work their way up. Others go to a 4-year culinary program. It’s not where, but what you learn and how you bring it every day.