Jeremie Tomczak Is Learning Plenty Every Day
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA finals this Saturday, February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the finalists as possible.]
Jeremie Tomczak, Executive Chef, Event Operations, at the French Culinary Institute, first began thinking about applying for the Bocuse d’Or USA in the summer of 2008, when he witnessed his colleague, FCI instructor Rogers Powell, training for the US team selection event held at Epcot Center in Orlando that year.
“It was pretty cool that he was so dedicated to it, and putting in this time,” recalls Tomczak. “You can see the contestants learning. When you put that level of commitment in, you probably get more out of it in one day that you normally would in a week. That’s why I got into this field. Because you never stop learning. You never get bored.”
Tomczak, 33, grew up in Wisconsin and has always been around the restaurant business in some way or another. He didn’t know he’d make it his career, or move to New York City, until he attended cooking school in Madison. One of his instructors was from New York and had worked at Picholine. The teacher arranged a trip for 15 students to Manhattan and it was a revelatory jaunt for young Tomczak.
“We just went to a whole bunch of restaurants—Picholine, Windows on the World,” he remembers today. Of the dear, departed Windows, he says: “I’ll never forget it, just being in up in that space, seeing the whole city. It had a big impact on me as to where I had to go next. Automatically, I said, ‘I’m moving to New York City.’”
After he finished school, Tomczak externed for Laurent Tourondel at his since shuttered jewel box, Cello, on the Upper East Side. Tourondel offered him a job, but Tomczak couldn’t afford to stay in Manhattan just yet. He returned home to Wisconsin and an old part-time job with UPS, while also working at Nadia’s restaurant in Madison. Eventually, he socked away enough dough to move back to New York City in 2002, but didn’t have a game plan. He showed up with a backpack and checked into a hostel, but couldn’t land a job. As the last of his dollars was draining from his back account, he scored an interview with Aquavit’s Marcus Samuelsson.
“If I don’t get this job, I’m going to move back to Wisconsin,” he told the chef.
Without missing a beat, Samuelsson said, “OK, get in the kitchen.” He wasn’t kidding. Tomczak did as instructed. At the end of the shift, Samuelsson told him to come back the next day.
It was the beginning of a long and productive relationship. Samuelsson hired him, and over the ensuing years, Tomczak went to Philadelphia as part of Samuelsson’s opening team at his Stephen Starr project, Washington Square, where he worked as a sous chef. He then returned to New York City and helped reopen Aquavit when it moved to a new home. Tomczak then worked on a side project Samuelsson put together with New York Cruise Lines.
He’s had his current role at the FCI for three years and it’s a nifty and unique job: He’s tasked with running the chef demonstration program, “taking care of all the events, hands-on cooking classes, hors d’oeuvres parties, and sit down dinners.” Beyond that, if a client books a special event, he will create a special menu explicitly for them, creating a “boutique” experience.
Tomczak is neither instructor nor student at the FCI, but the theme of continuous learning that seems to define him, and his career, gets full respect there. “I’ve learned so much,” he says, “working with so many different chefs, from around the world…It’s been a great education for me.”
Tomczak hasn’t participated in many culinary competitions although he did try his hand at a pork chop contest in Milwaukee once, and loved the experience. He was also very athletic in high school, playing baseball, football, and hockey. As the Bocuse d’Or USA approaches, he finds some of the old competitive juices flowing, but says that the anticipation of Hyde Park dwarfs anything he’s known before: “It’s more intense. Every moment you spend wondering ‘How can I make this better? How can I shave off this time? It really engulfs your life for this moment in time. You have to step back and appreciate it.”
Tomczak says that now that he’s stepped into the role of chef-candidate it’s been pretty much what he thought it would be when he was watching Powell train a year and a half ago. “You do a lot of recipe testing,” he says. “And, you know, for one great recipe, you have a lot of failures along the way…It’s a work in progress. I don’t think you ever really get to one-hundred percent.”
When Tomczak and I spoke, I asked him if I the Bocuse d’Or USA committee had made a mistake on its website, where it lists his commis, Cameron Slaugh, as a sous chef at Park Avenue Seasonal. Commis cannot be older than 22 when they compete in Lyon next year, meaning that Slaugh would have to be just 21 right now, which struck me as impossibly young. But Tomczak verified that this is indeed the case.
“He just has a great attitude and that’s what you need… from there the possibilities are endless.”
Tomczak says that although there are kitchens everywhere at the FCI, the classrooms are always filled, and he’s not permitted to disturb the students. So, he and Slaugh have been commandeering spaces when the last of the evening classes wrap up, around 11pm, and training straight through to dawn.
That sounds like an awfully brutal schedule for a culinary contest. But for somebody who considers himself a perpetual learner, it’s no big deal. What student doesn’t pull an all-nighter every now and then?