Written by Amanda Beni & Carolyn Roman
We interviewed our incredible Service Pro Carolyn Roman to learn more about her passions and career as a chef.
What inspired you to become a cook?
I’ve always wanted to cook professionally, ever since I was a child. However, I realized it was not a career my immigrant mom hoped for me. The current understanding of chefs was totally different back then. To even think I would cook at a professional kitchen and sustain myself was a total fantasy for me. We grew up poor, striving for “better” and did whatever I could do to honor my family’s sacrifices for me.
But my neighborhood’s cuisines that surrounded us constantly called to me. My mom saved her pennies for us to enjoy the different cultural foods during special occasions. In the Lower East Side in Manhattan we had Jewish deli goodies like potato knishes and pastrami sandwiches, lovely Chinese fried rice and egg rolls in Chinatown and the best of Italian pizzas by the slice.
And it was all fascinating. So different compared to what we had at home; mostly frozen dinners and canned foods.
As soon as I got my working papers at 14, I worked with community organizations that helped inner city neighborhoods and families with resources that we all desperately needed. And honestly, I’ve never stopped. My career in non-profit management was extensive and great, but I ALWAYS pined for work in a kitchen. I cooked on an amatuer level and learned whatever I could from magazines and books and frequently brought in dishes for staff and clients to enjoy at work. They were my guinea pigs! Luckily the encouragement I received from my colleagues and wife made me brave enough to attend Culinary School.
How was your experience at Culinary School?
I finally took the leap to become a chef and I was so excited. However I still had to make a living and pay my bills so I kept my regular work on the weekdays while I attended an accelerated culinary program participating in several classes all day on the weekends for half a year. It wasn’t easy as non-profit work is demanding but I could not afford to stop my studies. At school we had cooking projects, course work papers and internships to conduct in order to get the degree. What made things especially tough, was that my beloved father in-law was fatally ill-my biggest cheerleader and support in my new endeavors. It felt like I was doing all this partly for him. Through the process I lost him and then soon afterwards, 2 pets. Although my heart was crushed and things were stressful, I pushed on knowing that whatever happens, I would soon be living a life that would be fulfilling in new and different ways. My co-students and instructors could not understand why I always kept a smile going. I had become a stronger and a more determined person who was finally going to achieve her dream. The best part was having my mother finally appreciate my career choices by sampling my dishes and to see her pride at my commencement ceremony.
What cooking experiences helped shape the cook you’ve become and your cooking techniques?
It can be challenging to be an older, big girl chef in a professional cooking setting. The sexual harassment, sexsim and gender stereotyping are real. I know in my heart that proving myself was important but I also kept a proper head and did what I was supposed to, which was speaking up and reporting to the Human Resources department when things weren’t right. My experience in managing non-profits has helped me to work in difficult situations as well as knowing if a job is not supportive of their employees needs. Either they change or my friends and I won’t return!
HMG+ was the first job I received as a freelancer after quitting my day job and graduating culinary school. Here I learned about serving – not cooking. But learning this new skill was essential to know about the food world, how events work and how important it is to treat your “customers.” Also, now I knew first hand that my responsibility as a server was to showcase a meal prepared by a team of hard working chefs.
My current goals are to somehow marry my passions of all things hospitality and my commitment to upholding communities in need.
Who is a chef/mentor you look up to?
In service, I admire Danny Myer of Union Square Hospitality. He is a Celebrity Service professional, and I admire the way he supports his staff at any station of the kitchen and service area. All staff from dishwasher and porter to chefs, waiters and back of house are offered equal treatment and decent wages. His goal is also to make sure his customers feel they have a great service experience 100% of the time.
In the culinary arts, I absolutely adore Chef José Andrés. He was already an internationally acclaimed chef but when he started World Central Kitchen he became more loved than ever. Here is a genius celebrity chef with a heart of gold. His organization has assisted many around the world and in the US with much needed meals during natural disasters. He gets it-food heals and nourishes us to be the best we can be. These two guys are some of the best examples of the definition of hospitality. Something I would greatly like to aspire to.