American dream

28 September 2001 by
American dream

Jeremy Emmerson reckons he has earned more respect and a better lifestyle working as a chef in the USA than if he had remained in Britain. He shares with Janet Harmer some of the practicalities of working in an American kitchen .

Jeremy Emmerson is a determined guy. When told he could never work in the USA, he set his sights on ensuring that he did. In 1995, he arrived in Palm Beach, Florida, to take up a position as sous chef at the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach. Six years later, he still is in the USA, but now as executive sous chef at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Chicago.

"I was bitten by the travel bug after taking a year off in 1992 to travel around Australia," says Emmerson. "I knew when I came back that I would like to seek a permanent position abroad and thought that America would be a great option, particularly as there are not that many British chefs working there.

"And, of course, when I was told that it would be too difficult to get a job in the country, I was inspired to make sure that I did."

The opportunity to move to the USA eventually came through the Four Seasons group, which Emmerson had rejoined after returning from Australia to take part in the opening of the Regent hotel, London (now the Landmark). He then transferred with the company to its property in Palm Beach, he says.

For Emmerson, the move was a resounding success. Not only did it provide him with the challenge of working in a glamorous resort hotel that had one of the most renowned reputations in the USA, but it also introduced him to an enviable lifestyle. This involved a spacious apartment with swimming pool and tennis courts, located just five miles from the beach, and a wide circle of friends.

After four years in Florida, including a stint in a sister hotel on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Emmerson was transferred to one of the highest profile hotels in the Four Seasons group, the Ritz-Carlton Chicago.

His current job as executive sous chef involves the day-to-day running of the kitchens at the 435-bedroom property. There are four main food and beverage outlets at the hotel - the Café, offering all-day casual dining; the Greenhouse lounge; the Dining Room for formal eating; and 24-hour room service.There are also extensive banqueting facilities for up to 600 guests.

Emmerson's Greek head chef, George Bumbaris, concentrates on budgets and marketing activities, as well as keeping a watchful eye on the kitchen.

Although Emmerson has helped about a dozen UK friends to find positions in the USA, he says that British chefs in America are a rare breed. "If you want to work here, one of the most straightforward options would be to join a hotel company in the UK that has US properties," he says. "They might be willing to bring you out on an L-1 visa - an inter-company transfer visa.

"Otherwise, search the Internet for available jobs and look for employers who are willing to get you a J-1 visa, which lasts for 18 months. Once you have a job offer, the employer should take care of the visa. Unfortunately, there are fewer opportunities for chefs, but assistant restaurant managers are quite sought-after."

Emmerson is working there using an H visa, which is granted to employees with specialist skills, and he is in the process of applying for a Green Card.

Working in the USA has given Emmerson a more comfortable lifestyle than he believes he could ever have had with a similar job in the UK. He and wife Nicola live with their daughter, Lucy, in a two-bedroom apartment in a block that has an indoor pool and gym and is just 10 minutes' walk from the hotel.

"I receive a good salary - more than most executive chefs receive in the UK - plus a bonus, profit-sharing, a good pension and great healthcare," he says. "I also receive a good deal of respect here for being a chef."

Emmerson had something of a culture shock when he started his working life in the USA. "I had to quickly Americanise the way I talked as nobody could understand me. There are lots of ingredients, such as tomatoes, basil, oregano, that are pronounced differently."

The structure of kitchen brigades has also taken some getting used to. "There are not so many layers within a brigade - you are either a cook or sous chef," says Emmerson. "Cooks are hourly paid - or by the minute, in some hotels - and sous chefs are salaried. This means that, as a sous chef, a big part of your responsibilities lie with controlling payrolls."

Working in a unionised kitchen, which is the norm in the USA, was another new experience for Emmerson. "As an executive or sous chef, the way you treat your staff is a big deal," he says. "You cannot swear at your crew, and harassment of any kind is a big deal."

A major bonus of working in a US kitchen is the number of hours he is expected to work, which is much lower than in the UK. "I do around 55 hours a week and always have two days off," says Emmerson. "There is wide recognition [in the UK] that people don't get involved in the hospitality industry because of the ridiculous hours. But, here, allowing you a life outside of work keeps you fresh for the job."

At the moment, much of Emmerson's time away from work is spent writing for a Web site he has set up. Intended as a culinary online magazine written by chefs for chefs, receives about 135,000 hits a month from chefs, students and food lovers around the world.

Like working in America, setting up a Web site was something people said Emmerson wouldn't be able to do. "If anyone doubts me, I will always give 120% and won't give up till I've got there," he says.

Jeremy Emmerson: career to date

Born in Carshalton, Surrey, Jeremy Emmerson was brought up in the nearby village of Chipstead, where he began his career at a local restaurant, Dene Farm, owned by Neville Goodhew.

In 1986, he went to Westminster College to gain his 706/1 and 706/2 qualifications, later returning to complete his 706/3. Today, he pays respects to his former lecturer, Bob Salt: "He really helped me build my foundations. He is a great teacher who cares about the students and not the politics of education."

Emmerson continued to work at Dene Farm during his time at college, and then went on to help open Goodhew's second restaurant, Honours Mill in Edenbridge, Kent. Subsequently, he joined the Royal Garden hotel, London, initially under executive chef Remy Fougère, who was replaced six months after Emmerson arrived by David Nicholls. "David was a real ballbuster, but he raised the level of our food - our banquets were fantastic," says Emmerson. "He has helped me in many ways since."

Emmerson moved to the Four Seasons hotel, London, in 1990. One-and-a-half years later, he took off on his travels to Australia. "Taking a year off and travelling was the best thing I ever did for my career," he says.

"I realised that being a chef was not the most important thing in the world. I became less aggressive and better skilled at dealing with people of different cultures."

On returning to London, Emmerson rejoined Four Seasons to take part in the opening of the Regent London (now the Landmark). It was while he was there that he worked with one of the most influential mentors of his career, Neil Young, now the banquet operations manager at the Four Seasons in Dublin. "He is the kind of guy who loves the business, leads by example and knows when to roll up his sleeves and help out," he says.

In 1995, Emmerson moved with the company to the Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach as sous chef. He transferred to the Ritz-Carlton Chicago as executive sous chef in 1999.

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