The 2015 Roux Scholar, Ian Scaramuzza, chose to stage at Benu in San Francisco under head chef Corey Lee, and now, thanks to the support he had from the unique network of Roux scholars, he will be taking up a permanent position there later this year. Neil Gerrard listens in as Scaramuzza talks to Alain Roux
If you want proof that the Roux Scholarship is one of the most effective ways for an ambitious young chef to enhance their career, then look no further than the 2015 winner, Ian Scaramuzza. The former head chef of Hibiscus in London has just landed a job in the US, working for San Francisco chef Corey Lee, owner of three-Michelin-starred Benu. Here, Scaramuzza talks to Alain Roux, Waterside Inn chef-patron and co-chairman of the judges, about the young chef's three-month stage at Benu and the new directions winning the Roux Scholarship has taken him in.
Alain Roux and Ian Scaramuzza
Alain Roux (AR): Why did you choose Benu?
Ian Scaramuzza (IS): Because I was looking for something a little bit different. I had been working in French-based kitchens for nine years, but I always followed Corey Lee and Benu because he was classically trained at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. He has a really classic base, but with American and Asian influences. I wanted something that was going to take me out of my comfort zone and I had heard he was one of the strictest chefs in America with a reputation for being precise, so I thought, "OK, I'm going to learn something there." It was also a small team. I didn't want to go into a big kitchen and get lost.
AR: It was a brilliant choice of stage - I would go any time! It is definitely a place where you are out of your comfort zone. And that is what the scholarship is all about. It is discovering something that is unusual, where you will be looked after because they know why the scholar is visiting and spending those few months there. It is always daunting for a chef to go and enter any kitchen where there is a different concept or style of cooking. Benu is unique because it has its own style and influences.
Was it what you expected?
IS: I think I roughly knew what I was going into, but thanks to the fact I was coming from the Roux Scholarship, they had it all mapped out. They sat me down on my first day and told me, "You will have two weeks on fish and two on meat", and they had a complete plan for me. And then the last month I spent there I was basically a sous chef.
It was quite difficult going in as a stagiaire - having had so much responsibility as a chef in a two-Michelin-starred restaurant to then suddenly be helping out on a garnish. But once I got my head around it, I enjoyed it - and that is what any Roux Scholar will say to you. The first week or two were a whirlwind because it was different ingredients, different systems. It was tough, but in a good way.
AR: We make sure a place will greet a scholar for those three months and that they do it because they are happy to be doing it and they take care of the scholar. Some places won't accept any trainees or stagiaires. Some places will, but then they just put them in a corner or in the second kitchen, so they're not part of the action. The people who will take on board a scholar know they are getting a confirmed chef, they know the prize and they know that, as a family, we make sure that things are ready for the scholar to have the opportunity and make those three months really valuable.
Benu organised two weeks in each section and for you to be able to run the pass in such a place after two months - not every restaurant would do that, so it's pretty amazing.
The team at Benu
How did the kitchen operate?
IS: I think the way American kitchens are run is very different. It was actually quite similar to the way that Andrew Fairlie runs his kitchen. It is very structured and organised. Benu has a big brigade, which was new to me. When I worked for Andrew, there were maybe six or seven of us, so it was tough but organised - it was similar in Hibiscus.
I have never worked anywhere with a morning team and a butcher. That was nice because I was expecting to come in and have to do everything, but the way it works is you get to move around. Everyone has their own job and everyone does things in certain times and in certain amounts because they know their business and exactly how much they are going to do. It is so well-oiled.
AR: With your stage behind you, what does the Roux Scholarship mean to you now?
IS: For me, winning the Roux Scholarship has always been one of my biggest career ambitions. Even before I wanted to be a head chef, I have always said that I wanted to win the Roux Scholarship. That was partly due to working with Andrew and the fact that he was the first ever winner. I saw what he had done and that made me want to do it. It has helped me to get where I want to go and it has opened a lot of doors.
For advice, my first contact would always be Andrew, just because I worked with him for so long. If I send an email to the Waterside Inn, I know I will get a response straight away. Or I could send a message to other scholars, like Sat Bains or André Garrett - anyone - and they will actually pitch in.
AR: It is a big family, really - the scholars, not just the Roux family. It is something that the scholars seem to understand quite quickly. Some are a bit shy and take more time, but eventually they get to know each other - the family and all of us. Whether it's a phone call or an email, the connection is there.
The beauty from my side is to see the connection between the scholars and the respect they have for each other, from the first one to the last. When we have our trips, it is as if the brigade of your restaurant is having a day off. You wouldn't think they all do their own stuff and they all have their own speciality and style - there's no difference. It reminds me a bit of when I did my military service. On the first day you go to the base and everyone is dressed in normal civilian clothes, and then half an hour later everyone is shaved and wearing an army uniform and everyone looks the same. It's the same with the scholarship - even if we are on the other side of the world, when we meet we are part of the same family.
L to R: Michel Roux Jr, Albert Roux, Michel Roux Sr and Alain Roux
So what's next?
IS: My first week at Benu started on a Wednesday and by mid-service on Saturday, Corey was asking me what my plans were. I thought he was just making conversation, so I said that I didn't actually have any, and he said that we should have a chat. So he basically asked me how I felt about coming over there. I had already left Hibiscus and I had gone to Benu without a job so I pretty much had nothing to lose. I contacted my wife and then Andrew, and I asked him what he thought, and then I talked to Sat and a few scholars and they all said, "Go for it - why not?".
Then, a couple of weeks later, Corey and I sat down and he said "this is going to happen". He offered to get some letters from people like Thomas Keller and Daniel Patterson to vouch for me. What I had to do from my side was to contact a few chefs to give me some references. I contacted Michel Roux Jr and asked if it was possible for him to help me and he said yes. In one day he had everything ready for me, and you just don't expect that. Sat Bains gave me a letter, and so did Claude Bosi and Andrew Fairlie. So a Roux and two scholars gave me reference letters. The only reason I have got the opportunity for a green card to work in the US is because of my CV and the publicity and the reputation that comes from the Scholarship.
Since I've been back, I have been working at the Clove Club with [head chef] Isaac McHale, who is Scottish, hence the connection. But Corey Lee also put me in touch with Dan Barber [chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York]. Dan hosted the Roux trip in New York and needed someone in London to work on his Wasted project, which will bring Blue Hill to the capital.
The Wasted project is where he uses things that would normally be thrown away and makes a delicious menu from it. I am organising all the stuff on this side; all the research and development. Dan told me that the Roux brothers are a massive inspiration to his career. His pop-up should take place either at the end of this year or early next year. If I am still here, I will be working on it day-to-day, but I may be in the US by then.
AR: Dan Barber has a huge amount of followers and he is really recognised - and we all know why: he is unique. When we went there on a Roux Scholarship trip in 2014, we were so well looked after. The scholars had a wonderful dinner and a tour of the farm and not many people have that chance. At the end of the day, Ian is a chef of calibre, but I think being a Roux scholar has opened doors.
To have an educational trip helps a great deal, because it is about gaining knowledge, but it also shows that when we went to visit him it must have shaken the place up and he remembered the family and the chefs he has met. He obviously felt confidence in you to give you this chance, despite the fact that you have never worked with him directly. This is the kind of thing we love to see and hear.
IS: I definitely want to do something for myself one day. To be honest, I think I am ready, but having an opportunity to go and work and get international experience is not going to hold me back - it's going to add to it. I think it is about being smart and not just jumping. I know there are a lot of 25-year-old head chefs but that doesn't interest me. When I do something, I want to do it with a lot of experience in really good kitchens behind me.
AR: In our world there is always space to learn and progress and there are phases in your life and your career. When you are a scholar, you have got that network and that backing.
The judging session
Profile: Ian Scaramuzza
Ian Scaramuzza was taking his third shot at the competition when he won in 2015. He is only the second Scot to win the Roux Scholarship after the inaugural winner Andrew Fairlie, and it is Fairlie who Scaramuzza believes set him on his path to success.
Having started his career at a restaurant in Glasgow called House For An Art Lover, working under Ian Mackie, Scaramuzza then moved to Etain, also in Glasgow, before joining Geoff Smeddle at the Peat Inn in Fife.
In 2007 he joined Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles as a commis chef and was promoted to sous chef three years later at the age of 24. In January 2012 an opportunity arose for him to join the team at Hibiscus in Mayfair as sous chef. However, within six months, he was promoted to the position of head chef.
Clearly a loyal employee who has given good length of service to both Fairlie and Bosi, Scaramuzza's career has also included a series of stages - at the Vineyard under John Campbell (then two-Michelin-starred), two-starred restaurants Sat Bains in Nottingham and De Pastorale in Belgium, the three-Michelin-starred De Leest in Holland, and a brief stage at Ferran and Albert AdriÁ 's Tickets in Barcelona.
Entries for the 2017 Roux Scholarship will open in October. Further details can be found at www.rouxscholarship.co.uk
Ian Scaramuzza on the day of his win
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