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Chef Christopher Thielman: From Dishwasher to Culinary School Coordinator

Chef Christopher Thielman is the coordinator of the hospitality administration program at the College of DuPage, one of several culinary schools in Illinois. "Chef T" is a Certified Executive Chef who teaches pastry arts and chef classes and has been a member of the American Culinary Federation for more than 20 years. He even went on to get his master's degree is hospitality and tourism management so that he could become a better teacher.

What inspired you to get a culinary arts degree from the Culinary Institute of America?

I started working in the field when I was 15 as a dishwasher--as almost all of us chefs did. About six months after I started washing dishes, one of the cooks quit. When I was bored, I'd walk over there and help them cook anyways, and so I said, "Hey, can I have that job?" and they said, "Sure!" I really enjoyed it from the start. In the 1970s, there was not a lot of choice [in culinary schools]. My father knew food writer Craig Claiborne, who recommended the school, so I decided to go there.

Why go to culinary school at all if you had on-the-job experience?

One of the things that one the job experience can't give you is multiple points of view on how to do something. For example, you're making a blueberry pie filling. If you go to chef school, you learn why you put granulated sugar in before you add whatever kind of starch you're using and then why you put sugar in after you thicken with starch. It's about the chemical reaction; if you put it all in at the beginning, your blueberry pie would never thicken. That's the kind of stuff you get in culinary school that you'd have a hard time getting that on the job unless you're working with someone who is really well trained and incredibly sharp.

How has culinary school changed since 1980 when you graduated?

They've changed quite a lot. I think they are much more professional. They are run in a manner to really gear you to do a better job in the field. It seems like everyone tends to take a lot more time now to produce as good a student and as well rounded a student as humanly possible.

Of the culinary courses you taught over the year, what's your favorite?

One of my favorites, as part of a course, would be artisan bread baking. I really enjoy artisan bread baking; it's a lot of fun. I love excellent, good, crusty bread.

What advice do you have for anyone considering enrolling in a culinary degree program?

If they've never worked in the field, they should definitely get a job in the field. Because some people love our field and some people hate our field. When you watch it on TV, you get a false sense of what we do for a living. It's not accurate. It doesn't represent what we all do, who we are, and what we try to bring to the table.

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