Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). As a part of that learning experience, I’ve been able to get to know more about some really fantastic individuals. One of those individuals is Chef Kelvin Fernandez, Executive Chef at The Strand Bistro in NYC.
My first contact with Chef Kelvin was when I was researching a story about Terry Matsis, Kelvin’s culinary instructor at Long Island High School. I recently had a chance to check in with Kelvin. We talked about his start in the business, how he deals with food allergies as a chef, and a couple of food memories that exemplify his love for both food, and the industry he is a part of.
Foodie Journal: When was it that you discovered you had enough love for food that you wanted to actually make cooking your career?
Kelvin Fernandez: This is a story I love telling. It’s actually a love story. I followed my high school sweet heart into cooking class. From then on I started picking up the love for making someone smile through something I create. I finally realized that this was going to be something special when I won a C-CAP Scholarship award to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
FJ: How did you get started out in the business?
KF: I started out in the business in high school. They set me up with my first real paid job. Working in a restaurant at such a young age isn’t for everyone, but I would recommend it because that really is the best way to find out if you want to do this for a living or not.
FJ: What ended up being your first real paid job in the kitchen?
KF: My first restaurant job was working garde manger, so working with salads and cold appetizers, at The Waters Edge Restaurant in Long Island City in New York.
FJ: Obviously there are many paths to becoming a chef. You picked up a lot thanks to education. Can you talk a little bit about what your culinary education experience was like?
KF: I was fortunate to start young. Both high school and college were two different, but very important times for me as far as exposure to the culinary world. I used each as a stepping stone, and a learning experience. High school gave me the tools and basics that set me up for the restaurant lifestyle, as far as knowing culinary terms and techniques. The CIA gave me all the tools to succeed in the real world. But, I think that without working in restaurants, none of that would be possible. What you learn working in a restaurant can’t be taught in school, even a great school like the CIA which has restaurants that you can work in through-out your program. I do feel that going through the path I chose was the best possible option for me. High school classes, working in a restaurant, then culinary school. In that order. I felt like I was able to learn, to work hard, to network, and also to work special events all at the same time. I think you also have to choose the restaurants you work at carefully. That ends up defining what style of food you will develop on your own. I started cooking French, then Italian, and now American.
FJ: Now, you actually have some food allergies. Can you mention what they are?
KF: Unfortunately I am allergic to all shellfish. Lobster, scallops, shrimp, oysters, clams and mussels. Surprisingly that’s what I cook best!
FJ: As a chef, how tough is it to cook dishes that include foods you might have allergies to, especially since you can’t always taste what you’re putting on the plate? How challenging is it?
KF: It’s very difficult, I am not going to lie. I honestly owe it to my culinary mentors, George Masaraff, Alfred Portale, and Marcus Samuelson who all taught me that if you learn how to season a piece of meat properly, then you can season a piece of fish the same way. Other skills I was able to learn from working in restaurants, like how to properly cook a lobster or mussels. What certain items might taste like, their flavor profiles. When developing new recipes I just learn from others and what they like to pair with certain ingredients. For example, when I’m looking into a new dish, I will focus on eating that one dish three or four times and see what worked best so that I can create my own dish.
FJ: Everyone that loves food has food memories that they’re fond of. Could you share one of your favorite food memories?
KF: I have two – one family memory and one professional one!
As far as family, something that always hits the spot when I am home sick is my mom’s lasagna. It’s so simple, yet so dear to my heart! I take it extra serious when someone at the restaurant wants to make lasagna for family meal. I must make sure its as close to my moms recipe as possible .
A restaurant experience I remember was when I was 17 years old. I went to Restaurant Daniel for the first time. It was my first “fine-dining” experience, and I will remember it forever! First time I got to experience amazing food, amazing service, and that’s when I knew that I was looking forward to being in this business. I am fortunate enough to say that I love what I do. It doesn’t feel like a job.
Kelvin Fernandez is the Executive Chef at The Strand Bistro, inside The Strand Hotel NYC located at 33 W 37th Street, in New York City.