It’s hard to take an interest in the culinary world and not be aware of the food empire known as Momofuku. Originally opened in New York City by David Change in 2004, Momofuku is now a dozen restaurants strong, with outposts in Australia and Toronto. But, conquering the world is hard work, and requires the effort of more than one man – enter the exceptional team the Chang has built, which includes the executive chef of Momofuku Toronto, Sam Gelman.
Sam started working with Chef Chang at Momofuku ssäm bar, helped open Momofuku Ko as sous chef in 2008, and most recently was tapped to help open Momofuku Toronto in 2012. I had a chance to check in with Chef Gelman and find out where he got his start cooking, his culinary detour through my home town of Boston, and why he decided to make the jump north of the border.
Behind the Pass: Were you always in to cooking, or did you figure later on that you wanted to make a career out of cooking?
Sam Gelman: I started cooking in high school at a small market/catering company on the weekends. I had always been into food. My mother always cooked at home and whenever we traveled my parents tried to take us to decent restaurants instead of fast food joints. I watched a lot of the “Great Chefs” television series when I was a kid.
I was also into computers, DJ’ing and live sound when I was in high school, and had part time jobs working in those areas as well. However, it was sometime during that period of my life that I decided that cooking was what I wanted to do.
BtP: You went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Did you have restaurant experience before going? If you did, do feel like the experience prior was helpful? What was your first experience in a professional kitchen?
SG: At the time I applied to the CIA, they required that you have previous experience. So when I decided that I wanted to go there, I lined up a job working for a CIA alum in Iowa City at a place called Giovanni’s. I worked there for free at first to gain experience, and after a few weeks they started paying me. Unfortunately, there was a fire in the kitchen and they closed temporarily so I went to work at the University of Iowa for another CIA alum. At the U of I, I worked in the main kitchen doing prep, banquets, in the bakery, and also in the University’s fine dining restaurant. I worked there until I left for the CIA the summer after I graduated from high school.
BtP: I’m from Boston, so I feel inclined to ask. Where did you work when you were in the Boston area?
SG: I worked at Clio the whole time I was in Boston. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot from Chef Ken Oringer.
BtP: You had been the sous at Ko. What was it that made you decide to take the leap and move to Toronto for Momofuku?
SG: I moved to Toronto because it was a new set of challenges for me. We opened 4 concepts within a few days in September 2012. It was an opportunity for me to be challenged not just in the kitchen but the entire experience of opening Momofuku Toronto. There are a lot of logistics involved in running a place of this scale, which is a new and exciting opportunity.
Sam Gelman is the Executive Chef of Momofuku Toronto, located at 190 University Ave, Toronto, ON, Canada.