Food television is full of celebrity chefs like Alton Brown (my personal hero/crush), Giada DeLaurentiis and Gordon Ramsay. These chefs have helped shape popular culture’s impression of the food world. There is much focus on chefs, their abilities and their creative drives. We can probably name a dozen chefs from Julia Childs to Bobby Flay, but one chef cannot run any kitchen. And woe be to those who call the chef a mere “cook.” Why the heirarchy?
There is honor in the title chef because there is so much more to a kitchen than the chef him or herself. A fully stocked kitchen can have as many as thirty or forty staff, also known as a brigade de cuisine, ranging from very specialized positions like the guy who makes all the fish dishes (poissonnier) to the guy who runs the kitchen on a daily basis, the deputy kitchen chef (sous-chef de cuisine). In very large kitchens all the specializations are fully staffed, sometimes with a few in each position if their dishes are in high demand.
Each of these positions’ performance reflects on the chef, so each of these positions must be selected and filled very carefully. At the Biltmore, here in Asheville, their positions are sometimes filled by a lengthy externship granted to students from the Culinary Institute of America. The Biltmore offers a select few of these positions to students who show an exceptional aptitude for kitchen work.
One of these externs, Kaela Vanderhoof, a small and young girl who does not look like she could manhandle a 14 inch skillet, granted me a few minutes to talk about her position in the Biltmore Estate and what her plans for life are. I was immediately impressed by Kaela’s sheer drive. Her laser focus on cooking, food, and her immersion in the world of fine dining was something to behold.
Kaela started toying with food as a young tot of just a few years old. By a young age she had her own restaurant in her basement, serving playdough and imaginary food to her family, friends, stuffed animals, and anyone else who entertained her dreams. But she did not let go of it at this childlike stage. Her grandfather, sensing her future ahead, began including her in family feasts. Christmas and Easter became learning sessions for Kaela, and soon she was helping plan and prepare the food for her large family’s holidays. By high school she was burying herself as deeply as the schools would allow in home economics classes, taking extra restaurant jobs and vocational learning classes before she graduated. She competed in events, repeatedly coming out on top, and this drive is what garnered her a phone call from the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world’s most prestigious degreed programs in culinary arts, excitedly offering her a spot by voice rather than the usual letter in the mail.
Her first externship opportunity, she selected the Biltmore. She did not apply to any other externship position. Kaela’s confidence and skills gave her the courage to put all of her energy into this experience, and when her father frowned on putting all her eggs in one basket, Kaela smiled and said “I’ll get it. I’m not worried.” As if to grant her wish, a few minutes later, the Biltmore was on the phone asking her to come to North Carolina and work in their kitchens during the busiest tourist season: summer.
Kaela rotates positions in her externship, getting valuable teamwork and kitchen experience in positions as varied as saucier, poissonnier and line chef. She works with some of the most talented members of Biltmore’s brigade de kitchen, and I cannot imagine how she would not impress and fit right in as though she’d always been there.
Though the Biltmore’s selection in Kaela as an extern was apt and well deserved, her ambitions run as hot as her focus. She will take the skills she has learned at the world’s largest private residence, as well as equally beautiful hotels and kitchens in her native Pennsylvania, and turn them into a world-class fine dining restaurant. Perhaps Chicago or San Francisco will someday claim what Asheville has on loan for just one summer, but for now, Biltmore’s brigade claims one student’s success in everything she attempts.
Kaela Vanderhoof is a name to follow, and when she opens her restaurant, we will understand how and where she fine tuned her chef skills, in one of the best food experiences east of the Mississippi: Asheville!