Many of Bravo’s Top Chef Season 7 fans were outraged when contestant Kenny Gilbert was eliminated earlier this month. But Gilbert isn’t worried about his future at all. When he was 23, he was the youngest African American to work as chef de cuisine–French for executive chef—for The Grill at The Ritz-Carlton, a AAA Five Diamond Restaurant in Amelia Island, Florida. He worked in that position for six years.
Gilbert, now 37, has started to focus on taking his craft to the next level. About three years ago he formed Passionate Culinary Enterprises, a consulting company that helps hotels and resorts create themed menu concepts for their restaurants. Along with launching a line of sauces called G’s Sauce & Spice Market in December 2010, he is also planning to open Nipper’s Restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida this November. It is his first endeavor as the president of Culinary Adventure Capital, LLC, a restaurant group he helped create after leaving Top Chef this August.
Gilbert said that a lot of young chefs ask him how he has managed to make such a quick ascent into the culinary elite. He spoke with Black Enterprise’s Food Biz and here is his advice to recent culinary school graduates on how to take your career from a slow simmer to a rolling boil.
1) Have thick skin. “Being a minority chef, you can’t go in and think that everyone is out to get you,” says Gilbert, whose personal mantra ‘no poodles allowed’ is enforced in his kitchen. “You have to let your talent speak for itself. I don’t care if you‘re dealing with the most racist person–when it is all said and done, if your talent helps make them money there is nothing they can say.”
2) Study, research, and DO sweat the small stuff. “Just like when you true up an edge on a knife, you need to constantly keep honing your skills,” says Gilbert. It can be something as simple as doing your knife cuts. When a chef says, ‘I need five gallons of julienned cucumbers’ for this pickled thing they’re doing … they’d better be the correct dimensions and not just halfway done. If you need to make a potato mousseline, you’d better make it the way it is classically done.”
3) Bring a lot of passion to the kitchen. “If you don’t love it, don’t waste your time getting involved. You have to physically love the hours, the stress, getting burned potentially, sweat dripping in your eyes,” says Gilbert. “It’s one of the first things I tell my apprentices and employees–‘If you’re not passionate, do not waste my time.’ You have to love everything about it. It’s not about getting a chance to play around with really cool [ingredients], it’s being passionate [about the simple ingredients, too.] You have to be just as excited about lightly sautéing the baby zucchinis with a little garlic, parsnip, lemon, and olive oil as you are about truffles and heirloom tomatoes.
4) Discover new cuisines. “My exposure was limited. I’m a kid from Cleveland. I went to college in Pittsburgh then I was immediately in front of the Ritz Carlton at 18. I only knew what was in front of me,” says Gilbert. “I started buying cook books. I didn’t buy the Charlie Trotter Cookbook or The French Laundry or anything like that–I was buying books on Thailand, Japan, China, Russia, Native American cuisine. I started researching the history and the tradition of the cuisine. From there, if I understood the roots of the cooking, then there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do.” Eventually, Gilbert started teaching cooking classes at the Ritz-Carlton to help develop his technique, which would help him later on Top Chef. When Marcus Samuelsson, winner of Top Chef Masters, guest starred on the show and asked the Season 7 group to create an Ethiopian-inspired dish, it was no big deal for Gilbert because he had already taught a class on it.