Chef and Tell: Eric Stein from Johnson & Wales rips on former Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehan
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Eric Stein, instructor and chef at Johnson & Wales University. To read part two of that interview, click here.
Lori Midson Eric Stein, Johnson & Wales chef/instructor
Johnson & Wales University
Eric Stein is using his fingers to count. "Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen," he says to himself, finally stopping when he reaches twenty. Stein is ticking off the number of jobs he's held during his 27 years on earth, and by the time he's finished rattling off numbers, it's clear that he's had nearly as many jobs as he is years old -- every single one of them culinary. "I've never had a job -- any job -- that didn't involve cooking," says Stein, a cooking instructor at Johnson & Wales University, a position he's held since he was 23.
Born and raised in Rhode Island, Stein, who is the Colorado state coordinator of vegetarian nutrition and teaches courses in spa cuisine, vegetarian cooking, light and healthy desserts, new world cuisine, international cuisine, sensory analysis and nutrition, scored his first food job when he was twelve. "I started off working at my uncle's cafe, but he didn't have a kitchen, so we made everything at this house -- macaroni and cheese, lasagna, homey stuff -- and took it all back to the restaurant," he remembers. While a culinary school student, he spent a three-month break working at restaurants in different states. "I've stepped foot in roughly twenty kitchens across America, even if it was just a three-day stage," says Stein, who now calls himself a "glorified home ec teacher," albeit one with more experience than teachers twice his age.
Stein was immersed in the culinary program at the Johnson & Wales campus in Providence, the only J&W branch that, at the time, offered a nutrition program, when the department chair asked if he'd be interested in teaching nutrition classes at the Denver campus. "I sort of fell into the job," admits Stein, who set out to be a biologist, but instead got a master's degree in nutrition. "But once I got into it, I found it really interesting. I realized that there are actual reasons to eat food, beyond just for fuel -- that you should eat garlic because it lowers your cholesterol, or eat beans because they're high in iron."
Culinary school, explains Stein, is a "fast track for culinary students who want to reach their goals quicker than they would in a restaurant kitchen." While chefs from the school of hard knocks might disagree with that assertion, he insists it's a "great way to go if you want to learn the basics, be a leader in your craft and hone your skills." Still, if you're interesting in pursuing a degree in the culinary arts, Stein advises working in a restaurant -- or twenty -- first. "Passion for food is way more important than going to culinary school, so work in as many restaurants as you can to make sure that you've got that passion before spending all your time in cooking labs," he advises. And Stein has one more tip: Become a master of sauces, "because even if you make a mediocre steak or piece of fish, if you have a great sauce, people will gravitate toward it."
Stein will soon vacate his teaching position at Johnson & Wales to gravitate toward the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where he's embarking on a three-year apprenticeship, a grueling commitment that he hopes will help him secure a spot on the 2012 United States Culinary Olympic team. In advance of his departure, we caught up with Stein, who dished about his new career path, his adulation for lamb, ginger and cupcakes, and his contempt for Jason Sheehan, Westword's former restaurant critic.