Zak Kuczynski

 

Zak Kuczynski

Chef Zac Kuczynski

Areas of Expertise: Charcuterie, Equipment/Technology and Cheese
Years Active: 21+
Credentials: AAS Culinary Arts, Metallurgy/Welding
Professional Associations: RCA, IFT, Salt Cured Pig
Personal Motto: “Live every day in betterment of yourself, those around you and the planet we owe so much to.”
Culinary Philosophy: Cook like you mean it, because ‘good enough’ should never be good enough.

How would you describe a typical day in your current role?

Honestly it changes quite often. Some basics include developing new items and dishes inclusive of current and new trends, while incorporating some familiar aspects. I have also had a hand in consulting with customer’s kitchen layouts, pantry, and builds. Customer menu analysis and suggesting complementing additions would be a big part of weekly work as well. This can take place at both at home office, and on the road at customer’s locations. It boils down to treating customers like the partner they are, rather than the burden some make them out to be.

What prompted you to become a Chef?

I’ve had a lifelong interest in food, thanks to my Great Grandmother and Grandmothers holiday feasts. While starting my welding degree, I worked in restaurants, and as I decided welding was more of a hobby for me, while restaurants and food stayed in front as a passion and a constant desired career. 

Did you have a Chef Mentor? If so, who was your Chef Mentor and what did they teach you?

I had a handful of Chef Mentors that helped me quite a bit, but two really went above and beyond in my life. Chef Brian Polcyn taught me quite a bit. I worked in a couple of his restaurants, was his sous chef in many butchery and charcuterie classes, and recipe tested as well as acted as a chef/author liaison for both ‘Charcuterie’ and ‘Salumi’, which are the books he wrote with Michael Ruhlman. Chef Brian gave me lessons in business, cooking, politics, friendship, life, and hard knocks. Chef Kevin Gawronski would be the other mentor I feel shaped my path in culinary arts. He taught me early that you are never going to be done learning and there are lessons in everything you do. He set me up with my first career interview at TurboChef Technologies, where I became a Corporate Executive Chef. Chef Kevin always put his best effort into presentations, went the extra step to make things memorable for lessons and demonstrations, and he often said “if you are not enjoying what you are doing, ask yourself why you are doing it.”

“He taught me early that you are never going to be done learning and there are lessons in everything you do.”

What is the best part of being a Chef?

For me personally, it’s the ability to branch out in so many ways, as chefs can become really good at many aspects of food. It’s also great to be able to stun someone into silence when they enjoy something you made so much, they just cannot talk. The positions have pulled me all over the globe, led me to meeting celebrities and even to be in a movie. It’s a career that you’re not ‘stuck at a desk,’ but offers you to do so many other things ‘away from the stove’ as well!

“It’s also great to be able to stun someone into silence when they enjoy something you made so much, they just cannot talk.”

What is the hardest part of being a Chef?

Often opinions are varied. You may enjoy something very much, and will go out of your way to make it perfect with extra effort. And then the person you made it for does not enjoy it at all, due to differences in taste, allergy, or another reason. As is with my experience in charcuterie, it’s always interesting to cook for vegetarians because non-meat dishes are something I’ve had little experience with (which is again why it’s important to branch out).

In your opinion, how are culinary reality shows different from the real culinary industry?

I honestly do not watch them. What turned me off from them early was the ‘scripted’ feel and over-exaggeration of aspects that you rarely (or so we hope) see. I did work for a Gordon Ramsay-like chef once, and he was not head of a kitchen for long. Who honestly wants to work for someone that treats people like that?

If you traveled back to the beginning of your culinary career, what advice would you give yourself?

Stick around school as much as possible, volunteer often and work charity or different events with chefs as experience. It can be new and something you would not see otherwise.

“Stick around school as much as possible, volunteer often and work charity or different events with chefs as experience.

What advice would you give someone striving to become a Chef today?

Listen more than you talk. Read all you can. Practice as much as possible, and don’t skimp on the studying. School is a great spot to absorb many varieties of cooking, from instructors and students alike. We all eat, we all cook and we all have opinions on how it’s best. Sometimes there is no wrong, just a different way.

“Listen more than you talk.

What should someone think about before beginning culinary school?  

What is it about the industry that makes you want to be in it? It is not always as exciting as movies and TV make it look. Can you work some long, rough, and challenging hours for an amount of time to mold yourself into the culinarian you want to be? In early years 14-16 hour shifts are not uncommon, nor are close-to-open shifts. In the brigade style kitchens, you will start at the bottom and work your way up. But if you are willing to put in the time and effort, you should get a rewarding and satisfying career out of it.

Many future Chefs dream of opening a restaurant, what advice would you give them?

Talk to chefs/owners in the business. It’s very difficult to do (opening a restaurant), especially if a family is in the mix. People who have done it have great advice on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ and are usually very open to talking to you about it. Many scenarios are different, and I would not say there is a ‘cookie-cutter’ person that’s cut out to do so. But being greatly versed in business, finance, customer service, logistics, carpentry, electrical, etc. can only help.

What are some of the most important skills someone must possess when entering the industry today?

Learning and listening are key. I also tell students not to neglect technology. Computers, cameras, ingredients and equipment technologies all can enhance and help a chef excel in today’s food scene. Also, do not neglect sanitation. Sous Vide and Charcuterie are fun and exciting, but very easy to do wrong and be dangerous. It’s best to understand the dangers and proper know-how to keep you and your customers safe.

What tools and/or resources (website, groups, culinary/kitchen tools, etc.) do you rely on the most and why?

Peer groups in social media are awesome. Talking food with chefs online or in person is not only fun, but a great way to get new ideas, stay up on trends, and even find new jobs.  

“Talking food with chefs online or in person is not only fun, but a great way to get new ideas, stay up on trends, and even find new jobs.

In your opinion, what is the most successful culinary path and how can this be achieved?

In the beginning, anything you have no experience with is a great spot to volunteer. Do not be afraid to wash dishes for a while, most of us have. I have seen certified executive and even master chefs wash dishes in a pinch as the line cooks they have working the line were too expensive to pull off the line, and it was what was best for the restaurant/shift at that time. Understand you are working your way up, and all experience will count in different ways. A position like mine where I work for a food manufacturer requires line cook/restaurant time, a culinary degree and most importantly the work experience. When designing products that have to be replicated 40-50 times a day in up to 20,000 locations, operations teams want to have a bulletproof item. Understanding all aspects of a restaurant help with this process greatly. 

Our audience has a strong desire to make a career in the culinary industry, as such, do you have any final thoughts for them?

Absorb. Learn from mistakes as well as success. A mistake is a lesson, and making the mistake is not what defines you, it’s how you handle, learn, correct, and move on from it. Never stop learning. Travel all you can, especially early on. Social media is a great resource, but also a vast smorgasbord. Mark Twain said “be careful about reading health books, you may die of a misprint.” I would say the same thing about the internet and cuisine. Don’t forget the basics you learn in school, they will help you turn ‘okay’ recipes into great ones. Final thought; don’t let complexity supersede creativity. A simple but creative dish that is well executed will be more memorable than a very complex one that was treated poorly.

“A mistake is a lesson, and making the mistake is not what defines you, it’s how you handle, learn, correct, and move on from it.”