Bruce Konowalow is the director of culinary arts at Schoolcraft College. We met recently at a friend's house, where he was giving a personal lesson in Cajun and Creole cuisine. It was a pleasure to talk with someone so passionate about all aspects of the profession.
Metro Times: What kinds of people are attracted to culinary arts?
Bruce Konowalow: We always tell people that this is a professional program geared to people who have hopes of becoming a professional or at least being willing and able to adhere to a high professional level of performance, physical appearance and professionalism. If anyone wants to succeed, I would ask them why do they want to do it. I just had someone in my office the other day who asked to speak to me about changing careers. I said, "Why do you want to do this?" He said, "I have a passion. It's something I've always wanted to do. I don't know why." I said, "There is the answer. You have the passion." I have been involved in the restaurant industry since I was 16, starting as a dishwasher, a busboy and then a short order cook the whole nine yards. But even before that I had a fascination with just hanging out at luncheonettes and counters watching short order cooks. It's ingrained. Whether you're a musician or an athlete, that's what to look for the passion, the unknown driving force that leads you to do this.
MT: Is it hard to get into your program?
Konowalow: You have to take a prerequisite course called CAP 103, an introduction to culinary arts, an intensive course that packs a lot of information in cooking, sanitation, equipment knowledge and so forth. You have to pass that with an 80-something grade point average to be admitted to the program. So we have a little gateway that sort of sets it up for someone to succeed.
MT: What's the class like?
Konowalow: It runs six times a year in different configurations. It's 80 hours, more or less. The one that we're giving now runs for two weeks straight, 10 days total, eight hours a day. When you finish that, if you want to continue, you're looking at a two-year program that costs about $12,000, including general education, books and uniforms.
MT: Do you provide job placement?
Konowalow: Restaurant and hotel jobs are plentiful. Our students rarely have a problem finding jobs. They're in high demand. During the program, the students are making connections, often working in restaurants while they're in school. Most of our students are seeking entry-level positions first cook or sous chef positions, not dishwasher. Those positions, because of the nature of the business, are constantly open.
MT: Are you a good source for restaurant owners and managers to contact for help?
Konowalow: While we're not an employment agency, we do offer our job board or, in some cases, personally seek out individuals for a particular position that we feel that one of our students can fill.
MT: How did you end up teaching?
Konowalow: It was a family decision. I was the chef-owner of a restaurant, working 14 hours a day. I had kids who were 3 and 5 years old. I already had a teaching degree. It seemed like a good transition.
MT: How do you get some of Detroit's best-known chefs on your staff?
Konowalow: They don't look at teaching as a job as much as a calling. It's part of the passion. It's an outlet to share their expertise, to help the good and the welfare of the profession and of the students and the future of cooking, which is important to all of us. We want to combat mediocrity, which is the opposite of good food.
MT: Do you teach many ethnic cuisines or regional American specialties?
Konowalow: We're not recipe- or cuisine-oriented. Our approach is to teach the fundamentals. If students want to become specialists in, say, French cooking, they can do that on their own. Once you know the mother sauces and the techniques of sautéing, braising, frying and ways of preserving food charcuterie, smoking, sausage-making, curing these methods can be used in any Western cuisine. We're beginning to look at Asian cuisine, which utilizes different products and techniques. We recently went to China to visit a cooking school. We're trying to promote a cultural exchange and a student exchange
MT: I love the strokes that I get when I feed friends. I admit that's egotistical, but is this part of what drives chefs?
Konowalow: You need a good healthy ego to manage the heat, the stress, the pressure in a kitchen. You need bravado and self-confidence. Ours is a customer-oriented service business. You have to be concerned when things go wrong. You can't ignore mistakes. You have to want to please people.
The student-run American Harvest Restaurant serves lunch and dinner. For times, call 734-462-4488. Schoolcraft College is at 18600 Haggerty Rd., between Six Mile and Seven Mile roads.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthy food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]