At the age of fifteen, Andrew Dornenburg earned his first paycheck at a local McDonald's. His employer, finding him too slow at flipping burgers and making change at the register, eventually said, "We don't know if this job is for you." Maybe that was because he was destined for the realm of four-star restaurants instead. Andrew makes no claim to knowing what he wanted to be when he grew up. Not even during his time cooking at McDonald's did he realize in the slightest that he would someday become a chef. "It just never occurred to me," Andrew says. "While I was a good cook at home, I'd never even considered cooking at a restaurant."
Instead, he had taken on different jobs throughout his road to self-discovery, ranging from mowing lawns and delivering newspapers in his youth to fighting fires, working in a salmon fishery in Alaska, and selling shoes for Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue in his teens and early 20s. "I had always been very good at sales, so I had a lot of different sales jobs growing up," Andrew recalls. "Sales focused more on verbal skills, which came naturally to me. My parents would joke that I could sell ice to Eskimos!"
Becoming A Chef
"I always had secret fantasies of writing, but I never thought they would ever come to fruition," Andrew admits. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, his dyslexia went undiagnosed. While he excelled in social studies and as a leader, he struggled with penmanship, spelling and math and was harshly mis-labeled by some as either "unfocused" or "lazy." It wasn't until he was in junior college that his English professor -- who was as impressed with the creativity of his writing as she was troubled by his poor spelling -- suggested that he visit the campus learning center to be tested for dyslexia.
When he moved to Massachusetts, he as many students do worked in the restaurant business to put himself through school. He waited tables, hosted, and consulted on wine lists, eventually landing at the celebrated restaurant the East Coast Grill in Cambridge.
With one foot in college and one in the restaurant business, at end of a long day he came to realize that it was the people in the kitchen who seemed to be having the most fun and that he felt most drawn there, too. "The cooks were always excited to be there and to be able to talk about food," he recalls. "One day I humbly asked [James Beard Award-winning co-owner/chef] Chris Schlesinger about culinary schools, and he told me, 'Forget cooking school -- I will teach you everything you need to know.' So, I took him up on his offer."
Andrew never finished college, instead enrolling in the school of hard knocks by starting at the bottom. From 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, he worked in the kitchen. In addition to preparing food, he would do anything else that needed to be done, from sweeping the floors to washing dishes not-so-glamorous kitchen tasks that were part of working his way up the culinary ladder. After his day shift, he would work in the front of the house until midnight. Despite the long hours, the hot conditions, and the occasional cuts and burns that resulted from learning his way around a kitchen, he fell in love with cooking, discovering a new passion and beginning his journey for excellence. Like most dyslexics, he dove into wanting to know everything about his job, and began studying the history and origins of the food he was cooking as well as the lives and recipes of his culinary idols.
At the time he decided he wanted to become a chef, attending culinary school wasn't mandatory, as it virtually is today. He advises aspiring chefs to work as a cook both before going to school as well as during school, so they're able to apply what they learn. The most important quality of a chef? "You have to love food, and you have to love feeding and nurturing people," says Andrew. If you read Karen and Andrew's book BECOMING A CHEF: With Recipes and Reflections from America's Leading Chefs, you will learn the paths of how dozens of famous chefs became chefs, including Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Todd English, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and Alice Waters.
Today, Andrew Dornenburg is an award-winning author and chef. With his wife Karen Page, he has written bestselling books on the restaurant profession -- which include BECOMING A CHEF, CULINARY ARTISTRY, DINING OUT, CHEF'S NIGHT OUT and THE NEW AMERICAN CHEF. Their work has led them to be called "the leading experts on the secrets of success behind America's top chefs" on Amazon.com and "the brightest young author team on the culinary scene today" on National Public Radio.
The Importance Of General Education
You might think that as a chef or a cook, you would never have to read another book, do math calculations, or study history. But in fact it's knowledge of the history and origins of food that can add richness and complexity to whatever you're cooking, whether a single dish or an entire themed menu.
"For example, once a client asked me to design a menu for a dinner in honor of a colleague of his who was moving to San Francisco," Andrew recalls. "I came up with one that started out with local oysters from Fisherman's Wharf, and ended with chocolate soufflés at Ghirardelli Square, where the legendary chocolate maker is located, which was a big hit!"
There are other aspects of education that play a part in cooking: You have to know about measurements, because sometimes you have to multiply or divide a recipe depending on how many guests you are serving. Andrew runs his own catering business so he also has to know how much to charge, based on his costs (including ingredients and labor), so he can also make a profit. Being skilled in time management is also crucial.
What does science have to do with cooking? As a chef, it's crucial to understand how to cook things that not only taste delicious, but that also provide healthy sustenance for the body. Understanding food science brings an awareness of the dangers of food contamination, and how to cook and store food to destroy any bacteria. While it may seem overwhelming at first, once you understand the basics and develop good habits, it becomes second nature. You don't have to be an expert in math or science to be a chef. Instead, you can simply focus in on the aspects that apply directly to cooking. [Andrew recommends Harold McGee's book ON FOOD AND COOKING for a fascinating discussion of kitchen science.]
Making The Grade
You might think that your teachers are tough graders and that you'll be glad to get rid of the pressure of grades once you graduate. However, there are even tougher "graders" in the world of professional of cooking, called restaurant critics who can make or break a restaurant. Andrew sweats bullets when he knows one's around, because some restaurants can literally explode with business after a good review -- or be shut down after a bad one. Because you just never know when one may show up either announced or anonymously (as many prefer to work), even at that last tiring hour of the day you have to give it your best when you send out a plate of food. "In addition, it's not just the critics who are 'grading' you. Every customer who eats your food is also evaluating it," Andrew points out. "In many kitchens, the chef will review the plates that come back to the dishwasher, to make sure the guests ate everything. An empty plate is a good grade." Listen to a interview with Andrew and Karen by Ann Devlin about how they prepare for a food critic. [click]
His Other Love
If discovering one love was not enough, when he moved to the East Coast he met his other love -- Karen Page. On his first trip to Manhattan, a friend told him that he had to meet Karen, calling her "the funnest person in New York City." "It was love at first sight," Andrew swears. They have been together ever since.
In December 1988 while watching the snow fall over Rockefeller Center a week before Christmas in New York City, Andrew asked Karen to marry him. You can hear in his voice that he truly loves her, which chokes up a hopeless romantic like me. Later, asking about some of his favorite things, I asked him who he most admired in life and he replied, "Karen...Whenever she is in a room, I want to sit near her so I can listen to her. She is always so full of life and so interesting!" They complement each other well.
It All Comes Together
Andrew never dreamed his life would turn out the way it did. While he was researching how to deal with the everyday pressures of being a chef, Andrew complained to Karen that there were no books about the chef's profession. When she suggested that he write one, he remembers protesting, "I could never write a book. My spelling is terrible!" When Karen proposed that they write it together, he agreed that she might be on to something.
Dornenburg and Page went on to meet his (and others') culinary idols to learn the secrets of how they had overcome their own obstacles to achieve success in this demanding field. They interviewed more than 60 of America's most famous chefs -- including Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Todd English, Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and Alice Waters -- and shared their insights into the profession in their first book BECOMING A CHEF: With Recipes and Reflections from America's Leading Chefs. The book struck a chord with food-obsessed Americans, and was an immediate hit: Dornenburg and Page were interviewed by Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show, and BECOMING A CHEF won the 1996 James Beard Book Award for Best Writing on Food. Coming out in its second edition in the fall of 2003, today BECOMING A CHEF is either required or recommended reading at virtually all of America's leading culinary schools and is celebrating 100,000 copies in print.
Dornenburg and his wife have had an unusually successful collaboration, going on to pen four other culinary books, considered to be classics in the field. On the subject of co-authoring books, his wife Karen Page only half-jokes, "If it's structured and logical, I probably wrote it -- but if it's creative and makes you laugh, those are most likely Andrew's words!" In addition to writing and cooking, Dornenburg earned a certificate as a sommelier (wine steward) and has his own catering company in New York City which produces creative food and wine events for two to 200 people for private clients.
Andrew confesses to not being as strong of a collaborator as a chef as he is as a writer. "Karen could also be a good cook if I let her, but I'm probably the only husband in America who won't let his wife cook for him," laughs Andrew, admitting that it's partly because of ego, and partly because he just loves to cook.
FAMILY: Andrew Dornenburg is a third-generation native Californian, born in the East Bay area city of Concord. His mother was a teacher, and his father an engineer at PG&E. He and his brother and sister attended the same schools, so they were able to help him when homework time came around. Andrew was a Boy Scout, and enjoyed outdoor activities, especially bicycling. While he is the only one in his family who pursued a culinary career (as his sister became a beautician, and his brother is a millwright with a rigging company), his family shares his love for food. Andrew left San Francisco in his mid-twenties for Boston and has since moved to New York City -- where he considers himself a New Yorker but still roots for the 49ers!
FAVORITE THINGS: His favorite movie as a child was "The Adventures of Robin Hood," with Errol Flynn. Today, he loves TV's "The West Wing." "I have a lifelong love of politics, and was the only teenager I knew who kept up with current events and politics by reading the San Francisco Chronicle every day." He says he doesn't have a favorite food, because it changes every day. "There is so much great food out there, especially in New York City which has different ethnic foods on every corner."
PEOPLE: When asked who he most admires, he mentions his wife without a moment's hesitation. "But I'm lucky," he adds, "in that you can find something to admire about all my friends." When it comes to chefs, "There are too many to name," he says, "but I am inspired by many of the people we have interviewed. It is always inspiring to be around people of their intelligence and passion. The level of excellence they work and live by raises the bar for me." Outside of cooking, a few people who come to mind include Los Angeles Chief of Police William Bratton, whom he describes as "a warm and caring person who really wants to make the world a better place." Another is bestselling author Tony Schwartz. "It's not just Tony's writing I admire; he's also a great person," says Andrew. "You can get a sense of him in two of my favorite of his numerous books: THE POWER OF FULL ENGAGEMENT and WHAT REALLY MATTERS."
HOBBIES: To challenge himself and to stay in shape given the amount of eating his work demands, he enjoys running. An avid runner of multiple marathons (of 26.2 miles), including the 2002 Chicago Marathon (which he ran in an impressive 3 hours and 23 minutes), Dornenburg says his dyslexia still makes it difficult for him to program his sports watch. He and his wife are also active in supporting a number of non-profit organizations, such as The Acting Company and Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects, to name a couple.
TASTES: When it comes to the arts, his tastes are varied. He and Karen have many artist friends in New York, including painters, photographers and potters, and their apartment is filled with their friends' work. Musically, his tastes reflect what he grew up with, as there was different music playing in every room of his house: "My mother would listen to the Metropolitan Opera live on the radio on Sundays, while my father listened to big band or other 'parent-type' music, while my brother and sister listened to rock 'n roll." As a result, "I can hum along to almost everything," Andrew laughs, "from Crosby Stills Nash & Young, to Glenn Miller, to 'The Barber of Seville.'"
CHALLENGES: Andrew still gets nervous when he has to write long notes by hand because he knows that his writing is sometimes hard to read, and that he simply does not spell well. However, this has not stopped him from striving for greatness. When it comes to baking, which demands the greatest knowledge of math and measurements, he is simply more careful and always makes sure that he double-checks his work. "These things are doable," he insists. "You can learn to master your profession it's all a matter of finding the right niche for you."
Andrew possesses the many qualities common to dyslexia: passion, creativity, curiosity, multi-dimensional free thinking and innovation. It is these very qualities that have contributed to his excellence as a chef and his books, but also makes him learn differently. Different is good. "As I tell other dyslexics, it's important to remember that you don't have to be perfect to be great," says Andrew. "Just get other people on your team whose strengths complement your weaknesses, and vice versa."
For more information about Andrew Dornenburg, visit his Web site:
Images and excepts are here with the kind permission and are copyright Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.
Andrew Dornenburg and Karen
"THE NEW AMERICAN CHEF
is a groundbreaking work. It redefines and brings into sharp
focus what is happening food-wise in America today. The book
is filled with expert teaching and an abundance of mouth-watering
recipes. The Dynamic Duo of Dining has once again brought a fresh,
vital and immensely interesting work to the kitchen table."
Special thanks to Karen Page
and Andrew Dornenburg for their kind