Conversation with Chef Brian Hay
director of the Culinary and Wine Institute at Carolina
How long have you been cooking?
Professionally about 25 years, but to be honest I’ve cooked all my life. I’m from Toronto, Canada. The public schools don’t have cafeterias. You go home for lunch. My mom would set out all the food for us to make our lunches when came home. So you could say that the entire family cooked.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Yeah. Actually it started in seventh grade. But I wasn’t definitely sure that it was the route I wanted to go at that time. It was either cooking or pharmacology. My first class at the University of Guelph convinced me that this is what I wanted to do.
What was the first meal you cooked?
Pizza. When we were kids, my mom would buy ready-made pizza crust from the corner baker. She would have the sauce, cheeses and other stuff ready for us. We would make our pizzas and pop them into the toaster oven. We were in the kitchen all the time. Growing up we made their own jams and canned vegetables. That’s how I was introduced to cooking.
What is the difference between a cook and chef?
A chef is many types of cooks and has expertise in all the cook stations. Chefs manage and have lower-level cooks working under his management. Chefs have to work their way up from the lowest-level cook to the top.
Was your mom a good cook?
She was an amazing cook. I still don’t how my parents did it. Both my parents worked. Every morning, she had breakfast on the table at 6:45 am. and then went to work. She had dinner on the table at 6 p.m. every night. We cooked all the time, the whole family. We all chipped in and cooked. So we all grew up around the table.
What was your mom’s signature dish?
She sort of did everything really well. But if I had to select something, it was her lasagna. That’s the one that flashes in mind, right now. And she would make three huge pans, and we would go through two of them for dinner.
She made her own bread. She had meat slicer and cut her own sandwich meat. She would slice hams and other stuff for us to make our lunches. Like I said, we did all of our own jams and jellies. We canned corn and stuff like that. It was absolutely amazing the amount of stuff we did as kids.
What’s it like teaching cooking?
It’s a completely different bear. It’s really cool to see the students get it and understand the process. Cooking is just a series of steps; you just have to do the steps the same way every single time for consistency.
The hardest part about teaching cooking is watching 12 students at once. It’s completely different from lecturing. When you put 12 students with knives around you….Yeah, you need to have swivel head. That’s when your head is constantly turning, watching what’s going on. You have to watch everybody, because it only takes one split second for someone to get injured. And most of the time it’s totally accidental. Someone isn’t paying attention and that’s what happens. So when I’m teaching in the kitchen, I’m constantly watching what’s going on. I can be talking to one or two students over here, but my head is swiveling left and right, watching what’s going on around me.
Have you ever run into a student that you just couldn’t teach? You know, there are some people who believe they can’t cook. Have you ever had a student like that?
Oh yeah, several times.
Could you get them cooking?
Yeah. Someone taught me this. It’s one of the smartest things I’ve ever learned. The difference between a chef and someone cooking at home is that a chef will prepare the same dish thousands of times in a short duration of time, say two to three weeks. Whereas a person cooking at home will take four or five years to cook the same dish that many times.
Most people are fearful of cooking because they don’t want to ruin the meal. So if you show them something simple and they get it, then they want to move forward. The frustration comes when they see me do something. They say, ‘I can’t cut at your speed.’ And I say, ‘You’re not supposed to. It’s taken me 20 years to figure it out and I still haven’t figured it all out. So don’t expect to figure it out in one day.’
When students complete your course, is there any wisdom that you hope they will always remember?
There are a few. First, in this industry you’ll work when people party. Accept that aspect now or get out. We work nights, weekends and holidays. Your life is going to be different. It’s not a nine to five career. Secondly, it’s a hard business. But if you work hard you’ll move up the ranks. And third, have fun at it. In this industry you get paid to eat and drink. So have fun and be creative.
Any other advice?
Do not wear your chef jacket to the grocery store. You’re a target. I’ve learned that several times. Most recently, it happened when I was living in Austin. It was around Valentine’s Day and I had just gotten off from teaching all day. I just wanted to run into the store and pick up a few items. This one guy followed me around the entire store asking questions. He wanted to prepare a nice dinner for his girlfriend and he didn’t know how to cook. He followed me up and down six aisles, ‘saying one more question.’ Once you tell people you’re a chef, you make yourself a target. Its good thing, but be ready to answer questions and roll with it.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
It really depends on the mood. I’m doing a lot of Asian and Spanish, because that’s the kick I’m on now. German and French chefs trained me classically, and I love cooking that cuisine. I’ve been trying Thai and Indian food lately, as well. I still love grilling, which is something I picked up from my dad who ran a propane business. It depends on the mood of the day, really. It also depends on what we’re cooking here. If we’re serving it here, I usually don’t want it at home.
Do you have days when you don’t want to cook and would rather have take out?
Oh yeah, oh yeah, especially after a big holiday. At Valentine’s Day we served six or seven course meal. So at the end of the day, I didn’t want to see any of dishes we served that day. I think afterwards, I went home and had two frozen waffles and some bacon. I have many days that I don’t cook. So on weekends I try to make several meals. That way I don’t have to cook when I get home.
How has being chef changed since cooking has become entertainment? Is it more difficult or easier?
It’s a little of both. We have TV, all kinds of books and magazines and everything else, and it’s absolutely amazing that people have such a greater interest in cooking. But it makes our jobs harder, because we have to match up to the standards that people see on TV or in magazines. That being said, it’s also easier. Nowadays, people are willing to try new dishes. They are more open and this allows us to do new things. We’re allowed to have more creativity.
OK, last question: Any advice for hosting your next dinner party?
Cooking shouldn’t be stressful. The moment you get stressed, then you’ve lost focus of why you’re having the meal in the first place. Cooking is not about the food it’s about the people at the table. It’s sharing time with people you care about. Relax, have a glass of wine and turn on some music. If the recipe doesn’t quite work out, at least you’ve had a glass of wine. And your friends won’t remember if you don’t make a big deal out of it.
A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the USC Times. For more from this issue, check it out online.
News and Internal Communications