National Student Chef of the Year Shares What It’s Like to Face an Uncertain Future
Hitomi Tomobe, who is a three-year ACF member and culinary student at Oakland Community College (OCC) in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, won the 2019 National Student Chef of the Year and is also the current president of the ACF Young Chefs Club. As she finishes out her last semester, ACF spoke to her about what she enjoys about school and how she’s handling an uncertain future amidst industry unrest caused by the Covid-19 epidemic.
What made you want to pursue a culinary career in the first place?
I think a lot of it has to do with my dad being a sushi chef. Alongside making sushi, he’s always loved making foods from other cuisines, and there’s just something about how curious he was, how much he loved making food for people, and how interesting it was to see someone put work into something for the sake of another person. I’ve always just loved watching my dad cook and that made me want to get into the kitchen.
Hitome Tomobe, right, competing in an ACF Student Competition.
What has your experience at OCC been like?
Thinking back to the time before I started school, I can’t even imagine what life would be like without my extremely supportive and encouraging instructors right now. It’s really sad to say this now because I’m about to graduate, but the program is great because the instructors care so much about us pushing ourselves and finding a passion in this industry.
What is your reaction to the coronavirus crisis and the closing of schools and restaurants?
It was certainly a surprise. I didn’t think it would become a worldwide pandemic that would cause us all to quarantine. This was my last full semester for classes, and I would be graduating in the spring. I was really excited for this semester because I like the classes I’m taking—Pastry 2 and Dining Room 2. I’ve been looking forward to taking Pastry 2 since I started school, but now we can’t do any of the hands-on kitchen work. We also won’t be able to do our final showpieces. Although our classes have continued in an online format, reading and answering questions can never compare to the physical act of making the products. I feel like retaking the classes may even be a good idea, but then that puts me behind on what I want to do after graduating.
Work being closed was also really sad. I really miss the feeling of working in a commercial kitchen. Cooking in my apartment is definitely limiting, and I really miss the adrenaline rush of being in service and I miss some of my bosses and coworkers from Toasted Oak. I was really excited to go back to Walnut Creek Country Club for a new season too, but they are limiting business to just carryout, which is being taken care of by just the chefs. Part of me feels like my entire life was put on pause, but working in a restaurant, you have to accept that your career is based around a luxury and not a necessity.
On a happier note, how did you first become interested in participating in culinary competitions?
I remember this vividly because every time I think back to it, I think it’s hilarious. I was in pastry class and right after our first test was handed out, the pastry chef was like, “I want to talk to you after class” and I was just terrified because I didn’t know why he wanted to talk to me. As I turned in my quiz, I asked him, “What do you need to talk to me about, did I do something wrong?” and I was just terrified. He said, “I think you should try joining the competition team, go talk to Chef Kevin about it, he’s the coach.” It definitely peaked my interest just having someone you look up to and respect tell you, “Hey, I think you should take on this challenge.”
What do you enjoy about competing?
At first it was definitely the whole concept of pushing yourself. You have to be ready to be critiqued by multiple people and I think having the one-on-one with any chef is really what makes you grow as a cook. As I kept competing through the rounds of state, regional, and national competitions, I think it was really seeing how big this community is; there are so many people who are willing to watch over you during practice and to coach you. There are a number of people willing to put the time in to help you learn and grow, even though they’re not necessarily paid to be coaches. They put a lot of their own time into making sure that I learned and got the supervision I needed, and I couldn’t have done it without all the people who helped me.
What advice would you give to students who are interesting in competing?
Keep cooking, perseverance is key, and then be able to take on critiques and be willing to ask for help from chefs who have been doing this longer than you. I think one of the most difficult parts about competing is when you ask someone to critique your food, or even the way you’re moving in the kitchen when you’re getting ready to compete. It’s very difficult because when you’re cooking normally, it’s not like people are constantly watching you besides line cooks or your boss. So when you ask two or three chefs to watch you practice for a competition to make sure that you’re doing everything as perfectly as possible, it’s really nerve-wracking, but the fact that these people are willing to put in their time for you and teach is amazing. You can’t take for granted their willingness to watch all of the things that you’re doing and be completely honest, so you should be willing to take the critiques for those things.
How are you planning for the future, given everything that is going on?
Quarantine has given me the time to refocus and organize. I think it has given me some more time to think about what I really want to do past school. It has also given me the time to start reading again. There are so many books that relate to food that I have saved up in my room and now I have no excuse for not reading them. It has also given me the time to watch a lot of cooking demos along with cooking competitions and documentaries. I am trying to put things into perspective to figure out where I’m going next.
Are you exploring any alternative paths in the culinary world?
I’ve started to learn a bit more about foraging, and it’s the perfect time to start. Chef Ken Miller at Toasted Oak has led some foraging trips before, and I’m hoping that once the quarantine is over, we’ll be able to go. Morels are starting to pop up around this time as well, so I’m hoping to find some in the next couple of weeks. It’s crazy to think about all of the edible foods out there that we all just walk past and ignore.
The restaurant and chef community is very resilient; what gives you hope that we will bounce back?
I think in this time of uncertainty, the community of chefs both around me and online have all come together to support their employees and inspire other cooks around them. The moment we all found out that we were going to be laid off, both of my bosses (from the club and restaurant) reached out to me and now check up on us all periodically to make sure we’re doing well. I hope this experience reminds all the cooks out there that in a good kitchen, your bosses care about you past service. And for those of us who don’t feel that relationship, perhaps it’s better to find a tighter-knit team. I know that this experience has left everyone eager to get back into the kitchen, so I’m hoping that at any time in the future we feel burnt out or tired, we’ll all remember going stir-crazy from quarantine and be thankful that we have this opportunity to come and cook again.