How strong mentors led this chef all the way to the Culinary Olympics (twice!)

C
hef Jesus Olmedo is heading to Stuttgart, Germany in February to compete with ACF Culinary Team USA in IKA, known as the “Culinary Olympics”. We talked to him about how he got started on Team and what his journey has been like so far.

Where are you from?

I’m originally from Poughkeepsie, New York.

Where did you go to school?

I attended Le Cordon Bleu College Of Culinary Arts Boston.

When did you decide to become a chef, and why?

I decided at the age of 14 that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the food service industry. I was just a dishwasher at a local country club in Poughkeepsie, there was something exciting about watching chefs prepare food on the line. The aromas and sense of urgency that you could feel is what sparked my interest. Knowing that I could share my passion through food with other people was rewarding. I knew right away that this is the career for me.

Did you have mentors who guided you? How did you meet them?

No one could ever do it alone, it takes a team of motivated individuals with a common goal to make it happen. Being surrounded by others that sincerely care about your self and professional growth is the best environment to be in. I am grateful to have individuals in my life that have played a major role in my growth as a young professional.

Chef Joseph Leonardi, CMC has been my mentor for about seven years now. I found my way into his kitchen when i was just 19. I was young and so eager to learn. He has taught me many skills in the kitchen, but also life skills that are important for any individual. He has taught me self-discipline, how to be a professional, and to always share knowledge in a positive way.

In his kitchen is where I met a great group of young, hungry chefs as well that also helped me push myself. Geoffrey Lanez, CEC; Tony Le, CEC; Michael Shannon, CEC; Keri Anderson, CEPC; these are the individuals that soon became my second family. Together we all brought something different to the table and pushed each other every day to be better than the next. When you are constantly surrounded by individuals that are better than you, you can only grow. Find yourself a great mentor in a kitchen where the standards are extremely high with a positive atmosphere is a piece of advice I’d give to any young chef.

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What is your current job?

I am currently the Assistant Banquet Chef at The Country Club located in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

Do you know if you are the youngest member of ACF Culinary Team USA ever? How/why did you become a member of the Team?

Prior to joining the national team I was on the ACF Culinary Youth Team USA 2016.
I was the captain of the team, and it was such a crucial stepping stone in preparing myself to be a part of the national team. I learned quite a bit about organization, being a team leader and cooking fundamentals. I earned a spot on ACF Culinary National Team USA at the age of 23. My good friend Chef Corey Siegel has got me beat by a few months for the youngest to earn a spot on the national team!

My inspiration to join ACF Culinary Team USA came from my mentor Chef Joseph Leonardi, CMC and Chef Randy Torres, CEC. Chef Randy Torres inspired me to join the youth team when I was just a student in culinary school. He had visited our culinary school when we were preparing for the Northeast Region Culinary Student Team Competition. He spoke to us about his experiences coaching the youth team and how much they grew from being a part of the team. Looking at their work at the time I felt that there was no way I could achieve that level of skill. Chef Torres spoke to me and said, “You can achieve it, go and work for Chef Leonardi and work hard every single day.” Surely enough he was right.

Chef Joseph Leonardi inspired me to go after the national team during my time on the youth team. Traveling together and going to team sessions he would always pull me aside and show me what the national team was working on and how they organized for a run. It’s almost as if he knew I was going to go for the national team before I even knew. Working under chef he always made sure to hold me to the highest standards. He knew what I was capable of and he wanted to make sure I got the most out of my experience.

He helped me understand what the judges were looking for in the culinary arena. Whether it was cold food or hot food, he had developed essentially a formula for success. At the end of the day he always preached to me, “Make it real, make it taste good.”

What are the team practices like? How often do you practice, and when? What are you focusing most on? What are you nervous about as 2020 approaches?

Being on ACF Culinary Team USA is a huge commitment. You are dedicating three years to competition, research and development, and professional growth. Being on the team we are each responsible for certain parts of the hot food program as well as the chef’s table program. We meet at least once a month for a team session where we work together to refine our programs in timed runs.

At each session we are evaluated by our advisors and coaches. We need to constantly perform at the highest level and improve every session. Between each session we are responsible for practicing at our place of employment on our own time. Essentially we practice at work and we perform at team sessions. It’s a constant evolution and we all bring something different to the table.

I wouldn’t say I am nervous for 2020, if anything I’m very excited! The process and the constant drive to be better every session is what excites me. I trust the process and know that if we work hard collectively as a team we will be successful.

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Do you have any other advice for young culinarians?

My advice that I would share with any young chef is: it’s a marathon not a race. Find the right mentor, trust him or her, and trust that they will push you in the right direction. Set an ultimate goal and also set small goals. I have an ultimate goal in mind but in order to achieve that I need to focus on the small goals and evaluate what are the steps I need to take today to set myself up for success in the future.

Always have an open mind, there is always something you can learn from others. Focus on the building blocks and the fundamentals, what all great cooking in any shape or form is built on. Whichever direction you are leaning towards in the food service industry the same rules apply.

Set a high standard for yourself in the kitchen and hold yourself to that level every single day. Once you find yourself in the right environment that is the best fit for you and your goals, enjoy it!

What’s next for you?

After the Culinary Olympics in 2020 I will be searching for a new challenge.
Other than the day to day work I like to have side projects to stay excited and occupied.
In other words stay tuned to see what challenge I go after next!


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