I had the chance to catch up with Chef Gary Klein over at the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of North Carolina. Gary and I had an absolute blast digging into his cooking experiences, funny stories on life, and him being in a metal rock band.
From cooking for huge corporations, traveling as a regional chef, to signing million dollar food contracts as a food broker, there is no stopping Gary Klein when he is determined.
Now situated in North Carolina cooking for 50+ young fraternity brothers at the Sigma Phi Epsilon house in beautiful Chapel Hill North Carolina, the next step for Gary is to become a Master Chef and he is holding himself to it.
Read on and enjoy my Q&A with Chef Gary Klein
Q: When did you first start cooking?:
A: Well it was not from my mother I can tell you that. Growing up I learned that if I wanted to eat good food, I would have to learn to cook for myself. My mother was really great at baking but most of her cooking was barely edible. For the most part of my childhood my mother would cook ham and scalloped potatoes which was her specialty dish, to this day if I see any sort of scalloped potatoes I go into shock and start shaking.
Q: What was your first cooking job?:
A: One of my first jobs was working at Pizza Hut, I learned how to make dough, sauces and really started making different sorts of Italian food, but what really got me jump started was when I left Pizza Hut and got a job in contract feeding.
I was 22 or 23 and I was in a place where I was cooking for 200 people in a shoe factory making breakfast and lunch, so now all of a sudden I was learning how to write menus, started to really learn how to cook, and I was reading cookbooks to figure out things because you know back then internet was not available.
Q: I know that you are cooking for 50+ fraternity brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon at the University of North Carolina, any crazy/funny stories to tell? ...I know there must be at least one:
A: I absolutely love the guys at Sigma Phi Epsilon, they are some of the best guys that I know and they love me over there. Every time I cook a meal the guys are all in attendance wanting more and savoring everything. There was one instance when one of the fraternity brothers was in class and I guess his instructor was running the class late and the fraternity brother said that there was no way he was going to miss lunch (which I was cooking), so he left class. Another time during one of the holiday breaks, one of the guys didn't want to eat his mother's cooking because he said that it just did not compare to Chef Gary’s cooking...all in good humor of course. Anytime I cook the brothers are always taking pictures of my food and posting it on their Twitter and Tweeting how awesome their chef is (me), me and the brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon have an unbreakable relationship and I really truly value that. The brothers make my job fun and easy and in return I make sure I put everything I have into taking care of them.
Q: What sort of culinary training do you have?:
A: Around the age of 27 I was offered a different contract feeding job this time through IBM. When I started working for IBM there was no limit as to what I could or wanted to do, I could make anything I wanted to make because money was no object, another perk was that I was able to go back to school which I eventually became a dietary manager.
So by now I had been working in contract feeding for a number of years, however around the time I was 29 IBM had a massive layoff and I was one of the persons they let go. As fate had it I ended up moving to Florida where I attended The Florida Culinary Institute and obtained my culinary degree. So I have a dietary manager certificate and a culinary degree.
Q: What are some other chef jobs that you've had?:
A: IBM was where my skill level grew immensely just giving the fact that it was IBM. I also worked for the Compass Group where they hired me to travel around as one of their regional chefs, I wrote menus and helped people to do their job. The Compass Group had a lot of Kosher business so being Jewish and understanding that, I went to every place and worked with people who needed to understand the difference between meats, dairy, and other kosher foods. I continued to work for the Compass Group until they just like IBM had a big layoff and again I lost my job because of this. From the second layoff I decided to completely get out of contract feeding and I started working at the Macaroni Grill. Macaroni Grill was appealing to me because at the time it was a chef-ran business and I was one of the Chefs. As the chef there I ran a 5 million dollar restaurant.
Q: How did you start working at College Chefs?:
A: I ventured off into other cooking jobs. I also landed a job as a food broker selling foods to businesses at one point in my life. Being a food broker was nice because I got to travel and meet new people but eventually it just got old. At this time in my life I was much older and decided that I wanted to work for a company that treated me like a person rather than a number. Even though I was making millions of dollars for a bigger business I was only seen as a number and not so much as an individual. So I decided to just throw my resume up online just to see what would happen, not too long after I did, I got a surprising call from a young lady by the name of Heather Walsh from College Chefs and soon after the interview with Heather I became apart of the college Chefs team.
Q: How does College Chefs differ from the other jobs you worked? :
A: First off I absolutely love working with College Chefs and I never have a bad day at work. I know people by their name and more importantly people know me by my name. I find it so valuable that I can actually speak to the owner of College Chefs and share with him my goals while he gives me advice on how to get closer to achieving those goals, not only that, the fact that College Chefs is writing a blog about me, just amazes me. This type of personal interaction between College Chefs and its employees is unheard of to me, most of my experience in other jobs I was barely notice,even though I was a key player in their business and was very profitable for their company.
Q: With all of your experience in life, what’s your next step/goal?:
A: My wife is my backbone and best friend, she pushes me and motivates me in life. We were at a Italian restaurant one night and I ate something amazing and got the chance to speak with the chef that made it, come to find out this chef was the owner of the restaurant and was a master chef. While in our car ride headed back home my wife asked me why I wasn't a master chef, which made me scratch my head and ask myself the same thing...why wasn't I? I asked myself that and really did not have a good answer as to why? I have tons of professional experience in cooking and being a former chef working for million dollar corporations, plus I have the business savvy to even heighten my experience, so why am I not a master chef? After thinking long and hard I set a goal for myself to become a master chef by the time I am 55, Kevin (CEO of College Chefs) is holding me to this goal as well. So my next step is to become a master chef and continue to invest in myself.
Q: Any final words of wisdom?:
A: Never eat at an Italian restaurant that does not have veal on the menu or if they have really bad veal, any Italian restaurant that does not offer veal is not authentic.
Flavor everything from your batter to your meat, the finish product will leave you/ the person eating your food with nothing but lovely goodness in their mouths. My secret flavor combination is salt, pepper, and garlic I literally use that flavor combination for everything I cook.
Chef Gary Klein