Chef Gregg is a native Northwesterner. His culinary heritage runs back two generations, too. His grandmother worked at Seattle’s Space Needle’s restaurant in the 1960s, and his mother works in nutrition. At home, his family ate American cuisine, but his grandmothers on both his father and his mother’s sides followed more traditional Japanese menus. He remembers that they both maintained crocks in which they fermented vegetables. You can just add these fermented vegetables to the top of steamed rice and have a pretty satisfying meal.
His family has a passion for family gatherings around food, and one of his favorite holiday traditions is the traditional Japanese New Year, or Osechi Ryori. Traditionally a three-day event, his family’s version celebrates on one day, and all the extended family gathers for a large meal made of traditional new year’s foods. As we chat, he shows me a slide show of just some of the items prepared for this year’s event. His mother creates the menu, sends it out to the family members, and they bring their dishes to contribute to the event. If this sounds somewhat like our Thanksgiving dinner preparations, it’s probably pretty similar. But in this dinner, there are numerous dishes, and each dish has significant meaning. For example, you eat shrimp to wish healthy old age on the diners, and you serve lotus root to help reveal the future. Shrimp are bent over like old women or men, and lotus root has holes in it, if you slice it across the grain, so to speak.
Speaking of slicing against the grain, I asked Chef what it was like to be a French classical chef whose mother was a dietitian. He smiles ruefully at me and looks at me sideways. He is quite aware of my ahem… pedigree as a nutritionist.
“I’m familiar with the confrontation of nutrition and classical cooking,” he says vaguely. I laugh, remembering the multiple times that he said “butter makes it better” to virtually every dish he taught, including steak cookery. Actually, he said that phrase often enough for my classmates to get together and gift him with a pound of Golden Glen Creamery butter at the end of the quarter.
So, how did a Japanese American chef end up cooking in Europe? It all comes down to his passion for food. As a teen and while in culinary school, he worked in the front of the house, doing everything from bussing to serving. He found that he actually preferred the back of the house (big surprise), because his passion was about creating high quality dishes. When he graduated, he worked as an Executive Chef in corporate dining and executive dining rooms. He also worked as a consulting chef at different restaurants, including some chains like the RAM. These different experiences afforded him opportunities to work for hotels and to travel and learn cuisine.
When he describes his work, Chef Gregg doesn’t recite the various awards and recognitions that he has earned. Instead, he describes his experiences like a rock climber describes the amazing problems he has just climbed. This comparison works well for him, because to Chef Gregg, all of his work has felt like play. He says he finds cooking enjoyable, and he loves going to work because it doesn’t feel like work. When he is not cooking at work or lecture, then he is experimenting with recipes, dining at restaurants, seeing and reading about culinary trends and staples. He doesn’t follow recipes, he says. At this point in cooking, he can pretty much wing any recipe, so he thinks about the flavors or textures he’d like to accomplish and then sets about creating them.
In addition to playing in the kitchen, Chef Gregg plays in the great outdoors. He’s an avid rock climber, a sport he got into when his daughter got interested in it. He also kayaks, hikes, and forages. Actually, the foraging and the hiking go hand in hand. That way, he’s obsessing about food and getting (sort of) a work out at the same time. When he’s kayaking, he’s also fishing and cooking.
“Cooking and eating were the highlights to our days” of being outdoors, he says. When you eat the fish you just caught, you can’t get anything any fresher than that. He says that he has more respect for the food when he goes out, finds it, and harvests it. Each season yields different treasures, and he has his “spots” to which he returns to get the best wild food Washington has. His fresh food obsession doesn’t end there either. As we talked about camping and food, and I started to complain that it was harder to create gourmet meals on the road, he stopped me.
“I have a Coleman stove and two MSR camping stoves. I would carry a steak up a mountain if I have to,” he admits proudly. He prefers kayaking to backpacking for long camping trips, because you can carry so much more in a kayak. He’s probably right. I wonder if Josh will let me haul pork chops with us next time we go camping.
His collection of cooking tools don’t end with camping. At home, he has the common-use drawer of knives and tools that his family can use. But he also has his drawer of the tools that only his skilled hands can handle. That might seem like hyperbole, but if you’ve spent thousands of dollars on good knives, you will become possessive and protective of them, too.
Okay, we know Chef Gregg has a marvelous resume and has received nods for it. Just this past fall, he went to Terra Madre, the Slow Food International Conference, this year as one of the American delegates. He’s also a recognized expert on sustainability, a principle that is foundational in the cooking instruction at the Seattle Culinary Academy. So, why is he teaching? Not that teaching isn’t an incredibly respectable career, but you’d think a chef like him would want to run his own restaurant. People would flock there from all over.
He found that when he ran his kitchens, he enjoyed bringing up the skills of his cooks. It was a somewhat bittersweet endeavor, because when his cooks improved, they would move up to more challenging roles and then eventually to other restaurants, and the process would repeat itself. Seeing Chef Gregg’s passion for training his staff, Chef Keijiro Miyata, the second quarter instructor at SCA, invited Chef Gregg to look into teaching. He began teaching all over western Washington, and he also started teaching at North Seattle Community College in 1991. After NSCC’s program closed, he transferred to SCCC, and the rest is history. He is somewhat the gatekeeper to the program, because you have to pass his class in order to keep cooking.
He still enjoys coming to school every day, because it is rewarding. He enjoys assessing students’ abilities and encouraging them to grow and challenge themselves. Of the new students each quarter he says it’s like groundhog day over and over again. The students are like a blank canvas, and it’s refreshing and stimulating to see them. Sometimes it’s really challenging. He likes to see where the students are coming from, seeing which students ask lots of questions and which ones need a little fire lit under them. Then he likes to build from there by developing a rapport with individuals and mentoring them.
What makes culinary school difficult? Is it the skills you need to develop? No. It’s the baggage you bring with you to school. Everyone, of course, has baggage, challenges, and issues, but the difference is in how much those issues affect you and your success. As a teacher, it’s his responsibility to see what baggage exists and how to assist the student in handling that baggage in order to succeed. It takes balance and vision to do that.
Chef Gregg’s advice to individuals considering culinary school is to fully assess what you’re getting into. The program requires a 6 quarter – year and a half – commitment, and you need to make sure you can commit for that length of time. He says, “Have a financial plan to make sure you can get all the way through the program. Don’t try to work and do school. Focus on school. Be passionate about it, and don’t let things get in your way.
It’s hard work, but it should be stimulating, and it should give you skills you want to use.”
He also recommends that you talk to current and graduated students in the program so you have a taste of what it’s like and what the instructors are like. Only you know if you’ll thrive in that setting.
When you’re in school, make sure you have “race horse eyes” and don’t get caught like a deer in the headlights. Chef Gregg will notice and call you on it. Then he’ll push you even harder.