Interview with Culinary Student Ken aka “Tin Foil Duck”

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Born and raised in Maui, Hawaii, Ken has always enjoyed cooking. Growing up in a family of home cooks, he learned culinary skills from an early age. After leaving the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Ken went on to fulfill his dream of becoming a dancer. After working as a waiter and dancer for 8 years in Oahu, Ken moved to Los Angeles to dance.

He was featured on television (FAME), films, commercials and trade shows. Five years later he retired and soon went on to obtain his real estate license. Twenty years later, Ken returns to his native Maui and obtained his real estate license again, this time in Hawaii. He decided that while building his new client base, he would try something new and enjoyable, so he applied to culinary school.

Having grown up with culinary skills and witnessing chefs prepare meals during his job as a waiter, Ken had a good foundation for his culinary courses. Currently in his first year at The Maui Culinary Academy, Ken looks forward to the fun and challenging courses ahead and hopes to use his degree for possible business ventures.

Ken has a blog called Tinfoilduck that chronicles his “journey through culinary school”.

Interview with Ken who calls himself “Tin Foil Duck”

You did not set out from the beginning to go to culinary school, but were you always interested in food?

I can’t say I was always interested in food. Over the past few years I’ve become more interested. For the longest time, I refused to bake (I love to do it now) because if I have baked stuff around I will eat it and I didn’t want to put weight on. I was also very busy with my real estate career so I would only do basic broiling or easy preparation food.

How has cooking been a part of your life?

My mother and father cooked a lot. Mostly my mother. My father would do some of his favorites but my mother was responsible for most of the day-to-day cooking. I was introduced to home cooking at a young age. We rarely went out to dinner. That continued throughout my life. I realized that I was a good cook so I didn’t need to spend all that money to go out to eat when I could do it myself.

Having grown up in Hawaii but also having lived on the mainland, what differences do you notice in cooking styles?

Hawaiian “local” cuisine is a combination of many different ethnic foods, mostly Asian. It wasn’t until I moved to the mainland that I was exposed to pasta and traditional French cooking. Growing up, our version of spaghetti was a baked casserole. No al dente noodles in sight.

I did miss the food of Hawaii and it was very hard for me to find good fast food, other than MacD’s or Burger King. In Hawaii we have many more healthier faster food outlets. In Hawaii, when we eat at home, the food tends to be served family style as opposed to sit down served meals.

Is cooking a large part of the Hawaiian lifestyle?

Yes, the minute you walk into anyone’s home, you get offered food. That is like that in any culture. Traditional Hawaiian food is very hard to come by. There were lots of it when I was a kid, but no longer.

After leaving undergrad you worked as a waiter and said you learned a lot by watching the chefs prepare dinners. How was this beneficial to your culinary knowledge and what kinds of techniques did you learn?

I was able to learn the different methods of cooking (sautéing, roasting, broiling, grilling, etc.) from watching meals being prepared. I started imitating the chefs at home and I was suddenly cooking restaurant quality foods. That knowledge has given me an edge in school because I’ve been exposed to these techniques already.

You decided to obtain your real estate license while living in California. What led you to do this and how did this lead you to culinary school?

I was first a professional dancer in Los Angeles. That is not a long-term career so I knew I had to find another occupation to sustain myself. A friend was studying for his real estate license, so I decided to do it as well and keep him company. I continued and he didn’t. I retired from dancing in 1990. Going to culinary school on Maui wasn’t something that was planned. I knew that the school was a good one and I heard that through the Screen Actors Guild, Career Transitions for Dancers Dept., they were offering grants for dancers trying to get into a new profession. I decided to apply for the grant and was able to get $2000 towards my tuition for Culinary School. That grant solidified the deal. I’m not sure how I plan to use this degree. At my age, I don’t imagine myself working at a restaurant or hotel. I will probably use it in more of a business way.

When deciding on a school, what were the major factors that played a part in your decision? What were you looking for? Was Hawaii the only state you considered?

I looked into Culinary Schools in Los Angeles a few years ago and found that tuition at private schools were upwards of $20,000. That is crazy, so I put that on hold. I knew I was moving back to Maui so I waited until I moved here to do my research. The Maui Culinary Academy is the only school available on the island. It is associated with University of Hawaii Maui College. Tuition for residents is only $88/credit. You can’t go wrong.

What advice do you have for high school students thinking about a career in the culinary industry?

Be serious about it. I am 51 years old so I’m the oldest by far. Most of the students are 17-18 years old. Attendance is spotty; they don’t do their homework. They are not serious about learning. That takes time away from the instructors giving me instruction. It’s not easy. You’ll be doing a lot of sweeping, scrubbing and mopping. Expand your horizons. Sample everything that is given to you. Don’t freak out when someone asks you to taste a beet!

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Are there any classes high school students should take to prepare themselves for culinary school? After school jobs they should consider?

Restaurant work is the best experience and advice that I can give high school students. It gets you around food and also around customers. If you don’t have the customer relationship, you tend to be a little stunted with customer contact.

What was your first day at the Maui Culinary Academy like?

I was really paranoid about my age, so my first day was spent looking for people who were approximately my age range.

It seems as though a lot of culinary students have a preconceived idea of what a career in the culinary field will entail. Saying that, what should a culinary student leave “at the door” on the first day of class?

It’s not like the Food Network at all. You will work and work hard. Each school is different but I would imagine that the first semester with be the worst so if you can make it through the first semester, you will be okay.

What is most challenging for you about culinary school? How do you handle the pressure?

I am a very active person. I swim 100 laps 4 X’s a week, I lift weights, take yoga and spin classes and I’m a Real Estate agent so trying to fit in all of these activities is the most challenging aspect. I try not to “sample” too much of what is available to eat because you can easily pack on the pounds. I work well with pressure. I’m excellent at multitasking.

On the contrary, what was your funniest moment at culinary school thus far?

Doing my final project in the skills module with my classmate Kendra. She was a theatre major and the project was to video a cooking show. We called it the Ken & Kendra Show. We had a blast. It can be found in Youtube if you search for the Ken & Kendra Show.

What advice do you have to future culinary arts students about overcoming that first semester?

Just know that all the fun cooking and baking comes after the first semester.

You said your first semester was paid for by a grant from the Screen Actors Guild from when you danced. I had no idea SAG gave out grants for education purposes. How did you obtain this grant and do you recommend people in SAG or similar organizations look into grants for school?

Going for grants is the best way to get your tuition paid for. The grant was obtained though an outreach organization of SAG. See question above. Do as much research online to see what kinds of grants are available.

Is there a lot of competition in culinary school between students?

I’m still in the entry level so there are more under achievers than over achievers. I am competitive and there are a few. I would assume the competition becomes more pronounced the further along you get.

Was it difficult coming into culinary school at an older age than some students?

I am having an easier time because I really want to be there, not because I’m trolling around for a career. The pressure is not on, yet, if I’m not the top of my class, I’m second.

How much of class is a team effort and what sorts of relationships are you building through classes?

Certain aspects require team efforts; certain require your own participation. I’m so over group projects. After all these years of working in an industry where I am my own business and now I have to do a project with a group of unfocused people, that really gets to me.

How does culinary school fit into your already busy schedule being a real estate agent?

Like I said before, I’m good at multi tasking. I’m writing this at an open house that I’m holding. It was really stressful my first week. I had several clients coming in from out of town to look at properties. I had to schedule everything after 2:30 to be certain that I’d be done with school.

If need be, I can always take a day off from school. The instructors understand that I have another career. Next semester won’t be as crazy. I’ll only be in school on M W F from 8 – 2:00, then T Th I don’t go in till noon. So I’ll have a bit more breathing room.

What is your favorite dish that you have prepared so far?

I do a spin on the traditional Beef Wellington, but I use Mahi Mahi instead. It’s Mahi wrapped in a pastry crust lined with duxelle (reduced mushroom paste). It gets baked, sliced and topped with a roasted garlic and shallot compound butter. Sound good?

What was so special about this particular dish?

It’s very easy to prepare, shows off my skills and is a big bang for little bucks.

Which courses are you most looking forward to taking? Why?

I’m looking forward to the baking classes. Breads especially. Breads intimidate me and I hate to get flour all over my house so I’ll wait until I’m in school.

Where do you see yourself after graduation from the Maui Culinary Academy? What would you like to do with your degree? What will you do with your real estate career?

I will always have a real estate career. I will be able to cook for my customers after they close an escrow with me, the most fantastic dinner party they will ever feast on. I will probably look into a few business ventures, perhaps building a catering kitchen and renting it out. I may become a private chef broker. The possibilities are endless.

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