I am writing a series called the The Best Jobs in the World. This series is dedicated to people who have rare or super cool jobs. My aim is to give options, hope, or motivation to people who don’t feel the need to go and get a regular nine-to-five.
In this edition, I am honored to interview Chef Cara Thompson. She has appeared on competitive cooking shows Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped. On Chopped, she competed twice and won it all the second time. She took a few moments of her time to answer some questions for me.
EC: Chef, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me.
Cara Thompson: No problem!
EC: How many years have you been a chef and what are your specialities?
Cara Thompson: I have been a chef for 11 years, and I am well versed in Southern, Cajun and Creole, Japanese, and Latin food.
EC: Do you need formal training or schooling to become a chef?
Cara Thompson: Yes and no. It depends on the type of aspirations you have as a chef and if a degree is necessary. I have worked with some amazing chefs that learned by on-the-job experience, and I have worked with some chefs with zero common sense that have graduated from some of the “best” schools in the country.
I truly believe that if you have the passion and drive to be a chef, you can be as great of a chef as you set out to be, school or no school.
EC: What inspired you to become a chef?
Cara Thompson: My love of cooking inspired me to become a chef.
EC: Simple enough (laughs). So did it all come naturally or did you ever struggle?
Cara Thompson: There are a lot of things that a chef does on a daily basis that come to me naturally such as leadership skills, organization, creating dishes, executing a menu, etc.; however, I would have to say that I did struggle from time to time as anyone does in their career. We all have high and low moments throughout our careers.
EC: How long does someone have to be a sous chef before they become the executive chef? (Note: A sous chef is directly below the executive chef in a kitchen.)
Cara Thompson: There is never a set amount of time that someone has to hold a position to get a promotion. Sometimes it is just thrown upon you and you either fail or succeed. Some people have the luxury of being under a chef’s wing for a period of time before being offered a chef position, and then there are people that stay sous chefs because they are great at it.
EC: Does the white chef hat have any significant meaning?
Cara Thompson: Honestly, there are myths and folklore surrounding the chef’s white hat and throughout the French Culinary history there are some kitchens that use hats to show the chain of command. I think for the majority of the world these days, it just signifies uniformity along with sanitation requirements in some establishments whether it is a black baseball cap to a white toque.
EC: What is the proudest moment of your cooking career so far?
Cara Thompson: My proudest moment would have to be my grandparents getting to see me compete on Food Network before they passed away.
EC: Definitely… What stands out as the worst thing you have ever made?
Cara Thompson: On Cutthroat Kitchen, in the second round we had to use imitation crab meat to make chimichangas. In hindsight, I probably could have finessed that ingredient a little bit more, but I’m 100% sure that it was pretty disgusting.
EC: Do chefs have any other responsibilities besides cooking?
Cara Thompson. Yes! Chefs have endless responsibilities in a restaurant from scheduling, calculating food and labor costs, inventories, and much more.
EC: I know you’ve been on a few cooking shows on the Food Network, and one of the things that made me a fan of yours was your confident attitude and demeanor. Was that all for the TV or do you just bring it every time?
Cara Thompson: Well, I am a very confident person in general, but when I’m competing, I get into a zone. I guess it comes across as confident because I am confident in my abilities. However, I am just as nervous as the person next to me. I just choose not to let that show and “fake it until you make it” as they say. Most of the time it is best to just ignore your doubts and insecurities and just go for it.
EC: I agree. I still think it takes a little extra gusto! What are your long-term goals?
Cara Thompson: I would like to start a restaurant group one day, and I would honestly be interested in doing something to give back to the community. I’ve always been interested to do something bigger than myself, and I think that’s why, at this point, I’m more focused on doing a restaurant group than one specific restaurant. I’m from the South and as amazing as the food in the South can be, I think that there is a definite need in the community and in the restaurant world for a big change.
EC: What kind of injuries are commonly seen in the kitchen?
Cara Thompson: Cuts and burns mostly. The worst cut I have ever seen was in a restaurant I was working in Miami during season. We were all working 24/7 and a prep guy we had cut himself deep on the inside of his forearm. To be honest, we were all in debate if he had done it on purpose to get some time off.
EC: What about yourself? Your worst injury?
Cara Thompson: The worst burn I have ever had is from oil that popped up from the flattop all over my hand. I had a blister the size of a golf ball.
EC: If you won the recent Powerball Jackpot, would you still work as a chef?
Cara Thompson: Absolutely! I just probably would work for free and in different restaurants all over the world.
EC: What is the hardest part about being a chef?
Cara Thompson: I think most people including myself would say the long hours or missed holidays. It’s a hard pill to swallow when your family is celebrating Christmas together and you are working it.
EC: I know I haven’t missed a Christmas at my parents’ home yet. So that must be very hard. Do you care to share some of the hobbies you have outside the kitchen?
Cara Thompson: Sure. I love yoga, wandering around cities, antiques, and yes, cooking is still one of my hobbies.
EC: What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a chef? Can anyone do it?
Cara Thompson: No. Working in a restaurant at any position is not for everyone. My advice is to go and work in a couple of restaurants before you decide to be a chef. Maybe try a high volume, fine dining, or even a corporate restaurant. There are all types of chefs and all different types of restaurants. Experiencing the work first hand is invaluable in your decision to become a professional chef.
EC: Great advice! Are we going to see you on TV again any time soon?
Cara Thompson: No plans at the moment, but I guess I never know as I never planned or even applied to the previous shows.
EC: Chef, I appreciate your time, and I hope to taste some of your food someday.
Cara Thompson: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Stay tuned for the next interview in my series The Best Jobs in the World.