Just In Time For St. Patrick's Day, Chefs Consider Their Good Fortune

Realizations, charmed meetings, and leaps of faith.

March 15, 2018 ● 5 min read

Interviews by Michelle Matvey | Image via iStock

Luck's a funny thing.

Very rarely does it show up in the form of a hundred dollar bill just chillin' on the sidewalk on the day you're stressing about paying rent, or land you in a broken down elevator with someone who winds up changing your life.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, that holiday that gives you clearance to drink green beer with abandon, we asked chefs about their real-life lucky breaks—what they revealed is that though they may feel like chance, luck is the product of thousands of mini-decisions. The better you know yourself, the more you land yourself in situations that seem too good to be true. Our confidence always lags behind our true abilities, leaving us unable to see the connections, the opportunities, and the "luck" that was always there, waiting for us to act. 

Luck, privilege, hard work, fate: whatever you call it, and however you wield it, it all feels good. Here's a serendipitous selection. 

Chef Brother Luck | Four by Brother Luck, Colorado Springs

Recently I got the opportunity to compete on Bravo’s Top Chef through a random email. 

I had just returned from cooking in Japan and China, and wrote an article about my travels. This journal entry somehow reached a casting director’s desk, who asked if I’d ever thought about doing Bravo’s Top Chef.  Who knew that writing a journal entry would help me compete against some of the best up-and-coming chefs in the country?  That email turned out to be my luckiest break—it launched my restaurant and cooking to the world.

Chef Claire Menck | Cream City Collaborative, Milwaukee

There have been a lot of lucky breaks in my career… honestly, it’s 98% about showing up and then the luck happens! I think about when I put in a last-minute application for a James Beard Student Scholar award and won. I think about cooking for Julia Child. I think about when I successfully defended my Ph.D. defense. I think about becoming an Academic Director of a nationally accredited culinary school. 

30-plus years into the industry, I realize my luckiest moment was when I learned not to give a shit, because I could survive anything anyone threw at me. [As] a woman in her forties who came up when there were few of us in the kitchen, [I] make damn sure other women have those ‘lucky breaks’ we never did.

Chef Jeffrey Vance | No Anchor, Navy Strength, Seattle

I started cooking when I was 16, because that's what my friends were doing. We supported our predilection for skateboarding, smoking weed and seeing punk bands with meager paychecks. We didn't care about hospitality or the food we served—we cared about being able to support late nights of drinking and debauchery. 

By the time I turned 22, I thought I was done with the restaurant industry. For a few years, I worked construction and in grocery stores trying to figure out what to do with my life. After a while, I started to yearn for the camaraderie of the kitchen and making others happy with what I had prepared with my own hands.

I loved food, and I figured I had a choice: Go to culinary school, or go to work for a chef who I could learn from. The only chef I thought worthy in the small city I was from was named Jeremy Hansen. He owned and operated a small French inspired restaurant named Santé. So I sent him my resumé. I had a friend who already had a position at Santé—I don't think I would have gotten a call back if it wasn't for him. I met with Chef Hansen and basically groveled for a position. I remember offering to sweep and mop his floors for free if he would let me. He hired me as a garde manger chef. I worked my ass off, coming in early and staying late at every opportunity. Within a year, I had been promoted to sous chef. After being promoted to chef de cuisine, I decided to move to Seattle.

I would not be where I am today, nor would I have a solid foundation in classic technique if it wasn't for the opportunity that Chef Hansen gave me. We now consider each other friends and colleagues, though I still regard him as a mentor.

Chef Greg Lutes | 3rd Cousin, San Francisco

When I was a culinary student, I was chosen by the externship coordinator to work at Everest, a four-star French restaurant. Before [that], I was working in a tavern kitchen in my hometown, cooking fried chicken and fish. No stars to four stars in eight months!

Chef Casey Rebecca Nunes | Media Noche, San Francisco

The moment it all came together (also, my luckiest opportunity) was when I let it all go and basically said, "Fuck it." I had moved to New Orleans five months prior, for my big career switch at 31, from theatre to cooking. I was miserable, lost, and felt I had made a terrible mistake.

One day, I had a slight mental breakdown in a Foot Locker on Canal St. and bought a one-way ticket back to San Francisco, without a job lined up, no place to live, and three weeks to figure it all out. I put feelers out and locked down a couple line cook gigs.

A week before I left NOLA, chef Telmo Faria told me that his friends had a three-month-old Cubano shop in the Mission that needed a chef. I took the interview. I moved back June 1st and was hired June 2nd.

I can't even fathom what my life would look like if I hadn't momentarily lost it while buying sneakers.

Chef Cameron Hanin | Ma'ono Fried Chicken & Whiskey, Seattle 

I moved to New York on a whim one summer. I had been cooking for maybe four years at the time but already felt a pull there after reading the cookbooks recommended by my older coworkers and chefs and learning the names of all the studs of the NYC restaurant world.

I knew only one other person in the city (hey Cynthia!), had no job lined up, no long-term housing, an out-of-town resume and a couple hundred bucks in my bank account. After landing, I immediately sent emails to every major restaurant group I knew of. The first restaurant to respond back was Tom Colicchio's Craft. I went in for the stage the next day and was hired to work the hot side pantry station.

Six months later, I was cooking 45-day dry-aged cote de boeuf as the lead meat cook. It's only looking back that I remembered the first cookbook I was ever gifted by a chef was Craft of Cooking. When my older sister asked me before moving to New York where I was going to work I said, "At a Colicchio restaurant.”

Shit, I know that sounds cool, but I didn't plan for that to really happen! I thought I was gonna end up working at a pub.

Chef Garrison Price | Il Buco, New York City

My luckiest break as a chef came while I was living in Hawaii. An old chef friend of mine sent my resume to Jean-Georges Vongerichten for the chef de cuisine position in Kauai; one of my references was the first chef I worked for outside Chicago, who just so happened to be an old chef friend of JG.

I received a call on a Monday night asking if I could come to do a tasting for JG himself in Manhattan in two days. I packed up some freshly caught ahi, tomatoes, and herbs from my garden. 21 hours later, I found myself cooking for JG and his team.

Honestly, I didn't actually think I was going to get the job, I was just doing it for the opportunity to cook for Jean-Georges. The next day boarding the plane home I got the call offering the position. It just goes to show you have to put yourself out there, be confident and never burn bridges.

Chef Cara Stadler | Bao Bao Dumpling House, Boston 

I was the only cook who applied for the job at Gordon Ramsay's two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Versailles who spoke both mangled French and English. This little knowledge of mine gave me the leg up [into] my career in fine dining. Without that opportunity, I would never have become the chef that I am today.