Food, Wine & Spirits in St. Louis

Thursday, April 19, 2012 / 6:50 PM

To School or Not To School? That is the (Culinary) Question - Part Two

(Editor's Note: Part One of this series appears in Relish here.)

Salume Beddu’s owners, Ben Poremba and Mark Sanfilippo, took non-traditional paths toward cooking, steeped in academia, international travel, and Hollywood. Poremba learned how to cook at an early age from his mother, a classically trained chef, who had a catering business, shop, and restaurant in Israel. Poremba appears to be following her trajectory as he too spent some time catering before opening Salume Beddu with Sanfilippo, and plans to open his first wine bar (Olio), and restaurant (Elaia) this September, on the same plot of land in McRee Town.

Thanks to his mother, who staged with Paul Bocuse, Poremba also had the opportunity to cook in France. As a philosophy major in college, Poremba worked as a nanny to help pay for school. After tasting his food, the father of his charge asked him to start cooking for parties, which led to fulltime catering. Finding the perfect way to marry academic pursuits with cooking, Poremba left a master’s program in philosophy for Italy, where he studied gastronomy at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Founded by Slow Food, the university offers undergraduate and graduate degrees. (Tuition for the 2011-12 academic year is €13,500.) Taking courses in food culture, history of the menu, taste analysis, and preserving food rituals through sustainable methods, Poremba joked that he studied everything about food except for the cooking. Throughout the conversation, he, like Dinsmoor, stressed the importance of passion, regardless of how you learn to cook. While he values his gastronomy studies for the history behind certain dishes and being able to have an “intelligent conversation” about food—particularly how culture, language, and food intersect—Poremba said, “At the end of day, I’d rather talk about what I do, not what I studied.”

Like Poremba, Mark Sanfilippo also holds a BA in philosophy; in fact, as already reported, although they both graduated from UMSL, they didn’t know each other until a professor put them in touch. After earning a Master’s in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, Sanfilippo journeyed west, to Hollywood, where he planned to write, but began working for Mario Batali. Sanfilippo ultimately returned to St. Louis and developed a culinary school connection: he taught general studies classes at L’Ecole Culinaire. On his teaching English rather than cooking, he said he really enjoyed the experience, elaborating, “ It was a challenge convincing some of the students that presenting oneself well, through writing or speaking, was as important as just being able to cook if they wanted to be successful chefs and run successful restaurants. Menu writing was a great example. If you cannot succinctly describe your dishes, you are doing yourself a disservice.”

Rounding out the range of experiences that makes a chef, Cary Exler, “the hands” at Salume Beddu, now a third partner in the business, graduated from L’Ecole Culinaire. Asked if Exler’s degree helped Poremba make the decision to hire him, the latter said, “A little bit. It mattered that he was free labor [as an intern], but what really mattered is that he’s smart, has drive, and an incredible work ethic.”

Should you go to culinary school? Wilson answers his own question in the article’s subtitle, set off in brackets: “Maybe, but probably not.” While that’s not exactly the collective answer from these local chefs and instructors, it’s clear that one must consider a number of factors before applying. Across the board, concerns about cost arose again and again. But perhaps more important than cost is the degree of passion one must have for the profession—passion that can be fostered in school but more often than not comes from the individual. Does one have to go to school to learn? Certainly not. As several people here expressed, however, culinary school can provide a great foundation as well as connections and access to future employment. In truth, education is a lifelong process, regardless of one’s credentials, as conveyed by Dinsmoor: “Whether you went to school or you get into this industry, you’re going to be in school for the remainder of your career.” 

(Editor's Note: The next installment of Agnew's examination of the culinary industry--a discussion of for-proft and not-for-profit culinary schools--will appear next week.)  

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