Jonathan Helmy, a student of the Culinary Institute of America was looking for an internship. In his school he spoke with Alexana who had just returned from her internship at Restaurant De Kwizien in Belgium. Her enthusiasm about the love and commitment of the team at this Belgian restaurant sparked his interest. “I learned more than students have learned in the past”, Alexana said. This quote from Alexana really convinced Jonathan to take the challenge and he applied for an internship in the restaurant in the Belgian city of Hasselt.
We visited Jonathan at the end of his internship and asked him how he enjoyed this learning journey with his mentor lady chef Anne-Sophie Breysem. This is the transcript of their testimony:
Jonathan: They accepted me immediately, which was very nice because I was afraid I would not be able to fulfil my dream of going to Europe to learn something. After that is was one day after the other of learning stuff I had never done before, doing things I had never done before. Doing proper service in an open kitchen seems like something simple when you hear about it, but when you are actually doing it you are out of your element and out of your comfort zone. Here you are in a place you do not know, with people you do not know. It was a constant battle.
At the end I realise that I learned so much more, it’s like winning a million dollars. I go home with so much new knowledge that other students will not have. I wanted to do course menus, things I had never done before. In Texas there are few restaurants where you can do these things and hold this quality of cuisine. You can go to New York or Chicago or the other major cities. There you have a cuisine that is somewhat similar to this but even there it doesn’t touch this type of cuisine for me.
From all the things that you have learned, what are the things you will take with you?
Jonathan: Speed, Creativity, the utilisation of all ingredients to make the into something new, menu planning. It was amazing watching them plan the menus. They can do it all in their head. They are so creative and talented. The adapted flavours that brings all pieces together. And on the day they test it they change maybe one or two ingredients and all the rest fits, just like they planned it in their head, and it works! I think with all that experience it comes like second nature to them, but to me it was like watching Picasso doing a painting. It is something I could not see myself doing it, but towards the end when we talk I start to piece different ingredients together and different textures.
When you look at a plate with a piece of meat, you can think “oh they grilled it”, but it’s not. A lot of mise-en-place goes into what we do. There is like fifteen or more things we prepare and then during service all these things come together in a really nice dish. Even down to the little crumble. You know, when I would say can’t we use this crumble and then the chef would say, no that doesn’t go with this dish, this is the specific crumble that goes with that dish. And then being able to try the menu, you get to see why all these little things we do matter.
Can you make these choices yourself now?
Jonathan: Now, in a way yes and in a way no. I still want her by my side. On the other hand I learned a lot like different flavours that go together, also strange flavours but that go nicely together. It was a heart-warming experience. If you don’t love it don’t do it. This is the type of food that demands respect and love. If you don’t have the love you should not do this work.
Chef Anne-Sophie, how did you experience this internship?
Anne-Sophie: This is our second intern of the Culinary Institute of America. I am really pleased about these interns. These people make the decision for themselves to become a chef. You see they are very passionate. They really want to learn. They give it their best. That is the most important. Because when you start you do not have to do anything for me, if you have the passion and you want to learn. I also started here with very little knowledge, but I wanted to learn and now five years later I became Lady Chef of the Year. It is that passion that drives you.
Is three months a good period for an internship?
Anne Sophie: Yes, I think so.
Jonathan: No, I wish I could stay longer. I have been through many things since I started here. When I see what they do from one menu to another, it is really amazing. I feel I want to go through ten more menus before I can do this.
10 more menus, all at the same restaurant?
Jonathan: Yes, they still have so much to teach me. I have learned so much, but there is still so much more knowledge in their heads that I want to pull out and put into my head. As much as I have learned, there is still more to learn. That is the beauty of food: it is always changing and it is always evolving and there is always stuff you can do. You know in the last menu there was even stuff she did not know how to do it. She just looked at it, tried it, tried it again until it worked. I saw her make things twenty or thirty times before she had it like she wanted to get it. Then when you get it on the plate with the full dish, everything comes together, it marries so well. As much as I have learned, I still do not know how to bring things like that together and I really want to learn to. I really want to learn more.
When your realise how much effort goes into one dish you need to put the perfect ingredients on the plate. That is something I learned, to put 100% in my dishes at all times. If it is not right, don’t serve it.
What will the future bring for you?
Jonathan: I have another year in school. When I have finished that I have the option to go to New York for my Bachelors’ Degree or to become a chef and start working. Hopefully I will be able to take some time off and come back to Belgium. I want to do another stage with chef Anne-Sophie. The biggest dream of all would be to pass the Master Chef test and to become an actual Master Chef. No matter what I do with cooking, open a successful restaurant or I have a small snack shack on the side of the ocean, I just want It to be for the love of food. The most heart-warming feeling is when I see guests from the open kitchen and they take a bite and I see them smile or they say ‘wow’. That gives you whatever you need to get out of this job. You put so much effort in it and then they do this one little gesture, that is what it makes it all worthwhile to you. You see that a lot with chef Anne’s cooking here. She puts a lot of effort in her cooking.
Can you give your fellow students 3 arguments to come here?
If you are really committed and you really love it, you should come. If not, and you have doubt in your mind don’t come.
If you are willing to take it dirty and you are willing to come to a different part of the world and experience food that you never had before, come to this place.
If you are willing to do the hardest work you have ever done before, come here.
This place deserves respect and 100% commitment. There were days that I had to decide should I eat or should I sleep. Then you know you are working your butt of. So if you don’t love this and you don’t want to do this work the rest of your live, don’t waste your time here and don’t waste their time. They deserve the best of your time and the best of your work ethic, the best of everything you have to offer because this is the best food I have ever had in my live. So I give them my best.
This must have been an exciting learning experience?
It is a great feeling. Chef Anne she puts so much trust in me. I know how important quality is for her. So in my mind I said “you have to step it up, you have to honour her, you have to do it right. I was constantly asking everything, is this brown enough, is this seasoned enough, and in the end she said “stop asking me, you should know, you can do it”. So I said “Yes chef”, and I just did it. This was a lot of trust that scared me, but that also made me to try harder.
I have never seen chefs with the love and the passion like these people here. When one plate is not OK you have to make it again. With four plates ready and waiting and a new plate to make, you have to do this fast and without any mistake. Also the warmth of ingredients is checked all the time. Every little element here is so perfect you have to do it perfect every time.
It was not always easy. I also failed a lot. But you don’t learn from things being easy or from success, you learn from your mistakes, and I failed a lot.
Anne-Sophie: It is important that you learn from your mistakes. Sometimes you have to do something wrong to see why this is the wrong way, so you can do it right the next time.
Jonathan: The support of the chef in these things was very important for me. When I was thinking I cannot do this, she came to me and said “you can do this. The reason why you are affected so much is because you care. It shows it is not just a stage for you.” I went through hell and now I know what heaven is. When chef Jaime told me “If you care, we will care and teach you everything you need to know”. I cared and they really liked that about me and I think that is why they put so much effort in training me.
I came in here with an empty recipe book and now I only have a few pages left. It is almost a full recipe book. They even take it a step further, they let me take pictures of their recipes. Back in the States that is unheard of. Chefs are very competitive and they don’t want to reveal their recipes, and here the chef says if you want to ask me about how I do things, just ask me but get your book out and write it down. I took that to heart. Now I go back with all this and get to try some things myself.
Anne-Sophie: I also let him taste all the things we prepare. It is very important to taste ingredients to appreciate what you serve the guests.
Jonathan: When you have a finished dish to serve and you haven’t tasted your preparation, then you have no appreciation for the process.
Anne-Sophie: You have to cook with all your senses.
Jonathan: One day she is listening to the friar and says,” you have to check your croquettes because one just popped”. I thought “how can she hear that”. So I learned to use all senses, your head, your touch, your feel, your sight, your sound, everything. She did not only learn how to cook, she taught me how to be a chef in the kitchen.
Anne-Sophie: That is what my mentor learned me, when you are plating up and you are with your back to your kitchen, you have to use all your senses to follow what is happening. It is 100% concentration.
Jonathan: It was stressful sometimes, but it was needed for me to learn what I have learned. Stress in small doses keeps you on your toes and keeps you sharp. It is a stressful job, but when at the end of the day when you look at the people and how they enjoyed it, it is all worth it.