Another non-traditional (yet very relevant) subject in our On the Line series, Ryan Wagner's CulinaryLab is bridging the gap between what is taught in culinary school and what real life work experience teaches. I stopped by his recently renovated cooking school to find out more.
How did you come up with the concept? And why do you think it hasn't been done before?
For those of us who have spent a number of years in the industry, I think the CulinaryLab concept is one of those, "Why didn't I think of that?!" kind of ideas. It makes common sense to most chefs out there that this is how culinary school should be— an immersive technology-based experience that gets students working as apprentices in top-notch restaurants as quickly as possible. I saw the need for this type of culinary education in the marketplace and decided to take the leap and make it happen.
Where did you grow up, and where's home these days?
I'm an OC boy, born and bred. I lived in LA for a bit, where I owned an event catering business. I now live seven minutes away from my parents and the house I grew up in. Everything came full circle. There's nothing like being near family. I'm very fortunate.
You're making breakfast; what are you having?
Chilaquiles, no doubt. With a ton of heat and a soft egg on top.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Sharpen your knives. Please, for the love of God!
Why did you move from your original location in Anaheim?
We loved our first home at the Packing House. It was in a great location, and even had its own secret entrance. But alas, we grew out of it. A good problem to have. We had big plans, and that meant a bigger space was needed!
What was your new Tustin location before you moved in?
Interestingly enough, it was a test kitchen for a Mimi's Cafe. The layout ended up being pretty perfect for our needs. We just expended their meeting room into a classroom, bumped out some office space to make the kitchen bigger and refinished the bar. Because, of course, a culinary school needs a bar. Right?!
Let's discuss the teaching curriculum. Specifically, how CulinaryLab differs from a traditional culinary school.
At CulinaryLab, we're not into using the traditional lecture format with textbooks/ebooks. After all, it's 2016! In this constantly evolving age of technology, most people have extremely short attention spans, especially our younger students who grew up surrounded by tech. We cater to this reality by providing students with engaging video content to study instead of textbooks, and do experiments and tastings in class instead of long, drawn out lectures. It is also important for us to stay super relevant with current industry trends. The local chef community is a big part of what makes CulinaryLab so different and effective. They influence our curriculum, guest teach, and mentor our students with our unique apprenticeship program.
Favorite meal growing up:
Ironically, when I was a kid, I'd eat the same meal for weeks at a time. Every day, for every meal. I know, that's not very "chefy" of me, but I guess my palate hadn't fully developed at the age of 10. One week it would be grilled cheese. Then, a giant bowl of Frosted Flakes for every meal, weeks on end. I wasn't a very creative culinary kid.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Salt. You'd be surprised how many people don't properly season their food. Salt can be the difference between awesome and blah.
We share a Cal Poly Pomona connection. What is it?
Many moons ago, I was sous chef at the conference center (Kellogg West) right down the hill from Collins School, where you went. We must have just missed each other!
Favorite places to eat.
Home. These days I spend so much time running around. What I love most are the rare evenings when I get to sit down with my family and eat a home-cooked meal.
What do you like to do outside of the lab?
Being an entrepreneur, I'm working the same crazy hours now that I did when I had a "real" job in the industry, so there isn't much room for anything else, other than spending quality time with my wife, our two and-a-half year old son, and our two pups (a Doberman and Border Collie). When I can squeeze it in, I also enjoy jogging, gardening and reading a good book. I consider myself to be a lucky guy, seeing that I get to spend the majority of my week doing what I love.
Hardest lesson you've learned:
That failure is a critical part on the path to success. I have tried out several business concepts before CulinaryLab came to be. Some of them were successful and others fell flat. And that is the life of an entrepreneur. I have learned something of value from each and every business venture I've had, and each idea moved me that much closer to where I'm at now: living out my passion.
What's your favorite childhood memory?
I'm lucky to have a huge family that all lives pretty locally, so I would say spending Christmas with my extended family each year. Growing up, the holidays have always been about great food and being together, and I have loved every moment of it.
Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
I have a bit of a green thumb and love to get my hands dirty out in my garden. And my toddler son would probably say I'm pretty skilled at the art of couch wrestling.
What would you be doing if you weren't in this business?
I'm a homebody at heart, loving the peaceful relaxing time I get to spend in my house. I also enjoy a good home renovation. There's something about the transformation between the 'before' and 'after' that really speaks to me. I suppose it's a bit similar to transforming ingredients into a composed dish. So if I wasn't in the food industry, I'd say that I would be flipping houses.
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What local chefs are on board with the concept?
We've had amazing support from the local food community. Some of our earliest supporters were Chef Mark of Old Vine Cafe (Costa Mesa), Chef Vega of Roy's (Newport Beach) and Chef Greg of Haven (Orange). Since then, a number of chefs have come on board to take students as apprentices, guest teach or just help us spread the word.
Our newest apprenticeship site is Studio at the Montage in Laguna Beach with Chef Strong. Chef Danny from Anepalco (Orange), Chef Shachi of Adya (Anaheim) and Chef Pascal at Pascal's (San Juan Capistrano) have been some of our recent guest instructors. It has been really exciting for our students to get the chance to learn from chefs who are paving the way in the local restaurant scene.
How can the home cook participate in CulinaryLab?
The newest thing we're doing is opening our kitchen to home cooks. We've heard from a lot of people out there who really want to learn how to cook, not just go to a cooking class to socialize with friends and get drunk on wine. Not that I'm opposed to that mindset, and there are plenty of classes out there that offer that experience. What we're interested in doing is catering to those home cooks who want to take their skills to the next level. We want to bring the same teaching philosophies we use for our pro students to home cooks, giving them lasting culinary skills to utilize in their own kitchens.
CulinaryLab Cooking School is located in Tustin at 17231 E 17th Street, Unit B, (714) 788-3576; www.culinarylabschool.com.