As a student of hospitality management, I spent most of my interview with Colleen Johnson exchanging industry stories. It was like gossiping, except about chefs, meals, and teaching. She would've been the ideal adviser back in school, but she's spent the past four years coordinating the student-run restaurant at The Art Institute of California – Orange County. Once a private chef, Colleen's experiences have taken her to places and introduced her to people she probably would've never been introduced to.
Your earliest food memory:
My grandmother had a huge tub that she used to make bread. It was some galvanized material, and had a lid with a slit and a paddle that she inserted. It also had a huge hinge on the bottom, so that she could keep i in one place as she kneaded bread. I would sit and watch her make the weekly bread, and for holidays, a special fruit bread. I hated the citron in the fruit bread, but loved the raisins, and would pick all of the citron out, toast up that particular piece and slather it with butter.
Favorite meal growing up:
Pretty much my birthday meal: codfish cakes, homemade mac and cheese (no boxes of this stuff was ever found floating around my grandmother's kitchen) and stewed tomatoes. She canned tomatoes in the summer and we had those delicious things all year.
You best recent food find (from where):
Wurstkuche and The Pie Hole, both in downtown Los Angeles. At Wurstkuche I order the Austin Blues, a hot and spicy tri-pepper and smoked pork sausage with a Chimay to wash it down. The Pie Hole is across the street, and they write daily specials on butcher paper. I like both the savory and sweet pies.
Most undervalued ingredient:
Escarole. It's delicious. Last quarter we did a shaved asparagus dish served with escarole. People complained, “It's kind of bitter.” It gets a horrible rap.
What fast food do you eat?
In-n-Out. I usually order a double double with grilled onions and fries. And no tomato; I don't like eating tomatoes unless I grow them.
What are the differences in palates between East and West coast cuisines?
I find that East coast diners really love soup. I don't know if it has anything to do with the weather, but soup runs high on their diet.
What is your beverage of choice, and where do you get it?
Liquor is a Dark and Stormy or Italian red. Usually you will find me with black iced tea, no sugar, or just good old water.
The most memorable meal you've cooked:
Probably for Vogue magazine, back in Maine. The dish was a vanilla poached lobster, red wine and cranberry marinated venison with roasted sweet potatoes and vegetables from the garden, along with a wild Maine blueberry tart with Tahitian vanilla ice cream.
What is the most important thing to teach new students about working the back of the house?
Always be prepared for “Plan B”.
One food you can't live without:
Bread. Stuff of life. In the South of Italy, there's one called Pugliese created by an old woman. It's the best I think I ever had, and I ate off of a loaf for two weeks. It never went stale.
Where was your most recent meal?
Tomatoes and lovely red onions and basil, from my garden, chopped up with balsamic glaze, a good olive oil and salt and pepper. Some great country bread and a glass of Brunello.
Best culinary tip for the home cook:
Use water that is as salty as the ocean to blanch green vegetables. Helps keep them bright and beautiful.
Name a common misconception made by students in the kitchen.
I think the percentage of students that come to culinary school have been watching the food channel and believe that work is minimal in the kitchen.
Thomas Keller. I had the opportunity to work with him and absolutely love his work ethic. It was truly a learning experience.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten:
Baby sparrow, to name one. In a Japanese yakitori, they give you three baby ones on a skewer. They were just hatched. The first one went down okay.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own):
Mozza Los Angeles. The Hungry Cat. An Okonomiyaki place in Lomita.
Tell us about planning the curriculum for each new class.
For the student restaurant, I always gear the menu for that quarter to use all seasonal product. I want them to learn and understand that, just because we live in California, does not mean that produce and other farm items are always great year around. I find that students do not really know the seasons out here. I guess, for them, it can be quite confusing.
You're making breakfast. What are you having?
Bostock, thick sliced bacon, French melon and great coffee.