Sepia's Andrew Zimmerman On Being a First-Time Beard Nominee (And Kids Today)

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Chef Andrew Zimmerman, nominated for Best Chef: Great Lakes at the James Beard awards Monday. Photo: Sky Full of Bacon

In a city of extravagantly-bearded, rock and roll-living chefs, Andrew Zimmerman looks like the rare grownup, cleancut, levelheaded and (so far as we have ever observed) tattoo-free. Ironically, he actually was an aspiring rock musician who goofed around in kitchens for a long time without getting serious, but his career from some point in his 20s has been the classic one of hard work, seizing opportunities when they presented themselves and steadily rising to better and better positions. He took over Sepia in 2009 and guided it through the period after its opening hype when many restaurants falter, winning a Michelin star the first year they were awarded in Chicago (which he has retained since). And now he's nominated for the first time for a James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes, alongside some heady Chicago competition— Michael Carlson, Stephanie Izard and Bruce Sherman. In advance of Monday's award ceremony, we spoke with Zimmerman about his long and somewhat meandering path to his present success and acclaim, which turned into a conversation about young chefs, culinary school and how he mentors the next generation of chefs as well. The first part of our conversation is below; it will continue Monday.

This is your first time being nominated, right?

This is the first time I even made the long list [of semifinalists]. I was just happy I got on that. I was sort of hoping that we had done enough, and done well enough, that we could maybe make the long list. And when my name showed up on the long list I was kind of like, that's awesome, great. And I kind of didn't worry about it after that; that was the goal for the year.

The fact that I actually made it to the short list was really surprising, and amazing.

So this was also the first year that they introduced a new category of rising star chefs, who have to be under 30. And that seems like it kind of feeds that idea that you can go straight from culinary school to genius without actually, you know, working. Where it seems like your career path, of steadily working your way to better and more high profile assignments, is more the reality—

What you're saying is, I'm old, basically.

Well, certainly experienced. So do you agree with how we just summed up your life in two sentences?

A little bit, yeah. I mean, I was a dishwasher when I was fifteen. Though if I had realized, when I was younger, that this was really the career path that I was going to be on, if I had embraced it in my 20s, I probably would have gotten to some version of where I am faster. But I messed around for a while in my 20s, cooking mostly for the money and because it was easy and flexible and because I thought that I was going to wise up and have a proper career at some point.

Meaning what, you were going to suddenly become an accountant?

I was hoping it was going to be more like my band would get signed to a record label. But also— I was an English major in college after I dropped music as my major because I didn't want to be a high school band director, which is obviously where that was heading. And I still had this idea that even if the music thing doesn't work out, something will present itself that will seem sensible as a proper career, because this cooking thing is kind of a knucklehead job. I mean, I was surrounded by not really the top caliber of cooks. The guys who were running the seafood restaurant on the Jersey Shore were not guys who were ever going to go work for Thomas Keller.

So it wasn't until I got older that I realized that I was kind of good at it, and I started to be more interested in developing it and spending more time reading about and working on food than on music. In my mid to late 20s there was that shift. And if I had put that much energy into it sooner, I would have gotten further by then. I mean, look at a guy like Dave Beran [who's nominated for the Rising Star Chef award]. Dave knew what he wanted earlier, and he's worked incredibly hard for really talented people to get where he is at his age.

But I do agree with what you're saying about the culinary school thing. They give you the idea that you're going to get out of culinary school and just be a chef and a genius and it's just going to happen for you. We've had a number of interns who've come through here and they've just been like, "Well, when I'm done here I'm going to go be a chef." And we just look at them like, you're out of your mind. You don't have any idea what you're doing. You can't even wrap and label my product properly, and you're going to run a kitchen?

So yeah, with that award it seems like they're glomming on a little onto the Food & Wine Best New Chefs territory. But if you look at some of the long list candidates, like Matt Kirkley at L2O— Matt's put in his time. He's worked for good people, he was passionate about it from the time he got out of culinary school, he put in the work and he's done it.

And I think if you've worked for ten years, and you've made good choices about who you've worked for and you're focused and worked hard, you can just get in under the wire on that award and yeah, totally, you're qualified. Those guys are serious. Danny Grant at RIA is a serious guy. Matt's a serious guy, Beran's a serious guy. Those are just the ones I know personally. And if they want to recognize them for that, that's fine. But it doesn't help the myth that you can go straight to that from culinary school.

Right, because people don't see that those guys have ten or fifteen years in—

In brutality kitchens. (laughs)

Particularly when we have stages or interns come in, I like to have them spend a little bit of time with me during service and we talk about the dishes that are coming up. And even the food that doesn't seem that complicated to me— we have a dish that's basically duck and turnips. And it really isn't that complicated— it's duck, and turnips, and some duck choux. But when I start explaining it to the stages or the interns, it sounds enormously complicated. And I might play that up a little because I want them to want to work here and think they might learn something, but it's the truth— we didn't cut open a bag, we didn't just order it from Sysco. If you want to learn how to cook, we will teach you how to cook, from the ground up.

Do they run in terror?

Some of them are like, uh, okay... and some of them are really excited about it. And I come up to them sometimes during the day and I say, I know that what you are doing seems monotonous. I know you wish you were doing more than peeling fava beans. But all that work has to be done. And if you get that done quickly, we're going to give you another job, and you're going to learn quickly. But if you're going to take forever doing a stupid task, we're going to keep giving you stupid tasks.

One of the things that I wish they would teach in culinary school is, you have to take ownership of your own career. If you're just going to go through the motions, and peel the fava beans and feel bummed out that I didn't ask you to butcher all the lamb today on your first day, you're not going to get anywhere, buddy.

Peel my fava beans. Learn how to do it right. You don't like it? Too bad for you. Double peel my fava beans. Thomas Keller says to, that's good enough for me.

Monday: From the Jersey Shore to Sepia