About Chefs: An Interview With Budding Top Chef Lisa Kaufmann

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About Chefs: Haute Cuisine at Art.com

Since my sudden departure from the hotel restaurant where I was working, I’ve been thinking about  this world of hell and glory known as the culinary industry.

I truly believe there is a psychological term for chefs who bleed this work: C R A Z Y.

And, there is a correlation between our past and choosing this as a career.

Since last week (exactly one week ago today that I quit), my plan is to do 3 things:

1. Hit another market for private chef work and teaching
2. Commit to finishing my cookbook
3. Talk to other chefs periodically about their feelings being in this industry

Today I am doing plan number 3 and interviewing chef Lisa Kaufmann for my story here on 8 Women Dream. Lisa is a chef that I recently had the pleasure of working next to in the kitchen. I immediately liked her spirit, creativity and I could see her dream through her hard work. I started giving her more responsibilities and creative freedom. I felt resistance from the management team. I paid no attention. She was treated like just a “warm body” in a restaurant kitchen. I saw more.

About Chefs: My interview with Chef Lisa Kaufmann

1. When did you start cooking?

Probably at the age of 7. The first thing I baked was brownies from a box. I thought I followed the recipe perfectly, but I accidentally doubled the amount of water and they turned out horrible. I was forced to eat them all. I learned quickly how to follow a recipe.

2.  Why did you feel forced to eat them all?

Because I begged to make them and I screwed up. There was no supervision. The brownies belonged to one of my parents and I ruined them. It was a big lesson and a big error.

3.  How did they taste?

Horrible. Like chalk and water.

4. Since that experience, do you hold on to recipes that you feel you have to follow?

I use a recipe as a guide, but yes, I still use them. I just change some things to my liking.

5.  What do you love most about the culinary industry and being a chef?

The fact that I can change people’s lives with food and that I can see their faces and know they are getting full pleasure from my food.

6. So you would say that you are a “pleaser”?

Oh yeah.

7.  Why do you think that chefs generally have this trait?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s the way we were raised.

8. What do you hate most about the culinary industry and being a chef?

Stereotypes and the dominance of men in the industry.

9.  What, it your opinion is the difference between a cook and a chef?

The worldly experience with food. I’m not worldly with food and I don’t know enough so I’m not a chef.

10. Why do chefs go back to the same thing when we are underpaid, over-worked and rarely appreciated?  It can be abusive.  Where do you draw the line?

Because we have a passion, but it’s hard for me to draw the line. My friends say a minimum of 10 years before you can look at yourself as a top of the line chef.

11. In your experience, why do a lot of chefs and other culinary authority figures scream at their chefs and treat them like shit?

Because they have expectations — yet they don’t fully express their expectations. They don’t want to be there all of the time because they want a life, yet they feel they have the right to scream if their half-spoken expectations aren’t met the way they think they should be.

12. Why do you think there is so much substance abuse in this industry?

The stress; the hours.

13. Is it the chicken or the egg? Do you think people with addictive personalities see out this industry unconsciously, or does the industry help feed substance abuse?

Both. I have a cook-friend who didn’t drink at all and now he’s an alcoholic. He’s never with his girlfriend so there are relationship problems. He drinks every night to cope with the stress. He feels he’s in a world by himself and a dysfunctional comfort zone.

14.  What do you consider decent pay for a chef?

$15.00 an hour for a prep cook. Chefs should be compensated a lot more, but unfortunately, they aren’t.

15.  Do you want your own restaurant?  Is that a dream of yours?

No. I don’t want to give up my life to make money, but I don’t want to have a life without money

16.  Why do you think that some chef’s time is so short when they are hired to turn a restaurant around and make it all it can be?

People don’t like change or to give up control. They think they are losing what they have and they fight it. It’s very sad. There’s so much food out there and there is so much we can make, but sometimes when we try to make things different and better, we are shut down because of owner control, which many times equates with the pocketbook. I personally feel there is no opportunity for me to learn right now. I feel shunned when I seek opportunity. I’m looked at sometimes like I can’t even cook.

17. Why do you stay?

Because there is nothing else that has come along for me.

18. What is your advice to dreamers all over the world reading this?

Stay honest, be true to yourself and always always follow your passion.

19. Any final thoughts?

I hope things change in this industry. You don’t have to be a celebrity chef or a 5 star chef to be recognized. I hope to see more respect in this industry. I thank people who are “technically” below me and I’ve been asked, “Why are you so polite to me?”  When you appreciate people, it changes their drive. Find what motivates a person and most of the time, it’s not money. It’s being recognized for work they love and quality work they do. That’s what most people want and most people don’t get.

Lisa and I spoke with a recorder between us and I listened intently.  I felt anger rising up inside of me as she told me her answers. Now as I write this, I feel sad. I cried because this is her truth and the truth of so many of us in this industry. Some of her answers brought a familiar taste in my mouth that has never been appealing, but it doesn’t mean that this industry can’t change.  Lisa was not comfortable sharing her image for this story.

When I left my job at the hotel restaurant, I was sure I did the right thing, but this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have strong emotions. I questioned myself and felt that somehow I wasn’t good enough — as crazy as that is to think. What I now realize is that letting go slipped me into a brief depressive funk. A funk big enough to get me to the airport late to meet childhood friends for 50th birthday celebrations. I missed my flight.  God knows the airline wouldn’t let me catch the next flight without a charge of 2 million dollars.

I was as depressed as a nun stuck in hell.

One of my dear friends came to see me and booked a one-way ticket to Phoenix, Arizona and paid for it — against my will. The flight was to leave from the San Francisco International Airport instead of the small, local Santa Rosa airport (a 2 hour difference) at 6:00 a.m. We had a discussion about this before he clicked ‘book this flight” online.  There was not an airport shuttle that ran at the time I needed to be at the airport.  He said, “I’ll take you. Let’s get a few hours sleep and I will be there at 3:30 a.m.”

I questioned this because the words “3:30 a.m.” made me want to vomit.

But I agreed and I slept on the sofa in my clothes with my cell phone next to my ear and the alarm set to crazy time.

Then he overslept. I tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. I finally said to myself  “You know what? There is a reason for everything. It is definitely not meant for me to be on a plane right now.”

Instead, I picked myself up and got back to work on my dream.

The Northern California Coastline

The wonderful part about being a self-employed chef is that you are in control of your own destiny. You just have to work your ass off for that control. A friend on Facebook (whom I’ve never met – here we go with that again) suggested that I should expand my private chef services to people in the Northern California area where she lives and works in real estate. It’s an exquisite place far up the Pacific Coast in Sonoma County, California. It’s an affluent community with year-round business for vacation rentals and events. She gave me the name of 2 vacation rental property companies, so I picked up the phone.

I called the first company on the list. They were welcoming and very excited. The woman gave me the name of 6 more companies and told me she would call me back.  She was contacting the president of the Chamber of Commerce. Fast forward to today and I will be spending 2 days next week meeting and feeding people who will be sending me business.  I also get to spend 2 days in paradise relaxing and taking care of myself. This is “the stuff that dreams are made of” as singer, Carly Simon liked to say.

This week’s Savory Sunday  recipe is going to make you laugh, but it’s the one that feels right to me at the moment.

I promise, I’m not being lazy . . . it’s full of anticipation, wonder and a bit of a surprise – just how your big dreams should be.


3-D movie by John Lund at Art.com

Maria’s do-it-in-your-sleep popcorn

  • Real popcorn kernels
  • Canola Oil
  • Medium heavy bottomed pot
  • A top for the pot
  • Salt
  • Butter (if you really want to)

Cover the bottom of the pot with a layer of kernels
Just cover the kernels with oil
Put the top on the pot
Turn on the fire to medium high
Listen to them pop faster and faster
When they slow way down, turn off the fire and take the pot off of the heat, take of the top and put the kernels in a big bowl. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle or smother with melted butter. It’s fun and better to have left over kernels rather to go too long and have some burnt popcorn. It stinks for hours.  Trust me.

Do me a favor, don’t even think about microwave popcorn– whether it’s “ all natural” (yeah, right) or not. I’m talking a bag of kernels, a pot, some oil and some salt. Well, maybe a little bit of butter too.

Because remember this dreamers:

Once you don’t slack, you’ll never go back.


  • A roller coaster girl! Great to hear the interview – my brother decided to use a re-training opportunity after a workers comp settlement to get his culinary degree at SRJC. The pay, competition and insane hours forced him right back into the industry he was injured in. I had no idea until hearing his stories about the kitchen environment just how nuts it all is!

    Thanks to you and Lisa for sharing honestly and congrats on the amazing connections once again!

    – Heather

  • Great interview Maria.  Real popcorn is so much better than microwave. 

    •  thanks.  real popcorn is the bomb

  • I love this: “Once you don’t slack, you’ll never go back.”  That saying could apply to everything about dreaming.  My heart goes out to Lisa.  I have new-found appreciation for the food when dining out now.  

    Because you are willing to put yourself and your dream out there each week, the universe responds in kind.  I can’t wait to hear how your week goes.