Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Williamsburg Inn’s Top Chef: From Fry Line to Fine Dining

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WILLIAMSBURG–Holding the title of Chef de Cuisine – top chef – at the Williamsburg Inn is icing on the cake for Julianne Gutierrez, whose culinary career began humbly at 15, when she scored a job at the McDonald’s in her Pennsylvania hometown.

It’s been quite an ascension from flipping burgers to preparing concept menus with artisanal grain pizzas or steaks from beef that’s genetically unchanged since the 17th Century.

“I have always worked in kitchens, beginning with McDonald’s, then at Applebee’s when I turned eighteen,” she recalled. “I was just good at it.”

Working while pursuing her B.A. in English Literature at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, she realized her initial idea of becoming a writer or a professor of English was probably the wrong path.

“Work was more satisfying than school,” she said. “School became the job. Work was fun.”

After graduating, she applied and was accepted to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America but couldn’t swing the tuition without going into a lot of debt. Instead, she googled for alternatives and found the American Culinary Federation, which led her to a program at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond. Through the school, she won an apprenticeship at Colonial Williamsburg in 2013. (She also met and married another apprentice, Jake Wechsler, now the executive chef at the Williamsburg Winery.)

“This three-and-a-half-year program changed my life,” she said. “It takes each apprentice through extensive training in all areas of the kitchen, from breakfast to butchering to sauteing to the grill. There’s no substitute for 6,000 hours of on-the-job training.”

When she finished the apprenticeship, her mentor, Travis Brust, executive director of food and beverage at Colonial Williamsburg, helped her find her first job, at a resort in St. John. She worked there for a season and would have returned except for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which “devastated the small paradise.”

Instead, she did stints at a country club in Maryland, then a Washington, DC, hotel, followed by a private restaurant before returning to the Williamsburg Inn, where she was named Chef de Cuisine in 2021.

The Williamsburg Inn is the crown jewel of Abby and John D. Rockefeller’s home away from home in Colonial Williamsburg, which the Rockefellers were instrumental in saving and restoring. Food at the Inn is served in four areas: the Rockefeller Room, the Restoration Bar, the Terrace and Goodwin rooms, and the Social Terrace. Guitierrez oversees a staff of about 40, with 20 of them reporting directly to her.

No surprise perhaps but the favorite part of the job for this English major is menu-writing. Her least favorite part is hiring.

“It’s been such a headache,” she said. “Ten people will apply; two people will show up for the interview.”

The Williamsburg Inn and many other high-end resort and hotel restaurants rely heavily on externs and apprentices from high-end cooking schools like Johnson & Wales, the Culinary Institute of Virginia, and the Culinary Institute of America.

Fortunately, Gutierrez hasn’t experienced the harassment or hit the glass ceiling that many women in her industry have.

“I’ve been pretty lucky,” she said. What helped is that she has primarily worked at places like hotels or resorts which are more likely than privately owned restaurants to have behavioral policies in place and ways to report problems.

“These are places that have HR departments,” she said.

In fact, though the distribution has returned to roughly 50/50, “at one point right after we reopened (following the pandemic closure) it was almost entirely an all-female kitchen staff,” she said.

She strongly encourages people who are interested in a culinary career to seek apprenticeships, not just degrees.

“Getting the credential is important, but if you apprentice somewhere you can get your initial training at the same time you’re working toward your degree,” she said.

She also warns there’s no phoning it in when it comes to restaurant work. She averages 50 to 55 hours a week and most of that is on her feet.

“There are times when you might have to spend ten hours cutting up onions or breaking up chickens,” she said, “but nothing teaches you faster than that hands-on experience.”

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