Chef Profile: Diane Stojentin
For our latest chef profile, we are featuring Chef Diane Stojentin, who has has been in the restaurant industry for nearly 20 years. The Trotter-trained chef co-hosted two supper club events last fall. Stojentin is available for private parties and events and is currently accepting students and clients for her company, Top of The Food Chain. She consults for businesses and families. You can contact her at 773-754-7422 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1) So, what made you decide to become a chef?
When I was 16, I worked as a bus-girl at an upscale coffeehouse called Espial in Lincoln Park at 948 W. Armitage. It was owned by two guys who had worked together at Express Cafe in Evanston. The walls were painted in beautiful distressed murals and there were antiques that would float in and out of the place. It was my home away from home and I started learning about fancier food there. I had always loved food, and learned basic gravies and German recipes by the time I was six from my Grandma Dottie who had the passed down recipes from her mother-in-law, Rose Stojentin. My father loved to cook and was great at it. When I was a teenager, my father’s beautiful Guatemalan wife shared certain recipes with me - she is such an excellent cook - and I kind of knew I loved cooking but looked upon it as training for becoming a woman. Last but certainly not least, my own mother is an absolutely incredible cook. She is truly great. She knew the Rose recipes and the Dottie recipes, then taught me her special spaghetti sauce, and got me starting dinners before she came home from work. On weekends we would take a long walk to the farmer’s market to buy fresh vegetables which she’d turn into really opulent meals. We ate together every night. I always had an interest in cooking and branched out into making quiches and broccoli bagel melts, all sorts of things for my friends after school.
In my 20’s the need to cook for others grew greater in me, but I just chalked that up to a biological imperative, a maternal sense and feminine satisfaction in nurturing others. That was my younger lack of self-confidence. I stayed in the industry for years and years, working in management, as front of the house, as back of the house, in some jobs as all of those positions (you know how lovely turnover is) - and eventually, I realized there was no shame in doing what I was doing for a living. I’d been working my way through college and working in hospitality, eventually college wasn’t what I wanted to do, and I realized my career had already been well-established. I thought about teaching, personal cheffing, and went about making that happen with my own company in 2006. It’s called Top Of The Food Chain.
2) What's your favorite dish to make?
My favorite dish… that’s hard. I enjoy inventing dishes, I like going to the store without a plan in mind and checking out the random sale items or even better the rack, where they have several different choice items that sell for oh, 69 cents or something. I get a few of those and put that together into something and it forces me to be creative. So that’s probably my favorite, it keeps my brain on fire.
3) And favorite dish to eat?
As for my favorite dish to eat, I have a stock answer and then I’ll give you a real one. My stock answer is: the one I’m about to have! Seriously, though, lately I’ve been on a real Indian/Pakistani kick and I can’t get enough of Palak Paneer, Butter Chicken, or Lamb Cauliflower. I can’t choose just one dish. It’s too hard.
4) Where do you find inspiration for dishes you make?
I find inspiration in anything, honestly. From colors, to just being curious about how a certain product works, to - and I’m proud to admit this, actually - being seriously budget driven. Even if I have extra money (what IS extra money, anyway? It seems mythical to me) I rarely spend it recklessly. I like to focus on making less expensive cuts of meat shine, I like to make food with a humble base. But the flavor is where it’s at. I also like talking to people about how they feel about food. I like making recipes out of thin air, talking about what goes with what, discussing food dreams if you will. It’s a kind of discourse you’ll find peculiar to chefs and foodies. We’re the kinds of people who can go on for hours just talking about a potato. So I suppose I’m most inspired by my trade itself, and how many people it inspires and nourishes, I’m inspired by food and I’m in love with what I do.
5) Do you watch any cooking shows and, if so, who's your favorite celebrity chef?
I watch Chopped a lot, because it usually focuses on working chefs you’ve never heard of, with the exception of the judges. I love that kind of thing, like I said above, I like mystery challenges, where you aren’t sure what you’ll be cooking but I love how this show takes it to a ridiculous level and makes the poor contestants deal with completely incongruent ingredients. I also like watching timed challenges and saying to the screen, “I could never do that.” Because I couldn’t. I dislike timed events. They’re hard. To me it sucks out all of the joy of my craft to have to do something in a certain amount of time because someone on the other side of the kitchen door is in a rush or whatever. I want people to relax and enjoy my food, not bolt it down and run off. This is why I don’t think I’d make a good restaurateur. But it's why I'm a darn good Supper Club chef, caterer, personal chef, and instructor. I like to say, "There's a place for every pace." That said, I'm not lazy or slow. I do have a healthy respect for the importance of well-timed cooking. It's an art.
As for my favorite Celebrity Chef, that’s easy. My ex-boss, Charlie Trotter. He ran an amazing empire and influenced so many people that his lessons in service, as he called them, will resonate for decades to come. I met some real talent working for him. He built incredible people, put together very strong teams. I have to give them all props for making me what I am now, intensely serious about food, very real about it. My standards are through the roof.
You take a chef that was maybe only trained by Trotter and you put that person side by side with someone who just graduated culinary school and there’s still a major difference. It’s not poise or snobbiness, it’s just the way that things are always organized, the way that we were encouraged to not waste a thing, to use everything up if we could. To keep a clean station, to be precise, to always be courteous. I worked in his Trotter’s To Go retail store and he came in quite a bit. One time he brought this kid in who was trying to ask for money outside and bought him a sandwich, anything he wanted from the chef’s case, a fancy bottle of soda. He walked this young man through the store like he was an important person. That young man was why Chef Trotter worked so tirelessly. He really believed in showing people what they could do, and become. That’s uncommon, and it’s the base of his Foundation that his wife, Rochelle, is continuing and currently fundraising for. I’d like to see a permanent installation somewhere, like at The Cultural Center. I wish there could be a school.
Every summer there was the Trotter’s Family Picnic. The first year I went, they roasted a whole suckling pig. The second year it was 70 lobsters and a ton of clams in a big grate, they had dug a huge fire pit in the sand at the private beach in Wilmette. Chefs were all there taking turns manning stations. There was an oyster shucking contest. Every time, he greeted each of us when we got off of the private chartered buses. “Nice to see you. Thank you for coming.” And a warm handshake.
Then there was the night when they closed Trotter’s To Go so that we could all have dinner at The Restaurant. We were in the Studio Kitchen, where his Kitchen Sessions were filmed. It was really, really special. Everyone came dressed beautifully and for the first time I was able to understand what I had been a part of for my first year. What an incredible honor. Chefs De Cuisine, with whom we had been able to work with on occasion during busy holiday seasons at the store, came out and introduced the courses they were creating and overseeing. It was lavish, delicious, and lasted for hours and hours... Platings were beautiful, meticulous. We were sated, but not stuffed silly. I can’t really describe it further. It was just lovely to be appreciated that way.
Chef had an image in his mind of absolute perfection and I was terrified of letting him down. He did not rule by fear, persay, but there was an understanding that was created between yourself and your colleagues that things kind of had to be exact. It was kind of a peer-regulated system that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s also kind of why I chose to open my own company rather than suffer working for too long in other kitchens - nobody else really measures up to that. Or ever can.
Before I move on to the next question, I’ll add one last thing. One time I was in the store room getting something. Chef came through and he was all dressed up. We would see him often in casual wear because he lived right around the corner and we’d also see him decked out in really fabulously tailored suits. This day he really looked great, and he startled me when I turned around. He liked to come in and surprise us but more often than not we’d get a call that Chef was coming so that we could do a quick sweep or whatever. It was a store, you know, guests were always moving things around and buying stuff (imagine that!) so we had to keep the shelves neat, tidy, stocked with product. I hadn’t gotten the memo and there we were, I had an armful of supplies, and he was stopping in to check out the storage area. I looked down at his shoes and back up into his face and the only thing that came to mind was, like most things with me, to say something - anything. “Chef, those are some spanky shoes you’ve got there. Really sharp!” He said, “You’re very kind, you’re very kind.” He did this odd thing with his head, a kind of nod, but a bit like Chaplin. It was super funny. I smiled at him, he moved aside, and I bustled away. I’m sure my face was beet red. I still have no idea what a spanky shoe is. He was such a class act.
My other favorite Celebrity Chef of all time is Julia Child. Of course. I would imagine she’s having a cocktail with Charlie Trotter and Patrick Clark, and they’re being made some astounding dinner by James Beard up in heaven. And both of my Grandmas are there, too.
6) If you hadn't been a chef, what other career path may you have taken?
If I hadn’t been a chef, I would have still been involved in the hospitality industry. I had wanted to become a concierge because of the free stuff they get! I went to school to be a sign language interpreter but was just drawn into cooking naturally, I guess.
7) What's one kitchen gadget you simply can't live without?
Gosh, kitchen gadgets. Once I got one, I couldn’t imagine how I managed with just a blender. My cuisinart. I love that thing. I want to get a restaurant-size one (robotcoupe) but I have to wait until business allows for that. Plus I don’t want to haul things to the job sites. I like to try and make things work with whatever I have on hand. I love watching my students drag out the cool stuff they use in their kitchens to show me. Some of these things I’ve never heard of.
8) Advice to home cooks who would like to cook like the pros?
My advice to home cooks is to learn how to be a solid prep cook. If you can do that, you can learn anything. The prep cook does the hardest job in the kitchen, and does it solo. It’s a lonesome, quiet position but it also is the one where you get to know how everything is made. I always tell people to get their groceries and break them down immediately. This not only preserves whatever it is that has been purchased, but it can sometimes force a person who flies by the seat of their pants to plan meals instead of just throwing something together slapdash. I also think more people should be using fresh herbs. Period. There’s no comparison! And, they have medicinal properties.