Total Food recently sat down with Park Hyatt Hotel's newest culinary duo, Solange Johnson and Scott Cioe.
Solange Johnson grew up in Southern California where she was exposed to the best in local and seasonal ingredients. Coupled with a family that valued quality time spent in the kitchen, Solange knew not to fight nature or nurture; a life in the culinary world was her calling.
Johnson’s foray into the industry began at 18, when she gained front-of-house experience at Tony Bill and Dudley Moore’s 72 Market Street in California. When the restaurant closed in 2000, reopening as The Globe, Solange jumped at the chance to get in the kitchen. She worked her way up to chef de cuisine under James Beard award-winning chef, Joseph Manzare, who furthered her appreciation for high-quality, market-fresh ingredients.
After a brief stint in New York, Johnson moved back to the West Coast to work at Restaurateur and Chef Todd English’s fine dining restaurant Beso in Hollywood. It was there that Johnson met Chef Sam Hazen. Realizing their culinary compatibility, Johnson followed Hazen to Florida and back to New York, where she worked as his chef de cuisine at the Michelin-starred Veritas.
Today, Johnson continues to work alongside Executive Chef Sam Hazen as the chef de cuisine of Park Hyatt New York, the globally recognized Park Hyatt brand’s new flagship hotel. Here, she assists Hazen in overseeing the restaurant along with all food & beverage operations throughout the hotel.
You started your career working in the front of the house. How did you actually get a chance to prove yourself in kitchen?
While at 72 Market Street I expressed interest in working in their male dominated kitchen but I was young and a woman, so the combination did not work in my favor. When 72 market street closed and Joseph Manzare opened Globe I was asked to come in and work as a host. He decided to give me a chance in the kitchen which was the springboard for my career.
Where did you study? And who are a few of your biggest mentors?
I did not go to culinary school. I was fortunate to work with some great Chefs that are not famous but never the less molded me into the Chef I am today. My mentors are people I know. There are so many people that I look up to and aspire to be like because of one or many of the qualities they possess. Chef Sam is the closest it gets to having one that is in my every day life.
What skills are you looking to develop more on?
I am looking to develop my skills in communicating more when I need help. I am one to try to take on more than I can without asking for help.
Is there a lifespan on “your cuisine” and do you imagine that your career path will include many different cuisines?
I don’t feel there is a lifespan on my cuisine. I grew up in a family that cooked. We would go to farmers markets and grow a lot of our own vegetables. My cuisine is very farm to table. Even though that term is thrown around a lot my cuisine really is about the quality of the product and showcasing it for what it is. Simplicity to me is key when it comes to the kind of food you will always come back to. Therefore I might use other cuisines influence but there will always be that constant in my food.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part of my job is trying to find time to eat. I will go home after a busy service and realize that all I ate all day was a chocolate cookie or something of that nature. It may sound funny but even being exposed to food all day I still manage to forget to eat.
What culinary trends are you noticing as of late? And are you utilizing any of them?
Honestly I don’t follow the trends. They come and go. I might get an idea from a place I go to dinner but it’s never a trend.
What valuable skills and knowledge have you received since working by Chef Sam Hazen’s side?
Never cut corners in cooking. Taste everything. If you count your pennies you won’t have to count your dollars. Always have salt, pepper and soft butter. He has shown me how to make the clearest sweetest veal and chicken jus I have ever experienced. He has given me an appreciation of food that exceeds anything I ever thought possible.
What are some tips and advice you can give to our younger culinary readers looking to succeed in this industry?
Working in a kitchen is hard work but is also one of the most rewarding professions you can choose. When you feel like talking back to your immediate boss it is always a bad decision to make. Every moment you spend in the kitchen never look at it as just a job, and if you feel stationary in your culinary career it is probably time to move on to a new place. Always use seasonal ingredients. No one wants a peach in the middle of winter. It’s just wrong.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself having Chef Sam’s job as Executive Chef at one of the many Park Hyatt locations.
Scott Cioe has always had two passions in life: music and food. When it came time to make a decision for college, Scott pushed the culinary aside and decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music business and management at Berklee College of Music. Not even a year in, a part time job at a local Neapolitan pizzeria made Scott realize that his true passion was indeed the food and hospitality industry. Eager to make the move to the food world, Scott expedited his studies completing his degree in three years, while also applying to North Miami’s Johnson & Wales University to become a culinary student.
While at Johnson & Wales as a baking and pastry student he furthered his experience outside of the kitchen as well by taking positions as a pastry cook at Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak and Café Boulud. Following graduation, Scott went to New York City and found his mentor Richard Capizzi, who aided him in honing his skills in the kitchens of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and Lincoln Ristorante. Scott joined the team at Gordon Ramsay at The London NYC as pastry sous chef. Shortly thereafter, Scott was promoted to Executive Pastry Chef and ultimately maintained the restaurant’s two Michelin stars.
Today he is excited to be working alongside Executive Chef Sam Hazen at The Back Room at One57, complimenting Hazen’s savory offerings with a dessert menu that features his unique take on American classics that are flecked with Italian inspiration and executed with French technique.
What led to a decision to become a pastry chef rather than a traditional chef? Why baking?
I grew up with a love for cooking, but once I got a job baking bread from scratch in a brick oven I was hooked on baking. I love that you’re able to be creative but also must have a strong base of the math and science.
What have you learned from your mentors that have helped boost your skills and creativity?
Organization is key whether in the creative process, operation or storage. Also respect for the ingredients. I have learned so much from the chefs and cooks I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by.
What is your philosophy on pastry?
Make sure desserts are as delicious as they look!
What pastry trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry?
I’m starting to see a return to the classics. Classics are classics for a reason!
Is there an ingredient that you feel is particularly underappreciated or underutilized in pastry dishes?
Fennel. For me it can be a great way to end a meal. It’s also versatile- it can be rich and decadent or light and refreshing.
How do you collaborate with Chef Sam Hazen to compliment his dishes with your desserts?
There is a steady and constant exchange of ideas, and eventually those ideas are the ones that get fleshed out and put on menus. We are always talking about food so I think we understand each other’s background and style, which is important.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Finding time to eat lunch.
What advice can you dish out to young pastry chefs just getting started?
Hard work pays off. Also keep in mind that as long as you’re working in a kitchen you will never stop learning and be open minded enough to learn from anyone.
Where do you see yourself in this industry in 5 years?
Baking and creating desserts right here in New York City!