CHEF BEA SCHULZ BETWEEN PAPER TIGERS AND TRUE CRAFT: “YOU DON’T NEED TO THROW YOURSELF ON THE FIRE OF EVERY TREND THAT COMES BY”
From event manager to management consultant and onwards to professional chef, Bea Schulz’s career, with stops along the way in London and Sydney is impressive. So too are her views and opinions on wages, certifications and cultural differences regarding the job as a professional chef.
You have a degree in socio-economics with a focus on business informatics and marketing, and have also worked in the field of marketing and events as a management consultant: How did you find your way into the culinary field?
I’ve been cooking for my entire life. I was brought up for many years with my grandmother and she was a cook. I knew the difference between a stock and a jus before I could recite the alphabet by heart. I also got my three siblings interested as well. During my studies I was cooking professionally, for catering at festivals and touring with bands. I wanted to work in this field but because of the low pay and dismal working conditions, I couldn’t see myself doing it in Germany for a long amount of time. I also didn’t have (and still do not) the right certifications which proved my ability on paper for the industry. It was and still is in Germany, something that I find problematic, that I never got to enjoy a “classical training”…
How was the transition from a consultant position to a job as a chef?
After 5-years of high-octane consulting all over the world, I ended up just burning out. I took a year off to find out what “I really wanted”, and I landed right back in the kitchen. I stood up tall and realized: I have always been a culinary buccaneer, my mind is bursting with ideas and I don’t fit into any specific drawer. In my free time I read cook books and watched pretty much every cooking program in the world. Every country I traveled to I took part in a cooking course or did a stint in a kitchen. Flying around the world as a consultant in a suit and a laptop sounds glamorous, but it’s not. You mostly see the airport, the customer and anything else you can spy from the window of your taxi on the way to your hotel. It was never my thing. Everyday I had the feeling that I was just playing the role of a consultant. In the kitchen however, I can truly be myself.
The desire to cook became even stronger…
Over the years my passion exploded, to the point that towards the end of my consulting times I wasn’t staying in hotels anymore but in apartments, so I could so I could cook for myself. I just wanted to keep cooking. One day I decided to do just what I really wanted and where my passion really was, and that was cooking. The start was a bit bumpy- but it was what I was capable of, what I was good at and what I really wanted. So I quit the high-paying consultant job and started from scratch. I put everything on the line.
What does being a chef mean to you?
Cooking is creativity and absolutely a team sport. Your rarely have second chances and every shot needs to be on the mark. Perfection every time, and the camaraderie after the end of the day. When the adrenaline slowly comes down… Cooking is pure.
How is the job better than marketing/ Event management or consulting?
There is no hiding behind inflated power-point presentations. What counts is what is on the plate and you can bring to the kitchen. You can really find yourself in that environment. There are always new interpretations, breaking barriers and making things that don’t seemingly fit together… come together. It’s not about who has the most expensive suit or the best slides or the most buzz words. It’s all about your work-ethic and loyalty and also knowing your own limits and communicating them. With cooking I am free and it’s all about what I can do and not who I know. Abroad at least.
What could you take with you from your time as an event manager and consultant in gastronomy?
The structured way of thinking, but I already had that. The ability to think abstractly, to see a problem in unconventional ways and problem-solve them. In my case, influences and procedures from other countries and cooking styles, and it helps enormously that I am good at math and with Excel, at least in my last job as a sous chef and head chef. Calculations and spreadsheets don’t scare me. Another skill that I am proud of is I have learned how to sell and negotiate very well.
You have been in the industry for over ten years and worked the last 8 as a chef: How has gastronomy changed from your perspective as a chef?
Gastronomy finds itself in a sort of paradox. On one hand, through social media and the internet in general it is amazingly transparent and fast-moving as never before and the job of a chef is a high-performance sport. You are on your feet an average of between 8 and 14 hours a day and true work breaks are few. All that within a hot and humid environment. On the other hand, it’s paid so little compared to any other trade. Although today almost every resume can be checked with just a few mouse-clicks, everything still hinges mostly on a certification that proves that someone can do the job. In this area a whole rethinking must take place and not only just for exceptional cases. Often we see good companies stand in the way of themselves do to needless inflated bureaucracy in Germany. By the way, what is also worse than never before is that unlike in any other country, it is so difficult and expensive to open a restaurant, and then people wonder why the small creative places don’t survive anymore.
In what ways have the guests changed and perhaps supply and demand?
The guests are more informed than ever before and more sophisticated than ever before. Unfortunately, they are rarely prepared to pay for their high-standards or the prices that come with them or stick to their table reservation commitments. In my view this rests almost solely on the German “Dining out” habits. The Germans go out to eat on average of once a month or even less whereas is England the average lies around twice a week, in Spain it’s even more. In those countries the appreciation of service and what is on the plate is totally different. Since going out to eat is a “special occasion” for most Germans, the expectations are sky-high. They expect the red-carpet treatment for €19.95 and it better include wine. The Germans are unfortunately still as stingy as ever. In the past, dining out was also special but they paid for what they got, today everyone is on the hunt for deals or the cheapest Michelin-star meal.
You’ve also worked as a food editor, recipe developer and moderator in front of the camera. How would you characterize such jobs?
You get insights into the scene you are working within that one would not normally get, and because of that a deeper understanding of the complex relationship. You become much more aware of the trends and of their effects.
Another position you held in your dynamic career was that of cooking instructor: What does that job entail? How would you characterize the contact with guests and potential customers?
I loved and still love teaching. I find the chance to inspire others, give tips and tricks to make their lives easier and motivate them to cook even more extremely enriching. You also have to remember that not every (good) cook is suitable for instruction and for many reasons. Most importantly, they need the ability to think outside the box and communicate clearly.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
It means you need to have patience, explain every step of the process 3 times, down to the most minute detail, to sometimes completely talentless people. Then you need to quickly put together your own examples with perfection, while when the guest is preparing their own and it often doesn’t come out looking like expected. However, you learn as a chef to have many pots going at once as we say, an invaluable skill to have in teaching. You need to have fun in communicating and answering the same ten questions, ten times a day. Another major difference is manners: In a cooking course you can’t speak in the classic 3-to-5-word sentences as in the working kitchen.
You fit a sabbatical in between. How did that change you?
I backpacked throughout Australia and Southeast Asia for seven months. It awakened my senses, inspired and impressed me to see just how and what can land on the plates. So often people who seemingly had nothing, would want to share their tea with me. You become grateful- more humble. Was was already living quite minimalistic, I don’t have designer furniture or clothing. Unfortunately the sabbatical also left a deep wound and ever since, longing to travel has ended up as my homesickness. I always traveled a lot, but since the sabbatical I find it even harder to get used to Germany, the rules and mealy-mouthed complainer mentality.
Topic Free-From: How did you come by this expertise and how does it affect your cooking style?
I was diagnosed with celiac disease over ten years ago, long before it was a major theme in Germany. At that time I had to order bread from a special health clinic and I had the choice of either brick or cardboard. Then, I traveled to England and I almost burst into tears when I saw what was available just in the supermarkets. Since I couldn’t find any products in German that were in the least bit enjoyable, I ordered books from overseas and together with my knowledge and understanding as a chef, learned to cook and bake completely new. I saw processes and chemical interactions with new eyes, and was busy in this theme for a long while by the time it popped up in Germany. I had made a virtue out of necessity. Since I was able to network and sell pretty well, little by little customers such as industrial giants would approach me, and I managed to develop a great reputation beyond the borders of Germany. It so happened a few years ago at the International Green Week event, F2F Events approached me and asked if I’d be interested in being a head judge and the face of the German FreeFrom Food Awards.
You chose to specialize in this area and were way ahead of the zeitgeist…
A big obstacle, still in the heads of a lot of colleagues, is that it’s still not possible to be good at several things at once. People see me as a Free-From expert. “She can only do vegan and sugar free, don’t even mention meat.” said a colleague behind my back. I am in actuality one of the most versatile in my career- with advantages: I have worked in every position that there is in a kitchen, the only thing I am pretty poor at is seafood and I admire passionate entremetiers!!!
To what extent do you need to follow the current trends as a chef?
You need to decide above all: Do you really want to do that? How feasible is it? Not every kitchen can deliver gluten-free cuisine for example or guarantee complete vegan due to circumstances where pots were contaminated with animal products. As I mentioned before, since the guests are so well informed and have certain requirements, depending on the restaurant you can’t help but look at the trends. People don’t need to run behind every new trend that comes by. If you have a certain style, stay true to it, but don’t block everything else out. Everything helps.
In 2018 you worked together with a star chef im Sydney: Brent Savage.
Brent Savage was and is a chef that I admire for his creativity and courage. He not only has a complete vegetarian/ Vegan restaurant utilizing only local ingredients, he has a star doing it. He was one of the first I wrote on instagram if I could work for him. The Yellow was not my first job in a Star restaurant though. I worked in (I believe around 2014 or so) Dinner by Heston in The Mandarin Oriental in London.
Which differences do you see between the star-kitchen and professional kitchen?
The main differences to the upscale kitchen are two: The level of precision and the guests, and both are connected. An example is from Dinner by Heston, there is a recipe just for the vegetable stock, down to the 2.7 grams of salt. Everything is calculated. You also have certain guests who come once a month and order a specific starter and they pay a lot of money for a specific taste, so it better not be different or they will flip out. In the upscale and one-star kitchen you have more flexibility and freedom, but as soon as more stars are added the guests become increasingly demanding and there are certain things you can’t take off the menu.
The way of the star kitchen has also changed: In such that there really is no room for failure. Every move that is made needs absolute concentration and that’s also reflected in the workers. The kitchen brigades in the star cuisine are usually much bigger, but here too wee see exceptions that go in both directions.
Hamburg, London, Sydney: Where is the best place to cook?
London is where my heart is. In no other city can you find genius and madness so close together on one plate, and in no other city is such high creativity possible where the guests are just left breathless. In London I always feel at home, it’s unfortunate the rent is so impossibly high that you always need to live with roommates.
So, a highlight in the career with drawbacks.
The best work I had in my life was in Sydney. There everything runs just more relaxed because the labor laws are incredibly strict. Eyebrows are raised if someone starts logging in 50 hours and the boss starts apologizing if two weeks before christmas it gets to 55 hours. The work-life balance is the main priority and the minimum wage is so high that someone with a normal 38 hour-a -week job makes as much as some lawyers here. On top of that there are no taxes on culinary products which makes calculations a dream. Australia’s cuisine influenced by a large variety of asian cuisines, which I like very much. The quality of life is unbelievably high and the level of fun and enjoyment is at it’s top even in the star kitchens. There I was able to put everything I knew and all my skills onto the plate.
Abroad you were able to especially hone your technical aspects.
The most important point for me: In both countries (as well as everywhere else in Germany) what counts is what you can do. I am, thank God, bilingual and can speak English as fluently as German. As far as cooking goes my English is much better than German because I was heavily influenced during my experience by English. As a result, I don’t have any communication problems. I put my resume out there, or someone organizes through twitter or instagram a trial work day and then you get a job, or not. Something that is for the most part unimaginable in Germany. And there you rarely have certifications, you have references: If a former chef vouches for you, that means you can contact them and they will tell you everything about a person. You don’t list references where you might have done poorly and sometimes the order of operation in general is not so clear. What counts is what you can do and not what is written on a piece of paper. Working abroad you are just much more free, in your head and in the day-to-day life. I have only experienced that once here in Germany, in a place I will not name, but I know that the chef is reading this now, and I know he will understand the compliment.
Where would you like to cook the most?
I have a very strong emotional connection to Australia and Southeast Asia. There is just so much there for me still to discover. The salaries are much higher and the free spirits as well. People are so much more flexible and everything is not so rigid or carved in stone… and that suits me very well.
Thank you so much for this lovely interview Bea, and we wish you much success on your journey!