Chef thrives on desire to perfect skills

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Check out this story I wrote for the Wisconsin State Journal about how to become a chef! 

By Holly Henschen

When Daniel Bonanno was a teenager, he used to whip up pasta from scratch and garden-fresh marinara sauce for his hungry — and very impressed — friends.

“I don’t think their mothers ever believed I made the food — they thought my mom did it,” said Bonanno, executive chef and owner of Madison’s Pig in a Fur Coat, a Mediterranean comfort-food bistro in Madison’s hip Williamson Street neighborhood.

Bonanno was raised in the kitchen by his food-loving Italian immigrant parents who still run their Kenosha deli. Striking out on his own, Bonanno’s hunger for knowledge has propelled his career. Success in the culinary industry hinges on dedication to mastering the trade, he says.

Chefs and skilled culinary workers are in high demand as the restaurant industry evolves. Training opportunities have grown through fast-casual chains and restaurant groups that operate collections of casual and fine-dining establishments.

“The food-service industry is definitely experiencing a labor shortage right now,” says Connie Fedor, executive director at the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Education Foundation. “Our members are actively looking to fill chef and kitchen staff positions in particular.”

The National Restaurant Association projects that 1.7 million restaurant jobs will be added in the next 10 years as openings for cooks and chefs grow by 15 percent nationwide.

But working as a chef is nothing like the dramatic lifestyle portrayed by reality TV. The work is difficult. The hours are mostly nights, weekends and holidays. The pay is nothing to write home about. But the job can be as rewarding as the work invested in it.

After high school, Bonanno enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis for a year. The traditional French curriculum raises as many questions as it answered.

“Like, does it have to be this way? Is this the best way to do it? Some of the best chefs question everything,” Bonanno says.

After finishing school and interning at Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva for a year, he worked for eight months at the Italian restaurant Mangia in Kenosha. After that, Bonanno, relocated to Italy for more education at the age of 20.

During a year of formal studies, he also performed free prep work at restaurants in Florence in order to learn from the masters. In this way, he acquired skills like butchering and making gelato.

“Whatever experience I could get, I just tried to indulge in it,” Bonanno says.

But one needn’t travel so far for culinary schooling. Trade schools like Madison Area Technical College (MATC) offer associate’s degree programs with classes in food preparation and restaurant management.

In the food courses, students learn to prepare all varieties of foods, from salads to charcuterie. They’re trained on kitchen equipment and sanitary practices. After an internship a year into the program, students are schooled on the hospitality and business end of restaurants — leadership, cost control and writing a menu to attract local target demographics.

“If you’re going to be a chef and have a restaurant, your ability to handle finances is a big deal,” says Paul Short, program chair of MATC’s Culinary Arts Program.

Short sees a booming job market for his students in the “farm-to-table mecca” of Madison’s food scene.

“With all of that comes a high need for cooks and chefs and managers to take on those responsibilities,” Short says. Institutional food settings like UW-Madison, Epic and hospitals also employ culinary students.

That food mecca attracted Bonanno. He returned to the United States, starting as a line cook at Spiaggia’s in Chicago before working his way up to sous chef. Next, at age 26, he built Pig in a Fur Coat with a friend he met in Italy.

Bonanno’s work is his life. He arrives at Pig in a Fur Coat late in the morning and begins prepping food. Along with the sous chef, he prepares the bases of recipes and butchering. Later, after he checks work emails, the cooks arrive. Then the food conversation begins with Bonanno acting as a mentor, a crucial role in a repetitive environment.

“One important thing that people have to learn about working in restaurants: you do the same thing over and over again every day. Just because you’ve done it maybe 10, 20, 100 times doesn’t make you an expert,” Bonanno says.

That passion to grow sustains many food workers as knowledge and experience pad their salaries.

Entry-level wages for line cooks in Wisconsin, typically part-time employees due to restaurant hours, are around $10 to $12 an hour or an estimated $17,000 to $18,000 annually, according to Jeff Sachse, an economist at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

Pay varies by establishment. Sous chefs can also work part-time hours, earning between $15 and $18 hourly or $25,000 to $27,000 annually on average in Wisconsin, Sachse says.

Chefs and head cooks earn a median annual salary of around $36,000 in Wisconsin. Skill level, experience and place of employment affect pay.

Larger scale institutional operations offer similar wages, more stability, longer-term employment and well-defined training, Sachse says. Incomes for chefs like Bonanno, who start and run their own restaurants, are less uniform and difficult to track.

The best chefs thrive on their desire to learn and putting in the work to become experts, Bonanno says.

“No matter what your age, expect to work at the bottom first. It takes a long time. Cooking is ultimately a trade job. It’s experience that you need.”