Photography by Becky Reams
“It’s how they did it in Europe,” Becker said. “They had apprenticeships without formal cooking education.” He auditioned on the spot, improvising out of a kitchen with unfamiliar ingredients: free-range chicken, millet, quinoa and fresh herbs from a hillside garden. Although Becker landed the head chef position, he considers it a “blip” in his robust culinary career. But perhaps it’s that experience that most resembles what he’s trying to do for aspiring chefs nearly 40 years later at The New School of Cooking in Culver City.
When Becker bought The New School of Cooking last year he set out to train chefs who can cook at the drop of a toque, whether in a professional capacity or for recreation.
His goal—to build the best cooking school in America—may seem lofty, but when looking at his vast and varied career, which oscillated between student and teacher, Becker may just have the experience and enough bravado to pull it off.
A self-described autodidact—one who learns on his own—Becker has always “loved to take apart things and put them back together, maybe in a better way than they were before.”
Mentored early on by Executive Chef Brad Odgen at Campton Place Restaurant in San Francisco, he was introduced to cook- ing with America’s bounty, like wild mush- rooms and heirlooms, while working alongside many up-and-coming chef talents such Michael Mina and Charlie “Chuck” Trotter. He then took his knowledge of American regional cuisine to the Westin Hotel, where he was exposed to a grander kitchen operation. “They fabricated everything, even had their own butcher,” he reminisced. “It was a good experience.”
With his wife, Becker followed head chef opportunities to Los Angeles and then to Florida, where one day he was asked to talk with local high school students about cooking—essentially be a home ec. teacher. Although “harder than it looks,” Becker discovered a knack for talking, teaching and cooking at the same time, and turned toward culinary education—in a big way.
Over the next two decades, he founded the California School of the Culinary Arts and Kitchen Academy and was instrumental in bringing Le Cordon Bleu to North America, introducing the classic French methods to culinary education.
Practical experience, philosophical ideals, refined classical French training and a coarse immersive education intersect for Becker at The New School of Cooking, where he offers programs for cooks on all levels, at any point in their career.
The Advanced Professional track, in both pastry and culinary arts, teaches those in the industry classic French cooking and baking through an intensive hands-on program. The Pro Series trains students wanting to cook more like a professional in a program that complements their day job, such as the lawyer contemplating a career change or the passionate cook who wants to up his game. Events, pop-ups, special guest demonstrations and topical presentations fall under the school’s Recreational Series.
Becker said his strategy for The New School of Cooking is to hire good people, set the table to make them a success and then get out of the way.
At the helm for Becker is Carol Cotner Thompson, who brings 24 years in culinary education, and even more years as a professional cook, to the table. She heads the Advanced Professional Culinary Program where, taking advantage of her 28-student class size, she caters to the individual. To turn out legitimate cooking talent, she ensures that each student masters each lesson. “If a student has to prepare an item three times to get it right, I’ll work close by until we’re both satisfied,” she said.
Chef Andrea Shirey, with extensive experience in baking and confections and currently pastry chef at the Penthouse at the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, leads the Advanced Professional Baking & Pastry Program with the same intimate guidance. Because baking requires a more scientific approach, she starts her students off with the strict understanding of baker’s formulas so they think of recipes as components of ingredients. Then her biggest challenge is to get students over the disciplined lessons and trust their own instincts.
The same deft hand applies to professional series at the school. Sometimes they train students who simply want to gain skills, but others are on a vocational journey that takes turns during the program, ending in a much different place than where the student first began—much like Becker’s own journey.
The facilities, equipment and tools are abundant and pristine. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t supply for my teachers,” Becker said. Using the best ingredients from area farmers markets and suppliers, the school also incorporates trends and emerging cuisines from ethnic foods to gluten-free cooking to molecular gastronomy.
Finding the right students for their advanced programs is a challenge they relish. They seek students who want to learn, will listen, have desire to cook and are willing to make mistakes. “It’s like herding cats,” Becker said. Each student comes with unique talents and desires that require the program’s full respect and nurturing, yet it’s about a collective working together in the kitchen.
Becker sees The New School of Cooking as a place for like-minded food enthusiasts. Students keep coming back. “They fall in love with the teachers,” Becker said. An d, like a man who’s found his place in the world, Becker continued, “it just feels good to be here.”
Learn more at newschoolofcooking.com