April 4, 2013 at 12:28 PM ET
It wasn’t long ago that a job at Burger King started Cesar Gutierrez on a path away from a life of crime toward one of culinary success, which eventually would lead him to cook for Daniel Boulud and train at one of the best culinary schools in France.
Now 22, Gutierrez grew up in Queens, N.Y. He left home at the age of 12, after taking seriously his parents’ tough-love threat to throw him out. He fell in with gang life, sold drugs to get by, and wound up in jail twice.
“At 16, when I got arrested, it kind of clicked — ‘I can’t do this no more,’” he told TODAY.com.
He returned home and one day asked his mother to drop him off at the local high school. The former honors student earned his GED in a month.
On his last day of the GED program, Gutierrez was walking to the train station when he saw a Burger King across the street with a huge “now hiring” sign. “I thought, ‘I might as well try to find a job,’” he recalled. Within a month, he was promoted to assistant manager at age 17.
He soon heard about a culinary trade school in Manhattan, which immediately triggered his interest. “When I was around 8 years old, I’d go in and help my mom chop potatoes, plantains,” he recalled. “I always liked to work with my hands. It all kind of made sense.”
At the School of Cooperative Technical Education, Gutierrez made another life-changing connection: his teacher Ed Serna, who gave him a crash course in chef life.
“It was very intense. If you got there late — I never got there late — he wouldn’t let you train,” Gutierrez said. “But it was all for the better. He signed me up for success in (a) real kitchen. It’s not an easy trade.”
Serna told Gutierrez about a culinary school scholarship program through the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, which has awarded more than $33 million dollars to young aspiring chefs since 1990. The hard work paid off: Gutierrez ended up snagging a $17,500 scholarship to attend the prestigious French Culinary Institute in New York City.
While studying there, he aggressively pursued a job at Daniel, chef Daniel Boulud’s legendary French restaurant, which has a rare four-star rating from The New York Times. Gutierrez showed up at the restaurant’s back door every day until the executive chef agreed to hire him.
Soon Gutierrez was putting in 30 hours a week at culinary school and another 70-plus hours at the restaurant. The experience was well worth it.
“Whether a chef or cook wants to work in a three-star kitchen or on a food truck, I strongly, truly believe it’s important in the beginning to work in a top-notch restaurant,” he said. “They break you down and make you forget your old habits and mold you back up to their standards.”
Chef Boulud is “awesome,” Gutierrez said. “That guy is amazing. There is no fooling around in the kitchen, you put (your) head down and cook. He has this presence in the kitchen.”
Boulud himself has kind words to say about Gutierrez. “I think everyone in the brigade of Daniel benefited from his skill, discipline and ability to be a team player,” Boulud told TODAY.com. “At his level, it’s not necessarily about knowledge as much as having a positive attitude towards becoming a great chef.”
Today, Gutierrez works as sous-chef (second in command) at Lexington Brass, an upscale bistro in midtown Manhattan, under chef Chris Leahy, another one of Gutierrez’s important mentors, who he met while working at BLT Prime in New York. “He taught me hold to hold a knife,” Gutierrez recalled.
Gutierrez says he treats his job at Lexington Brass as seriously as if he owned the place: working 12 to 14 hours a day, training chefs, expediting orders and working on new menu items. During Hurricane Sandy, he was the only one on the line when his staff couldn’t make it in, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for 120 customers for three days.
“I’ll do whatever has to be done to keep the restaurant going,” he said.
In May, he’ll head to France for yet another momentous experience. Gutierrez recently learned he won a prestigious internship at the Paul Bocuse Institute, made possible through a scholarship from chef Boulud.
The scholarship started about eight years ago when Boulud’s business partner, Joel Smilow, presented Boulud with a birthday gift of a $100,000 grant. With that, Boulud was able to establish a scholarship so that young cooks like Gutierrez can study at one of the best culinary schools in France, created by Boulud’s own mentor and now good friend, Paul Bocuse.
“I cherish being able to give the opportunity to a young chef who may not be able to otherwise have an international experience at that point in his career,” Boulud said. “I think someone as young and talented as Cesar will benefit greatly from this French culinary and cultural exchange.”
Gutierrez is quick to credit his string of mentors from the past five years for his turnaround and is particularly grateful to C-CAP scholarship program, saying that without it, he would have been “six feet under or in jail.”
“I was lost,” he said. “If it wasn’t for cooking, I would still be lost.”
C-CAP awards dozens of scholarships every year to young cooks across the country. If you know an aspiring chef, check out the complete list of available scholarships.