Chef Dirk Flanigan, who helms the kitchen at Henri and The Gage, is a chef mentor this year — one of the most important roles within Cooking up Change. After serving as a judge last year, this year he’s mentoring students at Tilden Career Community Academy. His story starts with a surfboard…
Tell us about your culinary background. How did you become interested in food? What inspired you? Where do you work now?
I have been in a kitchen since 1984-85. My longing to buy a surfboard led me to the kitchen at 13 as a dishwasher. One thing lead to another and shortly thereafter, I was cooking. My junior year of high school, I worked the late shift at the Ritz Carlton from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., then would go to school at Naples High. The next two years, I worked at the Ritz during normal business hours alongside my father Patrick Flanigan. In 1988, I moved to Chicago and worked with Jeff Jackson and Carrie Nahabedian. As a young adult, these two really helped me with classic techniques and flavor companions. I was inspired by the pace, the aromas, and oddly enough, the brigade.
What made you decide to get involved with Cooking up Change?
I have been a guest judge. I looked at the students and realized that they are the future of our industry. There are many bad influences and misrepresentations about what is expected from you in a kitchen. While there is drama, we really try to limit it. I thought if I could reach just a few young cooks and mentor them along, that would be gratifying.
What three things can each of us do to make a difference for healthy school food?
Number one: Make yourself eat healthier. Some of the things are simple. Eat a piece of fruit instead of French fries. Number two: educate yourself on foods you eat. Number three: Share your knowledge.
What are your best and worst food memories from your school days?
Best: Cuban sandwich day was a great day.
Worst: The hamburger line.
What messages do you hope the students you’re working with will remember as they prepare for the contest?
Pay attention and cook like you love it. No matter what kind of day you are having.
Thanks to Chef Flanigan for taking the time to share his journey to the Cooking up Change kitchen!