In the spring alumni magazine, three culinary alumni talk about building careers in a creative, demanding field while finding time for friends and family.
What does Gary Parmelee like to cook?
“Anything that I don’t know how to cook,” says Gary, a 2014 culinary arts graduate and the production manager for FLX Hospitality. “I like to fully immerse myself. Right now, I am really, really big into baking bread, so I’ve got every one of my bread-baking books out. I’m learning about sourdough, and I’ve got bagels proofing right now.”
It is a winter afternoon and he has time to experiment. Gary is a culinary arts professional on vacation, which runs counter to the industry stereotype of never-ending hours, hot kitchens and irritable chefs. The Finger Lakes food and beverage landscape is in flux, expanding to serve the demand for local, artisanal foods and contracting with pandemic restrictions and labor shortages. Amid it all, three culinary alumni have achieved greater work-life balance, and they hope it becomes a long-term trend.
These days, Gary works mostly 9 to 5, coordinating prep for the FLX Hospitality family of businesses. This includes the farm-to-table restaurant FLX Table and FLX Fry Bird, serving specialty fried chicken. Another alumna, Sabrina Miller ’15, owns Sabrina’s Bake Shoppe, a short walk from her three children’s school in Penn Yan.
Kurt Hass ’19 of Cohocton, says his job as resident director for AVI Food Systems, the dining vendor for Genesee Community College, leaves time for family. Drawn to culinary arts for its creativity and community, all three put in the hours and endured COVID disruptions to arrive at a place where they can combine their passion and personal lives.
Gary grew up in Geneva around food. His mother worked in food service and his grandma whipped up everything from pasta to tenderloin to homemade chicken soup. After high school, he went to SUNY Alfred for architecture but found it tedious.
Then, he started cooking for his lacrosse team.
“I thought, ‘I really enjoy this and all these people are pitching in money and want me to cook a meal, and they’re really thrilled about it and want me to do it often.’”
Gary switched gears and transferred to FLCC.
Kurt discovered his penchant for cooking later in life. After serving with the Marines, he worked in CNC (computer numerical control) machining for the aerospace industry and took an interest in barbecuing.
“I had a smoker in the backyard, and some friends and I started doing some barbecuing, and I found out that I have somewhat of a knack for doing this,” he says. He entered Kansas City Barbecuing Society (KCBS) competitions and started winning.
“My wife, Sharon, is basically the one who pushed me to go to culinary school at 41 years old. She’s the one that saw the passion, saw the desire, saw the drive and encouraged me to pursue it.”
Sabrina had been making elaborate pastries for family and friends for years. Her shop’s Facebook account features photos of sugar-cookie cutouts shaped like Keuka Lake and a Harry Potter-inspired birthday cake (Slytherin house).
By 2013, she was 28 and a divorced mom with twin boys and a baby girl. Sabrina felt she needed to do something for herself and discovered the culinary arts program, which had opened two years earlier. “When I saw culinary, I thought it was the best of both worlds. I could go ahead and prove to myself that I could manage college while doing something I love.”
Going to school
Still, college could not be all passion without practicality. Gary was working full-time, and Kurt and Sabrina had children.
“I was able to take full-time classes and still be able to navigate my kids’ school schedule,” Sabrina says. “Having the night classes helped. You can jam a lot of credit hours into a little bit of time.”
One of Sabrina’s twins was diagnosed with cancer at age 5. He was 18 months into his treatment when she enrolled.
“I was working part-time four days a week, and then had the cakes, and I cleaned houses on the side while dealing with CJ’s treatment,” she explains. “There would be weeks when he was immunocompromised, and he needed me at home. Chef (Associate Professor Jamie Rotter) would let me make up assignments as much as possible and do things online.”
CJ, now 15 and in remission, joins brother Logan and sister Bella, 11, at the bakery after school.
Gary, too, says night classes were integral to his success because they allowed him to hold down a job. The program also requires 600 internship hours, and Gary’s assignment at the New York Wine and Culinary Center led directly to full-time work.
“I was there on Saturday nights and working the line and putting out banquets … the requirement to do an internship and fully dive into a Saturday night in a restaurant is probably why I am where I am today,” he says.
The culinary center hired Gary even before graduation, and he spent six years as a chef there before moving on to be the chef at FLX Table in 2018.
“What I loved most about being a chef is the ability to engage with the guests. Ninety-eight percent of the time you are chatting with guests that are having a really nice time, and they want to know more about you,” he says. “It opens the conversation up to you learning about them.”
Looking back, Gary also appreciates the ServSafe food safety certification he earned as part of the program. “An unbelievable amount of knowledge comes from being able to take ServSafe,” he adds.
Kurt interned at Bully Hill Winery and the Waterfront Restaurant in Hammondsport. “The internship was critical. It gives culinary students a taste of the real world. In a restaurant you’ve got a customer waiting on you versus a lab where you have the rest of your teammates helping you,” he notes.
“The other big part was the business classes, how to basically run a successful business out of culinary versus just how to cook. Jamie and Patrick (Rae) have put just as much information into that two-year program as they possibly can.”
Thriving, then surviving
By the close of the 2010s, the Finger Lakes food and beverage business was humming. Craft brewing was well-established and distilleries were opening. Real Eats, maker of vacuum packed, prepared meals, opened in 2017 in the Geneva Enterprise Development Center.
In 2018, Wine Spectator magazine recommended FLX Table, where Gary was preparing meals, as a stop between tastings in the Finger Lakes, and Wine Enthusiast podcaster Jameson Fink praised the growing family of FLX businesses.
Sabrina opened her bakery in April 2019 following a serendipitous visit to her chiropractor, who had just bought the Arcade building with a vacant storefront in Penn Yan.
After graduation in 2019, Kurt helped friends open Station 26 bar and restaurant in Cohocton then jumped at the chance to serve as executive chef for AVI at the FLCC main campus.
Then came March 2020 and everything changed.
Gary was furloughed during FLX Table’s temporary closure. FLCC shut down its cafe, prompting AVI to move Kurt to Alfred University. Sabrina scrambled to adjust by setting up times when people could window shop for baked goods and pay using a touchless card reader.
After getting through 2021 in what she called “survival mode,” Sabrina is considering expanding her menu, perhaps adding breakfast sandwiches.
Kurt feels fortunate to be part of a company that kept him working. From Alfred, he spent a few months at Keuka College before landing at GCC. He still sees restaurants struggling with COVID protocols and labor shortages. Workers with more choices are opting for jobs with better hours or benefits.
“I think if restaurants want to continue to succeed they’re going to have to change the way that they do business,” he says. “The 70-hour work weeks are going to end up being a thing of the past.”
“A lot of people are starting to set boundaries and ask for a little more work-life balance,” Gary adds. “People are begging for a normal life with something they love.”
Jamie agrees balance is possible, but both employees and employers will have to work at it.
“Balancing a career in any facet of the culinary arts industry takes dedication and discipline. If you don’t gain that balance, the work can burn you out. Many employers are more cognizant of this potential for employee burnout as well as its toll on the bottom line,” he says.
“It’s tougher for chefs; they can’t just walk away and take the time when things get rough. Employers are starting to figure this out, and slowly but surely many are beginning to adjust the way that they do business.”
Underneath the current turmoil, the food and beverage industry holds promise for people to make a living and have a life. Jamie, the culinary arts program coordinator, stressed the range of opportunities with high school counselors at an event at New York Kitchen in December 2021.
“When you think of culinary arts, the first career that comes to mind is restaurant chef. It’s a good career choice … but that is really just the beginning. Our message to students is that culinary offers a wide range of careers and lifestyles. You can be a chef without having to work every Saturday night,” he told the room.
“Culinary is a great gig, and you have to really love it to do it, but there are outlets to express your creative ability through food,” Gary agrees. “You can work in a commissary space, you can sell food to kitchens. Or you can do food production for a place like Real Eats.”
That said, he adds, the culinary field is demanding and the hours can be long.
“Everyone can tell you, ‘Oh you don’t want to be a chef. You’re not going to be here for Christmas,’” he begins. “I proved them wrong. I went in and I did it and, granted, they were right and I was right.
“There are definitely things I missed out on, but I am able to enjoy those things now because I put the work in, formulated my own opinion and decided this is what I want to do. You do have to pay your dues, but the more you learn, the easier you make your life.”
Sabrina strives to find a balance between building her business and remembering the reason she got into it.
“Don’t be scared of long hours. They will pay off. If it’s something that you enjoy doing, it doesn’t become a job,” she says. “Make sure you leave time to be your own creative self. Filling orders for other people all the time pays the bills, but it doesn’t necessarily help with the creative part of it.”
Kurt, who has a managerial role in food service, still fires up a grill or smoker any chance he gets.
“My favorite days are the days I get to put on the white chef’s coat and actually cook again. Every chance I get, when the weather is nice, I like to barbecue at home or at a friend’s house. That’s definitely where my love comes from.”
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