The Worldly Power of Food: Elise Carey Spotlight

Having lived all over the world in countries like Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Hungary and Peru as well as visited over 51 countries, it’s safe to say Elise Carey has tasted her fair share of fare. Now living in Riga, the capital of Latvia, she has settled into the culture well, absorbing as much as she can when it comes to local cuisines. The friendly nature of her work with the local farmer’s market has brought newfound friends into her home for meal after meal, allowing her to perfect her craft all the while creating bonds. Because, according to Carey, that’s what the kitchen is all about. It’s about the relationship with the food and the foods relationship with where it came from and your relationship with the people eating the food. She believes food goes beyond nourishment and even beyond taste, resembling more of a worldwide conversation starter, a necessary way to experience culture and a common ground establisher. And it’s with those thoughts and feelings that she started her courses with Escoffier’s program, wanting to learn more about the basics so she could start really exploring and perfecting her own culinary craft. Now with an externship at a Riga restaurant that focuses on using the freshest local ingredients, some catering gigs and many fans, Carey is focusing as much as she can on food, hoping to someday, maybe, make a career out of it.

Escoffier was lucky to catch Carey for a bit to talk about her travels, how food means home in so many ways and her thoughts on a career change that was sparked by her love of the culinary arts.

Escoffier: First and foremost, what brought you to Latvia?

Carey: This is my eighth year living in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Prior to that I lived in Australia, and have lived in quite a few places around the world, including Russia, (Siberia Russia), Kyrgyzstan, Hungary, Bosnia, Peru, and have traveled to over 51 countries. I work with an international youth organization focused on developing and discipling young people in leadership and training them to make the changes they would like to see in the world. It is also focused on areas of justice and community development. The organization is called Youth With A Mission – an interdenominational, international Christian organization. I was invited to come to Latvia to direct the work here in Riga.

Escoffier: What has being in Europe and experiencing cuisine there taught you so far?

Carey: 1) The best ingredients are simple, fresh ingredients – real food. What you do with them is the key. 2) Food is meant to be a part of an experience, an event, relationship. It’s meant to take time, meant to be savoured, to be tasted. When preparing at home, even the preparation can be as such. People sitting in the kitchen–together. It is a part of living life together, it involves social interaction. It is the glue that holds the culture together. 3) There IS time to cook meals–from scratch–with real food, it’s just a matter of priority. With a little planning, and strategy, there’s always time.

Escoffier: Tell me a little about the restaurant, Terra, that you’re doing your externship at. What drew you to that one?

Carey: Terra Restaurant is based on highlighting seasonal and locally grown food, often sourced directly from Latvian farmers. It serves soups, salads, and has fresh ingredients from which the customer can choose and create their own dish. The breads are baked fresh and made from scratch on location. Other aspects of the restaurant are Terra catering, the TerraMobile (food truck), and they are just beginning to serve breakfast. Here is their Facebook page.

In order to get the most out of doing the Escoffier Online course, I hoped to find a chef that would be willing to let me help, learn under them, and be willing to allow me limited time there, as I do have primary responsibilities with my job. It needed to be a place where I could truly learn and be a help, not in the way and pushed aside. I enquired with one chef who was seemingly very willing to have me help, but never found the ‘right’ time for me to come and help. The chef that is working with me now, I met through a mutual friend. I frequent a local farmer’s market in Riga and over the years have developed friendships with some of the farmers there. I’ve gone to their farms to help, and they’ve come to my place for a meal. One such couple that raise goats and make goat cheese particularly likes my cooking. They invited me to a cheese making demonstration they were doing at Terra, and it was there that I was introduced to the chef. He had heard of me and my cooking. I felt confident to ask him if there was the possibility for me to help and to learn. The rest is history. Here is the Facebook page for the farmer’s market.

Escoffier: What has the process of finding restaurants to work with abroad been like?

Carey: It has been challenging. There were a few chefs that I considered approaching about working with them. I spent time at their restaurants, and spent time talking with them at the market. It gave me an opportunity to see whether or not they and their restaurant might be a good fit for me. There were two other chefs, with whom I have a good rapport, that I just felt wouldn’t be a good fit for me. So, I passed on asking them. Looking back, I believe it was the right thing to do. Some type of rapport or connection was needed before asking – at least in Latvia. In Europe, many things are built on relationship first. I took time to be interested in them and their work. Another key was to approach them when they were not at the height of a busy time, but when things were much more calm. Timing was essential. Find a place you like, with food you like to eat.

Escoffier: How do you feel your certificate at Escoffier has put you at an advantage?

Carey: Firstly, I’ve found that every chef knows the name Escoffier. When that is associated with the culinary academy, there has been a positive response. The fact that it is online has many chefs intrigued, and to be honest, sometimes uncertain about it. However, when Escoffier Culinary Academy is mentioned, they want to know more and have a very positive demeanor. From my side, it has provided me with a good foundation, and building blocks on which I can apply principles learned to other dishes and create my own. It has given me a level of knowledge and understanding that has helped me formulate further questions, thus learning more. Although I may enter an externship or opportunity to cook with others as a learner, I still have a confidence that has been gained through doing the Escoffier course. This confidence is exhibited through input I’ve given and willingness to give things I’ve never done a go. This has developed through interaction with and feedback from my chef mentor, through the process and completion of assignments, and through taking what I’ve learned and applying it to cooking for friends. As per their suggestion, I’ve occasionally opened a ‘pop up’ restaurant in my apartment and been asked to cater an event for a friend.

Escoffier: Of what you’ve learned so far, what experiences and/or pieces of knowledge are you most excited to bring home?

Carey: Having lived out of the States for the last 21 years, home is an interesting term. Each place I go it is usually related to my work, which gives me an opportunity to connect and work with locals. Throughout the years, and the places traveled, my love for food has and continues to grow. It’s always a goal of mine to take some time in a to learn how to cook some of the dishes from a local. I love to cook and have people around for a meal, and create such dishes learnt along the way. It is to those friends, family, and sometimes even to those passing through, that I bring the experiences and knowledge ‘home’. These experiences, coupled with the knowledge and experience gained through the Escoffier Culinary Academy, has taught me how to extract the deepest flavours to make delicious and beautiful food, and given me a foundation and framework for working in a restaurant.

Escoffier: What words of advice do you have for current Escoffier students who may want to explore the same route?

Carey: 1) Go in as a learner, be willing to be teachable. Each chef has their way of doing things, be willing to learn and show / demonstrate what you can do from what you’ve learned in this course, instead of telling all that you’ve learned and know. 2) Be willing to start at the bottom, be willing to do anything. They don’t know you, let them see that you are capable. If you’ve got the goods, they’ll see it. 3) Go above and beyond to help in another area if you’ve finished your task. Learn from what people are doing in other areas of the kitchen. 4) If your shift is over and they’ve begun doing something new, ask if you can stay and observe or even help in some way. The more you can observe and then do, the better. 5) If there is something specific you’re interested in learning how to do, then ask. (I am interested in the bread making, so I observed, then asked to learn. They were very willing to teach me and let me do that.) 6) Go into the experience with goals and specific things you’d like to learn. Add to that list as you are exposed more to the kitchen and workings of the restaurant. You may find many of them are reached simply by working in a restaurant. However, don’t hesitate to talk with the chef, inviting him / her into the process of helping you reach them. Again, timing is key when asking a busy chef for more of their time. If they see you are teachable, learning, applying what you’re learning, and willing to serve, they will be willing to help you improve.

Escoffier: You’re going to graduate soon. What’s next for your adventure?

Carey: At this point, I will be staying in Latvia for a time after I graduate, and continue to learn as much as is possible whilst at Terra. However, I am in the midst of many changes in my life and possible direction changes, and am still in the midst of figuring that out. However, all that I’ve gained in the culinary arts will be a part of whatever lies ahead, and is part of why there are direction changes in my life.

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