Food lies at the heart of our bodies and our culture; it is there for celebrations and sustenance. NOMaste features a local fierce foodie each month, in four weekly segments. First, an interview, then a top 10 list, followed by a recipe to share, and finally a food review. This food corner will not just feature local chefs but also restaurateurs, buyers, suppliers — any woman involved in any aspect of the food chain, from farm to food truck. Join us each week as we get to know another Foodie in the city.
Most chefs arrive at their profession from a fairly traditional path of loving to cook, wanting to be a chef, and working in food service in some capacity as they work their way up to the position. Some take the more ivory tower approach and enroll in culinary school and graduate, and then start off on their path towards the white hat. Then there is Max.
The fact that Max was not always thinking about becoming a chef is staggering when you look at her working the kitchen. She is a consummate professional in her chef’s coat and checks, eyes focused with laser-like intensity at the task at hand — portioning pork, reading tickets, or assigning tasks in a buzzing, sizzling kitchen. Her actions seem second nature, which isn’t to imply they are not thought out, exact, or precise; quite the opposite. With each plating, prepping, and bit of management — she clearly has it down pat. She is able to slice and measure meat while simultaneously responding to questions and already thinking about the next task. She is commanding without being stern, a familiar balancing act for women.
No one could have predicted that the child being groomed to be an engineer her whole life would end up being a chef. “From the time I was in 5th grade, the plan was to be engineer. I went to High Tech High, a math/science/technology-focused high school, then went to Rutgers and studied industrial engineering,” Max said. The thought of being a chef never even occurred to her, until fate placed a TIME magazine in her hands with an article on food science. Food, or food science more specifically, had never been on her radar. Why would it? She was destined to be an industrial engineer — and engineers do not become chefs. And at that point, Max wasn’t even thinking chef, she was just thinking food science –– because that’s how an engineer would think. But the best stories start from strange beginnings.
In speaking with her, that something else was in her heart of hearts than her presupposed destiny became clear. She found herself in her junior year, failing something she was brought up to do. Small hints were there but were either overlooked or tossed aside as an impossibility. Growing up, she remembers some early cooking memories. “I remember going to mommy & me cooking class in kindergarten where we made English muffin pizzas.” She would help her mother in the kitchen and eventually found herself taking on more responsibilities for the family meals.
“Life always seems to demand more and more from us, taking up more and more time,” so when her mother started to work longer hours, Max would take on meal planning and preparing dinner. “My mom had bought me the Betty Crocker red cookbook that tells you how to cook everything. It’s all basic, homestyle recipes. I found a recipe for a soba noodle stir fry with mushrooms and teriyaki sauce. It was so easy and simple, but my mom could not stop raving about it. She would always say that everything tastes better when someone else prepares it for you.” Truer words have never been spoken.
After realizing engineering may have been her past but not her future, Max enrolled in a culinology associate’s degree program. “At this point, my plan was to do two years at the local community college, then reapply to the Rutgers School of Food Science so that I could ultimately work in a food lab.” But oh, how things can change!
“I was taking a mixture of science courses and introductory culinary courses. When I started the next year of school, I started taking more advanced culinary classes, and this was when I really started to fall in love with the field. I was spending all of my time around food, between school, work, and going out to restaurants with my classmates. When that school year ended, I decided to get a full-time job at a restaurant as part of my continued culinary education.”
You can take the girl out of engineering school, but you can’t take the engineering school out of the girl. Max had a PLAN. After finishing up school, she also moved, got married to her high school sweetheart, and got a full-time job. The job was supposed to be a one-year stepping stone before going back to Rutgers, to end in that food lab. But things seldom work out according to plan, and that sweet ‘temporary’ job at a swanky country club turned out to be anything but. “During that year, something switched on for me. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that being a chef could be the real job. So I had a talk with my chef, and as luck would have it, shortly after, a position opened up and I was promoted. So, that’s how I became a chef.”
While luck was certainly on Max’s side in terms of finding her bliss in one of those magical movie moments, and happening upon some incredibly wonderful mentors on the way, Max has certainly earned her title. She is humble and upfront about starting from the basics. “While I was in culinary school, I worked as a pastry assistant under a woman who owned a restaurant. On my first day, she told me to bring a notebook and write everything down. Basically, I didn’t know anything about anything; I was embarrassingly green. But she was patient with me, and I owe a lot of my working style to the things I learned from her.”
I owe a lot of my working style to the things I learned from her.
While Max may have come to the realization a little later than some chefs, she made up for it with her sponge-like ability to soak up all the knowledge from the generous chefs who held her hand along the journey. After the restaurateur taught her everything she knew, she then worked under an executive sous chef at a country club, which, among other things, would host large banquets and high end weddings, serving several hundred people during a single engagement. It was here that Max owes a lot of her knowledge and style; not just from a chef’s standpoint, but from a managerial point, as well.
So, to recap: Max had started out a green line cook; then, after just a few years, became the sous chef at a high-end, high-volume establishment. But all good things must come to an end; after four years, Max had to leave the place where she had come into her own. She had plans to shuffle off to Buffalo with her husband, who found work at the university. She had left such an impact, and proved herself so much in her short time, that after giving her notice that she was moving with her husband, she was offered the executive chef position. Sadly, she had plans in motion already and had to pass — but that moment will always be near and dear to her. It meant that she had truly become a Chef.
In relocating to Buffalo and taking a requisite month to settle in, find a home, and get her bearings, Max was ready to work. She started looking for a job and was frustrated that after only a week (gasp!), she was having trouble finding that perfect fit. Thankfully for her, her luck hadn’t run out. With both she and her husband being beer enthusiasts, and her a chef, they had already explored some of the local bars and restaurants and quickly settled on a favorite: The Blue Monk. In the back of her mind, she secretly thought about how great it would be to work there — and just like that, an opening appeared for a position in that very same establishment.
Max put her resume in right away, met with the chef, and they clicked. In July of 2014, Max became a line cook at her favorite Buffalo restaurant, less than two weeks after looking for a job. A few shorts months later, right around Labor Day, she became the sous chef, and by summer of 2015, she was the head chef. She had certainly found her place in her new city, and proved herself just as she did before — starting once more from the line and working her way up. She was in charge of the kitchen and created daily specials, and was allowed to be as creative as she wanted.
“Whatever food I make, I want it to be the best […] we can make,” she said. And that is exactly what she did while she was there. Whether it was a salad or a prime beef burger or a creative seafood special, it was done with pride and care. A burger may seem like just a burger, but a burger made expertly and with love can transform that most basic of dinner staples into something wonderful.
By Thanksgiving, life had some changes in store. Max started a family, and the now very pregnant head chef of Blue Monk needed to give her feet some rest and prepare to embark on her next big job — motherhood. So with Buffalo winter getting underway, she said goodbye to Blue Monk — not realizing it would be forever.
Fast forward and her son is now about a year old, and Max is ready to get back at it. Through her network from her Blue Monk days, she learned that a new restaurant by the Shatzel Group — the Terrace — was being opened in the upper level of the Marcy Casino, situated next to Hoyt Lake in Delaware Park. She put in her resume and met with the owner and chef, and they instantly clicked. To top it off, the schedule she was hoping to work perfectly fit into what they had offered — at this point luck had long been replaced by laurels.
You can find Max in her element in the kitchen at the Terrace, working like the well-oiled machine she is — fluidly, efficiently, and expertly. She has truly found herself in the Buffalo restaurant scene, and we can count ourselves lucky to have her here!