Casey Thompson, Chef at the Top
Casey Thompson is one of the most dynamic women I've ever met. She is a force. As I learned, that is what it takes to make it in the world of food. Like many industries, cooking and restaurants have long been boys clubs. Casey has endured insults and injuries (actual injuries, more on that later!) She has made a name for herself by her inspired talent and her don't f*ck with me strength, all with a Southern girl's smile. It's such a powerful alchemy. I got to spend a few days with her at the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe where she is Executive Chef, and watching her in her element was totally awe inspiring. People say stuff like that a lot but I am not exaggerating. Awe. Inspiring. There are about 5000 things going on in the kitchen of a fine restaurant alone, then add to it a resort where people are holding huge events, and then have a photoshoot on top of it. Casey seems like she can handle ANYTHING. I don't know if she went home to cry in the bath like I would have, but I don't think so. She's got magic inside and I think she's right where she wants to be.
Casey grew up in Texas. She went to college for a Marketing degree and ended up in sales. After a quick year she knew her life was not on the right path. Both of Casey's grandmas were excellent cooks and she always loved cooking with them. Something about that felt right, so she told her mother she wanted to go to culinary school. Since her mom had just finished paying for college she told her daughter this sounded super impulsive. Her advice to Casey was - go work in a kitchen for a few weeks and see if you even like it. But Casey, being 23 and headstrong (a character trait that has served her well!) did not follow this sound advice. She went straight to the biggest chef she could find and asked to work for him full time.
She started at the bottom, as a prep cook, making broth and prepping vegetables. She was diligent working long hours and doing whatever it took to advance step by step in the kitchen. One thing I didn't know about restaurant hierarchy is that the proteins are the top rung of the ladder. One works their way up from prepping cold food to getting to use heat of any kind to actually cooking protein. It took Casey a couple years to get the point where she cooked one thing in the kitchen.
I asked Casey if there was any point in those years where she wanted to give up. She told me the very moment of truth where she committed to being a chef completely. She was working in a huge kitchen full of dudes all giving her a hard time. She was still in her salad days and the guys would often crowd her out so she had a small table set up near room service. There was a sous chef rather high on the kitchen's ladder who tossed a pot across the table and said, "take that to dishes." Casey was insulted and hurt, taking care of other's dishes was not her job and the kitchen was frantic with everyone scrambling during a busy service. But she swallowed her pride and just grabbed the pot to take care of it. Remember, at this point in her career Casey had never worked with heat. No time spent at the stove. She was not aware that every burner is in use and the handles of the pots are always over open flames themselves. So...that handle was fire hot and she burnt the hell out of her hand the moment she grabbed it. That lovely sweet empathic sous chef simply turned away saying, "always grab a pot with a towel."
Casey said some of the dishwashers took pity on her and showed her the trick of putting mustard on a bad burn to ease the pain. Ice or cold water will just raise the skin. (Good to know!!) She bandaged that hand and went back to work. Next for her that day was prepping carrots with a mandolin. A mandolin is one of my favorite tools (don't get the wrong idea. I am no cook. But I love the mandolin) which is a raised and slanted plane with a blade that you slice vegetables on. Since she just seared the shit out of her dominant right hand, she had to slice with her left hand. This idea is so sketchy it makes my stomach flip. Guess what happens when you are in a rush, julienning 700 carrots with your non-dominant hand? That's correct. Casey sliced the palm of her left hand on that mandolin. Could you just faint? I'm a fainter and I would be on the floor knocked out at this point.
Casey fled to the bathroom and finally broke down in tears. She thought, "what am I doing here? Nobody wants me here. Did I make a huge mistake? Should I even be doing this? Do I belong here?" With a million doubts swirling through her head she said she suddenly got crystal clear. She decided right there she would not give up. She had worked too hard and come too far and wanted it too much. She said she felt deep down that this was going to work. And that was the moment she never looked back from.
The truth was, she was earning respect. She was making her way. She couldn't see it at the time, but looking back she can see clearly that it was all happening. After that day there was not much time wasted in doubt. And in what felt like to time at all, she made it up to Executive Chef. Boom. I feel like I've heard this from many people and it is so important I feel the need to spell it out: at the very moment when things seem at their worst, when you wonder if you are just wrong and should give up, if you actually decide to stick it out, that is when the clouds part and you get momentum and a degree of success. I've heard it too many times to ignore. If you are a fan of cooking shows (like everyone) you probably recognize Casey from the show Top Chef. She was runner up on Top Chef Season 3 and a total fan favorite, which made Bravo bring her back for the All Star season last year.
Even now, Casey says chefs need such thick skin. There is so much going on every night, and so much you could do wrong or right. People are judging it all. They are looking at your food, tasting it, critiquing it. They watch your prep and judge every step of the way from start to finish. She says there is an acceptance to be very critical and hard on eachother, so learning to let all of that roll off is a daily practice. Casey says one of the things she is most grateful for is her is inner belief that she could do anything. Her mother definitely did instill that belief, and nothing was silly or stupid as far as her dreams. Even though mom was practical when Casey announced her career change, she had always encouraged independence and empowerment, so Casey's belief in herself has been strong all along. This is so important!
In looking at Casey's success and trying to distill what has made it possible, besides everything already mentioned, I am so struck by her knowledge of her subject. Like any expert, this woman knows everything about food. Every vegetable, every fruit, every herb, you name it. She knows what they do, how they combine, how they react, how to prepare, how to dismantle any dish and how to put it back together, she knows how anything will behave, how it will smell, she has in-depth knowledge of every tool, every machine, every utensil. It is truly astounding to see someone with such a level of mastery! Some believe that happiness is the joy that we feel when we strive for our potential. By that definition Casey's happiness makes perfect sense.
Thank you so much Casey for being a part of Art Fare! You inspire me and so many others with your talent and strength and amazing attitude.
Follow Casey here on her website, and here for her Instagram feed.