The Valdosta Daily Times
After chef and culinary arts instructor Richard Van Hook learned the recipe for success in the food industry, Wiregrass Georgia Technical College offered him an instructor’s position and a chance to pass on his preparations for successful careers to aspiring chefs.
He’s a celebrity in the classroom, but he says his dreams of being a celebrity in the kitchen were dashed early by the realities of being a chef. After completing his core classes in culinary arts school, a militaristic head chef put Van Hook’s career path into perspective and on track.
“I think a lot of people start out with the aspirations of being a celebrity chef, but I realized I wouldn’t become a celebrity chef as soon as I got to culinary school,” says Van Hook. “When I finally made it into the kitchen for the first time, it was a rude awakening. The chef just tells you as it is. It’s kind of military based in structure and they used cursing and such to scare you. One of the first things the chef said was, we are not celebrity chefs. We are cooks. So I said, I guess that’s out of the door.”
What drew Van Hook to the food industry may have been a combination of food television and a lack of food knowledge at home, he says.
“I’m not knocking my parents at all, but they weren’t the best cooks,” says Van Hook. “We cooked out of a box a lot, Hamburger Helper and stuff like that. So every now and then, I’d try something new and I’d always help out as much as I could.”
A product of the ’80s and the Thomas County school system, Van Hook and his sister enjoyed all of the perks that come with having a pair of school teachers as parents before the Van Hook siblings set out on different paths following high school. Georgia Southern beckoned his sister, and later the University of Central Florida, while Van Hook’s lackluster grade point average led him to drop his business management pursuits at Valdosta State University and rehab his academic career at Georgia Military College.
Van Hook says he was always the one on the grill or stove at high school parties, so he decided to go to culinary arts school after he completed his core classes at GMC. A tour of Johnson and Wales University’s Charleston campus ended Van Hook’s search for a culinary arts school.
“Charleston is basically a collection of islands and there are beaches everywhere,” says Van Hook. “It’s one of the older cities in the nation and it has a lot of history. The food scene in Charleston is huge. There are a lot of fine dining restaurants and that’s kinda of what I wanted to do.”
Van Hook says he doesn’t remember anything from his time in culinary arts schools, but admits to partially joking. He says he still appreciates the school’s diversity and the bonds he made with other great chefs, but cedes that his skills were forged through fire and sweat.
The biggest challenge for Van Hook during culinary arts school was probably work and time away from his family, he says. He had classes that were approximately eight hours long and grouped into nine-day segments, so he says it was hard to coordinate things with work.
“I had no choice but accept to work nights, and just working as a line cook wasn’t cutting it,” says Van Hook. “So I would have to turn around and help bartend at the restaurant’s bar ... In that area, they didn’t have a set time that they had to close. Sometimes, I’d have to help close at 6 a.m. and then go to class. So I guess sleep deprivation was a big challenge as well as rarely seeing my family. I probably only saw them twice a year and it was kind of difficult.”
The Thomas County native landed his first job in a Folly Beach “turn and burn” restaurant, while he was attending culinary arts school. The fry shack converted hot plates into bank notes, cheaply and briskly, he says.
“I went in there starving for a job, because I absolutely had to find a job and I couldn’t find one anywhere,” says Van Hook. “I put Johnson and Wales on my applications and they called me back, with no experience. I think that was really hard to do because of the food scene in the Charleston area. You needed real-world experience.”
Van Hook says he started his new job just like any other food noob, doing sanitation and prep work for the line cooks and chefs. Regardless of where you graduated, you’re still going to have to start at the bottom — that’s just the way the system works, says Van Hook.
He says his big break wasn’t far off.
“One day, we had a really busy night, because of all of the beach-goers,” says Van Hook. “That night, one of our line cooks lost his cool. He blew up on everyone and then walked out of the door. So then the chef said to me, ‘Come up here, it’s time to dance.’ I remember that well.”
Van Hook helped the backed-up fry shack through “the weeds,” he says, and it helped him put the prep chores behind him.
“So they told me from then on, I’d be on the line all of the time,” says Van Hook. They said prep work is done. Dishwashing is done. You’ll still have to do cleanup, but you’re actually cooking now. After that first night, I told myself that this was what I’m going to do. I didn’t plan on frying seafood for the rest of my life, but I was in the moment and I knew it was what I wanted.”
A month later, Van Hook earned the title of lead line cook, he says. He held onto the spot for a year, before an industry scourge forced room free at the top of the chain. He moved up to sous chef.
“In a place like that, being called sous chef isn’t that big of an achievement. But when I looked at the volume and the amount of money we’d push out, it made me feel proud.”
He left the restaurant for a time but eventually returned to it as head chef.
“Pretty much the same day, the chef of Two Friends here, Randy Rayto, called me and asked if I wanted to be a sous chef at this new restaurant he was opening, 306 North,” says Van Hook. “We’d lived together before, so I agreed to do it. It also meant that I’d be moving back closer to home.”
Van Hook worked as sous chef at 306 North for a few years then in the executive chef position until about a year ago. He has two small children and was ready for a schedule change. He took the Wiregrass job.
Life is good, says Van Hook as his job at Wiregrass has afforded him more time with his 5-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter. But he and his wife, an R.N. at SGMC’s labor and delivery unit, have traded their family’s reins, he says.
“She works nights, so we sort of switched roles now,” says Van Hook. “When I was in the industry, I was working nights and she was in nursing school. She only had to tend to only one baby, and I’m giving her a hard time here, but now I have to take care of two kids when she has to work nights. But I’m learning to be a father, now that I’m out of the industry.”
He has a passion for music and sports and he’s taken on some new challenges, but his kids comprise his core.
“I'm getting into coaching sports now, and it’s been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” says Van Hook. “But mainly, I try to spend as much time with the kids as possible. They tell me what to do, so our activities change every minute. My little boy likes to play outside with sports equipment and such, and my little girl adores shoes and necklaces.”
Though he’s teaching instead of doing, he says he follows trends in the food industry as closely as he can. You have to keep a close eye on the industry in order to compete, because food is just like fashion, he says.
“At every restaurant I’ve worked at they’ve all been completely different,” says Van Hook. “So learning how to combine all of those concepts into a fresh idea is what I want to do. My career so far has been both challenges and fun, and I’d like to open a restaurant some day.”
So what has Van Hook retained during his time in the food industry and what does he bring to the classroom table? He loves French cooking, he hates instructions and dislikes shy taste buds.
“I appreciate French cooking a lot,” says Van Hook. “I don’t necessarily like to following instructions, so whatever word could be used to label that style could be used to describe mine. Go against the book instead of by it, I guess.”
Van Hook teaches his students to follow recipes until they’ve mastered the formal instructions, he says. And just as he wants his aspiring chefs to broadens their skill set, he says he encourages them to make room in their hearts and minds for new dishes.
“The main thing I try to get through their noggins is to try food,” says Van Hook. “Try it regardless of what it is, what’s in it or how it’s cooked. Just try it, because you don’t know what it tastes like until you try it. Every semester, I cook a steak rare and there are quite a few students who won’t try it. I know this is how you like it, I say, but not everyone likes it like that. Then I ask them, ‘how will you know how to prepare food for patrons if you haven’t tried it yourself?’”