The summer she was 13, the head chef of Jean-Georges Philadelphia at the Four Seasons fell in love with food. The rest is culinary history.
by Michele Gargiulo, food and wine editor
The sun peeks out from behind the clouds and the air smells like wet earth and growing vegetables. Heat presses gently against your back as you carefully stuff your basket. You are 13 years old, trying to avoid the onslaught of slugs as you pick lettuce for a salad and dream of becoming a chef.
Cornelia Sühr, the chef de cuisine at Jean-Georges Philadelphia at the Four Seasons Hotel, was just a child when she fell in love with cooking. Her very first summer job was working as a stagé at Rauchhaus Möllin, a restaurant in the tiny town of Gadebusch in her native Germany. Sühr’s two-week stint in a farm-to-table, casual restaurant changed her life.
Stagés are common in Europe. They are unpaid internships designed to see if people are good at different jobs. In Sühr’s school, being a stagé was a requirement. For Sühr, the restaurant industry was a perfect fit. Although just a young girl, the energy and heat of that kitchen environment was contagious.
What did 13-year old Sühr do as a stagé? “I peeled potatoes, picked herbs and lettuces, washed them, and was the unofficial dishwasher,” she said. Although a lot less dramatic than the TV shows we have been binge watching lately (has anyone else started watching “The Bear”?), Sühr’s stagé experience did ignite her culinary passion.
It also ignited her competitive spirit. Rauchhaus Möllin’s chef was a master of his craft and competed frequently in cooking competitions. Sühr was determined to be like him, saying she left that two-week stagé and just knew that “one day I wanted to be a chef.”
When she made her way to the famed competitions of her culinary school, Sühr was excited and inspired. A theory exam was issued before she could qualify for the contest itself, and Sühr aced it. She loved the theory aspect of cooking almost as much as actually cooking. But the cooking mattered. When the competition took place, Sühr took last place.
“I was devastated,” Sühr recalls, “I still remember the feeling of my heart sinking into my chest.” Her classmates insisted that, while she had the ability to learn through books and studying, Sühr would never be good at cooking. Sühr said she took two weeks or so to feel sorry for herself before hitting the books again. A year later, she took first place in the competition. Winning and passing her culinary classes with distinction, Sühr went on to work in some of the best kitchens around the world.
As for Rauchhaus Möllin, Sühr loved it there so much that she went back to that restaurant for a three-year stint after she graduated culinary school. After that, she worked at SHUN and The Carlyle in New York; St. Regis in Dubai; and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester in London. Today, Sühr is at the top of her game, 1,121 feet in the air at Jean-Georges Philadelphia atop Four Seasons Hotel at Comcast Center.
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