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Chef Corey Siegel Interview

Chef Corey Siegel might be known for his mic-dropping award chops (you know, the whole two-time Culinary World Cup Gold Medals and three-time Culinary Olympic Gold Medals), but he’s also proof there are still new heights to reach in life after you’re named one of the best chefs in the world at the Bocuse d’Or.

By the age of 22, Corey amassed over 15 medals and had become the youngest ACF Culinary Team USA member in history. Fast forward 10 years and now he’s based in Charlotte, NC and still doggedly dedicated to mastering his craft, still driven to push his talents and create.

We caught up with Corey for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s world to talk about inspiration, challenges, competing on a global scale, and a lot more. Read the full interview and get to know him below:

When did you first find a love of cooking?

“My mother was a CIA grad and instilled a desire to be in the F&B world at a young age. I mean, my bar mitzvah was chef themed (laughs). When I was a kid, my family ate out a lot. Carrabba’s was our spot - I would order mussels there and it was the first time I tried calamari.

I knew I wanted to get into cooking, and the spark went off when I was in high school. I was a very bad student, and I had the option to take a vocation program. I took Culinary Arts and had Chef Scott Steiner as a mentor; he took me under his wing, and it was the first time I was getting positive reinforcement from a teacher. He gave me the idea to participate in cooking competitions and things took off from there.”

Talk to me about some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career.

“The biggest challenge is the emotional abuse that comes along with being in the restaurant industry. During my apprenticeship program, I learned ten years worth of experience in two years, and the kitchen culture was to push you, like ‘you suck, you're never gonna make it.’

And that’s how I was taught to lead - I was a complete asshole. I just didn’t have the emotional intelligence. There was a moment when I was training for the Culinary Olympics and a super close friend of mine that was helping me prepare, came up to me very upset,, it had been an intense day, and she basically said ‘time is the only gift you can’t give back and you’re fucking wasting mine.’ After that I spent a lot of time reading and working on my emotional intelligence. I’m still trying to take a negatively influenced environment and flip that on its head, being a mentor and a true leader.”

People around you, music, books, travel - where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?

“My philosophy has dramatically changed over the years, and now it’s a lot about seasonality. From my competing days - so many things are built for the architecture of the dish but it still has to be delicious, if you’re missing amazing flavor you’re missing everything. But now I’m finding and working with the best local producers and trying to honor these amazing products and not fuck it (the ingredient) up.

Also, I compare my cooking style in a way to what John Mayer does with a guitar.. His style has always influenced my stuff. There is so much in writing music that relates to cooking.You have to have fun when you're cooking - if you're not enjoying it, the flavors and ideas are not going to translate.”

How do you approach plating a dish?

“I follow a lot of modern artists and museums. I like Basquiat; one of the biggest rules in painting is creating a balance and playing with negative space. You have to have a balance of colors, weight, flavors, textures - plating is organic chaos.”

Talk to me about competing on a world level at the Bocuse d’Or?

“So the Bocuse d’Or competition is named after Chef Paul Bocuse and takes place in Lyon, France. It’s held in an arena that holds over 4,000 people, and there’s loud music blaring and announcers in three different languages most of the time. You have 12 teams competing each day, and the stadium is divided up into 12 kitchens.

So while you're trying to cook, you have loud music, you have an announcer making updates in French, and then each participating country has their own chant. Like ‘USA! USA!’, of course my sister was blaring Born in the USA through a megaphone. Then you have cameras in your face and judges (some of the best chefs in the world) in your face asking questions. There are so many things happening at once.

For us it was all about the prep. We made an exact replica of the kitchen we’d be working in and every move was choreographed. We had speakers installed to practice in the loud environment that played videos of the previous years competition, and when we got there, even though so many things went wrong, we were able to deal with the adversity because of our intensive preparation beforehand.

You have to do the prep; you have to be so ready that when there is adversity, you are able to pivot quickly and execute, you cant let the stress consume you. You’re prepping to keep as calm as possible. There’s not too many things you can throw at me in a kitchen now that would freeze me up. The biggest stress is you might not finish on time - that goes through your mind the entire time until your food goes through that judges window.

The coolest feeling during that entire experience was them announcing the USA. At the time, Chef Thomas Keller was the coach and he wanted me to carry out the American flag. So I’m swinging the U.S. flag, and I’m thinking like ‘am I swinging it the right way?’ (laughs). It was the most surreal opportunity to represent our country on an international level.

Side note: Corey’s also in a movie, The Contender, about his time at the Bocuse d’Or - you can watch the trailer here.