What I Do: Aaron Cummings, chef de cuisine of The Caramel Room

As chef de cuisine at The Caramel Room, the downtown event space owned by catering company 23 City Blocks, Aaron Cummings oversees every aspect of the kitchen, from hiring and training personnel to creating unique dishes and ensuring service during events runs on time. Here, the kitchen maestro discusses some of his unique managerial techniques and how they’ve helped him cultivate a healthier work environment; how sobriety has benefited his career; and how his life-long obsession with organization has set him up for success.

“I’ve been in restaurants basically my entire life. I love restaurants. I love hospitality. I love serving people. I love when people smile. … I went from being a server and a host to bartending and bartended for many years. I think that’s where I got this habit of talking to people and working really fast and multitasking.”

“I’ve always wanted to cook professionally. [But] what I knew about the restaurant scene, particularly watching television – you’ve got the Gordon Ramsays and these chefs that are just kind of mean, you know? There’s this idea that professional kitchens are very masculine-driven and mean and uncomfortable. And I am an openly gay man. I was like, there’s no way I’m going to survive in that kind of atmosphere. So it always – it terrified me, you know?”

“Our biggest thing is: How do we bring restaurant quality to a catering company or large venues? You go to a lot of weddings and the food’s pretty typical. But we wanted to elevate that and to bring that fine-dining feel. That was the bar that [the owners] set – whatever we do, make it fine dining, make it the best we can.”

“The main difference between restaurants and event [spaces] is in the service. Restaurants are calling orders to a line of chefs who bring their dishes up to the pass, in sync with the other chefs on that line. With events, most things are highly organized down to the number of dishes [and] to the minute they are expected to leave the kitchen. During service, my job is to make sure that timeline is fervidly upheld and ensure the restaurant-quality dishes we create hold their integrity. The large amount of dishes at one time, on time, is the thrilling challenge that makes our brand of catering so exciting and rewarding.”

“I’ve been sober for about six years. It’s not something that I necessarily bring up, but it’s definitely something I’m always open to talk about because in our industry, drinking, partying, they kind of go hand in hand. But they don’t have to.”

“Being sober has taken me places I didn’t think I could go. It helped me wake up on time, to be to work a little early, to help set the kitchen up – because the biggest thing in any industry is to be set up for success. There have been many times in my life when I wasn’t set up to succeed; I kind of got thrown to the winds to figure it out. So I make sure that I do my part to set people up to succeed. At the end of the day, that’s what a sober life has allowed me to do.”

“I could go on and on about organization. My first job was as a [supermarket] bagger and cashier. When there were no customers, they would send us to the aisles to front-face everything. I would look down the aisles after I was finished, and I was just so elated and so happy that all the labels were facing out. It just gave me joy.”

“At one point in culinary school, I was chopping garlic, and one of the chef-instructors walked by. He looked at my station and looked at me, and I was all shaking, like, ‘Oh God, what is he going to say?’ And he said, ‘If you keep this organization up, you’ll go far in this business.’ I was like, ‘Yes!’ – it was validation for me. I was like, ‘OK, see, people do appreciate it.’”

“I like to pull my team out of the kitchen every once in a while. We’ll sit around a circular table and we’ll just kind of talk or I’ll read them something I’ve read in a book, and we have an open discussion. It feels like a time for us to get to know one another aside from work habits. It’s almost like going out to happy hour, but you get paid to do it. I’ve been doing that for the past four years, and the chefs really enjoy it.”

“Also, at that little round table, if something’s bothering someone, that’s the perfect time to talk about it in a less aggressive way. I’ve gotten some flack from people because they think it’s ‘too soft.’ But I think that’s what more of these kitchens need, a more gentle approach.”