After the great win on Wednesday night on Food Network’s Chopped TV Show, Chef Shehu became an overnight celebrity chef and as he described as a “social media tidal wave” of several tweets, messages, friend requests, that he received. I was able to catch some of his time after the lunch rush in the 2 West Restaurant of the Ritz Carlton Battery Park, adjacent to the Statue of Liberty. As we began the interview, I had no idea of the passionate journey that Shehu had partaken into getting to where he is now.
The Making of Chef Shehu
What was your first job?
I worked at a local bar & grill in Staten Island, where I started as a dish washer and by the time I left I was working as a line cook before attending Johnson & Wales University.
What is your educational background?
I attended Johnson & Wales University, where I received my A.S. in Culinary Arts. I thought to continue at the university to receive my B.S. in Entrepreneurship, but after 6 months, I decided that I wanted to continue working. After a couple years, I decided to continue my education at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, CA where I learned about food and wine pairing. Two years later, I traveled to England where I studied at Birmingham College of Food and received my NVQ3 in Baking & Pastry Arts. When I returned to the U.S. I took a Photography 101 class at one the CUNY colleges in New York, where I learned the inner-workings of food photography.
As you said on the show, that you’re mother is a Pastry Chef, did you grow up with a strong culinary influence?
My mother is self-taught culinarian and I knew at a young age that I wanted to become a chef, which made her happy. With having children at a young age, she still had to bring good money home, so she worked for the city but at home she catered parties where she allowed me to assist her in prepping food for these events.
Once I graduated from college and began working at The Essex House, she returned to school to receive a degree in baking and pastry arts. Since then, she was hired as a Pastry Chef and have been doing it ever since.
You also shared on the show about traveling to almost every country, tell me about your journey.
I traveled to every continent except for the Artic Circle and South America. I stepped on every continent even if it was just a little while, for example I had lunch in Africa then sailed back over to Spain because they were so close. I traveled to all these countries within four years. Within the first year, I traveled to England where I went to school.
What gave you the courage to embark on this world-wide expedition?
I was my dating my wife, then girlfriend for awhile. We came to a point where things were great, I wanted to move to San Francisco and she was moving to England. We decided that we would move to England together and we’ve been rolling ever since. I promised myself that year, that no matter how much money I saved up that I would pack up and go. So when it was time to go to England, after I payed for my traveling expenses I didn’t have much but I had already had a job set up for myself.
After working in England for a year, I returned to New York to work the busy season during the summer time at my previous job, where I stacked most of my money. I was subjected to working the overnight shift but I didn’t mind, because during the day was when I took my photography classes. I worked so many hours between two jobs, within 5 months I earned about $20,000 by the end of the year.
We spent the money within about 2-3 months, through our expedition up the Peninsula, scuba diving, traveling through the jungle, celebrating the Thai New Year, dining in Thailand, and spent a couple weeks in New Zealand. Just when I got a job there, I just ran out of the money I saved in New York.
In these economic times, most people would find it very risky to just “pick up and go”. If you had to do it over now in these times, would you?
My theory is if you wait for people, you’ll always be waiting on them. It usually never happens and that’s my reason why I travel by myself at times. I always think at least I went and enjoyed myself regardless of who was with me. But to answer your question yes I would do it again. If you don’t take risks, you don’t get big returns!
Do you speak any other languages?
I speak partial French from working in a French restaurant, my wife is actually fluent, and now teaching my 3-year old daughter who has already surpassed me.
Do you have any other side ventures that you are working on?
My wife and I opened a wine shop in Staten Island called Wine Life in August 2010, where she operates and manages. In these economic times, it gets tough but we make it through every day. We just know if it doesn’t work out, at least we tried.
How were you selected to be on the Chopped show?
I was offered the opportunity by the casting director with whom I met a social event to apply for the Chopped Show. I had previously applied and tried out for other shows like Hell’s Kitchen & The Next Food Network Star, so I was familiar with the application and selection process. I came close to the final pick for Hell’s Kitchen but things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to.
Once I was selected to begin the interview process, I was interviewed over phone, had a tv screen test, and later when picked they came past the Marriott Marquis for screen shots for the show. I was actually in transition of jobs between the Marriott Marquis and the Ritz Carlton Battery Park. My first day off from the new job, I went in for the Chopped taping.
What were your thoughts going into the competition?
I went into the competition open-minded and pretty hype after watching a few earlier Chopped episodes. Most people don’t know but I’m very shy and I like observe my environment before I completely open up. I thought to myself that I have one day and three rounds to make it through, but ultimately it was important to me to make my mark!
What round were you most confident in?
I was most confident in Round 2 because I finished with plenty of time, felt great, my food looked amazing and I got everything on my plates. Unlike my two other competitors, their plates were messy and inconsistent.
What did you think about the judges’ critiques on your plates?
I think with the Sage, I may have grabbed too much and I didn’t get to taste it after I added it in. As for the whole cardamom pod found in first round, I believe it was a possible overlook.
If you didn’t win, how would you have walked away?
My philosophy was that it wasn’t about me beating them, but it was about me doing the best job that I could!
Since you have won, what did you do with the $10,000?
The $10,000 prize came at a good time, I rewarded my family with some small gifts but ultimately I invested it back into our business, Wine Life. We haven’t quite made it yet, but we making it strides with the money I’ve won.
What are your goals?
I would love to own my own restaurant empire, but it takes funding. I hope that my work ethic, food expertise, and professionalism comes across to the right people. I’m not one to boast or to be cocky, like I said on the show, my work speaks for itself!
Is there any advice that you would give to young and ambitious professionals, like myself?
I would say definitely work at several different restaurants. If you can afford to work at some of the top notch restaurants and don’t get paid, that’s okay. Also, its okay to work for some no-name restaurants, where you learn some of the finer things. For example, you don’t want to work only at fine dining restaurants and don’t how to make cocktail sauce from scratch.
Don’t get caught up in the politics especially working in hotels & restaurants. Be there, focus on the food and how to make yourself a better chef. Sacrifice is key!
When I lived in Rhode Island, I had to make extreme sacrifices like catching the bus to Boston to work, sleeping the streets between jobs, working odd jobs to make ends meet. I had to swallow my pride, if I took a job it was my responsibility to fulfill the job.
Also when you dine out try different foods, never turn your nose up. You have to train your palate. Know the history of food.
Chopped Fans Wanna Know
How did you stay consistent through the competition?
It’s just a normal thing for me and I actually didn’t realize how bad the other competition was until I saw on tv because I was focused on what I had to do and how much time I had. I’m often referred to as a shark in water because I’m constantly moving. I rode my skateboard to the competition, so I had high energy and was ready to go!
What is your least favorite cuisine?
My least favorite cuisine would be Mexican maybe because I haven’t eaten at an authentic restaurant, I’m usually subjected to crappy fast-food. Although I had some good mexican dishes, I just don’t favor it overall.
Do you have a foodie vice?
I love scallops!
What professional organizations do you belong to?
While attending Johnson & Wales University, I became apart of the greatest fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. Professionally, I was inducted into the Les Amis d’Escoffier Society in 2008.
After a great interview with Chef Shehu, I had a new perspective on life and how to live it differently. I was captured by his journey and became more intrigued and inspired by the minute to learn more about him. I have a new respect for Shehu, not only as a big brother in our fraternity [Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc.] but as a industry professional. He motivated me as well as challenged me to step up and out out my box to try something different.
I completed my time at 2 West Restaurantt with a great lunch. Check out the photos below!
Thanks Chef Shehu M. Fitzgerald!