Pete Tobin’s culinary career took off like a rocket, only to crash on a 9,000-foot peak in New Mexico.
“I’d just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, feeling like a hotshot, when I took a job at a fancy lodge outside Taos,” recalled Tobin. “I wanted to work with a European chef, so I went from making $7.50 an hour in high school to making $4.50 an hour as a Culinary Institute graduate.
“My second day on the job, the chef said I didn’t belong with knives in the kitchen and made me wash dishes.
“There I was, 2,000 miles from home, wondering what in God’s name I’d done to my life.”
A week later, Tobin got his knives back, along with an important lesson.
“The chef wanted to show me that just because I went to a great school didn’t mean I knew anything,” Tobin said. “He was telling me to always pay attention.”
Since 1988, Tobin has been offering up his own lessons as an instructor at Spokane Community College’s Inland Northwest Culinary Academy.
Earlier this year, the American Culinary Federation gave him its Cutting Edge Award in recognition of his leadership and service to the profession.
During a recent interview, Tobin discussed how the profession has evolved during the past four decades, and revealed one of Spokane’s secret dining pleasures.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Tobin: In Salem, Mass.
S-R: When did you start working in a kitchen?
Tobin: I started washing dishes when I was 14.
S-R: Were you thinking then about a culinary career?
Tobin: No, I just wanted money for dates.
S-R: What changed your attitude?
Tobin: My first boss – Joan Boudeux, the owner/chef at the Lyceum restaurant in Salem – took me under her wing. I remember making crepes in home ec class, and all the girls were like, “Oh, my God, he can cook!” That was really fun.
S-R: What else did she teach you?
Tobin: If one hand is cooking, the other is cleaning. An organized kitchen always makes the job easier.
S-R: Then what?
Tobin: Joan asked if I’d considered going to culinary school, and I said, “They have schools for this?” After I graduated from high school, she paid for my parents and me to visit the Culinary Institute of America in New York. As soon as I saw the cooks in whites, I knew where I belonged.
S-R: What do you consider some of your career highlights?
Tobin: I had a local cooking show in the ’90s that was fun. And for 13 years, I was camp chef at the Seattle Seahawks’ training camp, preparing meals for 250 – coaches, staff and media, as well as the players.
S-R: What’s it like feeding football players?
Tobin: When I started, they were mostly kids who didn’t know the difference between salmon and chicken, so we taught them a lot as we fed them. Now, nutrition is a big part of football. Players learn from coaches and nutritionists, and the chef’s job is to make sure the food that players are served reflects what they’re learning.
S-R: What drew you to teaching?
Tobin: I was working as a sous chef at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, part of the opening team. The chef came in one day with an application for a teaching job at Spokane Community College, threw it on his desk and said, “Look how little they pay teachers.” It sat there for two days, and I’d glance at it when I walked by. My next day off, I came over here and walked through the department, and the feeling I had when I first went to the Culinary Institute came over me again – I felt I belonged. I figured I’d be here five years – that they’d kick me out because I’m a restaurant guy and I don’t pull punches. But here I am, 25 years later.
S-R: How much overlap is there between working in a restaurant and this job?
Tobin: When you’re a chef, you’re teaching people every day. Whether you’re in a kitchen or a classroom, the aim is to help individuals meet their own goals.
S-R: Who attends SCC’s culinary academy?
Tobin: Everyone from recent high-school graduates to 65-year-olds looking for one more blast of something different. Some have experience, and others have no idea what they’re getting into. This program is about a lot more than learning how to cook. It’s really the whole restaurant business – the service end, maintaining equipment and thinking like a manager.
S-R: What do graduates leave here with?
Tobin: The tools to do anything they want. It’s like if you go to Harvard to become a lawyer, that doesn’t mean you’re a good lawyer when you finish. It just means you have the tools to become a good lawyer.
S-R: What are some lessons you want graduates to take with them?
Tobin: No one gets anywhere without hard work. And I encourage them to go somewhere – travel. Use this industry to experience other cultures, other foods.
S-R: How much do cooks earn in Spokane?
Tobin: Beginning cooks typically earn $10 to $15 an hour. Chefs in town make anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 a year. It used to be a young person’s career, but salaries are getting better.
S-R: What are INCA graduates’ job prospects?
Tobin: Very good. No matter what happens with the economy, people still eat. And more people are eating away from home than ever before in our country’s history.
S-R: How has the restaurant culture changed since you were a teenager?
Tobin: It’s come almost full circle. When I started washing dishes 39 years ago, we made everything from scratch. Then I watched as the fast-food formula took over the industry in the ’80s and ’90s. Now there’s a resurgence of people wanting to know where their food comes from and how it’s prepared.
S-R: What qualities make a good chef?
Tobin: You have to like people, work well with others. And you have to use both sides of your brain – be creative, and also make money at it.
S-R: Tell me about Orlando’s (the academy’s restaurant in SCC Building 1, Room 148).
Tobin: It’s a lunch situation, so you sort of have to play our game. We’re only open Wednesday through Friday from 11:30 to 1. A lot of people come here and think they’ve discovered a great secret, so they don’t tell others about it because they want to get a seat next time. We also offer night functions occasionally to teach students everything from classic French cuisine to American bistro-style cooking.
S-R: How about INCA After Dark?
Tobin: Those are single classes open to the public. (Cost: $50.) They can focus on anything from how to cut up a chicken to tapas to Asian cuisine. And unlike the regular program classes, there’s no stress. Participants can enjoy a glass of wine, and eat what they make or take it home.
S-R: In general, what advice would you offer someone who wants to become a better cook?
Tobin: Cook. And don’t forget that cooking well takes time. In today’s society, we’re always rushing around. Stopping to cook something is not only satisfying to the stomach – it’s also a great stress reliever.
S-R: What’s your favorite dish?
Tobin: If you sit me down in front of a bowl of spaghetti, it’s dang fun for me. But even as I say spaghetti, I’m thinking of a braised pork belly. I love to eat.
S-R: What’s your favorite comfort food?
Tobin: Ice cream. Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream.
S-R: How do you stay thin?
Tobin: I do a lot of activities – I ski, I hike. And I play hockey, so I have to stay active or they’ll call me the fat guy on the team.