GRIFFITH — Being a chef means hard work, long hours and continuous training and learning new things. That's just what Justin Cunningham loves about his job as executive chef at New Oberpfalz Brewing.
The Griffith restaurant opened in 2015, but this is the start of Cunningham's second year as chef there.
"After doing a trial run for the position, I was hired right around their anniversary," he said.
"Being a chef means long-term work training, and most importantly the crave for continuous learning," he said. "In the past, the longest shift I’ve worked in the kitchen was almost 17 hours with the average workday being about 10 hours. I don’t mind the long hours or challenges that come my way because this is something that I love."
As chef his duties include prep, cooking items to quality standards, inventory, recipe testing, training staff, inspecting ingredients, and handing any other food issue related to the kitchen. Keeping a kitchen clean is also very important, so cleaning the entire kitchen and storage areas is a daily task for Cunningham.
"I also enjoy chatting with guests when I can because that what makes a great chef, connecting with your customers," Cunningham said. "It’s not every day that you see the chef of a restaurant deliver your food or ask how you enjoyed your meal. It’s the connection with guests that brings another level of experience to dining out. I enjoy the positive feedback and put my heart and soul into serving the best quality food from my kitchen."
How he got the job
Cunningham graduated with a bachelor's degree in hospitality and tourism management from Purdue University Calumet. And he then went on to complete his master's degree in the same field at Rochester Institute of Technology In New York. Why RIT? Because it is host to the National Technical School for the Deaf and Cunningham is deaf.
"I don't think being deaf has made my career any more challenging," Cunningham said. "Every chef faces challenges within their career. In order to overcome any challenges you need to think differently."
Cunningham made the decision to move back to Indiana from New York about October 2015.
"I moved right after I was done with my master studies in December 2015. I had a job interview lined up before my move with Purdue North Central and didn't earn the position of banquet chef. I was jobless for a month until finally landing the chef position at NOZ Brewing, I didn't give up and kept job searching."
"Generally in the kitchen you need good communication skills, but there are so many different ways to communicate. You don't need ears to cook," he said.
Cunningham feels being a great chef comes from the food itself and not the form of communication used. He has a Cochlear implant that helps ease the difficulties that come with one form of communication.
"But in the kitchen we rely on the other four senses the most: touch, smell, sight and taste," he said. "Being that I work in a smaller kitchen it allows me to work in creative ways along side the kitchen assistant. I tend to use what we have on hand and incorporate several items into new dishes while keeping new ingredients to a minimum."
Cunningham is multiversed in communication but can speak to others like any other hearing person, but he can also sign.
Andrew Oltmanns, taproom manager at the restaurant, said Cunningham's duties basically include handling everything on the kitchen side, including prep, menu and cooking.
"Basically the kitchen is his domain," Oltmanns said. "He cooks mainly pizzas, hamburgers, small plate items, wings, meats and cheeses."
Oltmanns said Cunningham has a good work ethic. "He has a master's degree and he knows how to run a kitchen. He is always on top of his game."
Expected job growth
Employment of chefs and head cooks is projected to grow 9 percent to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations. Most job opportunities for chefs and head cooks are expected to be in food services, including restaurants. Job opportunities also will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. Candidates can expect strong competition for jobs at upscale restaurants, hotels, and casinos, where the pay is typically highest.