August 5, 2011
Scott Fenner: A chef in the making, not making enough to get by

180465_182274191809945_100000820977891_356173_1051708_n.jpgWhen you dream of becoming a chef and change your life to chase down that dream, it's supposed to go something like this:

You kiss your lousy job and your miserable boss goodbye, you immerse yourself in culinary school, and you show all your instructors that you have a knack for cooking that just might revolutionize the restaurant world. You do an internship at a top-flight restaurant, where the staff compares your palate to Mozart's ear. You graduate, and you sift through all the offers, settling for the one that brings in the most money at a joint with the most Michelin stars. The TV gig, the three-book deal and the Lamborghini are just around the corner.

The reality, of course, is something else, and Scott Fenner -- talented and determined as he is -- recently got a heaping dose when he gave notice at Ella Dining Room & Bar. He went back to his former world of working construction.

It wasn't because he couldn't cook.

He just couldn't make ends meet.

Fenner, 40, has been married for 20 years and is the father of two boys, ages 13 and 10.

He and his wife married young. Fenner did all the cooking and loved it.

"I grew up cooking and really didn't know I had a passion for it," he said recently. "I was always making cookies and decorating cakes, and I made my own breakfast. But I grew up in the roofing trade. I was laying shingles when I was 10 years old. My father was a roofing contractor and I was making $25 an hour right of high school."

Making that kind of money at such an early age - and in field that doesn't really inspire you - can be a mixed blessing. You're making enough to live decently. But you're also making too much to turn your back on that line of work.

In 1997, Fenner hurt his back while roofing and stayed home while he recovered. He flipped on the TV to pass the time and slowly began to see what he was missing.

"I was always watching the Food Network and was picking up techniques. My wife would see me in the chair watching the Food Network when she left for work and when she got home I was still in the chair writing down recipes."

In 2005, Fenner got his contractor's license. Things were going fine until the housing market began to tumble in 2007. Business tanked. Fenner lost everything, including his house to foreclosure. The only jobs he could find were paying close to minimum wage.

"I worked so hard to make good money. I just couldn't see making $10 an hour after all this," he said.

That's when he thought of becoming a chef. He enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu after lining up financial aid. His credit was shot. He needed help. Tuition was $12,000 for a nine-month course, and Fenner wasn't obligated to start making payments until six or eight months after he graduated.

"My wife was always like, 'Go for it. I know you can cook.' But construction started to pick up and she said you'd better get out there and start making some money," Fenner said.

The would-be chef lined up construction jobs at night and on weekends when he was going to school. Some days, he barely slept.

He did an externship at The Kitchen, the widely hailed $125-a-person restaurant. When he finished school, restaurants weren't hiring new cooks, he said, so he approached Michael Tuohy, at the time the executive chef at Grange (and now with Dean & DeLuca).

"I told him, 'I'm going to come in and work for you for nothing and I'm going to put you on my resume,'" Fenner recalled. "He said sure, but he eventually put me on the payroll."

Fenner was making about $12 an hour.

"I thought it was great. Other people getting out of culinary school are barley getting minimum wage," he said.

But Fenner left Grange because of daycare issues - "Leaving one of the best restaurants in town was tough" - and in the summer of 2010 returned to construction, where he knew he could quickly make $1,000 weekly.

Then he got on Facebook and started networking. He reached out to chefs and foodies and began to get noticed. He posted photos of his food, including an assortment of pies he liked to bake. One rising chef, Pajo Bruich, spotted Fenner's food on Facebook and asked him about it. That led to intermittent job's with Bruich's boutique catering company (with plenty of fanfare, Bruich went on to become executive chef at the revamped LouneON20).

"Pajo said, 'I can't pay you much.' I said, 'That's fine. I see what you're doing and I really want to help you grow.' He's so passionate about food. We really hit it off. For him to be self-taught, I was so amazed. I couldn't believe it. It was just wonderful to work with him. His creativity just blows me away. The way he thinks is so out of the box."

Fenner had already staged (translation: worked for free) a couple of times at Ella, and when he noticed there were openings in the kitchen, he contacted executive chef Kelly McCown. The chef hired him. Fenner was making $13 an hour.

Fenner pie.png"Michael Tuohy and Pajo are more laid back. Kelly is right there with you talking to you. He's the louder type. He's real vibrant. I think his skills are awesome. He's very out-of-the-box, too."

Three months went by. Fenner was learning plenty and having the time of his life. But he wasn't making a lot of money.

He asked McCown if he could go down to three days a week so he could supplement his income with construction jobs. Fenner also started selling his 4 1/2 -pound handcrafted pies for $18 through Facebook.

He'd love to open a pie shop someday if he could line up the financing. He'd love to work in a restaurant that entertains folks like they do at The Kitchen. He'd love to be a chef - a full-time, bona fide working chef. But the money just isn't there right now.

For those who love the restaurant business, it's tough to leave. Your co-workers become like family. You learn all about their lives - their dreams, their problems, their humor, their moods. You feel a camaraderie in being part of a restaurant, this dynamic, enthralling, exhausting, imperfect nightly show.

A month ago, Fenner worked his final shift at Ella. He was going back to construction full-time. He needed to make money and he knew this was his best hope, at least for now.

On that final night, his co-workers said goodbye in all kinds of ways - the best of which was a cream pie right in the face. He has a picture of that moment on his Facebook page, his face covered in cream, his smile as big as can be.

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