A Real Tastemaker
How Chef Derin Moore is setting the standard for young chefs across the state
written by JENNIFER COLOSIMO | photos courtesy of REYNOLDS LAKE OCONEE; DAWN MARTIN
WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT your favorite part of high school extracurriculars, chances are they don’t include perfecting knife skills … or preparing a food service timeline. Neither option sounds as fun as spending a day at the pool, going to the movies or playing a team sport, unless you were part of the select few who made the ProStart team at South Forsyth High School (SFHS). Then, it sounds delicious. Those kids, and 140,000 others in all 50 states, would absolutely look back on sharpening metal with a proud, nostalgic grin.
A two-year accredited high school course through the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, ProStart invites students with an interest in the culinary industry to try out for a team that provides real-life experience and tests their abilities on a competitive level. The students work after school, honing the skills required in a professional kitchen. They also plan and practice serving a three-course meal in less than an hour, with only a couple of butane burners to get them through it. The students have the school year to prep, so for a group of juniors and seniors from Cumming to place third and second, in 2014 and 2015 respectively, amidst teams from around the country, is something particularly … palatable.
SOAKING UP FLAVOR
The secret recipe to SFHS team’s success is, in large part, due to its past mentor Master Chef Derin Moore, one of only 65 certified master chefs in the country who spent eight years traveling with the U.S. Culinary Team. Shortly after his daughters started high school, Moore walked into an open house at SFHS. He had relocated his family from Florida, where he was the esteemed executive chef for The Ritz Carlton’s flagship resort as well as Turnberry Isle Hotel and Resort Miami. When he approached the ProStart table, the program’s teacher, dietician Dawn Martin, remembered being overwhelmed by his offer to help.
“You cannot imagine how excited I was for someone of that caliber to volunteer his time and talents,” she said. “We did not have a mentor at the time and I was wondering if we would be able to compete.”
They did more than that. Moore, who had a 9-to-5 job for the first time in years, was excited to be involved and worked for months, sometimes four nights a week and Saturdays, with the students. They built their own refrigerators, practiced those knife skills and learned how to move as a team in the kitchen.
“Teachers have always been taught not to allow students to call the chef. We were to gather questions and then send them to him at one time,” Martin said. “The first thing Chef did was give the students his number. He said, ‘Text me questions, your grocery list, your pictures of when you practice individually.’ This helped the students develop a unique relationship with him. He could encourage from afar with pictures, funny comments and bring them in line before practice ever started.”
“These kids were sponges,” Moore said. “The stuff they were able to accomplish, they had no idea how extraordinary it was, because they didn’t know any better. But, when they saw other teams putting their food up, the light bulb went on.”
It shone brightly, too. Both teams during Moore’s tenure as mentor won their state competitions and competed nationally. Several students he mentored decided to pursue careers in the culinary industry — one winning a four-year scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu, five others attending The Culinary Institute of America in New York and one entering Johnson and Wales in August of this year.
The 2015 all-girl team’s efforts earned each student $85,000 in scholarships and a knife kit.
Moore wrapped up his “regular” work schedule last summer and got back in the kitchen at Reynold’s Plantation on Lake Oconee as their new executive chef. Although he wasn’t able to continue his work as the ProStart team’s mentor, he stays in touch with his former students. In fact, one of his former winning students, Jisun Ham, just finished her first year at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and is in the middle of an externship under Chef Moore’s wing.
“When I first tried out for the ProStart team, I doubted myself,” said Ham, who started cooking because it brought her family together after a long day apart at work and school. “I always thought I was just someone who loved cooking and did it as a hobby, while others seemed more serious and committed to it. But after receiving an offer, I made sure to prove myself wrong.”
Ham now works fast, confidently and efficiently; she’s learned everything from how to sanitize her kitchen to rolling sausages and concocting roulades, recognizing flavor profiles and experimenting with different food combinations. She credits Moore for teaching her that there is no “right” way to cook — that it’s not something you read out of a book, but rather practice and advance through trying new things, through touching the food and discovering what you can make with it.
“The interesting part is that you get so much more out of [young chefs] when you have a clean slate to work with,” Moore said about working with Ham again. “When you hire experienced cooks that come with other backgrounds, you have a lot of fixing to do. They gain a lot of bad habits and shortcuts in the industry. These kids had the willingness to learn, dedication to bettering themselves and the ability to absorb new techniques so easily. I’m a firm believer that in this business you either have it or you don’t. This group had it. I will always remember that experience.”
“When Jisun came [to Reynold’s], I made a point of grabbing her and sitting down for about two hours,” he said. “The schools have them reach for the stars, but those big restaurants that are heavily marketed don’t prepare them for the industry. The reality is they’re going to peel potatoes for five months. They’re not marketable [once they move on]. Here, she’ll learn the proper way … the foundations for making good food.”
Ham also said Moore didn’t only teach her how to cook, “He molded us to become better future chefs. He taught me to trust myself.”
A MASTER PLAN
That’s exactly why a lot of new chefs choose to work for Moore, who credits his own love for cooking to his grandfather. From weekends in Orchard Park, Mich. helping him tend a garden of fruits and veggies to all-day Sunday dinners, canning jams and jellies, baking muffins and bread from scratch, he was the food guy in Moore’s family.
In fact, it was his grandfather who took him on his first visit to The CIA when he was young. Less than a year after high school, he moved to New York to start his training. He spent the next decade in fine dining restaurants learning the fundamentals of cooking, how business works and how to make money without sacrificing quality. He traveled with the U.S. Culinary Olympic team around the world, learning foreign cuisine as well as discovering regional specialties. “My positioning through my career was never financially driven,” Moore admitted. “Being a certified master chef, there were opportunities to jump just for the money, but I did it to become well rounded.”
That included visits to Germany, Scotland and Switzerland, recruiting for The Ritz Carlton in South Africa, opening one in Shanghai and teaching more than 40 international students annually in Naples, Fla.
“You need those roots to grow [as a chef]. No one can see them. They’re not glamorous. But you’ll know how to do things the right way,” Moore added.
“Chef Moore has modeled the value of a community leader and the importance of giving back,” Martin said. “All of my students leave with more confidence and excellent experience; they’ve learned perseverance and tenacity, professionalism and [how to connect] with professionals in the industry. There is a reason for the ‘master’ in front of the chef. He has taken his knowledge and has chosen to share it with the next generation in a very meaningful way.”
“Look, I was executive chef of a restaurant in Detroit in my twenties,” said Moore, who was recognized for his work at the city’s landmark Golden Mushroom Restaurant in 1999 by the James Beard Foundation as an Outstanding Chef in American Cuisine.” I had friends that were there then, and they’re still there now.
They’re doing the exact same food they were doing 25 years ago. That’s why chefs come to work for me. “They’re not going to grow stagnant here. By the time my kitchen gets comfortable with the menu, it’s time to change it,” he said.
Change indeed. The National Tavern, Reynold’s Plantation’s newest clubhouse restaurant, switched things up on the menu to reflect seasonal ingredients just four months after opening, while 60 percent remained the same due to popularity — a balance Moore believes is crucial to running a successful country club venue — especially this one, with more than a dozen restaurants. And that diversity he’s learned? It helps him serve award-winning specials for fine-dining patrons as well as what kids are craving by the pool.