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LTP Goes Top Chef – Culinary School Style

David Boylan

Chef Michael Zonfrilli and student at The Art Institute of California San Diego.
Chef Michael Zonfrilli and student

When my friend Chef Michael Zonfrilli, an instructor at the International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California San Diego called and asked if I would like to help him taste his student’s final exam dishes and offer my opinions, I screamed like a schoolgirl at a Jonas Brothers concert. Well, ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but the thought of going all Gordon Ramsey on some poor student did cross my mind and I was looking forward to this assignment.

The culinary program was founded eight years ago by Academic Director Mark Sullivan and members of the faculty and staff set out to create the most respected culinary school in southern California. According to some respected local restaurant insiders, they have succeeded in accomplishing that goal. I was very impressed with the state-of-the-art facility.

In preparation for my experience as culinary school judge, I decided to morph my judge character into a cross between the aloofness of a Eric Ripert and the no BS of Anthony Bourdain. This of course, was all in my head. I was there to taste the food and offer my opinions. These kids were nervous enough awaiting the “Wrath of Zon” or Chef Zonfrilli, as he circled them while they put the final touches on their Latin influenced cuisine. He had given the students a required ingredient list and they took it from there, serving dishes as simple as fish tacos to a spectacular mole poblano. To be honest, it was like any other academic environment where there were students who obviously had a natural talent or flair for cooking and those that were just getting by. They can’t all be culinary stars who go on to TV shows or local stardom. The culinary world needs all types and the good thing about institutions like this is that they all get a good solid foundation to build on.

I thought given the huge mainstream popularity of all things culinary over the past few years, it would make a lot of sense to give our readers an idea of what to expect if they decide to embark upon a culinary career. Here are some highlights of my interview with Chef Zonfrilli.

What would your advice be for anyone who is thinking about a career in the culinary arts?

Get some experience before committing to a career in food. It doesn’t have to be in fine dining. It doesn’t matter if you bus tables, wash dishes, cook breakfast at a neighborhood greasy spoon, as long as you get a taste of what it is like to be in that type of environment. You work weekends, holidays, and the pay is not great when you start out. I think you really need to love it to justify working that hard. Thankfully, it can also be a very creative and satisfying way to make a living.

Tell me about the culinary degree programs offered, are there several to choose from?

We offer associate’s degrees in culinary arts and management or baking and pastry. These programs are two years and consist of culinary labs and lectures as well as general education courses. Many students choose to get their bachelor’s degree in food and beverage management, which takes about three years. A diploma program is also in the works for the San Diego campus. Having an advanced degree is becoming increasingly necessary in upper levels of our industry.

Given the popularity of the Food Network and the celebrity status that many chefs have attained over the past few years, have you seen any of that have an effect on incoming students and what are your methods of grounding them in the reality of the business?

The school just completed construction on a brand new kitchen to accommodate the numbers of students coming in, thanks in part to food media and celebrity chefs. Even though we appreciate the success of the program, our instructors are quick to dispel the myths of quick fame, stressing that years of hard work and dedication lie ahead. You are not necessarily a chef when you get out of culinary school, but just better prepared to get there. It is obvious that the role and perception of chef has really changed in the last decade. My grandmother worked in restaurants for forty years and cried when I told her I was going to culinary school after getting a degree in English. She couldn’t understand why it was becoming the desirable career choice that it is today.

Having spent some time with you and your students during their final exams where I sampled dishes that ranged from inspired to pedestrian at best, do you feel that, like good athletes, certain people are more naturally gifted with the talent and creativity to succeed as chefs?

Nature vs nurture. Art vs craft. Some people are gifted cooks and some are not. Even with this gift, it takes great time and effort to refine your techniques and learn about our vast food world. We teach the skills, discipline and professionalism needed to be successful, regardless of natural talent. Not everyone has to be the best chef in the finest restaurant.

You have been on both sides now, working as a chef in some of San Diego’s finest restaurants and now as a chef instructor. What elements of being in the restaurant do you miss and others maybe not so much?

Leaving restaurants was a bit like leaving a cult. The lifestyle really gets in your blood. I still feel funny sitting on my back porch relaxing on a Friday night. Oddly, I miss the daily challenges of the industry, as painful as they could be at times. I also really miss creating and sending out plates that I am proud of and seeing the satisfaction on faces as they take the first bite. On the other hand, I love teaching and my schedule allows me much more time with my family, although I do still cook in private homes and with a few different caterers on the weekends.

Having been a frequent guest on my Lick the Plate adventures, what restaurants have really stuck out in your mind and why?

I get excited about trying foods that are not in my usual repertoire. The adventurous Peruvian food at Qero or the udon noodles and undulating octopus balls at Yo-Me-Ya still linger in my memory. I feel like the food scene in San Diego is really improving.

For more information on the International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California visit them at

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