2017 ALEXANDER PLOTKIN
CHIEF CULINARY OFFICER, TOVALA
Alexander’s resume makes our heads spin, but it’s his passion and drive that are truly awe-inspiring. Many of us have an inkling at a young age of what we want to do as a career, but we don’t always pursue it as relentlessly as Alexander has. His current role at Tovala involves making a new type of oven available to the home cook, an innovation that shouldn’t be underestimated – just like Alexander himself.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
It was growing up constantly eating delicious home-cooked meals by my mother and grandmother. Seven nights a week I would have a home cooked meal, which opened my eyes to the world of good eating. As a very young child I knew that I wanted to be touching food. I started taking cooking classes when I was six years old. I was always going through the cabinets in my house and mixing things together with zero understanding of what I was doing, but I knew I was “cooking.” I was transforming ingredients into something new and that was invigorating. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the food industry right away, which is why I spent many years doing different things. But, I knew food was in my blood.
I also attribute my love of food to the fact that my great grandparents were Kosher butchers in Chicago so I heard stories from my grandmother about growing up in their butcher shop and seeing animals broken down every day. It gave me another frame of reference for the food world – it’s in my family.
In terms of food as a career, I gave up my weekends and started working at a restaurant before I even started high school. It was a fine dining French cuisine restaurant on the North Shore of Chicago called Carlo’s. It was one of the first fine dining French restaurants in Chicago, and it was open for many, many years. I was initially an intern because I had never worked at a restaurant before. Then I was the Chef de Partie and they gave me the responsibility of controlling the amuse-bouche station (that’s the complimentary one-bite appetizer at fancy restaurants, used to get your appetite going). They started to give me the autonomy to come up with my own ideas; I ran it by the chef and if they accepted it, that would be the amuse-bouche of the night. I started there in the eighth grade! I was working with only older guys, all saying to me, “Who are you?!” But that’s really where I began thinking, “I am good at this, there’s something here.” It came naturally.
How did you get your current good food job?
I read about the concept of Tovala online and I decided to put myself out there and contact the founder, David, until he responded. I said, “I need to sit down and talk to you.” He didn’t even post a job opening, I just said, “I want you to meet me and I’d like to meet you and let’s see if there’s something we can be doing together.” At that point I had my own food innovation firm, Epic Eats Innovation, so I wasn’t even sure if I could land contractual work with Tovala, or if it could lead to a full-time opportunity, but the concept sparked a light in me that I couldn’t ignore.
The fact that I would be able to utilize all the tools I had collected in my toolbox throughout my career, including experience in fine dining, food science and creating food for the masses, was intriguing. I was pulling different tools from all those different areas, and now I feel I have the best of all worlds. There is not one day that I’m not utilizing the knowledge I’ve learned in all those different sectors. I’ve been using combi ovens since the day I started cooking, and I think the technology is amazing, so I wanted to help make it approachable to the home user.
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
In terms of flavor and training my palate, I tried to surround myself with the smartest, most talented chefs in the world, even if I was working for free just to get a bed to sleep in. Whether it was working at Alinea or Noma, I was learning and understanding how to put flavors together and what aspects of food are more important than others. My work at my own company gave me my own understanding of what it takes to work at a startup, the grind of building all the way up. I also worked at Kerry Foods, developing food for millions of people, so that gave me a strong understanding of what it takes to scale food. I learned to deal with the supply chain and everything involved with fulfilling millions of orders of food. My work as director of innovation for Cantu Designs and working under Homaro Cantu gave me a very, very strong understanding of research and development – starting with a concept that might seem very foreign to most people and implementing it into the mainstream. He and I were working on projects with SpaceX and NASA. Those tasks are not easy, and that really prepared me for what happens at Tovala.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
My biggest obstacle is dealing with never having gone to culinary school. Not in the sense of not knowing how to cook, but other people looking at me as inherently “under-qualified.” I’ve gone through my career having to prove myself and having to show that hard work, determination and persistence are as important, if not more, than a degree from culinary school. I’ve taken my food science degree and utilized it in conjunction with my experience to create my own culinary school. Traveling the world and learning from the best has made me a much more well-rounded chef.
But, I never considered calling it quits – not once, not even for a second. What I did question was the direction I was moving in within the food industry. I wanted to do something more impactful and wanted to help solve a problem rather than just create an experience. I encountered one of the biggest challenges of my career five years ago when my my father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That completely turned my frame of reference for cuisine upside down. I went from really only caring about working for the finest dining restaurants with the most accolades to wanting to learn to properly nourish oneself. Having to reroute my frame of reference for food as a means to improve one’s health was an obstacle, but seeing with my own two eyes how my food helped me improve my dad’s health was amazing. I saw him come back to life because he was properly nourished. That was the most satisfying thing I could ever experience. Since then, I’ve integrated all that learning and knowledge into what I’m doing now.
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to use appreciate?
“Never be the smartest person in the room.” – Chef Homaro “Omar” Cantu
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
I took this job because I wanted to remain on a small team, but I saw that the final product has the potential for millions of people to touch it. So, I’m genuinely doing what I love, but at the same time I’m solving a problem a huge majority of people in the country have. There are a number of very exciting opportunities. Rather than in a traditional restaurant where you can only have just a set number of people in for that night, people can experience my work through so many avenues. This business can go to hospitals, hotels, nursing homes, direct to consumer and more. There are many ways to affect people’s lives with this product. My goal is to make healthy, delicious, crave-able food available and fresh at the push of a button.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
I want to say truffles.