The Culinary Institute of America

A.J. Schaller, CIA culinary arts alumni, is executive chef at Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group.

Spotlight On: A.J. SchallerAssociate Degree in Culinary Arts

Executive Chef
Class of 2005

Women in Foodservice

From the very beginning of her culinary career, A.J. Schaller ’05 has embraced its pace, challenges, and excitement. She is that rare breed of person who has a questing and creative mind coupled with a highly organized nature. She thrives on doing more than one thing at a time. In fact, it often looks as if she is doing the work of two women—at the very least!

At nine years of age, she and her sisters began cooking family dinners because their mother, a nurse, worked long hours. Immediately bitten by the culinary bug, A.J. was barely 14 when she landed an after-school job at a catering company. She’d hop on her bicycle and get herself there—all to make cheese platters and scrambled eggs. But the chef must have recognized drive and talent, because he encouraged A.J. to think about attending the CIA and formalize her culinary education. Throughout high school, A.J. worked at a bed and breakfast with a banquet facility. She got broad experience there and did everything from cooking breakfast to roasting a steamship round to working behind the front desk checking in guests. She learned a lot, but knew it was time for that formal education.

After high school, A.J. enrolled at the CIA. Her experience was filled with the exceptional relationships she developed with her chef-instructors. She remembers Chef Frederick Brash ’76, who taught Cuisines of the Americas and shared his enthusiasm with his students. He also shared clean-up at the end of the day. A.J. speaks of him as “a great role model.” She remembers Chef Prem Kumar, who was advisor to the Gourmet Society when A.J. was president. He took the group to Delaware to participate in the Meals on Wheels Delaware competition—which they won. She recalls how his stories highlighted multiculturalism, the importance of being meticulous in your work and your person, and the necessity of being able to explain why you are doing what you are doing in the kitchen. And finally, she remembers Chef Lou Jones, who, during her year as an MIT in Escoffier after graduation, held her to a very high standard and also grabbed every spare moment to teach her classics, like fluting mushrooms. Every one of these experiences helped set A.J. on a path of personal excellence and high expectations.

After meeting the director of human resources for restaurant Daniel at a CIA career fair, and performing not one but two stages, A.J. was offered an externship slot at Daniel Boulud’s eponymous restaurant in New York City. When she got there, they put her on the canapé station. But it was her work ethic, can-do attitude, and warm personality that got her noticed and remembered. Knowing that Daniel was where she wanted to work upon graduation, A.J. didn’t just hope—she kept her foot in the door by going back down to the city on weekends to help with the restaurant’s banquets and catering events, and volunteering for a huge Meals on Wheels fundraiser. And then, at last, came the offer of a job.

A.J.’s current title with Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group might be culinary manager, but she is really a factotum—a master of everything! She started out in garde manger and rotisserie, and after just a year, moved into the catering department. Her remarkable organizational skills did not go unnoticed when the recipe editor left. Suddenly, A.J. was being relied upon to do everything from testing recipes to ordering and planning food and equipment for off-site events to cooking at wine and food festivals, and now working on the recipes for Daniel’s cookbooks. Every time she’s been asked to take on something new, she’s delivered.

It’s a fast-paced existence that A.J. seems to enjoy. The past few years have meant even more responsibilities in the form of writing plans for staff training, sous vide HACCP plans, and health department inspections. Plans are in the works for a new test kitchen that will be attached to her office. There, she will be spending time in research and development, and will have increased interaction with the media. Her time is so valuable that she has just been given another very motivated full-time employee to help. This relieves her of some of the administrative work, freeing her for other projects and travel.

In an industry where moving around from opportunity to opportunity is common, AJ is uncommonly content to be within the Dinex Group. “I was talking to Tim Ryan about this recently,” A.J. explained. “I am super satisfied right now because my job has grown as I have grown.” No doubt this has occurred because A.J.’s innate drive for excellence, willingness to take on responsibility, and desire to keep learning have made her an invaluable asset. She also attributes her satisfaction to the generosity and care that Chef Boulud gives to his loyal staff. “He treats us like family,” A.J. explains. It would seem that she has found her game, and is winning with grace.

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