Tom Poley, FOX Hell’s Kitchen Contestant

Tom Poley appeared on the first big US cooking competition, Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. What he found out was in the beginning, people cared more about the fact he was on TV than his culinary talents. And that, itself, is the challenge, or rather what he plans to change with his forthcoming cookbook and future TV work…

tom-poley

Almost a decade ago, you appeared on Hell’s Kitchen. What work opportunities opened up for you from being on TV, and what were you surprised that you still had to work towards as far as goals?

At first, people in the food biz just wanted to meet me, so there were media ops such as radio and magazine interviews on Scott and Todd Morning Show-WPLJ- NYCThe New York Post, The New York Daily News, Savuer and Time Magazines. In fact, Mad Magazine did an article to spoof the show called Yell’s Kitchen.  However, they weren’t interested in my culinary expertise. They were interested more in what it was like to be on the show, so in terms of what I had to work towards in order to achieve my goals, there was a lot of work ahead. Hell’s Kitchen had opened the doors for what, in the culinary world is known as “trailing,” which is when you are trying out to be a player on a team. The Chef will give you a {demeaning} job to do in order for you to show your knife skills, i. e. peel and dice onions and carrots to see if you are a fit. And, in moving forward, there were always other graduates from cooking schools with the same goals so the competition from the show, was good training for what lay ahead.

How has TV food programming changed if any since you were on the show?

TV food programming has made every consumer a chef. I graduated from the French Culinary Institute in NYC. It is one of the best schools in the country. Classic French cuisine means that one can go to any country in the world and order a classic French dish and it will be prepared identically with no substitutions. Today, with the consumer having all this media-driven knowledge, everyone is an expert. This means that customers can make demands on chefs who accept requests to change classic dishes, the recipes of which were composed by professionally trained chefs from top schools. TV food programming is now a billion dollar business, making it’s way out of public television and cable to major networks.

How does someone make a total career switch from Wall Street to cooking?

Switching careers from a Wall Street broker to a Telecom Sales Executive to cooking has not been as difficult as one may think. I never made a ton of money from the first two, so economically, I survived the early days of the transition. Wall Street and sales are all about performance. ‘You were only as good as your last trade/sale’. In the world of cooking, you are only as good as your last service and plate. In my freshman year at college, I was unfortunately failing, having succeeded in the party portion of it, but not the book {learning} part. However, the food business has been in our family’s heritage for generations. My mother’s uncle owned a food business in Brooklyn and The Bronx, my cousin owned one of the first Friendly’s in NYC and even my brother’s in-laws owned an Italian restaurant, with whom I had a meeting.  He told me that I would work nights, weekends and holidays! Naturally, this inclined me to finish college. Later, when the Telecom industry was failing, I decided to take another educational course, but the epiphany about cooking came when i was cleaning spinach in a basement kitchen and realized that I liked doing that more than selling telecommunication services to somebody who already has them.

You probably came into the job knowing a lot more about business than your peers. In order to make it as a chef in the entertainment world, what has to be done?

My broker and sales experience made me comfortable in front of the camera. When someone interviews me I am able to come across very easy and natural, a great skill learned while having to “pitch” myself from my Wall Street days where there was a lot of pressure to come off “natural.”  My advice is to know what you’re talking about. You can’t fake it. Be entertaining. Humor is my ‘go to’ default and fortunately it always works for me and will be incorporated in my professional appearances. The idea is that I must ‘sell’ myself first. I have a great sense of humor and come off a little crazy (mucho loco gringo) at times. I believe we all have a need to be liked and to have a sense of belonging. When I work in a kitchen, I make sure I am willing to do the “dirty work.” Kitchens require a tremendous amount of maintenance. I check my ego at the door when it comes to cleanliness.

How are you marketing yourself, and what are your goals since people first got to know you?

These days, I’ve got a PR manager/agent to build more media presence on speaker platforms,  web and of course, Facebook so that former fans can interact with me.

What is going on for you in 2015?

Motivational speaking engagements. My topic: “You Have to Break an Egg to Make and Omelet.” And of course culinary presentations in front of live audiences. There has also been some talk of cooking in a castle, in front of a camera,  somewhere in Transylvania. And, my forthcoming and first cookbook: Reflections from the Skillet: Confessions of a Reality Show Chef. It is a cookbook for people who have basic culinary techniques. It’s not for beginners but one doesn’t need to be a chef, either.  Thank you for the interview.

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