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Chef Chat, Part 1: John Ly of Strata Restaurant

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We met with Executive Chef John Ly of the new Strata Restaurant in the Champions area, and he shared some tips for young aspiring chefs.

Eating Our Words: So I understand you started off pursuing a computer science degree. Tell me about that.

Ly: Yeah, I went pretty far towards getting my computer science degree at the University of Texas. I liked the challenge of it, but in the end, I didn't want to be stuck in the cubicle. There wasn't a lot of room for creativity, which is a part of cooking. I grew up in the restaurant industry and realized I missed that dinner rush with sauté pans flying everywhere. There's a real sense of accomplishment after getting all the plates out.

EOW: Tell me more about how you were raised in the restaurant business.

Ly: My parents and my uncles owned several restaurants. So I grew up in those restaurants watching them cook and helping them out.

EOW: So how did your parents feel about you quitting your computer science degree?

Ly: They weren't happy at all. They know how tough and competitive the industry is and how it's a strain on personal relationships and your own free time. It's a career that you have to love.

EOW: What was the driving force behind switching your educational paths?

Ly: It really was from my love for food. That and the dot-com crash were what really made me reconsider my future. I had a few friends mention culinary school and that lit a light bulb in my head. So I decided to pursue formal training and soon realized this was exactly what I wanted to do. I knew that this was my passion.

EOW: So what tips do you have for aspiring chefs contemplating a change in career or education?

Ly: I would tell them to make sure you're choosing this as a career and not just a job. If it's just a job to pay the bills, then it's not the job for you. The industry is very high-pressure without much recognition, especially as you're starting out. You're not going to come out of culinary school as a chef. You're going to come out as a cook, and you'll have to work your way up. You'll be washing dishes and scrubbing floors but a lot of people don't realize that. It's a lot of work before you get to put on the chef hat. Having said that, young chefs need to build their foundations, master their techniques, and absorb as much as they can.

Tomorrow we'll talk about the significance of the name Strata and the limitations of running a restaurant in the suburbs.

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