Chef Teddy Folkman ('98) found the recipe for success and shares the secret with others
By Jan Gillis ('07)
Chef Teddy Folkman ('98)
One of Food Network's most-watched, highest-rated shows, The Next Food Network Star pits 10 finalists in a competition for the prize of his or her own show. True to its culinary theme, season after season tough competitors, tougher challenges and the spice of personal and professional drama are thrown into the pressure cooker of reality television competition. In Season 5, one of Madison's own is feeling the heat.
But Teddy Folkman ('98) uses more mellow terms to describe his relationship with food. "Cooking is a release. It's always been something that calms me down, something I did for fun," he says.
The fun started for Folkman, when at the age of 14 he went to work in a deli outside of New York City. "Mrs. Chillelli didn't speak English, but she taught me to make eggplant parmigiana. I fell in love right then and there," he says.
At JMU, Folkman, a health sciences major and a brother in Alpha Kappa Lambda Fraternity, bartended and cooked at JM's Bar and Grill, now Buffalo Wild Wings, on South Main Street. While cooking had its appeal for Folkman, after graduation he moved to the Washington, D.C., area to try a different career.
"I pursued an interesting career in the dot bomb industry and got out just before it exploded," he laughs. "I felt a certain pessimism going from my behind-a-desk job with a wonderful salary to $10 an hour as a line cook," Folkman says.
His leap of faith worked out, however. Eight years later, Folkman is co-owner and executive chef of Granville Moore's Gastropub in D.C. and has proven his culinary prowess, winning a mussels and fries challenge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay in 2008.
He has also honed his personal culinary point of view, which he'll be demonstrating on the Next Food Network Star challenge. "I apprenticed in a lot of really nice, really great places in D.C. that taught me classic cooking techniques, mostly French. But I do gourmet bar food. It's approachable for everyone, and I put my own twist on it," he says.
His rapport with his loyal and appreciative clientele has informed his opinion of what a Teddy Folkman TV show would feature. He has a keen understanding of Food Network fans -- "We call them Generation Sweeney," he says, describing the folks who pride themselves on acquiring restaurant quality cooking equipment in their home kitchens and who yearn for the cooking skills to match.
"I want to do a show that appeals to them, allowing them to go online beforehand and prep. When the show begins, they'll start with the same ingredients at their house that I start with in front of the camera," he says, envisioning a show that allows viewers to cook with their television host step-by-step. "They can see if they can keep up with a chef."
He is anxious to teach others as much as he knows in the hope that they can improve on the chef's invention. "I don't mind sharing my recipes, in fact I say, 'tell me how to do it better.'"
Folkman's creative generosity is coupled with an optimistic belief that the experience of learning about food can produce more than great recipes; it can be a life-changing experience.
For seven years, he has volunteered with Brainfood, a nonprofit organization that uses food and cooking as tools to teach life skills and healthy living to teenagers in a safe and positive environment. "I took kids who were experiencing a little trouble after school and put them in a situation to learn a vocational skill and also to learn to work well with each other," he says. "It started out with maybe eight to 10 kids in a class. Now we have two locations, 30 kids per class, and there is waiting list to get into the program."
"We've changed a lot of lives," says Folkman. "I've had folks from halfway houses, started them out as dishwashers, worked with them, cooked with them, taught them. Now one of the guys I started with three years ago will be running his own place in about three months."
Folkman believes the restaurant food industry has a wealth of opportunity, and not just for future chefs. "I think anyone who has a passion to create and a good work ethic can do wonderful things in the industry," he says.
His parting advice to aspiring chefs could well serve as a metaphor for a better life. "Treat every single step of the cooking process as the most important, that way you'll never fail."
Whatever the network competition's outcome, one thing is apparent. Teddy Folkman has found a great recipe for personal success, and he's doing his best to share it with others -- on television and in his community.
Frequent Madison contributor Jan Gillis ('07, '11P) is managing editor of Web communication at JMU