The “Kid” Kept Dreaming: A Chef’s Story

By Jesse Baker, WorkStory Ambassador at University of Windsor

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Curtis Bell is one of those rare young people who decided what he wanted to do with his life shortly after it began. According to Bell, he knew he wanted to be a chef when he was about ten years old. He told his dad that he wanted to go to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) by age twelve, to which his father responded: “keep dreaming kid.”

He did.

Bell’s main source of inspiration came from a chef at The Trinity Grille, a restaurant Bell frequented with his father when he was young, “The chef’s name was Micah, he was there for a really long time and always talked to me about food” Bell recalled. “He also happened to attend the CIA. I think I was also very inspired by my father and his home cooking, as well as taking me out to some impressive restaurants. I was a sponge, and he helped foster my passion.”

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Bell attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, a school many consider it to be the best culinary school in the country. “I agree with that,” Bell remembered fondly. After earning his associate’s degree Bell decided not to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “My reasoning was that much of the education within my industry is found in the field, not a classroom. During the two years that my peers spent chasing their bachelor’s, I worked my way up in the industry. I was in a well-respected management position by the time they were graduating and entering the field. I think I got the better end of the deal.”

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Curtis Bell wasted no time. The morning after graduation, he drove out to Montauk, NY, where he had a job waiting for him. “I worked at The Surf Lodge, where I worked into becoming something of a Chef Tournant, which meant I was knowledgeable about all stations and held a decent amount of responsibility. After a summer there, I came back to Denver because I had another job waiting for me [as a personal chef] as long as they liked me. I did a stage, and was offered a job at the end of the night. I was really glad that opportunity panned out.”

As a personal chef for an affluent couple in Denver and an entrepreneur working to build different companies all related to food, Bell describes himself as “almost sickly passionate person when it comes to food”.  He’s constantly working to try new things and learn more about the science and art of food.  Becoming a personal chef was never as aspiration. “Coming up in the industry, it’s not a job one thinks of as a reality, more like a fantasy,” Bell said. The opportunity totally fell in his lap, “and I ran with it”.  He was only 21 then, didn’t feel necessarily qualified, but went for it anyway and got the job. According to Bell that opportunity has opened a lot of doors for him and he is incredibly grateful for it. 

Overall, Bell thinks his success boils down to a few things: Luck, passion/ambition, great social skills and networking abilities, and general technical skills. “The industry is aggressively competitive, so it is absolutely vital you work on being the best you can in all the previously stated categories”.  Future goals include a business that would continue to allow Bell to work in many different culinary facets. The current dream is to get paid to travel in some way, and do something that makes a difference in people’s lives for the better. Bell said he thinks he’s on the right track so far.

Q&A with Curtis Bell:

Would you have done anything differently?

“I could have gone back to Cape Cod to where I did my internship and learned more than at any other job I have ever had. I could have stayed in New York after graduating and worked my way up in that vicious arena of restaurants. I could have stayed working as the Sous Chef of La Tour in Vail. Considering where I am today though, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. No regrets”

Talk about your recent trip to Vietnam and Phocomentary!

“Vietnam. What a trip! I went out there with my great friend Freeman LaFleur and his other half Josie. We had a serious goal in mind: to find the roots and true story of pho, as well as its progression to what we know of the dish today. What we experienced was far more than we expected, and I am forever changed by our journey. The culture and environment of Vietnam is so mind blowing. The people are almost too nice, and the way of life there is impressive.

Chaotic as hell, but they make everything work somehow. I could explain the trip more, but you would be better off watching the  Phocumentary which is  the reason I went to Vietnam. Freeman LaFleur is a very creative entrepreneur and quite talented with a camera. He invited me to be the film’s food expert and help him to find the true story of one of the world’s favorite noodle soups. The motivation to chase the story stems from Freeman and I enjoying pho all the way back when we first could drive and get down to the Little Saigon district of Denver, where we first went crazy for the stuff. Having recently lived near L.A, home of the largest concentration Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam, Freeman ate lots of pho, and realized that no one had tried to figure out where the dish came from. The idea was born as a joke, but became more serious as he found the story to be much more complex than first thought. When he asked me to be a part of the project in January of 2015, I jumped on board immediately. In May, we did a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the project. Although we were going to Vietnam whether it was a success or a failure, halfway through our trip in Vietnam, the campaign ended a success and our project was fully funded! … The film is now in the process of being put together. I am very happy with the story we found, and I think it will make for a great documentary.”

Talk about Rogue Food Works!

Rogue Food Works is a fun little venture in Denver that my talented friend Dan Gullickson pulled me into. He had an idea to have an underground dinner club where there is only one rule: that we have fun! We have a big party once a month for anywhere from 10 to 40 people. The party usually consists of a crazy meal that is 5-12 courses and quite intricate. We have used it as a platform to experiment and foster relationships with not only the guests, but also local farms and ranches. The whole thing evolves a bit every month, and has been a lot of fun to be a part of.”

Advice for an aspiring Chef?

“I would tell any aspiring chef to ask him/herself how passionate they are about food. This is a very hard industry and you have to commit your life to it. Try not to pick up bad habits, work with a purpose, and never stop learning. Any seasoned chef can tell immediately if you are worth your salt, so you better take extreme pride in what you are doing, or you will be chewed up and spit out.”

Curtis Bell is patiently waiting for the edited version of the Phocumentary, which should be available before the end of 2015. If successful this project could be a launching pad for Bell’s ultimate goal of being paid to travel AND create beautiful edibles around the world!