Already possessing her bachelor’s degree in business, Rachel Ulansey enrolled in CASA after life experiences and travels to different countries underscored just how passionate she was about food. We connected with the recent CASA graduate to learn more about her journey into the culinary arts, the intense, quick paced culinary training she received through CASA, and the coveted cook position she landed at the exciting, upscale tasting-menu-only Pasta|Bar, a Scratch Restaurant concept, in Los Angeles!
What led you to CASA in the first place? What did you like about our approach?
“I wanted to just get started on something instead of going through the process that I’ve done before, where I go through the school and then I don’t have experience and it’s really hard to get a job without experience, and it’s just back and forth for a long time…
I basically was just researching apprenticeship programs and extern programs because I love the idea of learning hands-on, especially with something like food, where it’s really important that you’re physically touching, and tasting, and smelling all of your ingredients.”
Where did you travel? And did experiencing different cuisines inform your decision to build a career in the culinary arts?
“Oh, yeah, definitely…. I went to Israel, Italy, Spain, Singapore, and Bali…So it was a lot of food…I backpacked through Italy for a month, so I started in Venice and finished in Agropoli. So, I got, like, the very wide range of different ingredients, and I love Italian food. So, that was amazing. It really just made me want to be more involved in the whole industry….I did the WWOOFing program for a little while, which is working for stay on organic farms. We stayed on a chickpea farm and did…a lot of weeding, a lot of planting seeds, and watching things grow from the very beginning, which was really fun…It allowed me to be able to learn more about how they organically farmed their ingredients and it was a really, really good experience.”
How did you make the most of your CASA externship?
“When I started CASA, I made it my top priority. So, I got a job where I made sure most of my hours would be in the restaurant [environment], and then I would also work on the side. I fully dove into it. I read as much as I could. I watched YouTube videos every day. I cook at home. I talk to a lot of different people about their opinions on food. I go to the farmer’s market twice a week and I talk to farmers about their ingredients. And I really try and apply myself as much as possible because, personally, I want to be really good at what I’m doing.”
Your personal research enabled you to ask the chefs smart questions. Tell us about that.
“I would come up with my questions and try and research through all the information provided by CASA and form an opinion on what I thought was the answer. Then, I would bring it back to the chef and ask him if it was correct or if he agreed…So that way, I kind of got a ‘round answer’ on what I was looking for instead of just a yes or no. I really like doing research, so it was really fun for me to be able to look into things, and what I think is the correct answer, and then get the actual answer.”
Who are your favorite chefs?
“The chef I work with right now, Kane Sorrells is really inspiring. He has worked at multiple Michelin-star restaurants and he’s just extremely knowledgeable about what he’s doing and he’s really into learning about different produce…. Chef Phillip, who’s the owner of Scratch, is extremely knowledgeable about what he wants to do with the restaurant and the ingredients that he uses, and he has opinions on ways to slice different meats like fish and things like that. And it’s been truly inspiring to work with these guys and learn from them directly…
Obviously, all of the guys at Noma are super inspiring. And I’ve been really looking at a lot of the Bon Appetit videos that they’re posting. One of the chefs, Chad is really funny and I love that he gets super creative with what he’s doing.”
What led up to you getting hired at Pasta|Bar?
“So, I started working [as an extern] at Scratch|Bar before everything closed [due to COVID-19], and I was doing all of the prep work with that staff. Then we closed and I noticed on social media that they started doing take-out menus. So I contacted Gavin [CASA mentor and Director of Food & Beverage at Scratch Restaurants]… I asked him if I could come back and help out with the take-out menu, and he said, ‘Of course, come in tomorrow and we’ll get you started on something.’…
Then, when they came up with the concept for Pasta|Bar, I was put with that team and they just basically gave me a list of things to do, which was anything from picking herbs to cutting and doing a bunch of knife work, and then doing a lot of extra stuff that they needed done. And they really involved me in the main process of creating the pasta. They taught me how to make the dough and all of that.
Once I got to that point, I was talking to the Chef [telling him] that I was almost done with my hours, he basically told me that he thinks I’ve been very beneficial to the process of them opening and that they wanted me to stay and take me on as a cook…. I think what happened was because I worked with them from the very beginning, I understood the concept of how the restaurant was run, and it’s definitely easier to have someone that already knows the whole concept than to train someone from the very beginning. So, they just took me on as a cook and I was really, really lucky to be able to be in that position.”
What kind of work are you doing there?
“So, it’s a tasting menu [and] I’m solely in charge of doing the cold dishes…so I control the first couple of courses…which is amazing. I get to create a whole course on my own. And they have taught me a lot and we’ve already changed the menu a couple of times, so I’ve learned how to create a lot of different dishes. They’re also allowing me to take on more responsibility with the actual pasta making, so I’m a lot more involved in the whole menu instead of just the appetizer courses.
It’s been a really, really good experience. I love the team that I work with. I’m learning more and more every single day and I’ve been doing a lot of cooking at home to push my skills further. And I’ve really noticed that in a very short amount of time, I’ve learned a lot and my skills have increased dramatically, which has been really nice.”
What are some cool things going on at Scratch right now?
“So we’re doing lacto-fermentation and we’re making our own misos…. And then, I was put in charge of growing koji, which is a grain bacteria that you grow. And I learned all about how to grow it and then we did it in the restaurant together, and then you bind it up and you add it to the beans, and it has to sit for a really long time and be pressed under weights. And then, it produces its own tamari and soy sauce as well as the miso underneath. So, that’s kind of what I’ve been doing right now. We’re in the end stages of producing a lot of that stuff for our new menu, so that’s been a crazy learning experience. And it’s just really fun to watch something that you make, grow and produce new items.”
What’s your advice to others on how they can make the most of their time in CASA?
“I think the most beneficial thing I did was making it my absolute top priority and being able to apply time inside and outside of the restaurant…I watched YouTube videos every day just on knife skills and how to break down a fish and things like that…I think one of the most important things is cooking at home because…the Chef can give you something and teach you how he wants it seasoned, but you need to know how you want it seasoned. So that’s something that you develop over time and that comes with cooking at home…
I also found it beneficial when I went out to eat at other restaurants…instead of just picking something random, to try something new and see what they do with ingredients. And you start recognizing new ingredients that they use, and that you use, and how they use it differently than what you’re doing. So, I think that’s really important.”
Learn more about CASA, and how you can start building a culinary career you love.