Nathan Camburn: Finding all the Right Ingredients

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

The hair is starting to grow back on the arms of Nathan Camburn, but who knows when he’ll regain feeling in his seared fingertips.

You might say he got a little too close to the flames, but that’s the way his life has gone over the last few months at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute (PCI).

The 1999 Morenci graduate was home for a one-week break last month on his way to Colorado to begin what his school calls an externship program. By now, his lower arms be naked once again.

Camburn is working his way through the PCI program on the way to his goaling of becoming a master chef.

His career choice shouldn’t come as a great surprise. He thought about it in high school, after working as a dishwasher in Cousin-Os in Morenci and later as a cook with his mother’s Bulldog Café. After high school he worked in a Garfield’s, but then drifted off into other things.

One day it just clicked. He knew he wanted to get serious about working as a chef and he made the move.

His mother recalls earlier hints. Maybe not the time he tried to fry an egg in a plastic bowl at age four, but other forays into the kitchen.

“He’s made some creations over the years,” Suzanne said, “that most people weren’t brave enough to try. He would eat anything put before him, but he always tried to improve it. I guess we should have known then.”

Classroom

The 12-month program at PCI puts students through the mill nine hours a day, five days a week for a year, before the four-month work experience begins.

PCI is considered one of the top five culinary schools in the nation. Signing up for the program is a big commitment; tuition runs about $42,000 for the year. It’s a grueling endeavor. Thirty-five students started in Camburn’s cycle at the institute. Before too many weeks passed, the number had shrunk to 16.

Six classes cover the core knowledge for the chef:

• an introductory class that includes basic food preparation, equipment, knife skills, salads, sandwiches, organization and presentation;

• Soup, Stock, Sauce and Starch Production, covering broths, glazes and soups, and the preparation of potatoes, grains and pasta;

• Meat, Game and Poultry, addressing identification, storage, butchery, quality assessment and cooking techniques;

• Seafood and Charcuterie, including meat trimmings, curing, smoking, patés and sausage making;

• Baking and Pastry, including advanced skills in presentation and decorating. Camburn figures he gained a good 15 pounds from that class. He has fond memories of the Bavarian cream. “You could just feel yourself gaining weight.”

• Advanced Classical Cuisine. “This ties everything together,” Camburn said.

After that, there are various electives such as international cooking, French pastry, advanced pastry sculpturing, sanitation, wines and spirits, food management, menu planning and more.

Classroom and kitchen experience lead up to the practicals, where the skills are put into practice.

“It’s a test where you actually make things—perfectly,” he said.

As experience grows over the months, the chefs-in-training hone their taste buds, too, much as they do their kitchen knives.

“You build up your palette to know how a duck sauce is supposed to taste,” Camburn said, “you know how a brown sauce is supposed to taste.”

Heading out

PCI schedules a job fair to help students line up a good externship program. Nathan went for one of the best: the Broadmoor at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs. Dozens of candidates were interviewed and only 20 were chosen.

Nathan said the resort includes 11 five-star restaurants offering a wide range of opportunities for learning. Baking, banquet, line cook, pastry—he’ll be able to work his way up to sous chef.

“I hope to able to move from one restaurant to another to try the different cuisines,” he said. “I’ll work beneath a master chef who is certified in a particular cuisine. I hope to stay there a couple of years. To have the Broadmoor on your résumé is the best thing.”

Nathan has a standing offer to buy a restaurant back in Pittsburgh, but that’s probably not the direction he’ll choose. He thinks he’s gained a good overview of the business at PCI, and now he’s going for the practical experience at the Broadmoor. It’s a wide open future.

“They open the doors for you,” he said. “It’s up to you to take the initiative. I plan to open my own restaurant some day. Hopefully, it’s on the side of a mountain in Colorado.”

 

-October 15, 2003 

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