The saying, "Those who can't do, teach," holds no weight when talking about Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) baking and pastry arts instructor Tessia Harman. Harman, once the private chef to the Irish ambassador of the European Union, came to Charlotte to visit a friend — and never went back to Europe. As much as she enjoyed her experiences overseas, Harman — who just rides with the title of "chef" — knew she needed to come home to the United States again.
Creative Loafing: For years, cooking and baking were seen as a woman's domestic responsibility. Now, more men inhabit the culinary world. How has this affected your career as a chef?
Tessia Harman: I've noticed the opposite. Professional cooking was a "man's world." Pastry, or "the cold mine," as we affectionately call it, was a woman's world. Now you see a lot more women running kitchens, where — when I first started — I used to just be allowed in the kitchen to make a salad. You have to prove yourself. Sometimes the men pick on you, but I didn't care as long as they didn't call me a bad cook.
You work around food all day long. Now that you're pregnant, do you notice yourself craving what your students will be making that day, or week?
Whatever kitchen I'm working in, I always crave the opposite. Sometimes I'm grading a final where I have to eat eight pieces of cake. By the end of the day, I've had so much sweet that by the time I get home, I'm craving a Brussels sprout.
I recently spoke to a chef who believed that being self-trained gave her a more intimate, hands-on experience. As an educator and someone who has been educated at the Culinary Institute of America, what are your feelings on self-trained vs. those who attend culinary school?
I understand and respect that opinion completely. Some schools do hand students a book with the recipes they will learn, others do not. Not one way is better than the other. I believe it is the person and what you take out of your experience that is what matters.
At CPCC, we teach more of the technique, not so much a particular dish, so the students can push the envelope. We also teach them multilevel skill sets to encourage creativity so they can be creative and play with the flavor profiles. The students have an arsenal of classes and skills to be more creative and define their own voice with their food.
As long as you work with many people and have that variety of new challenges for yourself, that's what matters. Those people, no matter how they learn, learn to become exceptional.