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The coming out party for Kylie Charter, assistant chef manager of the Portfolio Café at the Rhode Island School of Design, came when she won top honors, as well as an ACF silver medal, in the most recent Culinary Challenge competition at the 2010 NACUFS national conference in San Jose.
The accomplishment — she is the first female chef to win the NACUFS competition — validates the credentials of one of the college segment's young rising culinary stars. The daughter of restaurant professionals, Charter started working in restaurants as a prep cook at age 13, and by 15 she was a line cook at a local diner near her suburban Maryland home.
She attended Johnson & Wales University, where she received bachelor's degrees in Culinary Arts and Culinary Nutrition. She graduated Magna Cum Laude and won the school's Aprenti Cuisinier award for excellence in her field of study. While working on her degrees, she also completed two internships: one a pan-Asian certificate program in Singapore and Thailand and the other at Cook's Illustrated magazine.
She joined the dining staff at RISD in 2007. The school, with an enrollment of around 2,200, about 1,200 of whom are on meal plans, draws students from around the world to work toward 16 undergraduate and 17 graduate degrees in art and design. Charter's duties include overseeing the operations at the Portfolio Café, one of two student dining venues on the campus, where daily customer counts average around 600. Portfolio has a staff of 20 employees.
“I started working in restaurants was because I had always cooked and was good at it. It was an easy transition to go from helping in the kitchen to doing that.
“My father and I always made pasta together. That was a big thing: homemade pasta and ravioli. I was already proficient with a chef's knife and could chop and knew how to make sauces. So to go into a restaurant kitchen and be handed a prep list was easy for me even as a teen.
“My parents tried to warn me away from this career but I always liked the fast pace of it, the camaraderie of the kitchen, and I thought it was a good fit for me. By the time I was 15 I knew I wanted to go to culinary school.
“I was always interested in having my own place — it's my ultimate dream — but the pathway to get there has definitely changed. I've learned that you get something from every place that you work. When I graduated from culinary school I had already been working in fine dining for three and a half years, so I had a really strong food knowledge but needed a management experience.
I serendipidously fell into the job at RISD because the owner of the restaurant I was working at was an alum. It was a perfect fit because I have always been interested in art, so to be part of the education process in the art world and be able to create beautiful food at the same time was ideal.
“This was a huge transition from fine dining because the volume is so much larger and the serving style is certainly different. But it immediately clicked with me because it is very much like catering: there is a lot of advance preparation and then we cook to order from that.
“Getting local food into larger venues has always been my passion because that has the potential to make a really strong impact on the food economy. RISD is just the right size, where we can incorporate a lot of local foods and really make a good impact, but not overwhelm the farmers and small startup companies we buy from. At Portfolio Café, we spent $10,000 on local foods last year.
“In an ACF sanctioned competition like at NACUFS, they look at so many different things that you normally don't do in college foodservice — having a perfect bronoise or a seven-sided tournée. Fortunately, my culinary school training did prep me for that but if you don't use the skills you lose them, so I practiced a tremendous amount. An hour before the competition I was up in my hotel room practicing my tournées.