Military experience is valuable preparation for many careers. But for a career in fine dining? At first glance, the mess hall seems antithetical to the banquet hall. Yet for Kendall alum Tony Rogowski (B.A. Culinary Arts, ’17), a solid training in the National Guard gave him the strong work ethic he needed to earn his degree, take advantage of international study opportunities and get a job at a Chicago restaurant.
Tony grew up in Wisconsin in a military family that liked to entertain, hosting frequent banquets and parties. His childhood dream was to be a cook, but when a new military academy was built in his area, he attended high school there and soon joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard. As an artillery operator, he had to wear body armor and carry a heavy rifle, which eventually took a toll on his shoulder. “My shoulder gave out about two weeks before I was supposed to be deployed to Afghanistan, during prepping for deployment,” he says. At the point when he was medically discharged, he had served just 10 days shy of seven years.
Pursuing Culinary Career
Tony enrolled in Blackhawk Technical College on the G.I. Bill—but its culinary arts program is small, and Tony wanted a more robust education in the field. He researched culinary arts schools and transferred to Kendall. As a disabled veteran, he was eligible to have the U.S. government fully cover his education through vocational rehab.
Military Tuition Assistance at Kendall
The fact that his education was completely covered by the military only made Tony more determined to do well. “Taxpayers were paying for my school, and I didn’t want to throw that away,” he explains. “If you miss a day of school, that’s hundreds of dollars. I took school seriously, like a job. I only made about 10 friends at Kendall because I wasn’t there to hang out. I try to be organized. I’m always early. Some say I’m harder-edged. I always carried around a backpack with about 20 pounds of tools—an immersion blender, ISI canister, disposable piping bags and other random tools. That’s not even counting my custom-built knife kit.” That backpack was feather light compared to body armor.
Culinary Experiences Abroad
His positive attitude afforded Tony many opportunities. A school trip to Italy led to two three-month cooking internships, the first at a resort in Torgiano and the second at a mountaintop B&B in Montali. At the Torgiano resort, six line cooks prepared central Italian cuisine for between 100 and 500 diners each day. Tony worked breakfast, lunch and dinner each day; in Italy, it’s normal for a kitchen to run one crew of cooks. Blood pressure ran high, and chefs communicated by yelling. “You work two or three shifts in a row, with a two-hour break if the restaurant did not have a large party for dinner,” Tony remembers. “You may go out after work to unwind, sleep three or four hours, then get up and do it again.”
Still, Tony was glad for these experiences. “You learn more about your own culture than about theirs. You see your culture through their eyes. You learn something about who you are.”
In 2016, Tony participated in the Laureate Culinary Cup competition, held in Panama. During the six months before the trip, “I had no life, working 13 hours a day at school and sitting in traffic for my commute,” Tony recalls. Guided by faculty chefs Checchi and Kang, Tony and his teammate Rosabel Hernandez worked on four plates. “We chose dishes that would represent Chicago, but made more modern and elevated. We emphasized flavor first, then looks.” Tony and Rosabel took first prize; it was Kendall’s first Laureate Culinary Cup win.
Laureate’s Universidad de Valle Mexico (UVM)
Tony also had the chance to travel to Mexico by himself to teach workshops at Laureate’s Universidad de Valle Mexico (UVM) schools. “An American who doesn’t speak Spanish teaching Mexican students about Italian fine dining,” he remarks. “Well, if you want me to do it, why not?” He did demos and taught students to prepare a three-course meal with recipes of his own creation. “They treated me like a chef. I was getting these head chef–type experiences, but I didn’t have industry experience. I had no kitchen background besides Kendall.”
Tony believes he was chosen to represent Kendall for unusual gigs like these because faculty viewed him as someone who could follow through. “It’s how I look at things and how I work,” he says. “I took advantage of all the opportunities. I worked events, such as the Mag Mile event and No Kid Hungry, and many more. I was willing to work for free. I wouldn’t ask how long the job was or how much money I would get. I might ask about start and end time so I could plan my life.”
Culinary Career After Kendall
Now 35, Tony is a bit older than most of his classmates and peers. His advice to Millennials is to work hard, be willing to try new things—and take jobs for the experience and connections, not the money.
After graduating with his B.A. in May 2017, Tony got a job as a line cook at Ronero, a “rum speakeasy” that specializes in South American and Latin American cuisine. He is enjoying learning these cuisines and working with new people. He intends to stay in Chicago for a couple years and pay off loans he accumulated from his overseas experiences. Although he has a bit of debt, he also has industry connections in five countries abroad, which he hopes to leverage for future work overseas.
He credits Kendall with opening many doors to him, both abroad and in Chicago. “If you go to a restaurant and say ‘I’m a Kendall grad,’ they say, ‘When can you start?’ Because they know Kendall.”