Chef Brian Duffett, 19, cooks up culinary career
A Special Sponsored Report from the Alabama News Center
By Donna Cope
Brian Duffett knows that practice makes perfect.
His continuous efforts to be the best – along with his spot-on culinary skills – recently won Duffett the top honors in the National SkillsUSA culinary competition.
In June, Duffett showcased his skills against 26 other state champions to take home the gold medal and bragging rights as the nation’s top culinary student. He is the only Alabama college student to have ever won the culinary competition. Even more important to Duffett, he won a $50,000 culinary scholarship to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
At the tender age of 19, Duffett not only has inner confidence but a solid determination to become one of the nation’s best chefs. While the Jefferson State Community College Culinary student admitted he was well-prepared, Duffett said the 3-hour culinary competition was an experience he’ll never forget.
“I’ve done roasted chicken probably 40 times, so the chicken was no longer fun for me to eat,” said Duffett, who is studying to be savory chef, specializing in the “hot” side of a restaurant. “It was exciting, but nerve-wracking.
“I did a four-course meal: a couscous salad with citrus vinaigrette, lentil soup infused with roasted red bell pepper, braised beef cheek with gnocchetti and the chicken,” he said. “Most people do a basic salad, but I did a compound salad with a cookie – a tuile – on top. I probably practiced the salad nine times.”
Duffett’s classic cookie was “paper-thin,” made with walnuts, lemon zest and apples.
“I like doing the tuile because it gives the salad a crunch and more texture, besides doing the expected croutons,” he said.
If other competitors weren’t nervous about Duffett’s precision execution of the fine-dining experience, they were perhaps a little apprehensive about his sheer size. Towering at 6-ft. 5-in. tall, Duffett easily dominated the kitchen — and the competition.
Duffett, a sophomore at Jefferson State, went from serving as an apprentice chef at Todd English Pub at the Westin Hotel in Birmingham to working as a cook at the city’s new Elyton Hotel. Haller Magee, former executive chef at Satterfield’s Restaurant in Cahaba Heights and Sky Castle, is charge of the kitchens for The Yard, Elyton’s restaurant offering Southern progressive cuisine.
Duffett also serves as an apprentice chef, with his work documented for class during his final semester of college. After he completes the fall semester, Duffett will continue his studies at the Culinary Institute of America.
Gold medal chef’s training began at home
Many young chefs get their start in a professional kitchen. Duffett’s cooking chops were honed at home, under the tutelage of his Dad.
“My Dad always cook at home for us,” Duffett said. “One day he announced that I would go to the store and buy the food for a meal, and each of us – my brother and sister – would cook a meal. I have a meatball sub that I like to fix. We have a family recipe, and it’s the thing my Dad likes to eat.”
In 2015, during his senior year at Hewitt-Trussville High School, Duffett enrolled in the culinary program.
“That’s where I met chef Anna Hallman,” Duffett said. “She really encouraged me in this career, to work hard.” Before taking the culinary teaching position in Trussville, Hallman served as a sous chef for 10 years at Kathy G and Co. in Birmingham.
Hallman advised Duffett to learn at several professional kitchens. He has since served under chef John Rolen at Bottega Restaurant in Birmingham, owned by noted Southern chef Frank Stitt. For nine consecutive years, Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill has been nominated for Outstanding Restaurant in America by the James Beard Foundation.
“Going to work in Bottega, I realized I liked a fine-dining type of kitchen,” Duffett said. “My specialty is sautéing, the stovetop is where I like to work. I like to work at a kitchen, which we call staging, that lets me learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines. I like to learn the ways of the cook.”
This winter, Duffett looks forward to starting at the Culinary Institute of America, a private college and culinary school that, for more than 70 years, has set the standard for excellence in culinary, baking, and pastry arts education.
Reaching for the high mark of success
Joe Mitchell, program director of the Culinary and Hospitality Institute at Jefferson State Community College, said that Duffett has what it takes to excel as a chef.
“Brian has the skills to be successful,” said Mitchell, who was a chef at the Opryland Hotel and at Mario’s Ristorante in Nashville, Tennessee. “At this point, he will grow and become a professional chef – we expect him to do well.
“You’ve got to be talented, persevere and put the work in,” Mitchell said. “Brian has all of that. You have to strive to be the best.”
Mitchell is thrilled that Duffett won the SkillsUSA competition. While he pulled off the big win, Duffett is the second Jefferson State Community College student in two years to receive honors. In 2016, Crystal Rogers took third place in the national event.
Like other Jefferson State culinary students, Duffett has taken his turn working in the college’s Bistro proVare restaurant at the Hoover-Shelby campus on Valleydale Road. Students operate the Bistro, which is open to the public and offers classic fare.
Fresh grilled salmon with rice pilaf, asparagus and beurre blanc, and mascarpone cheesecake are among the student chefs’ offerings.
“It’s a classroom, but the guests never know,” said Mitchell, who has led Jefferson State’s culinary program for 15 years. “The restaurant is an opportunity for students in advanced class to get real-life experience.”
The Bistro is open for lunch Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the fall and spring semesters.
Magic City’s future ‘Iron Chef’ to train in the Big Apple
Alabama folks are well accustomed to winning national football championships and other sports titles.
Mitchell sees Duffett’s success as a crowning glory, as well, for the state.
“Brian’s win is a jewel for Jefferson State, for Alabama and for the greater Birmingham area,” said Mitchell, who noted that Jefferson State’s program, whose curriculum was accredited in 1991, is the state’s longest running.
“Some culinary programs are three times as expensive, but when you look at our track record and the partnerships, Jefferson State Community College is such a good value,” he said.
After his big gold-medal win, Duffett knows he has no place to go but up.
“I want to have my own kitchen one day,” Duffett said. “I’m excited about starting the Culinary Institute and seeing what the future holds for me.”