Aura Whitman has a passion for cooking. She’s been doing it professionally, all over the world, for almost 30 years | Company
PITTSFIELD – Cooking is fun, but doing it professionally as a chef can be as challenging as it is rewarding.
Long days, working weekends, managing a kitchen, tons of responsibilities; sometimes the work involves anything but cooking.
Aura Whitman thinks chefs need a certain passion to do their job well, and she should know that. Co-owner of Berkshire Mountain Bakery, who owned the former Cafe Reva in Pittsfield for 11 years, Whitman has worked at several other Berkshire establishments and runs his own catering business. She has been in the business for almost 30 years.
Her passion for cooking also took her to Israel, to Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, which she attended for a year, and to the Culinary Institute of America, from which she graduated. In Paris, Whitman met Julia Child and cooked for her on the celebrity chef’s 83rd birthday in 1995.
We spoke to the Cheshire resident about her profession, what it was like to cook for Julia Child and why she is still so passionate about what she does.
Q: What led you to become a chef?
A: From the beginning, I have always loved cooking. I followed my mother into the kitchen. My mother unfortunately fell ill and I ended up cooking for my three younger siblings. I was pretty good at it. So that gave me confidence. They were my first clients.
Q: What do you like in the kitchen?
A: I really like the way it brings people together. Speaking personally about doing it at home, I always love how it brings people together for birthdays and holidays and talking about your day around food and stuff. Changing gears and doing it at a pro level is kind of the same thing. You build these relationships with your customers who follow you. I just got a delivery from a guy who, at the age of 5, used to come to Reva cafe for pancakes.
Q: How long have you been a cook?
A: I wouldn’t call myself a chef the first 10 years I was with the company. I think after 10 years in the business and running my own kitchens, I gave myself the title of chef. It’s a title that people use a little loosely, and I think it’s something you have to earn. All chefs can cook, but not all cooks are chefs. I think it’s just because sometimes food is almost the last thing you do, you know? Like I had a day planned…and then you wake up to someone not getting in or you get in and for some reason the water main burst. Once in a while, your day goes as planned.
Q: How did you come to attend Le Cordon Bleu?
A: I worked abroad in Israel for a while after graduating from the Culinary Institute [of America]. I’ve always dreamed of going to live in Paris, but I had to have something to do there, because we don’t just go there and hang out. You could do a Euro pass and go on an adventure through Europe, but I just wanted to immerse myself in the culture, to feel what it’s like to be an American in Paris. I felt that in this school, it would be plausible for me to come and do that. In the kitchen, it was a dream come true. I traveled a lot while I was there and learned and saw things that I never would have experienced here in the United States, and it gave me a greater appreciation for everything.
Q: What did you learn during your year in France?
A: The French are so rigorous on the basis of the cuisine. They teach you all the cuts, practices, broths and mother sauces, really the importance of one basic thing. From this you have many derivatives. From this aspect, sometimes I will make dough and I can do four or five things with it. This is the kind of thing I learned while being in France. … Use, get the most out of a product. And also, being so respectful of the food. They are very respectful of food.
Q: Why did you go to the Culinary Institute?
A: I had finished high school and had the opportunity to go there with a reduction in cost. That’s not why I ended up going, but it was a little easier to say yes. It was amazing. … Le Cordon Bleu was strictly cooking, whereas at the Institut Culinaire you didn’t even go into a kitchen for months. You were learning about wine and how to run a restaurant. They were really teaching you to be more complete.
Q: What did you learn from these two schools that you used in your career?
A: So many different things. I could probably watch something I’ve never cooked, but because I know what it’s made of, I would know how to cook it. It gave me such a nice full experience, really, because I know a lot about a little and a little about a lot. I could go to any restaurant and do any job. That’s it, that’s the definition of a leader. You can walk into a cooking business of any type and in a day or two be able to run the show because you do it all.
Q: How did you meet and work with Julia Child?
A: I was in Paris. It was his 83rd birthday. A chef asked me if I would like to volunteer to cook for Julia Child, then I could be on TV on Good Morning America, which would be filmed in France the next morning. I just looked at it and said is this a trick question? So we cooked for his birthday. We were all able to meet her and take our pictures with her. She was such a gracious woman, really. Smiling and laughing and just happy to be standing in Le Cordon Bleu.
She was also an inspiration, coming full circle, as I also watched her show, when I was much younger, on PBS. I loved that she was okay with dropping something on the floor and dusting it off. Not that I did that or anything, but it felt so natural. You know that if you cook a steak at home and you drop it on the floor, you probably won’t throw it in the trash. She just let you know it was OK. That’s another thing you have to be as a chef. You have to improvise. Sometimes when you run out of something you have to use this or that.
Q: Café Reva, which offered gourmet meals in a restaurant-style atmosphere, was a very popular place. You had to close in 2013 because your landlord didn’t want to help you pay for upgrading the restaurant’s equipment. Do you plan to open another Cafe Reva one day?
A: I get asked a lot. My time running Cafe Reva was such a special time – really, really. Little old stoned cafe on Tyler Street, right? I will never forget him. But I think that was that time, and now there will be other things. Something really crazy would have to happen for me to do that.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a chef?
A: If your passion for food is what drives you, then I highly recommend that you become a chef and pursue that dream. But also understand that when you’re doing this, you’re working weekends, long hours, nights, missing people’s birthdays. There is that side. In my 20s and 30s, I missed some things.
If you plan to be a chef, you must have tough skin, persistence, and passion, in whatever order you want to choose.