by Chef Karl Marsh1
How I Became the Chef of Omaha Steaks
One question that I am often asked is how I came to be the Executive Chef of Omaha Steaks. What was my career path to end up which such a great job at such a great company?
As long as I can remember I have had a passion for eating which in turn led to my passion for cooking. When I was in elementary school I was one of those kids that always had to bring a sack lunch. I wanted to eat from the cafeteria like my friends but since my mom made me a lunch everyday there was no way she was going to give me lunch money. I figured out that if I volunteered to work in the school cafeteria I could get a free lunch. That experience taught me two things. One was that the cafeteria food was terrible and my sack lunch was actually much better. The second thing was that I really enjoyed the fast paced food service environment and it was possible to make the food better with some care and changes to how things were done.
When I was 13 I got my first after school / weekend job as a dishwasher at a local coffee shop near where I grew up in Encinitas California. I absolutely loved it. One day after I had been there for only 2 weeks one of the cooks did not show up. The kitchen manager pulled me onto the cooking line and I turned out to be a natural. I decided that day that I would one day have a career in the restaurant industry. I have been a professional cook since that day. I worked there for over 3 years and have very fond memories of the people and the excitement that I felt when working very busy shifts there.
By the time I was a junior in high school I had decided that I wanted to be a chef. I was already working as a cook in a very nice fine dining restaurant Del Mar California. My father wanted me to go to college but I had no interest in that. I started researching culinary schools. At that time in the early eighties there were really only 3 or 4 culinary schools in the country and they cost more than an Ivy League university did at the time. Then one day at work one of my friends told me about a bartending school in downtown San Diego that had just added a culinary arts / hospitality management program. I told my Dad about it and after a great visit I signed my life away in student loans and I was registered.
When I look back at the now defunct Century School of Culinary Arts it had all the potential to be a disaster and a waste of money. A brand new school, with no established curriculum, very few students, and instructors who had never taught before in a school environment. It turned out to be an incredible education that paved my road to success. My Management instructor was a recently retired VP of Operations for a very large restaurant company and he put together a great curriculum where I learned things that I still draw from today. My Culinary instructor had just moved to San Diego from Atlanta to open a new restaurant but the restaurant had been delayed so he took a job at the school. He was an incredibly talented chef and taught me a solid foundation of culinary skills. There was so much passion in that school that most of us would come early and stay late every day. Out of the 25 people in my class I know that at least 20 of us went on to become successful Executive Chefs. These were the days before the food network and celebrity chefs. We had no illusions of grandeur upon graduation. We knew that we would start out working for low hourly wages in hope that one day we could make it to the Executive Chef level and make enough money to have a life. There were no guarantees.
When I graduated the school placed me at the brand new Hotel Intercontinental in San Diego for $8 an hour as what is called a “Rounds Cook”. I told my Chef instructor about the opportunity and he laughed and said, “no way, you are coming to work for me.”
From that point on I gained a great deal of experience in a variety of jobs under some extremely talented chefs and restauranteurs who ran equally amazing restaurants: a broiler and Sous Chef with Chef Scott Meskan at Georges in San Diego who pioneered California Cuisine; time as an executive chef with Bill Baffert at Baffert’s Creative Northwest Cuisine in Seattle; and again as an executive chef at the Leschi Lake Café and The Broadway New American Grill in Seattle, the Hotel Finisterra in Cabo San Lucas and Planet Hollywood.
I cut my teeth, so to speak, in the product development field at a chain restaurant called Chevy’s Fresh Mex and was eventually promoted as the company’s director of product development and corporate executive chef. After about eight wonderful years at Chevy’s I found out that our chain was up for sale. About the same time I was in Napa Valley attending a chain restaurant product development conference and I met my future wife who is the Director of Research and Development for Godfather’s Pizza here in Omaha, Nebraska.
I began a search to find a good food development job in Omaha. I found out that Omaha Steaks was looking for a Culinary Services Manager / Executive Chef. I had always been a fan of Omaha Steaks and always believed their beef was some of the best that you could get anywhere. After several interviews I was lucky enough to get the job and I moved to Omaha to begin a new chapter in my life. Right away I realized that developing food for manufacturing is very different than developing food for restaurant menus. I needed to learn some more about food science so I spent 2 years of nights and weekends studying to become a Certified Research Chef, which to date is one of my proudest professional accomplishments. Now nine years later working at Omaha Steaks is still my dream job. I split my time doing new product development, quality testing, recipe writing, PR events, corporate catering and assisting our wonderful customers. Every day is different and I am constantly challenged. I feel like at Omaha Steaks I can put to good use everything I have learned over my entire career. I am honored to be a small part of this incredible company.