Thursday, Aug 24, 2017
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Aspiring teen chef mixes passion and hard work

Whitmer High senior learning about formal cooking, foraging at Element 112

  • FEA-BROWN12P-Chris-Nixon-left-owner-of-Element-112

    Chris Nixon, left, owner of Element 112 in Sylvania, works with Braeden Brown at Shared Legacy Farms in Elmore, as they prepare herbs and vegetables for a 20-course meal at the farm.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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  • FEA-BROWN12P-Chris-Nixon-and-Braeden-brown

    Chris Nixon, owner of Element 112 in Sylvania, left, picks basil with Braeden Brown at Shared Legacy Farms in Elmore.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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Kids these days want everything handed to them, or so the generational talk goes. However, there are some Toledo-area youths who know that showing up is half the battle.

One of them is Braeden Brown, 17. A senior at Whitmer High School, his general curiosity, ambition to pursue a career in the culinary arts, and effort landed him a job at the prestigious restaurant Element 112 in Sylvania. It is owned by executive chef Chris Nixon, who also worked at two-Michelin-star restaurant Noma, one of the world’s best restaurants, in Copenhagen.

At Element 112, Braeden learns about formal cooking techniques, foraging for wild plants, how to chemically bring out the best taste in foods, and sometimes how to raise the flavor profile of a dish using unlikely ingredients.

“The first thing I learned is that a pine tree tastes like oranges on certain days. Chef Nixon experiments with different things like that,” Braeden said.

Before he landed the position, the teenager had to secure a tryout date in the back of the house. Surprisingly, Mr. Nixon said many people fail right there.

“It just takes focus for about three hours. That is what we are trying to see,” Mr. Nixon said about testing aspiring chefs in the kitchen.

For his tryout, Braeden was on amuse-bouche duty, helping to create complimentary hors d’oeuvres offered to dining guests. It required mincing jalapeños.

“I thought mincing was this big,” Braeden said, holding his thumb and index finger apart about a quarter of an inch. “I learned, though, that the smaller the better, because the taste is more spread out.”

Keeping the position took effort and hard work, at which Braeden excels, Mr. Nixon said. Today, when he is not at school, Braeden works in the world-class kitchen as a chef de par tie — line cook — under the tutelage of Mr. Nixon and other world-class chefs.

“I like the rush of running the restaurant, and I like sending out good food. I love having feedback,” Braeden said.

He first experienced the rush at Whitmer’s Campus Cafe.

In his junior year, he was unsure what field he would pursue in college. He joined a culinary class at Whitmer because another friend signed up. He didn’t know then that the culinary arts program, then managed by instructor Michael DuShane, would spark his interest in the field.

“I took the junior class where you run the restaurant. I was there half a day and started speaking to Chef DuShane, and I started to love it,” he said.

Now, Braeden is in the process of applying to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Its alumni include chef-turned-epicurean media magnate Anthony Bourdain and Food Network star Cat Cora. He hopes his Element 112 experience will stand out on his application.

Braeden and Mr. Nixon meeting was happenstance.

A couple of months ago, Braeden was grocery shopping with family and his girlfriend when he spotted a man in chef’s attire. He approached Mr. Nixon, not knowing he owned a restaurant.

“I just wanted to know more chefs throughout the area. I was looking for a job because at the time I was working at McDonald’s. I wanted to work at a real restaurant,” he said.

He didn’t expect to get “a job out of just talking to him.”

When Braeden learned he was a chef, he told Mr. Nixon about his desire to be one.

“I said, ‘Oh really. We are looking for help. Why don’t you come over,’ ” Mr. Nixon said. When Braeden asked for his number, “I said ‘No. Figure it out,’ ” Mr. Nixon recalled, “And he did. He put in the effort to come over [to the restaurant]. … That means they are willing to work, and he works really hard.”

Mr. Nixon has given opportunities to many young aspiring chefs who have shown interest and dedication, regardless of culinary degree or experience. That means they can’t call off for prom or be distracted by the social activities of teenage life.

“If they do well, we help them get into culinary school and help them get into the best restaurants,” he said.

AJ Kaminski worked at Element 112 while attending St. John’s High School. He is currently attending the CIA in Hyde Park and wrapped up an internship at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island, Wash. The restaurant’s head chef, Blaine Wetzel, was honored with the James Beard award for Best Chef: Northwest 2015.

Mr. Nixon said he believes in giving young people a chance. When he was in high school his uncle Brian Chambers, an executive at Owens Corning, brought him to the office to learn how to run a business.

“When I was young it helped me a lot. I’m purely trying to pass that along. ... I know now that was a big sacrifice to take me and shepherd me around,” he said.

Braeden’s mom and dad, Cristina and Joe Wernert, are also proud of their son’s ambitions and are thankful for Mr. Nixon and the staff at Element 112 who have supported his love of cooking.

“He loved that at Whitmer; they taught him how to run a restaurant. Then he met Chef Nixon, and that skyrocketed everything, and it piqued his interest with different foods to prepare,” Mrs. Wernert said. When the family drives past a park or field with wild things growing, Braeden teaches them which plants are edible.

Mrs. Wernet said they are excited for him. Though at the end of a shift he arrives home tired, he does so with “a big grin on his face.”

Contact Natalie Trusso Cafarello at: 419-724-6133, or ntrusso@theblade.com, or on Twitter @natalietrusso.

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