“What I do isn’t art. Art is when you do something once. My profession is craft. I’ve trained for it. It’s a lot of hard work and repetition. Cutting the same thing a thousand times to know the motion of it.”
Alan Sternberg is no stranger to hard work. At age 28, he’s already the executive chef of Cerulean, one of our favorite clients and Indianapolis’ favorite restaurants. I sat down with Alan to discuss what it’s like to be in the middle of Indy’s emerging restaurant scene.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
No. I always had jobs in kitchens throughout high school and starting college, but I went to school for other things. It wasn’t long before I didn’t care about going to class, but I cared about going to work. That’s when I realized something needed to change. So I dropped out and went to culinary school. I then went on to serve as a culinary instructor, chef de cuisine at Local Eatery & Pub, and then was the executive sous chef at Mesh on Mass before I landed here at Cerulean as the executive chef.
Your birthday was last week. You turned 28, and yet you’re already an executive chef in one of Indianapolis’ top restaurants. Do you think you’re a little young for that position?
I am young, but I’ve also had 11 years in the industry. Becoming a chef is much more about a combination of experiences and time you’ve put into it. It’s putting in the steps to be prepared rather than being your age. It’s very hard work, and I’ve earned where I’m at now. I’m a competitive person. I always want to be better than the person next to me, and I’m always working to be a better version of myself. It’s also really great to be in the restaurant industry in Indy right now. I learn so much from chefs I’ve worked for or alongside, and I can talk for hours with our pastry chef, Pete Schmutte, about the latest foods we’ve tasted or tried to make. It’s a really encouraging and engaging community.
What are your opinions on the restaurant scene in Indy?
I think it’s still in its infancy. A lot of good things are happening and the foundation is already there to build on. But there are almost not enough people to fill the restaurants from a staffing perspective. The restaurant industry in Indy needs more people who are career-oriented with more professionalism across the board. Once we have that, then the scene will grow a lot.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Chicago, New York, and San Francisco for sure. They’re the biggest food scenes in this country. I also look at England a good bit. There are interesting things happening with English chefs right now. I also do a lot of Googling. I’m really interested what other people have done with flavor combinations or even just one ingredient.
Some of your plates will have garnishes or brightly colored sauces on them. You say what you do isn’t art, but everything you do looks so beautiful.
Everything on the plate has a purpose. I may choose a purple carrot over an orange one for more visual contrast with the rest of the things on the plate. Everything always has a function. Nothing is just for appearance. We’re not going to do something just because we can. I think the maturity of cooking is knowing when not to do something.
Pastrami Crusted Pork Flat Iron
What’s your favorite ingredient right now?
I would have to say carrots. They have such a great color and there’s so much you can do with them. We’re doing things like juicing carrots, glazing them, making reduced carrot broth. Carrots are something that translates to everyone who walks in the door. Everyone has had a carrot. The challenge is to make a carrot taste more like a carrot. To give you something you know, but in a way you haven’t experienced it. I want to be able to catch you off guard with something as humble as an onion or a carrot.
How do you keep track of every ingredient, flavor, or recipe you come across?
Notebooks. I have a ton of notebooks. I’m always writing down ingredients I’ve tried, plates I’ve made, and things I want to try to do. It’s about learning processes in my free time and applying it to every day life. I’m always reading books, blogs, websites, watching videos, just everything I can to be better every day. I also have a good memory when it comes to ingredients and how they taste. It’s like I have a Rolodex of flavors in my head.
There’s a lot of buzz about “clean eating” or “eating healthy,” especially with everyone’s New Year’s resolutions in full swing. What are your thoughts on this?
When you come to a restaurant like Cerulean, everything we cook with is fresh. You don’t have all of the extra preservatives, fats, or salts when you make everything fresh. So you can eat healthy and still enjoy the things you like. Because personally, I think butter is delicious.
What should someone expect when dining at Cerulean?
To have fun. To not take it too seriously. They should be able to enjoy their time and whatever company they’re with and relax and have a good evening. I want them to be more worried about who they’re sitting across the table from than what’s going on in the kitchen. I want them to notice us less and enjoy the other elements of the experience more.