Allured by California’s farm-to-table movement in the late ’70s, Christopher Becker left the East Coast, finding himself at Inn of the Seventh Ray restaurant in Topanga Canyon, looking for a job. This future culinary educator came to the Inn with no formal training—just years working his way up at his grandfather’s meat-and-potatoes diner.
“It’s how they did it in Europe,” Becker said. “They had apprenticeships without formal cooking education.” He auditioned on the spot, improvising out of a kitchen with unfamiliar ingredients: free-range chicken, millet, quinoa and fresh herbs from a hillside garden. Although Becker landed the head chef position, he considers it a “blip” in his robust culinary career. But perhaps it’s that experience that most resembles what he’s trying to do for aspiring chefs nearly 40 years later at The New School of Cooking in Culver City.
The greatest complaint he hears from restaurant owners is that graduates from top culinary schools have excellent knowledge, but they don’t always know how to cook.
When Becker bought The New School of Cooking last year he set out to train chefs who can cook at the drop of a toque, whether in a professional capacity or for recreation.
His goal—to build the best cooking school in America—may seem lofty, but when looking at his vast and varied career, which oscillated between student and teacher, Becker may just have the experience and enough bravado to pull it off.
A self-described autodidact—one who learns on his own—Becker has always “loved to take apart things and put them back together, maybe in a better way than they were before.”
Mentored early on by Executive Chef Brad Odgen at Campton Place Restaurant in San Francisco, he was introduced to cooking with America’s bounty, like wild mushrooms and heirlooms, while working along- side many up-and-coming chef talents such Michael Mina and Charlie “Chuck” Trotter. He then took his knowledge of American regional cuisine to the Westin Hotel, where he was exposed to a grander kitchen operation. “They fabricated everything, even had their own butcher,” he reminisced. “It was a good experience.”
With his wife, Becker followed head chef opportunities to Los Angeles and then to Florida, where one day he was asked to talk with local high school students about cooking—essentially be a home ec. teacher. Although “harder than it looks,” Becker discovered a knack for talking, teaching and cooking at the same time, and turned toward culinary education—in a big way.
Over the next two decades, he founded the California School of the Culinary Arts and Kitchen Academy and was instrumental in bringing Le Cordon Bleu to North America, introducing the classic French methods to culinary education.
Within this illustrious career, Becker has also owned two restaurants—one in The Haight serving nouvelle cuisine to “hippies and gay men,” and more recently, Christopher’s in Pasadena.
Practical experience, philosophical ideals, refined classical French training and a coarse immersive education intersect for Becker at The New School of Cooking, where he offers programs for cooks on all levels, at any point in their career.
Becker sees The New School of Cooking as a place for like-minded food enthusiasts. Students keep coming back. “They fall in love with the teachers,” Becker said. And, like a man who’s found his place in the world, Becker continued, “it just feels good to be here.”