At the Culinary Institute of America, John Paidas met a professor who set him on a new path.
Credit: Courtesy John Paidas

Chef John Paidas got into cooking for the physical joy of the job.

“We’re adrenaline junkies,” he says. “We thrive on the rush of working the line, being in the heat of battle, and pushing, pushing, pushing. That manual labor aspect was the thing I fell in love with.”

Now executive chef at Baltimore’s Rec Pier Chop House, Paidas grew up working in restaurants and catering kitchens nearby. He’d advanced from salads to hot apps to the grill, always improving upon the physical labor he so enjoyed. “I didn’t know anything else other than that,” he says.

At the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Paidas quickly discovered he had a lot of catching up to do.

Fellow classmates had been to fine-dining restaurants and fawned over chefs he’d never heard of. In an early Product Knowledge class, one student named all sixteen types of salad greens that a professor had set on a table; Paidas knew only iceberg, arugula, and romaine.

“I'm going, ‘What did I get myself into? I am way out of my league,” Paidas says. But then, after a hands-on cooking class, he watched the same book-smart student scribbling in his notebook as he scrubbed and sweated in the dish pit until the kitchen sparkled clean. “I was ignorant enough to think that there was nothing you could read in a book that you couldn't learn from real life,” he says. Paidas was doing the work. He had confidence that would succeed.

And so sometimes he went to class. Sometimes, he didn’t. Sometimes, he did his classwork and landed mediocre grades. And sometimes he skipped class entirely to go hiking, fishing, or camping. “The idea that to move forward in this industry requires something more than on the clock / off the clock? I didn’t have that,” he says.

Then he met Professor Michael Pardus in his "Cuisines of Asia" course.

“Honestly, I don't know what it was that he saw in me... I just... don't know,” Paidas says. But Pardus had observed Paidas’ passion in the kitchen and saw his potential. One day, when Paidas got another C on a test, Pardus asked him to stay behind after class.

“Michael is a very blunt person – it’s one of the things I love about him,” Paidas says. “Essentially, he told me to smarten up and focus, because being in this business is not just about the hard work you put into it – it’s about everything else.”

Paidas just sort of… paused. And pondered that Pardus might be onto something.

“It wasn't like what you see in the movies, with music playing the background,” he continues. “It was me sweating. With a paper with a C from him in my hand. With him saying, "You've got something, but if you keep going the route that you're going, it's a waste."

Paidas recognized a choice—a fork in the road. He went home and read his textbook cover to cover.

He started small. He began actually reading his textbooks, looking for any why behind a cuisine or ingredient or technique that sparked his curiosity. He would stack magazines and periodicals onto old wooden tables in the CIA library basement, scanning them for hours. He would pop into Pardus’ office with questions, or to celebrate a B-minus on a paper. He observed sessions of Pardus’ Global Culinary Society, and later traveled to Vietnam with a cooking program Pardus led.

Paidas credits Pardus for the kick in the pants. “But the ability, the drive, and the desire to achieve have got to come from within,” he reminds his cooks today. Reframing the lettuce-versus-dish-pit memory, he coaches that “you can't look at what you don't know or what you don't have. You have to look at what you need in order to where you need to go. I think people often blame everybody else for why they haven't succeeded in what they want to do. At the end of the day, you've got to start looking at yourself and the things you can do better.”

He encourages his cooks to bring their curiosity and passion to the kitchen. “I get to make people happy for a living,” he says. “That's something I try to get the team to understand. We get to put smiles on people's faces every day.”

When asked what his life would look like without Pardus, the chef is frank.

“What is the exponentially increased word for 'ignorant'? One hundred percent, that sums it up,” Paidas says. “I see now not only how big of a chance he took on me, but also how proud he is, because there have been people I've had over the course of my career who have thanked me for the same thing. It is a beautiful thing. It really is.”