Chef Wes Bonner Talks about High School Cooking Classes and This Weekend's Boca Wine & Food Festival

Categories: Ask the Chef
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Unlike most chefs, Wes Bonner didn't grow up cooking with his parents, or experimenting in the kitchen at home. Instead, it was school -- not culinary school, but a high school cooking program -- that would help him develop a passion for cooking.

Today, 28-year-old Bonner has done a lot over the course of his 9-year career, traveling across Florida -- even overseas -- to cook for some high-profile hotels like The Ritz Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and the Four Seasons, just to name a few. 

Most recently, Bonner has stepped into a teaching role with South Florida's favorite grocery chain, Publix, as a chef for one of the grocery retailer's two local area Publix Apron Cooking Schools. 

Although he began in Boca Raton, Bonner now heads the team at the Plantation cooking school, where customers can learn to cook gourmet meals with their seafood, meats, produce and products.

A true South Florida chef, Bonner will also be joining the team of local culinary professionals participating in this year's 3rd annual Boca Raton Wine and Food Festival, taking place this weekend, November 9 through November 11. Hailed as one of the largest outdoor culinary events in South Florida, the festival will be a three day, multi-sensory affair that brings together over 100 of South Florida's top chefs for a weekend food pairings, tastings and dinners. 

This year, Bonner will be heading a culinary team that will be preparing dishes for the festival's food pairing event known as Perfect Pairings, where a panel of chefs will be executing dishes meant to be paired with various wines on Saturday, November 12. 

For the Q&A with Bonner, keep reading:


Clean Plate Charlie: Tell us about how you started cooking?

Wes Bonner: I was raised in Wellington, and [attended] Wellington High School, and they had a cooking program. I enjoyed it so much, I thought, 'Wow. I could do this for a living.' 

That explains the early start to your career. You're only 28, and have already had the chance to work with some pretty high-profile restaurants and hotels.

I also graduated high school early, when I was 17, so I immediately began culinary school at Johnson and Wales in North Miami.

In the past nine years you've cooked at the Ritz Carlton in Coconut Grove, the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, and the Four Seasons in Palm Beach. Many chefs tell me they feel they learn just as much -- if not more -- working with a particular restaurant or chef over their formal training. Was that true for you, as well?

In a way, most definitely. I started working with the Ritz my sophomore year at Johnson and Wales, and then moved on to become a full-time banquet chef. [In less than a year] I was working in the main restaurant [formerly Pascoe Grille]. I learned a lot, but most of all, it was the practical application of all the things I was learning at school that really helped move me along in acquiring the skills of my profession. So many students never get the chance to have that hands-on experience. I was lucky.

While you were in London you worked at La Foliage, the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in London. Why did you decide to travel to London? 

Chef Paul Hayward [the senior executive pastry chef currently working at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas] once told me that if I wanted to become a truly valuable chef, I would need to learn both sides of the kitchen -- preparing food and desserts. So, I decided I wanted to learn pastry, and made a deal that would allow me to learn [with the chefs at the Mandarin], and live in London at the same time. 

What's did you enjoy baking or cooking the most during your time there?

I really enjoyed making chocolates, which we did a lot of at the hotel. There was something about mixing the ingredients, tempering the chocolate, that really felt like a challenge. It's a great skill to master.

In 2009 you began working with the Publix Aprons Cooking School program. Can you tell me more about the program?

The Publix cooking schools started in Sarasota about 8 or 9 years ago, and began as a way to utilize the groceries that [Publix] sells. The idea was, if we are going to sell customers our food, why don't we empower them to learn how to use the ingredients, as well? The classes started, and the schools naturally evolved. 

That's quite a leap: High-profile hotel restaurants to Publix cooking school. How did that happen?

I had stopped working as a chef because I decided to go back to school for a bachelor's degree in general education. During that time, I had started working at Publix part-time while I went to school, just to make some money. Eventually, my resume was passed around, and I ended up working full-time as a chef for the Boca Raton cooking school, although I was recently transferred to the Plantation school. It's a really unique niche, and I'm happy to have found the balance with cooking and teaching.

Tell me about the classes. Are they good for beginners, or are there more challenging courses for more experienced home chefs?

[Both the Boca Raton and Plantation schools] offer several classes five days a week, some starting as early as 10 a.m., and others starting as late as 7 p.m. The classes cover a lot, everything from the basics of cooking and proper preparation methods, to how to cook a meal using one of our recipes from start to finish. Each school has its own recipes, but they go beyond the "simple meal" recipes [used for weekly promotions you often see taking place in the store for customer samples]. What we do is take people away from that simple, time-constricted recipe format to maybe something that is a little bit more complex, a little bit more gourmet -- although anyone can participate in any class.

I guess you could say it's a perfect pairing! Just like the event you will be participating in this coming weekend. Tell me what you like most about the Boca Raton Wine and Food Festival.

This is the first year I've been involved serving on the board, and managing an event. Although I won't be doing any of the cooking myself, I'm excited to work with the local chefs who will be pairing their dishes with the various wines we will be offering during the dinner. I like this event because, typically, with large food and drink events like this one, you get the experience -- but not always the quality. But with [this event] that's not the case. In my opinion, we're working with some of the best vintners, and featuring some of the most high-quality wines, I've seen at an event of this kind in a long time. We're really aiming for the more unique wines to create some amazing pairings people have never seen or heard of before.

For more information on the 3rd Annual Boca Raton Wine & Food Festival, or to purchase tickets, go to bocaratonwineandfoodfestival.com or call (561) 338-7594. For more Aprons recipes, or to find a cooking school near you, visit the Publix Aprons Cooking School website.

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