Kirsten "KJ" Mathers
Head Chef at Resort on Island of St. Kitts, Oversees Kitchen and Menu Creation
The Art Institute of Tampa, a branch of Miami International University of Art & Design
The classroom curriculum enabled a more broad vision of what it is like to be a chef. Without the full scope of the curriculum [at The Art Institute of Tampa], I would not be able to approach this job in the way that I am now. Kirsten "KJ" Mathers , Head Chef at Resort on Island of St. Kitts, Oversees Kitchen and Menu Creation Associate of Arts in Culinary Arts, 2016 , The Art Institute of Tampa, a branch of Miami International University of Art & Design
Kirsten Mathers’ first immersion into international cuisine took place when she traveled to Italy, while still a student, as a finalist in the Urbani Tartufi Truffle Competition. Today, she’s working as the head chef of a resort on the island of St. Kitts, in charge of a restaurant that recently re-opened. Kirsten oversees the menu, puts ServSafe procedures in place, standardizes menus, and manages inventory. “It was an unexpected opportunity, but one that I know will be pivotal in my professional career,” she says.
While still a student, Kirsten earned the opportunity to cook New Year’s Eve dinner at the prestigious James Beard House and was selected for a two week trip to Italy to participate in the Urbani Tartufi Truffle Competition. Upon completion of her degree, two of her Chef instructors helped to connect her with an internship at an Italian resort—and finally her job in St. Kitts.
Her work day includes morning prep, then a quick break before she returns in the afternoon to get ready for dinner service. As the restaurants ramps up its staff, Kirsten hopes to turn over the prep work to new hires and devote more time to planning and record keeping—but will continue to work inside the kitchens for the dinner hours.
Kirsten says that she’s currently facing a big challenge. “The executive chef of the resort where my restaurant is located resigned unexpectedly four days after I got here. I was left in charge of a restaurant that had re-opened just five days before his resignation.” She adds that her education immediately assisted her with stepping up to the challenge. “The well-rounded education that I got at The Art Institute of Tampa, as well as the support of my chef instructors and family/friends [allowed me] to face this challenge with confidence and excitement.”
On St. Kitts, there’s an existing framework to Island favorites—but growing tourism allows Kirsten to experiment and stretch the minds of her culinary staff. “It's always a conversation, but it's been fun to see the way that all of us are willing to try new things, or combine both the local heart and the tourists’ tastes.”
While she tries to make room for downtime, she says that a chef's mind never stops. “Food never ends, so cooking never ends. Requisitions never end so tracking products never ends. Restaurants cannot remain stagnant, so you must learn the taste of people around you to know what sorts of things you can create to put on the menu.” Kirsten spends time learning how to create foods and says that she’s always present and aware—watching everything going on in the kitchen. “On the flip side, to be a healthy chef, you must make sure to commit to stopping your chef brain and taking time to do what you need to do for yourself to keep you going as a chef.”
Kirsten, who in 2016 earned an Associate of Arts in Culinary Arts from The Art Institute of Tampa, says that she started her culinary education five years after earning a bachelor’s degree in Youth Ministry. “I knew I needed to do something more.
Up until then I had worked in a coffee shop, served in a restaurant, and did a quick stint as a bank teller, but never really considered culinary school until I realized that all of my free time was spent experimenting in the kitchen.” She says that the labs and in-kitchen classes challenged her and that her instructors pushed her to reach her potential. “The classroom curriculum enabled a more broad vision of what it is like to be a chef. Without the full scope of the curriculum there, I would not be able to approach this job in the way that I am now.”
She admits that life in the culinary industry is tough, requiring a hardworking, consistent attitude. “All chefs fail at some point or another, because food is a endless palate. The fact of the matter is that you will get out what you put in. I'm sure people have heard that over and over again, but we must rise to the challenges that are placed in front of us.” Kirsten mentions that her instructors wanted her to be successful and encouraged her to become a consistent, and curious culinary artist.
“It’s been a wild ride, and I am excited to see the way things keep on unfolding. I do have to say though that as much as I have reaped rewards of hard work and determination, not one bit of any of it would be possible without the network of chefs teaching, guiding, helping, and encouraging me. One cannot be a chef alone.”