It can be hard for chef Katie Pickens to articulate exactly what her day-to-day is like. Pickens is the culinary director for Michael Symon — chef and co-host of The Chew — and her job can be a catch-all role.
“Everyday is just so different,” she says. “Some days, I’m working on The Chew, developing and testing recipes, while other days I’m hiring or training staff at one of our restaurants.” Those restaurants include Angeline inside Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel, mini burger chain B Spot Burgers, Roast in Detroit, Mabel’s BBQ in Cleveland (Pickens’ and Symon’s hometown), Washington DC airport restaurant Bar Symon, and Lola Bistro in Cleveland — where Picken’s held her first job with the group at age 22.
“It felt natural to walk into restaurants,” says Pickens, who grew up surrounded by her mother and grandmother’s cooking. “Cooking dinner every day was just a huge part of my life.”
Her first restaurant job — at 16-years-old — was as a dishwasher before the restaurant eventually promoted her to prep cook. Pickens is forever proud of the way she began her career. “Every job in the kitchen needs to be respected,” she says with fervent empathy. “It’s something that’s deeply ingrained in me and that I try to stress to all of the staff we hire.”
She adds, “100 percent, everyone should work in a restaurant at some point in their life.” Pickens, who is a graduate of the culinary program at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, notes that “working restaurant experience is all that matters.”
The newest bullet in Pickens’ bio is video host, as the anchor of Eater’s new series How to Make It, which highlights some of the craziest jobs in the food world. In each episode, Pickens gets hands-on knowledge on everything from creating a restaurant’s neon sign, to carving beautifully impressive ice sculptures with New York City’s best, to serving chicken at a medieval dinner theatre in New Jersey. Each immersive experience underscores Pickens’ theory that working in service industries is a valuable rite of passage, no matter the path. And Pickens, forever a student who misses the thrill of working the line, jumped at the opportunity.
It also doesn’t hurt that Pickens is pretty comfortable in front of a camera, a recurring figure on cultish Food Network show, Iron Chef America. “I remember when the executive chef at the time put out the schedule [for the restaurant] and by my name it said ‘Iron Chef,’” she recalls. “I thought, okay.”
That first appearance in Kitchen Stadium translated to over a dozen episodes taking place over four seasons, with still-emotional memories like the time her bread soufflé turned out or the cheese in the center of a batch of arancini melted perfectly — or the now-funny horror story that involved an intern mislabeling the sugar as salt in a challenge against Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, with Pickens wondering if she all of a sudden forgot how to cook.
Of course, she didn’t.