Cooking began as a family bonding experience for Hannah Cupples, but she knew from an early age that it would one day become her livelihood as well.
“I pretty much knew I wanted to cook since I was 4 years old,” said Cupples, now 24 and the chef de cuisine at Four by Brother Luck on Tejon Street. “My uncle owned restaurants when I was little and my parents are people who cook at home all the time. … I started at home and kind of found a passion for it outside of that as well.”
The Palmer High School graduate got her formal start through The Broadmoor hotel’s three-year classical apprenticeship program — “a really intensive European-style program that took us through all nine of their restaurants,” she said, “starting with things like peeling potatoes and going up to working the line at a five-star restaurant.”
Since then, Cupples has worked her way around the Colorado Springs culinary circle. She left the Springs n 2016 for a seasonal stint at the historic Hotel Jerome in Aspen, but the higher cost of living and a desire for new challenges led her back to her hometown.
Cupples found that challenge in her new role working alongside former “Top Chef” contestant Brother Luck, describing the experience as “apprenticeship, Round 2.”
“It’s not about learning how to cook anymore,” she said. “It’s about learning how to teach other people how to cook.”
Cupples sat down with the Business Journal this week to talk about the challenges she has faced as a young female chef, her love for mentoring, and her vision for downtown’s burgeoning restaurant scene.
What are your responsibilities as chef de cuisine?
I’m in charge of all kitchen operations, including hiring, menu writing, product organization, getting purveyors, meeting with different clients on caterings — all of it. A lot of times, when you’re a chef, the higher up you get, the less cooking you do — which is a bummer, but I still get to do a fair amount here.
What are some of the challenges that come along with being chef de cuisine?
Time management is definitely one, because it’s one thing to know how to cook and how to organize everything to come up at the same time, but doing that with things like paperwork and organizational office stuff is a little bit different. Teaching people to think how you think is definitely a hard one because everybody has different styles of learning and that moment where things click. The way that I learn something is not necessarily going to be the way that anybody else does, so learning how to be able to apply your skills to different styles of learning and being able to do that successfully [is a challenge]. Then there’s always that thought in your mind of, you know you can do something faster but in the long run it’s going to be better off for both people if you teach someone how to do it now.
Did you ever think you’d be in the position of teaching other people how to cook?
Yeah, I enjoy teaching. I’ve been put in a mentor position a few different times — not just with cooking, but in general. I’m someone who generally enjoys taking on that kind of role. That’s kind of my backup plan if I ever stop cooking, is to go into teaching.
What’s your favorite thing about your work?
I guess I can look at that a few different ways. I love the creative aspect of it because I’ve never worked somewhere that has this much freedom to it. We really get to kind of play around and have a lot of freedom with the ingredients — we don’t really have a whole lot of rules that tie us in. Also, having an owner who is a chef and not just a business person makes a big difference, because this restaurant is very kitchen-oriented. So all of the problems that I have or all of the topics that come up in discussions are something that’s almost always immediately applicable to knowledge that he already has.
Talk about your experience working with renowned chef Brother Luck.
He is the most honest person I’ve ever worked with. He’s super approachable and he’s super awesome. … He’s been more my mentor for the management style of things than he has for cooking, which I’m super grateful for because I feel like that’s not an opportunity that a lot of people are given, especially when they’re a young female. It’s usually something that people either don’t want to teach you or expect you to already know. So he’s been super awesome being able to show me different things, like budgeting and food costing and different management styles.
Can you talk more about the challenges of being a young female chef?
To be a little casual about it, I think it’s funny that people make the joke of ‘Get back in the kitchen,’ when you’re a girl, and then as soon as you’re in the kitchen they’re like, ‘That’s not your place.’ So like — pick one. I think we’re definitely moving away from it, but it’s still somewhat of an issue to a lot of people about seeing someone in a position of power who is younger than you, or who is female. A lot of people have a big issue with that, but it is something that’s improving. I don’t see it nearly as much as I used to. We have a pretty young kitchen. Everyone there is really awesome. I wouldn’t say it’s usually a problem here, as much as when I go other places and they ask me, ‘Who’s the man in charge?’ Or they think it’s some kind of side job where they’re like, ‘Oh, so what do you do for your real job?’ Or they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cute.’ Um yes, 80 hours a week is adorable, thank you.
What direction do you think the Colorado Springs restaurant scene is heading, specifically downtown?
When I left here for Aspen, I left because there wasn’t anything here. There weren’t any places where I was like, ‘Oh, I want to work here, this seems really cool. There are things happening.’ We came back and it just seems like it’s booming. All the renovation and all the stuff going up on the south side of town is happening fast and I’m really excited to see where that progression is going to go in the next five years. I think it’s really cool that we’re getting a lot more local spots and a lot less chains. That’s definitely the demographic — pushing out the more corporate places and giving smaller voices a chance. I think we’re very much still building that movement, but it’ll be neat to see.
I would be excited to see more fine dining because we have a lot of casual, we have a lot of bars, a lot of breweries. I think we could use a lot more nice dinner spots because I think when people think of taking your wife or husband out for a date or celebrating a special occasion, everyone goes to Denver. But you look across the nation, we’re seeing that big trend of secondary markets. I think we could definitely be one of those, where people are straying away from the bigger cities to find the hidden gems in smaller towns. There are a lot of weird little places, like little funky holes in the wall.
Describe your management style.
Being straightforward, organized, technical, trying to find the most efficient way to do everything. I’ve worked for a lot of chefs who like yelling and screaming and throwing cast iron pans and potatoes at your head, and that’s not something that can get things done. That might have worked 20 years ago when everybody needed a job that badly, but we have more job openings than ever and no bodies to fill them. I think that’s a good problem to have in terms of the trends that the industry is taking when it comes to treatment of employees.
How do you think the culture of the culinary industry is changing?
Being a cook isn’t something to be looked down upon anymore. It used to be a question of, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ It is a very serious profession — it always has been and people have always taken it that way, but from an outside perspective, it’s now becoming something that’s respected and edified. People look up to it and are excited about it.