Furman chef brings the world to the Dining Hall
When Gustavo Sanchez-Salazar reports to work as the executive chef of Furman University, there’s one thing he looks forward to the most – introducing new cultures to the student body.
Born in Lima, Peru, Sanchez-Salazar got his start in the kitchen at a very young age. Since he was about 8 years old, he was involved in his mother’s baking business, which was so busy that his grandmother handled most of the cooking responsibilities at home. Many nights Sanchez-Salazar helped her in the kitchen, where he learned the basics of cooking.
Now more than two years into his role as executive chef, he’s proud to bring his Peruvian roots to life in the Dining Hall. He’s learning a thing or two himself about other cultures, too.
Sanchez-Salazar got his start cooking professionally after attending the International Culinary Center in New York City, where he specialized in French techniques.
“French cuisine is the mother of cooking techniques,” he said. “We are like artists. Cooking is in your heart. It’s your flavors; it’s your own. You just learn the techniques and use those as the foundation of nearly everything you make.”
Sanchez-Salazar does, in fact, make almost everything. From various chef positions in Miami, Florida, he learned a lot about food from Cuba, Colombia and Mexico – cultures that are increasingly making up the demographic of south Florida. But from chef positions at Royal Caribbean, Seminole Hard Rock Cafe and Hotel, and Bon Appetit Management Company, which manages dining halls at numerous higher education institutions throughout the country, he’s made everything from Chinese to Indian to Cambodian cuisines.
“There are a lot of students here who have never tried the things I’ve introduced to them,” he said. “We created a new station (in the dining hall) called Near and Far, where we serve dishes from different countries. It’s become the most popular station. It’s a great experience – it’s an adventure all the time.”
The tables turned last month, though, when 40 students brought Sanchez-Salazar recipes from their home countries for him and his team to prepare for the 15th annual Furman International Student Association’s Food Fest. Even for a seasoned chef, new recipes and ingredients representing 17 different countries presented him with a fun challenge.
“We had a few recipes from China, a few from Africa, a few from Peru,” he said. “One of them was from Ghana – a rice made with black-eyed peas and a root vegetable that was hard to come by. It was delicious.”
Despite Sanchez-Salazar’s success today, it wasn’t without challenges. Peruvian culture in the 1980s was such that women held the household roles, including cooking. It was frowned upon for a man to attend culinary school, so Sanchez-Salazar was discouraged from cooking professionally and initially earned a degree in business administration. He worked as a medical sales manager for more than a decade. It wasn’t until political instability in the 1990s drove Sanchez-Salazar and his sister out the country and to the United States that he finally was able to pursue cooking as his career.
In it, and at Furman, he’s found his home away from home.
“This is one of the best teams I’ve had in my 25-year career,” said Sanchez-Salazar. “I initially came to Furman to give support for two weeks, but I was lucky that at the time there was an opening for a full-time position. I feel like this team is a family.”
Outside of work, Sanchez-Salazar enjoys the small-town feel of Greenville. He and his girlfriend have three dogs and enjoy mountain biking and the change of seasons – a stark difference from the Florida weather.
“We feel very grateful to be here,” he said.