Meet Our Chefs: Doug Schonfeld

Meet Our Chefs Doug Schonfeld

Chef Doug Schonfeld, who now shares his expertise on the sales floor of our Fountain Valley location, is a man who loves to create. Chef Doug, as he’s known at Chefs’ Toys, has decades of experience in the culinary industry and the chops to hold his own in any kitchen. But what sets Chef Doug apart isn’t his impressive résumé — it’s his passion for new recipes, ingredients, and ideas that makes him a treasured part of the Chefs’ Toys team.

Chef Doug was, in his words, lucky to be involved in the foodservice industry from a young age. Before any formal training, he worked for nearly four years at various culinary positions while in high school. After graduating and deciding to pursue a career as a chef, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.

While there, Chef Doug learned “the very core of cooking.” During his education, he was introduced to Escoffier, the father of modern cuisine, and became familiar with methods that date back hundreds of years. As he perfected techniques for making sauces and specialty dishes, Chef Doug says he also grew as a team player and collaborator.

After graduating, Chef Doug served as a cook at Four Seasons Newport Beach for four years before transitioning to the Peninsula Hotel Beverly Hills under Executive Chef Bill Bracken. During his 10-year tenure at Peninsula, he climbed from sous chef to assistant food and beverage director.

After that, Chef Doug worked as a banquet chef at Island Hotel Newport Beach for five years. There, he met Steve Dickler from Chefs’ Toys. Dickler would come to the area hotels in a mobile knife-sharpening and culinary tool truck. “I love my knives, but how to sharpen knives properly is an exact science,” Chef Doug explained. “Steve Dickler would come to the hotels once a month in his tool truck and sharpen our knives. That’s how we met, and we became good friends.”

What Chef Doug vividly recalls is visiting the inside of the truck and marveling at the range of tools he never knew existed, even that far into his career. “As a chef, you know the basics, but there were tools in there that could help me do my job faster that I had never seen,” he shared. Chef Doug asked questions about the pastry bags, specialized cutters, “tiny spatulas,” and other tools in the truck.

“I always wanted to know how he knew to sell this stuff,” Chef Doug admitted. Fast forward to 2010, and Doug decided to close the banquet chef chapter of his life. A month after leaving his position at Island Hotel, he walked into one of the new brick-and-mortar locations of Chefs’ Toys. Doug and Steve got to talking, and once Steve learned that Doug had left the hotel, he insisted that Doug come work at Chefs’ Toys.

“I said, ‘Really? I know nothing about sales.’ Steve responded, ‘What do you mean you don’t know anything about sales? Do you work in a kitchen? Do you work with all this equipment? Then you know how to sell it,’” Doug recalled.

A week after that fateful run-in with Steve, Chef Doug was a full-fledged member of the Chefs’ Toys team. We sat down and chatted with Chef Doug about his passions, his approach to cooking, and why he loves working at Chefs’ Toys.

What’s something you wish you could tell people just now graduating into the culinary industry?
I graduated back in 1990. Now, because of the internet, streaming services, and TV, the expectations for cooking have changed a lot. People who are graduating now may have been drawn to cooking because of shows on TV like “Chopped,” and while these shows give you a glimpse into the kitchen, they don’t paint the whole picture.

For example, I didn’t come out of culinary school and start as an executive chef. I started as a third cook. You have to work hard to progress: from cook three to cook two, cook one, sous chef, executive chef. It takes commitment and focus.

For most of my culinary career, I was a banquet chef. In that position, you may have functions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner without any rhyme or reason to it. You have to be ready to be up early and throw yourself into whatever the work demands.

What is your creative process in the kitchen?
I don’t necessarily have a specific process, but I enjoy taking a foundation and seeing how I can tweak it. I’ll sometimes flip through the cooking channels and happen on a dish that looks interesting. I’ll think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool. Look how they’re approaching this.’ I’ll see what products and ingredients they’re using. I’ll say, ‘I like this recipe, but I don’t like this aspect.’

I’ll try to find a way to substitute out something else for, say, the ground beef in the recipe. It’s important for me to find something different that would still make the recipe taste great. I like to shuffle recipes around to make them work for me.

If you had to eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I love foie gras. It’s fantastic. I would have to say either foie gras or a pastrami Reuben. If it’s cooked and smoked properly… I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!

Do you have a go-to spice you add to everything?
I adore smoked paprika. It adds an earthy flavor, a smokiness, to anything — vegetables, stews, spice rubs. It really enhances tomato-based sauces. I buy it in bulk, and I have a handheld vacuum sealer at home that I put it in. As long as you store it in a dark cabinet, it stays fresh forever!

What fast-casual restaurant do you love?
I am fascinated by hot pot restaurants. You have your induction burner, broth, and you get to cook whatever you order. Restaurants like this are great for me because I can order all vegetables. I try to find authentic hot pot spots where I can make it spicy. I’m talking runny-nose, face-turns-purple spicy. Your mouth is numb for three days after that. I love those places.

If you could go anywhere for a weeklong culinary tour, where would you go?
I’ve never been to Italy. I would love to eat in all the different regions because the cuisine changes depending on where you are. You can have entirely different experiences on the coast and then in the mountainous areas. The chefs there really care about the freshness of the produce, the meat, and the fish.

Who are your culinary heroes?
First and foremost, I would say Bill Bracken. He is my mentor, and he taught me most of what I know in the kitchen. He runs Bracken’s Kitchen, where I volunteer. I also look up to Anthony Bourdain. His book, “Kitchen Confidential,” really captures what it’s like in the kitchen. The good, the bad, the right, the wrong — all of it.

You spend a considerable amount of time volunteering at Bracken’s Kitchen, a nonprofit in Orange County that is committed to restoring and repurposing food and lives through food recovery, culinary training, and a community feeding program. What excites you about that work?
Bracken’s Kitchen feeds the less fortunate — people who have a choice between buying a meal and paying rent. Most of the volunteers aren’t professional chefs; they’re regular people that feel the need to get involved and make a difference. I get in there and work with them — I can show them the proper way to cut carrots so they don’t cut off a fingertip.

By meeting these volunteers and introducing them to cooking in a new way, I hopefully inspire them to take these techniques and also pay it forward, by cooking for others or even in their own homes. It’s a good feeling — it fills your heart.

At one point in my career, I thought I’d go into teaching as a chef instructor. While volunteering at Bracken’s Kitchen, I tell the people I work with, ‘There’s no right or wrong way to do it.’ We’re all just learning, sharing, and having fun while doing something so important.

The motto of Chefs’ Toys is “for chefs, by chefs.” What do you think embodies the Chefs’ Toys difference?
Having been a chef for decades, I have worked with all of this equipment. I bring my personal experience to the sales floor every day. Friends in the industry or chefs in the area may come in and say, ‘Doug, we’re looking for a new blender. This is what we’re making, and this is how we’re blending now.’

When this happens, I can say, ‘Oh, I’ve done that before. This is what you need. This is how I used to do it, and this is what I used to use.’ When people realize you’ve used all of this equipment and you have an entire life’s worth of experience, they trust you because they know you’re not going to steer them wrong. Anything I sell to my core customers I’ve either used before or I own myself.

If you had told me I would become a salesperson back when I was a chef, I would have told you, ‘You’re out of your mind. You’re crazy.’ But so much crossover happens here. I know how to use this equipment, how to fix it, how to deal with it, and I know the fields in the foodservice industry where our equipment would be useful.