Two things in this world involve inevitable late nights: raising toddlers and working in restaurants. Roslindale’s Eric Spitz did both at the same time. He left a comfortable finance career to enroll at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, going on to work in high-profile kitchens such as Sel de la Terre downtown and The Country Club in Brookline. Oh, and forget just one toddler — at the time, he had twins.
Now 54, his life is a bit calmer but no less fulfilling. Spitz is the culinary instructor at Community Servings’ Teaching Kitchen. The free, 12-week program provides a gateway to culinary careers for people facing barriers to employment. Community Servings provides medically tailored meals for people in need throughout the area. The organization recently expanded its reach with TK Eats, serving takeout meals to the public from its Jamaica Plain headquarters, created by the trainees.
Spitz’s earlier jobs were “old-school,” he says, with yelling and kitchen drama. But that’s changing as the industry’s demographics become more diverse, he says.
“More women are coming into positions of authority. In a kitchen, that’s really the only way the culture can change. We get new people coming in, with different perspectives,” he says. “And that’s something I actually preach to my students all the time: There’s no reason that all the chefs have to be white males. Anyone can cook. It doesn’t have to be one type of person.”
This is a departure from some of the other interviews I do. You don’t work at a traditional restaurant, but there’s an interesting mission and backstory. Tell me about it.
I’m the culinary instructor for the TK jobs-training program here at Community Servings. We service people who are facing hurdles coming back into the job market. We try to help them not just with culinary training but also with just life skills, interviewing skills, resumes, things like that. It’s a 12-week program. Our classes are usually eight to 10 people. I’ve been doing this since the beginning of 2022, so almost two years now.
How do people find you, or how do you find them?
They’re coming from agencies that are helping place them into a job-training program. A lot of our students are people who may be in recovery; they may be recently released from prison; or they may just be people who want to switch careers. The program’s free. I like to say that we give out scholarships to all our students. We also pay them a stipend while they’re working, or while they’re here.
One of the great things about the program is that while they’re here during the 12 weeks, they’re learning those culinary skills and job training skills, but they’re also working in our production kitchen. That’s the kitchen that produces all the medically tailored meals that Community Servings sends out to all our clients. So they’re giving back to Community Servings and helping the community at large with that role.
What is the typical career trajectory after they leave you?
They may go into working at a hospital or another institutional kitchen. I just talked to a recent graduate who came back to say hi. She’s the chef at a nursing home, and she’s making all the meals and tailoring them to people’s needs. It sounded wonderful. She has total control over that whole kitchen. Other people might go into restaurants. … We try to place them into a job that they can be successful in.
People can also buy takeout from you, right?
That’s right. TK Eats is our social enterprise that we started this year. It’s been in the works for a while. Anyone can go onto our Community Servings website, go to the TK Eats page, and order food. It’s a limited menu, it changes every week, and the great thing is, the students make all the food.
Did you always want to do this?
I was a very hungry kid. My parents both worked. I had to learn how to cook at a pretty young age for myself. So it might have started with eggs and bacon and making pasta, and it just kind of built from there. My parents are total foodies. This is back in the ‘70s. My parents would have themed dinner parties, we would go out to different types of restaurants, and our fridge was filled with all these condiments — which I thought were weird back then but now are essential in my kitchen. That’s where I learned to cook. But I did not go into culinary initially, even though I love to cook. After college, I got into financial services for nine years.
At the age of 35, I made a career change. I was already married. I had kids. It was a risky thing to do. I was going from making a good income to making $10 an hour. I went to culinary school at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, which is a great place to go. And then I started just working at a restaurant, then I landed at The Country Club and worked there for 15 years, until I came here.
What was your first real job out of culinary school?
In culinary school, I worked at Sel de la Terre, down by the Aquarium. That was crazy because I was working four nights a week, going to school three nights a week, and then during the morning, I was taking care of 2½-year-old twins. I was exhausted. So I didn’t last long.
After culinary school, I applied for a job at The Country Club in Brookline. I got the job and just did pretty much everything there over the course of around 15 years, from line cook to butcher to what they call a charcutier, the guy who makes all the hams, sausages, and bacon. The last job I had there was chef of the staff cafeteria. That was great. I was doing menu planning, ordering, cooking all the food myself. I had a lot of control over what I was doing. That was really a satisfying and rewarding role.
I gotta ask: What was the tipping point when you decided to leave a secure job to do something else? How did it work out for you?
I have to say, my wife was supportive. She knew that I was not happy in my job in financial services. And she wanted me to be happy. It was a very tough transition because we were starting a family. We started it with twins, but we made it work. It wasn’t always easy. I had to make a lot of sacrifices. I ended up working mostly during the day so that I could be home at night to see my family.
How did you make ends meet?
I can tell you this. There was a time when the only time I saw my wife was when she was coming home from work, and I was waiting for her to come home so I could go to work. And we would pass each other on the stairs, give a high-five, and say, ‘See ya later.’ And that was it. It was crazy. It was extreme. And you know what? Somehow, we stayed together.
What’s your advice to somebody in your shoes now, considering a career change?
If you are married, or in a relationship, you can’t do it unless your partner supports you. If you’re on your own, you can do whatever you want. But if you have other responsibilities, you know, family has to come first, at least for me. And I would always keep that in mind. If whatever you want to do is hurting your family, or making you an absentee parent, then maybe it’s not the right thing to do.
Tell me a little bit about working at The Country Club. What goes on behind those gates?
Their culinary program is very strong. I don’t know if you’ve heard the term “Certified Master Chef.” It’s a qualification that very few people have in this country. I worked for three men who were certified master chefs. That’s the kind of level of skill that they have at the top in their kitchen. I learned a lot from those people. One of them was a mentor to me and a friend. The others weren’t, but I did learn from all of them.
There are a couple of restaurants that are open every day. One is fine dining and one is casual. The kitchen staff is very large, around 25 people, including all the porters. It’s kind of old-school. It was changing by the time I left. But definitely, when I first started working there, which was in 2005, it was very old-school.
Was there a certain style of food people wanted from The Country Club?
So of course, classic French. That’s sort of the backbone, and then you branch off from that. A lot of technique. Stuff that you don’t see on cooking shows: a lot of high-end ingredients, the best steaks, the best seafood, the best fish, great venison, great duck. Just wonderful proteins and produce, and a real commitment to a high level of service. It was an interesting place to work. It’s definitely a family atmosphere. It’s a special place. I left because I wanted to do something different. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the grounds. It’s pretty magical.
What made you want to come here? I mean, I can think of nothing more different from The Country Club. It’s a 180.
That’s exactly what it was: a 180. I wanted to reach out to the community. I wanted to use whatever skills and energy I had to help people who need help. The people whom we serve here at Community Servings, they need our help. They desperately need our help, and we’re doing our best to help them.
I have a neighbor who works here, who still works here. He was my connection to Community Servings. One day I decided — this was kind of a crazy story, the way it all fell together — but I quit my job at The Country Club. I didn’t have another job lined up. And I decided I wanted to just enjoy the holidays. So I’m on Christmas vacation. My friend who works here calls me up and says, ‘Hey, our chef just quit. Our culinary instructor just quit. Do you want to be a temp and come in?’ I came in after Christmas, and I haven’t left. It’s been wonderful. I love it.
Are there any restaurants that you really miss that are now closed?
I grew up right by the original J.P. Licks. It was a wild place! Everyone who worked there had Mohawks and it was punky. So it was really cool.
There’s a restaurant that I used to go to all the time as an adult that I miss that closed recently: Anh Hong down in Dorchester, Fields Corner. I got to know the owner. I’m a sucker for Vietnamese food. I love it. It’s my favorite cuisine.
Where do you go these days for quick takeout or a night out? What’s your favorite restaurant in the area?
I go to Soup Shack in J.P. Again, I’m a soup fiend. I get pho. I love it! Pho is my favorite: Vietnamese noodle soup. I probably go there at least once a week, sometimes more, just for a quick, nourishing bowl of hot soup.
What about if you’re eating with your wife and your kids?
I’ll give you a special occasion place that we usually go to couple times a year. And that’s Grill 23, especially during Christmastime. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in there. It’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve been going there since I was 18 years old. And it’s just a part of my life — special occasions, with people I love. And I cannot afford to go there on the regular. I go once or twice a year. It’s just a beautiful indulgence, especially during Christmastime.
Would you ever encourage anybody to go to culinary school now?
That’s a really good question. I’ll be honest with you. At The Country Club, they didn’t hire anyone who didn’t go to a culinary school. You had to have a degree. But here’s the deal. You’re going to spend $80,000 or something like that to go to culinary school. I don’t even know how much it is. You’re going to get a job making $22, $23 an hour. How are you going to pay back those loans?
I would not recommend someone go to culinary school. If you have the means to do it? Great. I actually had the means to go for one year. But you can go into a restaurant and tell them: ‘I’ll do anything. I’ll peel carrots for three months if you’ll teach me.’ And they’ll use you. They’ll say, ‘OK, let’s see what you can do.’ And if you show up every day, and you’re dependable, and you’re coachable, and you can take some criticism and not get hurt, you’ll learn the skills you need to be successful.
What’s the most important lesson that you teach your students?
I think accountability. It’s about taking responsibility for yourself, having agency in your life. You’re here for yourself, to improve yourself. So take responsibility. Show up on time. Show up every day. Be focused. Be ready to learn to work.
It’s a culinary training program, but it’s really a life-skills job-training program through a culinary lens. A lot of people come through our program. Maybe they haven’t worked for a while; maybe they haven’t found something that they can commit to. Maybe they haven’t had a chance; maybe no one’s given them a chance. We’re here to say, ‘We’re here for you. And if you come and you be here for yourself and work hard, you’re going to be successful.’
Last question: What is your food vice? What can you just not stop eating?
This is embarrassing. I live in Roslindale. There’s a place on Washington Street called Todesca’s. And it’s a little Dominican convenience market with a kitchen in the back. And they make these chicharrons. Oh my God. They’re so good. And I get them with fried plantains and lime juice. And I just eat them in the car to hide my shame. Delicious.