PACIFIC GROVE HIGH SCHOOL CLASS OF 2004 CULINARY INSTITUTE OF AMERICA, HYDE PARK, N.Y. CLASS OF 2008
Alex McClenaghan’s professional journey started when he was just 14, with a part-time gig rolling cinnamon rolls in a shop on Monterey’s famed Cannery Row for extra spending money. A decade later, after various stints in soda shops, bakeries and country club kitchens, McClenaghan practices his craft at Per Se – heralded by the New York Times as the best restaurant in New York City, quite possibly the best restaurant in the United States.
Behind his professional success, McClenaghan notes a solid educational foundation, including his ProStart classroom at Pacific Grove High School, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. and a post-graduate accelerated culinary program at the CIA’s Greystone campus.
“My culinary class junior and senior year was really focused on culinary techniques, and by then I was already working at a bakery, part-time during the school year and full-time during summer,” McClenaghan said. “It gave me a solid foundation to start with. We didn’t do competitions then, but my instructor knew how much I was enjoying working in and out of the classroom, so she asked a recruiter from the CIA to come to the class.”
Once accepted, McClenaghan sought more restaurant experience so he’d be prepared for the rigors of culinary school, spending the summer working at El Encanto Hotel in Santa Barbara.
Though adept at the culinary side of the industry, from the beginning McClenaghan was always drawn to baking and pastry.
“Growing up I was a really, really picky eater,” he said. “I didn’t eat a lot of food, but I always loved sweets – ice cream, chocolate croissants, everything.”
After graduating from the CIA in 2008, McClenaghan moved to the Napa Valley to continue honing his culinary skills, and scored a part-time position at Bouchon Bakery – another Thomas Keller institution. At the time, it was a means to pay his car insurance, but it soon parlayed a tryout at the venerable Per Se, a nerve-wracking experience that ultimately paid off with the ultimate opportunity.
After making the rounds through each pastry station at Per Se, McClenaghan just recently began working dinner service, which includes making and serving dessert courses to diners with allergies or dietary restrictions.
“(Per Se) is a very intense environment, especially during service,” he said. “Finesse and perfection is what it’s all about, and it’s very intimidating when you start working there. You have to have a sense of urgency and be flawless. Mistakes happen, but once one happens it’s all about how you’re going to fix it, and never letting it happen again.”
McClenaghan admits that working at such a high level in the industry doesn’t leave much time for a life – and it’s a degree of devotion many, including his parents, don’t quite fully understand.
“I’m hoping my mom can come in to dine so she can see for herself,” he said. “She doesn’t understand the hours or the dedication. But that’s what it takes. You have to be 100 percent committed. Right now work is life.”
The most difficult aspect about life now is considering options for what to do next.
“There’s always room for improvement, and I feel like I’m still learning something new every day,” McClenaghan said. “When you’re not, that’s when it’s time to move on.”
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