Joseph Ndungu—Guarding Our Food Systems
“I loved the atmosphere, the knowledge, the passion and the professionalism of the CIA chefs and professors. They were giving me all the tools for my toolbox. All I had to do was be open to learning!”
CIA Alumni Bio
Joseph Ndungu ’09 earned a Bachelor’s in Culinary Arts Management at The Culinary Institute of America after a brief career in the military. It was while competing in military culinary competitions that Joseph first met CIA chefs. It started him on the path to the CIA. While not in the kitchen anymore, his current job as an Investigator in the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Office of Investigation, Enforcement and Audit’s Compliance Investigations Division is all about food…and keeping consumers safe!
How did you come to the realization that your life would be in the food world?
I grew up in Kenya and during most school vacations, my dad would take our family on day-long drives up to our farm. On the way there, we would stop at fancy hotels to eat. The food was fantastic! I would wonder why the food at home didn’t taste and smell like the hotels’ food. I recall asking my dad who made the food and he said, “A chef prepares it.” I was 8- or 9-years-old at the time and already had a curiosity about food.
Later in my teens, my pals and I owned our own mobile deejay system. We would play events on most weekends. On Sunday mornings, we’d make egg omelets and steaks. My dad and his friends would ask me to cook for them. I did it happily because the culinary seed had been planted long ago. I soon realized, it was in the kitchen where I felt most complete.
Why did you choose the CIA?
I chose the CIA for two reasons: (1) Chef David Russ, my mentor while I was stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, used to tell stories about the CIA. He said, “It was a place where I dream of teaching at one day.” (2) Fort Bragg has a culinary team that takes part in the U.S. Army’s annual cooking competition in Fort Lee, Virginia. I wanted to be a part of the team. I tried out and made the cut. CIA Master Chefs judged our plates. Because of that experience, I saw firsthand the professionalism and skill of CIA chefs. It was an easy choice to select CIA as the place where I would receive my classical, culinary training.
How did scholarships and/or grants help you reach your goal of getting a CIA education?
As a veteran, I received enormous support from the CIA. I also used my GI Bill. My experience at CIA was very rewarding. I would (and still do) encourage my battle buddies and other veterans to visit the CIA campus and see for themselves that the school is the place to take their culinary skills to the next level.
What did you like best about your CIA experience?
I loved the atmosphere, the knowledge, the passion and the professionalism of the CIA chefs and professors. They were giving me all the tools for my toolbox. All I had to do was be open to learning!
What are the best lessons you’ve learned while at the CIA?
The CIA taught me two paramount things: (1) Before trying to get fancy, master the basics like frying an egg that will impress a Master Chef or perfect a consommé that will make a Master Chef look up and notice you. These are basics and are essential. Most people can’t master the basics, which is the real test and the foundation of cooking. (2) Don’t fake it! In the Advanced Career Experience program, the chefs knew if someone didn’t cook with heart because it showed in the flavors and plating. This was considered a failure. One day, the class and I made ourselves breakfast. It was sloppy and below par. We received a failing grade that day, yet, we were all chefs in our previous professions.
Master Chef Andreini taught us to respect ourselves and cook food fit for not only kings, but for ourselves and our fellow chefs. From that day on, we raised the bar for ourselves. We would gather our own mise en place and polish our own sliver before we sat down to eat. We became that which we seek to provide to our guests. Our breakfast and lunch meals became an aesthetic experience. We learned that food cooked from a pure heart will bring a smile even to the toughest critic. We learned that we will win every time if we live the way we cook. It can’t be hidden. A flower cannot hide its beauty!
What class at the CIA had the most impact on you?
My entire time at the CIA had a positive impact on my life. I earned a bachelor’s degree and met other talented chefs, who like me, came to the CIA because they wanted a solid education. I wanted to know how to do things correctly. Attending CIA, by comparison, makes everything else I do seem easy. Tasks, like blanching vegetables, developing textures, pairing wines, and so many other things are all effortless once you start at the beginning.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
The work I do now is still in the food arena, however, my main focus is to protect our food system and the public’s health. I go after the folks who are either producing or selling adulterated food in commerce. It takes a lot of deductive and inductive reasoning, and a team of approximately 9,600 FSIS investigators, inspectors, veterinarians, microbiologists, epidemiologists, biologists and support staffs to keep the consumer safe.
I was taught in CIA’s food safety class that cleanliness in the kitchen isn’t a thing you do, but a way of life. That goes for inside slaughter and processing plants, retail establishments and hotdog carts. The meat, poultry and processed egg products that are produced and sold must be safe!
What advice would you give to a new student or someone who is considering attending the CIA? Not everyone who graduates from the CIA becomes a chef. There are many other positions out there that require someone with CIA’s top-notch, culinary skills, as well as a command of all things food related. Find what you’re good at in the food world and perfect that. The kitchen, and the things we do in it are not subtle, like butcher, cut, sauté, boil, fry, steam. You need to have thick skin, as well as enough openness to learn from everyone around you…the dishwasher knows more than you think. Hang out with the janitor, plumbers and repairmen—those other professions that make a kitchen succeed. Remember, a broken toilet at a Michelin-star restaurant means zero business. No water means no work in the kitchen. Make everyone feel like they are the most important person, and you will be saved by those very people the day things go south. This industry demands the best. Mediocre will not make the cut. Give 100 percent, and though you cannot please everybody, you’ll know you did your very best. Remember to smile and have fun.