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Sarah Neaf travels to famous film festival next week in role of “mentoring chef”

This article first appeared in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. By Heidi Rice.

Chef Sarah Naef from Russets restaurant in Carbondale is headed to the Cannes Film Festival in France, where she will be cooking and mentoring younger chefs at the American Pavilion. Photo by Kelley Cox.

With a strappy gold gown in tow, Sarah Naef of Glenwood Springs is on her way this week to walk the red carpet at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, being held May 11-23 in the south of France.

Not that she’s in the film industry.

Naef, a graduate of Colorado Mountain College’s Culinary Arts program, is going as a “mentoring chef” and supervising other students on the American Pavilion culinary team.

“I’ll help teach them how to manage a kitchen and learn how to plan a menu,” she said.

The Pavilion serves as a communication and hospitality center for the thousands of Americans in Cannes during the international film festival. This year marks the 64th year of the Cannes Film Festival and the 21st year of American Pavilion services.

The Pavilion program, made up of chefs and culinary students from around the country, offers students, apprentices and professionals the opportunity to participate in a unique work-study program, along with feeding the festival-goers.

This is Naef’s second time at Cannes. She also attended the world-famous film festival in 2007 while she was a student pursing an associate’s degree in culinary arts at CMC’s Vail campus.

“In Cannes, we learned new techniques in making food and how to shop in the markets,” Naef recalled. “And there was some high-pressure catering. It was very intense. I remember one period when we went for 48 hours without sleep.”

Naef will leave on Thursday to start the 17-day Cannes Culinary Program. She will join 15 to 25 other American Pavilion culinary team members. Together they will prepare up to 1,000 meals per day — breakfasts, lunches and dinners — along with food for receptions and parties.

Their work shifts average six to eight hours, and the culinary team works every day of the program after spending a couple of days taking cultural tours before the festival begins.

Culinary students hit Cannes

Around 50 or more culinary students from all over the U.S. will be part of the American Pavilion team this year in Cannes, according to Jennifer Maloney, executive chef and culinary director for the American Pavilion for 2011. Maloney is also the executive chef for Cafe Sebastienne at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City.

Successful candidates chosen for the Cannes culinary program must be hard-working, team players who are resourceful and creative while working with limited resources and demanding deadlines, according to the culinary program guidelines.

“It’s like the real world meets the top chefs,” Maloney said. “It’s a really crazy program.”

And no matter what their culinary specialty, in Cannes, the American Pavilion will be serving up, naturally, American-style food for its patrons.

“I think 21 years ago, we started out serving peanut butter and jelly on a baguette,” Maloney joked. “Now we provide a full-service restaurant and serve food from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. It’s really busy and crazy.”

Getting started at the Colorado Culinary Arts Institute

“I started cooking when I was young,” Naef said. “It was always the center of our family celebrations.”

The food styles were mixed with her mother’s side of the family being Greek and her father’s being Czech.

“It was a good mix of different cultures,” Naef said.

By the time she started at Glenwood Springs High School, Naef said she knew she wanted to be a chef.

Instead, she eventually found herself becoming a wife and the mother of three children.

But at her husband’s urging, she enrolled in CMC’s Culinary Arts Institute in Vail/Beaver Creek in 2007 and graduated in 2010.

“We learned about the business end of being a chef, took cooking classes, restaurant management and did apprenticeships,” Naef said. “It was a working program. I went to school five days a week and apprenticed in the evenings.”

Since graduating, Naef is now qualified to do menu planning and management and is certified with the American Culinary Federation, which means she is now a bona fide chef. She has worked at Russets in Carbondale for four years.

“I specialize in French cooking, but I also like to do Asian fusion,” Naef said. “I like great tasting dishes, simply done. So many chefs use so many ingredients. Right now, one of my favorite things to make is braised beef. Meats and sauces are so warm and comforting.”

A chef by day and the red carpet at night

Just because you didn’t direct a film doesn’t mean you can’t walk the infamous red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.

Naef said she intends to shed her chef’s coat at some point to walk the carpet in a shiny gold Jessica McClintock full-length gown, which she bought at the Mona Lisa boutique in downtown Glenwood Springs, along with matching shoes, a shawl and a purse.

“I’m not really a dress kind of person,” she admitted. “But this is like a princess dress.”

And the paparazzi will never know the difference.

“They take pictures of everyone because they don’t know if you’re someone or not,” Naef said with a laugh. “I’m going to take off my chef’s coat and hat and mingle for a while.”

And then she’ll get back to the business of cooking.

Bon appetit!