Nelson Millán, Executive Chef of San Antonio CC, planned on becoming a lawyer, but fell in love with the art of cooking and never looked back.
I debated for a few days on what to write for my very first blog post with C&RB’s Chef to Chef. I concluded that before I start writing about everything and anything in the upcoming months, I should start by giving you a little background on how I came to be a club chef.
I was born and raised on the beautiful Island of Puerto Rico. Today, I am Executive Chef of San Antonio Country Club in Texas. But I wasn’t always an Executive Chef like my kids used to think. In fact, I had planned on a much different path for myself. But when I was 30 credits short of earning a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Puerto Rico, with plans to apply to law school, I decided to leave college for cooking school. Here’s why.
When I was 8 years old, I attempted to cook a pizza from scratch. I didn’t know anything about leavening agents or how to stretch a dough properly. I started by mixing AP flour and water until it reached the desired consistency, but I forgot to add the salt. Thankfully, the not-from-scratch pizza sauce saved the day by seasoning the dough a little. After making a huge mess that my mom still remembers (not in a good way), I topped the pizza with cheese and pepperoni and put it in the oven. When the pizza was finished, it was so stiff and toasted that I could have used it as a Frisbee. Nevertheless, my family (which is made up of two sisters, one brother, my mom and dad) seemed to enjoy it (that’s what they said anyway) and they complimented me on it.
That was my “Aha!” moment. I realized then that I could create food with my two hands that could nourish others and provoke joy, laughter and happiness. It was then that cooking became a part of me—something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. From that moment on I was constantly experimenting with all sort of recipes.
Aunt Teresa—my father’s sister—noticed my early interest and started bringing me recipe clips from newspapers and magazines. I was 14 when she brought me a recipe for Chinese fried rice. I begged my mom to buy all the ingredients. She did and I prepared every element separately in the full amounts not considering that when it was time to put it all together it would yield a huge batch of fried rice. We ended up eating Chinese rice for a week and this was after sharing some throughout our neighborhood, making several new friends as a result.
Even though I knew cooking was my first choice for a career, the lack of serious professional cooking classes in my homeland left me few options to pursue my passion. So when I graduated from high school I entered college, planning to study political sciences (my dad’s choice) and one day become a lawyer.
After 3 years, Aunt Teresa once again brought me a clip from the newspaper but this time the clip was about a pilot professional cooking program at the School of Hotel and Tourism in San Juan where the government was going to award 25 grants to the most qualified candidates to help them earn a culinary associate degree. I applied along with 364 other applicants. Seven weekly tests later, I was chosen as one of the 25 lucky recipients.
When I told my Dad the news he was not happy that I would not become the lawyer he always dreamed. He cut my allowance and took away the transportation he previously provided for college, asking me, “Do you want to be in the kitchen with a blue checker apron and a hair net like the lunch ladies instead of becoming a distinguished lawyer? If that is what you want then leave me the keys to the truck on top of the counter and find your own way to go to that culinary school.”
Left with few choices, I got a part-time job at Wendy’s which was next to the school. I used my pay to finance my transportation, daily food and supplies. Ten months later, an opportunity arose to work at the best hotel in San Juan. I left Wendy’s and went to the Caribe Hilton Hotel. From the Caribe Hilton I went to the Noga Hilton in Geneva Switzerland, then to the Aruba Hilton, then to the Westin, then to San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado, then to The Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo Fla., then to Sea Island, Ga., and finally, 20 years later, to the San Antonio Country Club.
Cooking chose me at a very early age. It defined my career path and I am honored to be one of its chosen ones. I enjoy it every day of my life and I know that without a doubt, this will be a lifelong relationship.