NEW YORK - Growing up on farms near Binghamton, N.Y., and later Wyalusing, Dean Yasharian never thought about cooking as a career.
"I never did," Yasharian said. "It's funny. When I was real young, though, my mother says I was a picky eater."
A decade after graduating from Wyalusing Valley Junior-Senior High School, Yasharian, son of Dale and Marcella Yasharian of Wyalusing, is executive sous chef at Bar Boulud, one of 10 award-winning restaurants around the world run by French chef Daniel Boulud.
Dean Yasharian, 28, formerly of Wyalusing, stands in the kitchen of Bar Boulud in New York City, where he is executive sous chef. Last month he won first place on the Food Network series “Chopped.”
Last month, Yasharian was in the spotlight after he won first place on the Food Network series "Chopped," which pits four chefs against each other. He won $10,000 on the show that originally aired Oct. 13 and will air again on Nov. 22 at 10 p.m. and Nov. 23 at 1 a.m.
Yasharian said taking up cooking as a career never crossed his mind until as a junior in high school he went to work for the family of a friend of his, John Hychko, at a restaurant called Little Greek Boys, then later Four Seasons of Wyalusing.
"I fell in love with it," he said. "I started as a dishwasher, then worked my way up to the cooking station." Eventually he was made the head cook.
In his senior year at a career fair at his high school, he heard about the culinary arts program at Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. He decided to try it, graduating from the program with an associate's degree in 2001 and a bachelor's degree in 2003.
"Watching him on 'Chopped,' what stood out to the judges were his technical skills," said Mike Ditchfield, a chef and member of the faculty at Penn College. "I like to think he got that foundation here."
Ditchfield said in addition to his technical skills, Yasharian also "was good at seeing opportunities and good at making opportunities." For example, he said students between their first and second years traditionally take an internship, with most gravitating toward going home.
"I asked Dean, 'Where are you going? You live in Wyalusing. There's more deer than people up there,' " Ditchfield said.
He said he didn't expect Yasharian to go anywhere as prestigious as he ended up, but thought he would settle somewhere between Wyalusing and the larger opportunities.
However, Yasharian said he "wanted to go big." He said everybody else, like Ditchfield mentioned, was going home to work at restaurants or on golf courses.
Yasharian arranged through a friend to go to Emeril's at MGM Grand, a restaurant owned by famous chef Emeril Lagasse. When that didn't work out, Yasharian ended up next door at the Venetian Hotel's Stephan Pyles' Star Canyon Restaurant, with Pyles best known for a modern southwestern cuisine called New Texas Cuisine.
Ditchfield admits he was afraid Yasharian was in "over his head."
For Yasharian's part, he said it made him realize how difficult being a chef can be. "Either you're in it or you're not," he said he learned from the experience.
When he returned to Williamsport for the fall semester in 2000, again he wanted to work for the best and went to work for Kevin Nash, executive chef at the Old Corner. Yasharian also had the opportunity to help Nash and his family open another restaurant, 33 East.
"It was really a special experience, opening a restaurant," Yasharian said.
Asked about Yasharian, Nash's immediate reaction was one of praise: "Dean is awesome." He said Yasharian's biggest assets were his ability "to get along with everyone and his knowledge of food."
In the summer of 2001, Yasharian worked at Mahi Mahs in Virginia Beach, Va.
"It was a high-volume experience with thousands of customers a day," he said. For example, he said one day they had close to 4,000 customers.
From that experience, he said he learned that he didn't want to do that forever.
"You learn from a high-volume experience how to react and how to use the nervous energy that you pick up," he said.
After graduation in 2003, Yasharian decided to take a break and go to England to visit his sister, Denise Shilling. However, the break didn't last long as he ended up applying for - and receiving - a visa to work at Midsummer House, a restaurant in Cambridge.
"It ended up being one of the impacting experiences I've had," Yasharian said.
There, he worked under chef Daniel Clifford, whom he said was in the same tradition as celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. The hours were from 8 a.m. to midnight, five days a week.
"It was learning through extreme measures," Yasharian said. "The first day I went there for a trial, I saw cooks thrown, pots thrown."
Despite all that, he said he enjoyed it. "I loved it and wanted to be part of it," he said.
He said chefs feed on the stress and adrenaline. He loves the pressure.
The long hours and stress that Yasharian and the other chefs underwent that year paid off. Midsummer House went from a one-star Michelin rated restaurant to two stars while he was there.
Michelin, Yasharian explained, is the largest prestige rating guide in Europe. It took seven years for the restaurant, now considered one of the top restaurants in England, to get its first star.
Unable to get his visa renewed after the year, Yasharian returned to the states to stay in New York with another of his sisters, Darlene Yasharian.
In New York, one of the places to which he applied was Bar Boulud.
"It was kind of a fluke," he said. "I printed out tons of resumes ... and went to the best restaurants. I trekked the whole city. Daniel's company was one of the first to get back to me."
He started as chef de partie, in charge of a specific station, and over the course of the next few years had the opportunity to rotate through various stations at the restaurant.
"I was able to spend a few months on each station," he said.
He then was offered a junior management position for Gordon Ramsay, who was opening his first restaurant in the U.S. He said Ramsay is just how he portrays himself on television.
"He is able to turn that on whenever he wants," Yasharian said.
While there, though, he realized how much he liked Boulud's company, plus he said he wasn't a big fan of working for the union, which was at Ramsay's restaurant. In October 2008, he returned to Bar Boulud, this time as executive sous chef - second in command to the executive chef.
In a way, it's like he's come full circle from his youthful days on the farm because now he deals with local farmers from both upstate New York and Pennsylvania in helping to select the right vegetables for the kitchen at Bar Boulud.
"Being a chef brings me back to my roots," he said.
Earlier this year, the opportunity came to be on "Chopped." Yasharian said he had a few friends who had been on the show, so he took a questionnaire on the Web site, after which the show's producers e-mailed him for an interview.
"I don't think I'm a TV personality, but they saw my professionalism," he said.
The show was shot about six months ago, he said, and included three courses: appetizer, entree and dessert, with each chef given the same ingredients and 20 minutes to make each dish.
His least favorite round, he said, was the dessert dish.
"I just wanted to make sure it was edible," he said. "I knew the other dishes would help me."
In the dessert round, Yasharian said the dish made by his opponent was better than his. However, because he had won the other two rounds handily, after the final vote Yasharian was declared the winner.
He couldn't tell anyone he had won until the show aired and, ironically, he hasn't seen it yet as he was on his honeymoon when it aired. Yasharian married Pauline Zee, who designs women's clothing for Anna Sui, a fashion label in New York.
With the world travel and now the win on "Chopped" behind him, Yasharian said he has a new level of confidence that he believes will help with his future decisions and goals. For now, he said he is happy working for Daniel Boulud and his successful empire, but that doesn't mean he hasn't questioned whether to stay with Boulud and possibly get the opportunity to run a kitchen of his own (under Boulud's name) ... or to open a restaurant for himself.
"There is more of a safety net working for someone else as opposed to gambling everything and opening my own company," he admitted. "And now that I'm married that must factor in the equation as well. So I will say at this point I am waiting for another promotion within my current job."
However, he added that he thinks he has what it takes to open his own place one day.
"That is my ultimate goal and I'm sure I will know the answer within the next five years," he said. "Ten years from now I hope to be opening my second or maybe even my third restaurant establishment."