By Elisabeth Costanzo Stewart
At just five years old, Justin Yap mastered the art of making an omelet. His fixation with food and its preparation started early. While he admits that his childhood meals were never complex, the culinary staples that he was exposed to as a little boy were studied, replicated, and firmly ingrained in his young mind. Three decades after perfecting the omelet, Justin Yap, a recent graduate of SUNY Broome’s Culinary Arts: A.O.S. program, was named a silver medalist in the National American Culinary Federation’s “Student Chef of the Year” competition. Though studying and preparing food has always been a major part of what makes Justin Yap, Justin Yap, it took him years to come to the realization that cooking could be and should be his life’s work.
Yap hails from Westchester, NY and attended Ardsley High School. Binghamton University has been the longstanding favorite college for Ardsley seniors, including Justin.
“My dad went to Binghamton University before law school and tons of my classmates were going, so I thought that it might be the right college for me too. I’ve always been naturally good at math, so I decided to study industrial and systems engineering. As you’ll hear, I spent the ages of 18-22 trying to figure out where I fit.”
After spending three and a half semesters tackling his engineering courses, Yap withdrew from BU. He explored his academic options within the SUNY system at Westchester Community College and SUNY Plattsburgh. He spent time as a math major and also dabbled in adolescent education, but neither school or degree program seemed to click.
After consulting with his parents and reevaluating his options, they jointly decided that Yap should return to Binghamton to rebuild his GPA and to complete his degree. There was, however, an additional stipulation to this game plan. Understanding that idle hands are the devil’s playground, Yap was expected to work full-time while being a full-time student.
“I started working full time at Panera Bread. I intentionally put myself in a position where I had to mature. Did I have any free time? No. Did the lack of free time impact my grades? Yes. After that, we finally agreed as a family that Binghamton University was not the right school for me,” shared Yap.
While Binghamton University might not have been the best fit for Yap, the city of Binghamton was. As Justin was contemplating his next step, a new restaurant happened to open next door to his apartment. His father viewed this coincidence in real estate as fate and urged Yap to apply to be a server. He believed that the customer service skills acquired via the hospitality industry could be applied to any career.
“I walked into Thai Time as they were setting up the restaurant and explained that I was desperate for a job. They didn’t have any open positions in the front of the house, but needed a cook. When I hesitated, the owner quickly said, “I’ll teach you,” so I agreed. I spent the next two years working in that kitchen, taking in as much as I could,” said Yap.
With some kitchen experience under his belt, Yap left Thai Time to join the staff at Kampai Japanese Steakhouse in Vestal, NY. For over 47 years, Kampai has been one of the most successful restaurants in the region and Yap wanted to be part of its legacy. The Matsushima family took Justin under their wing and spent the next eight years training Yap to prepare hibachi, sushi, and their traditional Japanese cuisine.
It was clear that Yap had finally found where he belonged and he wanted to immerse himself in the culinary world as much as he could. Much to his delight, just as he was looking to make his next move, SUNY Broome completed the renovation of the historic Carnegie Library in downtown Binghamton into the Culinary & Event Center. The new “CEC” debuted its state-of-the-art amenities such as smart classroom and laboratory spaces, garde manger and production kitchens, a fully equipped beverage lab for mixology classes, a state-of-the-art lecture hall for cooking demonstrations, premiere event spaces, and bean-to-bar chocolate equipment. In other words, a chef’s heaven.
Yap enrolled at SUNY Broome just as the Culinary Arts: A.O.S. program was in its final stages of approval. To maximize his time, Yap began completing his co-requisite courses in the Hospitality Management: A.A.S. program to lighten his future workload. For the first time in his collegiate career, Yap made the dean’s list.
“It makes a total difference when you are studying something that you actually enjoy. I genuinely loved my classes and that translated to academic success,” reflected Yap.
When it was time to take his culinary classes, Yap gained an additional appreciation for his years spent in the back of the house at Panera Bread, Thai Time, and Kampai. Courses like “Sanitation and Safety” and “Professional Cooking” blended new academic training with practical examples from his previous on the job experiences.
Through his “Specialty Cuisines” course, Yap’s exposure to different ingredients and techniques flourished, as he was able to further develop his flavor profiles. When Chef Michael Stamets arrived at SUNY Broome to serve as the Associate Dean of Hospitality and Culinary & Event Center, he immediately took note of Yap’s enthusiasm and knew of an outlet to help Justin channel his culinary dedication.
Chef Stamets is part of a very select cohort of less than 100 ACF certified culinary judges in the United States and is an ardent believer in the educational and professional value of culinary competitions. With the help of Maria K. Montemagno, Chairperson of Hospitality Programs, and instructor Chef Victoria Tompkins, Stamets approached Yap about becoming SUNY Broome’s first student chef competitor.
“Chef Stamets explained the expectations and offered to help me in any way that he could. I spent the two days a week that I had off from work in the CEC doing practice runs to expand my flavor profiles and elevate my plating. I learned the value of time management, repetition, and making tiny tweaks to shave time, without impacting the quality of my presentation.”
After months of preparation,Yap, along with hundreds of the best student chefs from across the country, entered the National American Culinary Federation’s “Student Chef of the Year” competition. His presentation of a signature amuse bouche, followed by an entrée of a Polynesian and South East Asian influenced bone-in pork loin earned him a silver medal. His SUNY Broome family beamed with pride.
After finishing up the competition, Yap felt confident to branch out to a larger culinary market. In August, he packed his bags and moved to Philadelphia to work in Chef Nicholas Elmi’s newest restaurant, Lark. Self-described as “coastal Mediterranean,” Lark blends the highest quality ingredients to create a menu that includes Escargot Braised in Vichyssoise Butter, Squid Ink Chitarra, and Halibut Au Poivre. Yap credits his ability to be hired by Lark to the training that he received at SUNY Broome.
“It took me a while to find my footing. Then I had to overcome my self-imposed stigma behind my desire to cook as a career v. a side job while I figured out my life. But once I dedicated myself academically and professionally to becoming a chef, I thrived.”