Kenny Bigwood was a student at Cal Poly studying for a degree in English when he found his passion for cooking. What started out as a hobby and a part-time job on campus has taken him to his current position as executive chef at Granada Hotel and Bistro.
Bigwood did not come from a background of complex cooking — his childhood was full of simple home-cooked meals. In addition, he did not grow up with cable, so when he came to college, he found himself attracted to the variety of cuisines and techniques in cooking shows like “Top Chef” on Food Network.
“When it really hit was the next year when I moved out of the dorms and I [was] living on my own. I realized mom is not here to make dinner. So, either I’m making dinner or I’m spending a lot of money on takeout,” Bigwood said.
In addition to a cooking education through television, Bigwood gained experience working in Campus Dining, starting his sophomore year. It was not exactly like the kitchen he works in now. Most of the work Bigwood did was outside the kitchen, helping set up steam trays and swiping PolyCards in what is now 805 Kitchen.
“While attending Cal Poly, working for Campus Dining was amazing because you work these two- and three-hour shifts. You can get a part-time job comfortably around your classes,” Bigwood said.
He eventually worked his way up to what was supposed to be a managerial role at Einstein’s Bagel Co. in Poly Canyon Village. However, after some issues regarding benefits and wage discrepancies, Bigwood left Campus Dining and found a job at a local bakery: House of Bread.
Bigwood started as a baker and worked his way up to executive chef. Throughout his cooking career, he has also worked at Thomas Hill Organics in Paso Robles, Lido at Dolphin Bay in Shell Beach and a few other restaurants before his current position at Granada. In each place, he found there was always something new to learn.
“People that I have personally worked for that I found either very inspiring or encouraging or educational, I would say the big three are Julie Simon, Maegen Loring and Brian Collins,” Bigwood said. “All three of them, are really great chefs, and all three of them at various times took their time to show me how to be better.”
Julie Simon worked with Bigwood in his first kitchen job at Thomas Hill Organics. Bigwood credits Simon with giving him a foundation for working in a professional kitchen, which involves skills different from cooking at home. It was also the start of experimentation in the professional setting, with menus that constantly changed. Simon was impressed by his willingness to learn.
“He was very good,” Simon said. “But what impressed me most, was he was very smart. When I first met him I could tell he had a lot to give.”
Maegen Loring was also a mentor in Bigwood’s culinary journey. Loring owned the Neon Carrot, a downtown restaurant that has since closed, in addition to a catering business. Loring recognized Bigwood’s natural talent in the kitchen as they worked developing themed menus for Friday night happy hour.
“He wasn’t an experienced cook at that point,” Loring said. “He had an amazing talent and intellect that goes along with it. He can sit down, really think outside the box, he had this amazing ability to want to try new things and add science to it.”
Loring taught Bigwood more about the catering business, which involved a constantly changing environment, with different menus in both size and style, for a variety of events. This is where Bigwood’s creativity was put to the test. He said Loring’s versatility was a strong sense of guidance for him.
As an executive chef, Bigwood finds himself doing less cooking. Instead, he focuses more on the managerial aspects of a restaurant. These duties include placing orders on food, creating schedules and looking at the expenses for the restaurant.
“Something I didn’t know coming into this career field the higher up you get in a restaurant the less cooking you get to do,” Bigwood said.
However, Bigwood remains very hands-on with the food side of things, helping to develop menus and dishes to serve. With an appetite for the experimental side of food, Bigwood likes to pickle items and work with cured meat. Almost everything that the restaurant cooks is made from scratch.
“I like having the opportunity to explore different things,” Bigwood said. “The idea of making things from scratch really appeals to me. I buy cured meats just because I don’t have my own facility, but I’ve cured my own meat before. I hand cut my own fries, we make our own sauces and dressings from scratch. Wherever there is an opportunity to do it right and start from the beginning, we try.”
When asked, Bigwood said the great thing about being a chef is that there is never an end to the work.
“It is a job that is never done, never finished, there is always tomorrow,” Bigwood said. “Everybody needs somewhere to go to eat, the demand is always going to be there.”