Paul Linaman was working as a barista at Peet’s Coffee and Tea when the company began making changes that included firing some of its best employees at a time when unemployment rates were soaring.
“It was a company that had been going through all these transitions,” Linaman said. “The transition was very rough. I was really upset at the time, but [being fired] turned out to be a really good thing.”
Linaman, now a salad chef at Seeds Marketplace, took the job loss as an opportunity to improve his culinary skills. At the time, his mother was the associate director of St. Joseph’s Center, a service center for poor and homeless families, which acquired an unused restaurant as a donation. The donated location served two functions: providing free restaurant-style meals for the homeless and providing what Linaman calls “crash-course culinary training” for chefs of varying skill levels.
“It was a wide variety of people,” Linaman said. “It was people who were just out of college, like one young woman who, her whole life, had worked with her mom’s catering business, but now wanted to get a job at a restaurant. It was people who had been laid off, usually people in the industry who wanted a little extra training in order to get their careers going again.”
After the course, Linaman worked at the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood but said he lost his position when the franchise laid off about two-thirds of its chefs. He once again refused to let the loss of a job he loved discourage him, so after a few weeks off, he applied for a job with USC Hospitality in 2010.
During a kitchen test, Linaman made pasta primavera but had to turn to improvisation when he ran out of time to cook the noodles after finishing the meat and vegetables.
“I called it ‘Paleolithic primavera’ because I noticed that sometimes on Top Chef, when they mean to make something but run out of time, they sometimes make up stories and the judges usually love it,” Linaman said. “My story was that it’s part of the trend of being on the Paleolithic diet, where you eat as if you’re a hunter-gatherer.”
Linaman was already familiar with this audition-like application process and had previously developed his improvisation skills after growing up in Los Feliz, where he became involved in performing arts at a young age.
“As soon as there was any theater available to be involved in, I was,” Linaman said. “As soon as I was in junior high and they had drama class, I started taking that. I was really involved in play production in high school.”
After attending Santa Monica College, he transferred to New York University to study theater, where he participated in many student productions. His favorite was a play about the last days of the Trojan prophet Cassandra.
“It was interesting because it was an original play, and [the professor] was rewriting it while we were working on it,” Linaman said. “The author was right there so we could ask her questions. I could tell that she was rewriting based on what she saw.”
After college, Linaman moved back to Los Feliz. He said that, despite his love for theater, he did not want to enter into the competitive world of Broadway. He has not been involved in any formal productions since his return to California but is interested in returning when the opportunity arises. He has found, however, that some theater school lessons apply to other aspects of his life.
“When I’m making salads, the physical structure of it is kind of a choreographic narrative,” Linaman said. “Being able to focus on that is very theatrical. It’s the capacity to put yourself in structures, and live within the structures in a particular way.”
Linaman’s theatrical experiences also led to an interest in psychoanalysis, something he is now interested in pursuing in graduate school.
“There’s a few professors who I want to meet but haven’t quite had the courage to just walk into their offices,” Linaman said. “I didn’t even realize they taught here when I first started reading [their books].”
He has been considering USC for a master’s degree in comparative literature, a program that would not only allow him to further his education but perhaps give him the chance to meet some of his favorite writers.