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Amy Conger - PACES Executive Chef at SUNY Potsdam

Amy Conger Photo

In a literal sense, the idiom “Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup,” has never applied to PACES Executive Chef Amy Conger. For more than two decades, Conger has been cooking with other professionals in hotels, country clubs and corporate offices before joining SUNY Potsdam three years ago.

“Cooking is stress relief for me. I can honestly say, I love my career. I love it. I love what I do. It could be 100 degrees outside, and 120 in the kitchen and I’ll be cooking and I’m in my glory,” Conger said.

Conger has been overseeing Dexter’s Café and catering services on campus since 2014, bringing with her a lifetime of culinary experience. Through a collaboration with the biology department, she introduced microgreens into Dexter’s Café, a young flavorful vegetable green, grown by students in professor Ray Bowdish’s Sustainable Agriculture class. Last year Conger introduced “power salads” to the Dexter’s menu, something that was so popular that they are now being introduced into other restaurants on campus. “Dexter’s is kind of like our campus spring board,” Conger said.

One of the favorite aspects of her job is building relationships with the students on campus. During the Sustainable Agriculture Class, Conger meets with the students to discuss the benefits of microgreens from a culinary standpoint. This fall, students in the sustainable agriculture class will be working with students at Salmon River Central School to help them grow their own gardens. After the vegetables are grown, Conger will head over to the school to help them process the microgreens and prepare a special meal.

Last year she worked one-on-one with two SUNY Potsdam students to prepare unique meals from their family recipes—preparing oxtail stew and curried goat that were served on campus in the Blue Plate Diner. “I like being on campus, I like working with the students, my door is open,” said Conger.

She continues to push the envelope professionally. She helped to develop the first SUNY Culinary Summit held at SUNY Buffalo earlier this month, the brainchild of her and three other SUNY chefs attending a culinary conference together last year. The event featured guest speakers, hands-on training sessions and a competition where six teams prepared four course dinners that were judged by the American Culinary Federation—the largest professional organization for chefs in North America. She is now preparing to take a test to become a Certified Executive Chef through the Federation, a prestigious classification only achieved after cooking in front of four Certified Master Chefs (there are only 10 in the United States).

As a single mom, female chef, and a cancer survivor, she has also faced some adversity along the way. In the past, she has been challenged by men who didn’t want to take orders from her because she was a woman. “It’s been very difficult for women to thrive in this business. A lot of men believe that women should be home in the kitchen, but not in a professional kitchen,” Conger said. However, she believes that things have been changing in a positive way for female chefs.

She overcame one her greatest personal challenges last year when she was diagnosed with cancer. “Last March at the NACUFS (National Association of College & University Food Services) conference is when I got the phone call that I was diagnosed with breast cancer…I went through 16 rounds of chemotherapy, 21 rounds of radiation and I maintained my work schedule. I’m six months cancer free,” Conger said.

She said that fighting cancer as a chef was particularly difficult because the chemotherapy drugs affected her taste buds, causing food to taste metallic or off in other ways. There were days that she didn’t feel that well, but she said PACES was supportive and accommodating.

Conger started her culinary career at Johnson & Wales University where she received her associates degree in culinary arts and her bachelor’s degree in food service management. After graduating in 1993, she took a job as the executive sous-chef at the Sheraton Hartford Hotel, a busy hub connected to the Bradley International Airport.

“Working in hotels in definitely a different monster,” she said. “During the holiday season, we were putting in 100 hours per week, easily. You didn’t even know your name by the end of the week.”

In 1996 the cold weather got the better of her and she moved to North Carolina. She threw a dart at the map and two weeks later she and a friend were living in Charlotte. She worked the country club circuit between 1996 and 2000 at Cabarrus Country Club, Gaston Country Club and Cramer Mountain Club. After the birth of her daughter, she moved back to Connecticut and started working at Prudential as their dining services manager, where she was responsible for feeding 1500 people on a daily basis. She moved to the North Country four years ago, working at Clarkson University for nine months before joining SUNY Potsdam as a chef.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more caring and approachable person at SUNY Potsdam than Conger. When we met up with her last month, she was busy ordering maple syrup and overseeing a training session for other PACES staff. She continues to add a personal touch to her cooking style. When guest conductors come to campus to work with Crane students, she does her research and prepares a meal that is connected to the music. If the conductor is performing Mozart, she will find out when the composition was written, where Mozart was living at the time and she will create a meal from that time period. One year she made a German dish; “We made spaetzli and pork and I try to get the most traditional recipe I can, or we’ll take a modern twist on a recipe,” she said.

“I just love being a chef so much…I get paid to play with food, it doesn’t get much better than that,” Conger said.

Amy Conger has been overseeing Dexter’s Café and catering services on campus since 2014, bringing with her a lifetime of culinary experience. Through a collaboration with the biology department, she introduced microgreens into Dexter’s Café, a young flavorful vegetable green, grown by students in professor Ray Bowdish’s Sustainable Agriculture class.