Nick Malgieri offers a touching tribute to his mentor.
Albert Kumin touched and enriched my life in so many ways – he was my beloved friend, teacher, mentor, chef, and literally a second father.
When I received a phone call from his daughter Julie to inform me of her father’s passing, I immediately remembered the first time we met: I was a second year student at the CIA and the school had just moved to its present location in Hyde Park NY from its first home on the Angell family estate in New Haven. Chef Kumin’s Classical Bakeshop – a course in decorating with many forms of sugar and preparing such specialties as European style ices and fancy gateaux and torten – met in a ground floor room that had a long, narrow vertical window set into the door at eye level. I arrived early to school every day to spend a few minutes watching the end of his class. Finally, after a couple of weeks of mild stalking, I made my way through the door and introduced myself. Little did I know that it was the single most important moment on which my future pivoted. We chatted quickly as he was making sure the room had been cleaned up, and then I left.
I returned often after that until in the second half of the academic year, I was a student in his class. The first day he asked if anyone in the class wanted to be a pastry chef and I was the only one who raised a hand. From then on he became my mentor. “If you’re serious about being a pastry chef, you have to go to work in Switzerland.” At the beginning of August 1973, I was able to follow his advice and was on my way to work at a hotel on the Zurich lakeside via a program for beginners run by the Swiss Hotel Association. Mr. Kumin, as I then called him, put me in touch with his sister and her family who ran a pastry shop in a Zurich suburb, and I started to feel like I belonged.
Albert (I eventually dropped the formal title) hired me to work with him developing the spectacular desserts for the opening of Windows on the World in 1976. I would need to take up the better part of a book to describe all the day-to-day experiences in learning from the hands of the master. I got yelled at a few times and never forgot the lessons I learned when he pointed out my mistakes.
Over the years we remained in close touch – I would fly up for the day to visit him at home in Vermont along with my friend and former colleague Michelle Tampakis. I was privileged to be in on planning his 90th birthday party in 2011, sponsored by this magazine and Bakers Dozen East with support by many donors including Zabar’s and Restaurant Associates. The former ambassador and then Swiss General Consul in New York, François Barras, presented Albert with the Ordre de la Channe du Valais, an honorary order for Swiss members of the food and wine professions.
I last saw him in April at a CIA fundraiser honoring New York food world greats. Albert was exhausted and not breathing well; it was an enormous effort for him to go up to the stage to accept his award, but as usual, he shone. Michelle and I had tickets to visit him again on September 8, and early in the week he phoned and asked us to postpone the trip as he wasn’t feeling well. Julie Kumin phoned the day after our cancelled visit. His influence on me was as great as that of my own parents and he touched the lives and careers of thousands of others. May he rest in peace.