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Captivating Cuisine: An Intimate Look into the Culinary World of Chef Tess

Executive Chef of The Merrill Hotel and Maxwell’s on the River, Tessa Crookshanks.

Most people know about The Merrill Hotel downtown, this elegant hotel stands by the riverfront. Looking into the kitchen stands a great chef, cooking amazing meals for the hotel. Executive Chef of The Merrill Hotel and Maxwell’s on the River, Tessa Crookshanks.

I park my car in the Merrill parking lot, and make my way to the back door where I use my key card. As I walk inside I peek my head inside and see if Chef Tess is in her office, but she never is. I go towards the kitchen and I start to smell something that pulls me towards it. Once I get to the kitchen, it’s no surprise, that Chef Tess is in there cooking up a storm.

Chef Tess went to the school Le Cordon Bleu Chicago, AA Culinary Arts, in the year 2009.

“I selected the early morning cohort so that I could still work full time in a fine dining restaurant at night. My classes were held from 6:30 AM to 2:30 PM each day. Classes rotated every six weeks, so the pace of each class had to be very fast to cover all of the required material. To attend classes, I had to arrive on time in a complete and clean uniform, which was checked from head to toe at the beginning of each day. Because of the hastened pace, we needed to make ourselves familiar with the techniques that we would be learning ahead of time, as we jumped right into production during classes,” said Chef Tess.

Chef  Tess in culinary school

Culinary school is nothing short of extremely difficult. Efforts to be able to get through such a rigorous program takes a lot. Getting to a culinary school is very different in different areas but in Chicago typically Commutes are used.

“I used my 30-minute commute each morning to review the material and memorize recipes for each day, and my 40-minute commute home from work each night was used for completing assignments. Aside from one week off for Christmas, there were no traditional breaks in the school year. We attended in-person classes for a full calendar year before completing a three-month externship,” said Chef Tess.

Chef Tess working up in the banquets with Chef Ryan!

Most people when they are younger want to be an astronaut or a princess, but Chef Tess knew what she wanted, and it did not change.

“I became interested in the culinary arts when I was very young, probably six or seven. I had taken to watching cooking shows after school rather than cartoons and became very interested in anything that my mother was cooking in the kitchen. I have vivid memories of standing on one of our dining room chairs at the kitchen counter while I helped my mother mix cake batter. I was eight years old when I first proclaimed to my parents that I wanted to be a chef when I grew up,” said Chef Tess.


There are a lot of different jobs at the Merrill, but being a chef is one of the hardest jobs there.

“I’ve been the Executive Chef of The Merrill for five and a half years now. The hotel had only been open for seven months when I was hired, so I had the opportunity to help mold the food and beverage operation into what it is today. Today, I oversee all of this operation, which includes the banquet facility, restaurant, and kitchen. I have three very talented salaried managers on my team who lead these individual areas of the hotel, and together we employ over forty associates,” said Chef Tess.

Chef Tess working

Memorable experiences are something that everyone has, but when working at a hotel it can be a vast variety.

“In 2020, our hotel management company asked each hotel to nominate someone who would be considered a ‘hero’ during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was selected by all of my peers to receive this award, and I genuinely cannot remember a more humbling time in my career.” said Chef Tess.

Being a chef is incredibly hard, despite what people think. So, to get Chef Tess’ opinion, I asked her what is essential in being a chef.

Chef Tess said,“The ability to cook seems like an obvious answer, however in my experience, it is much more than that. I consider leadership to be the most important facet of my career, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to lead and help develop the skills of those on my team as we work together to achieve common goals.”

I then asked Chef Tess for tips for Muscatine area students who are interested in pursuing a career in this field.

“Start now. You’ll never be able to learn everything, which is one of the most fascinating parts of what we do. Jump in, get a job in a restaurant if you don’t have one already, read all of the cookbooks and chef memoirs that you can get your hands on. I would recommend anything by Anthony Bourdain because he was raw and real about the
experiences that he shared in his books. Eat at new restaurants, order dishes that you’re unfamiliar with, and research any word on a menu that you don’t already understand. A career in the culinary arts is one that will never become stagnant if you continue to put effort toward its growth. Stay curious. In addition to everything listed above, I would direct any student to the EICC culinary program. They can assist with job placement in addition to a variety of program paths,” Chef Tess said.

Chef Tess in the kitchen!

However, there can be some ups and downs to such an intense job.

“I love my career and have fully immersed myself in it for most of my adult life. I’m passionate about what I do and who I do it with, and that has come with some sacrifices. I work hard to provide memorable experiences for others, and in turn sometimes I must miss some of my own. Work/life balance is really important no matter what field you
work in. Being intentionally present with my fiancé and my family when I’m not at work is something that I try to put a lot of energy into, as well as staying physically active as much as possible,” said Chef Tess.

If you are interested in being a chef, take Chef Tess’ tips to heart. Go down to Maxwell on the River and The Merrill Hotel and get the chance to have an experience with some of the best chefs.

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Kaitlyn Ford
Kaitlyn Ford, Sports Editor
Kaitlyn Ford is a Junior staff member for the Auroran Today at Muscatine High School! Outside of MHS, she loves to spend time with her friends or lay with her cat! Reading is a favorite hobby of hers and she has a big collection of books!
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