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Chef Swap

Chef Swap

Strategies for making visiting chef programs successful.

Clockwise from top left: a guest chef at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst talks with student customers; a Sodexo guest chef promotion featuring Chilean cuisine; a guest chef prepares food to order for a customer at a display station in a Parkhurst account.

It's October 13, 2008 at New Jersey's Princeton University and Mick Verheyen, executive chef at Chicago's Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, has prepared a delectable menu of filet sliders, marinated skirt steak, grilled yellowfin tuna, “killer” cole slaw and double baked potatoes. It's a special menu that's offered as part of the university's Great Chefs of Chicago visiting chefs program.

Princeton's Forbes College is the first to host Verheyen's fresh and simple menu, which will rotate through four other dining halls during his stay this week. During a quiet moment, just before the first meal is served, Dining Services Director Stu Orefice and Assistant Vice President for Facilities Chad Klaus present Verheyen with a plaque recognizing his contribution to Princeton dining. Proudly, he accepts it and says, “I'm very, very happy to be here.”

Even for a chef with outstanding commercial foodservice credentials, such programs can present real professional challenges, Orefice says.

“When you bring a chef out of the restaurant world and tell them they need to prepare two appetizers, two salads, two soups, five entrees, three accompaniments and three desserts — oh and by the way there need to be some vegan and vegetarian options in there too — it can be a little intimidating,” he says. “But our team is there to help, and we find our guest chefs come away with a real sense of pride in having participated.”

Like most such programs, Princeton's visiting chef series seeks to leverage a well known chef's culinary reputation as part of a special event, while simultaneously contributing to the gastronomic education of department staff. But a closer look at these programs also shows that almost every one has its own unique aspects.

In February, a cardiac surgeon at Boston's Massachusetts General teamed up with the hospital's executive chef for a heart healthy cooking demonstration. The University of Massachusetts showcases regional cuisines annually by temporarily trading chefs with other big ten universities like Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Ohio State. And in a corporate version of this kind of program, top chefs from all dining segments representing Belgium, Canada, Chile, China, England, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Spain and the United States embark on multinational culinary journey each year as part of Aramark's annual International Guest Chef Exchange.

In fact, countless versions of guest chef programs abound in virtually all segments and among all management companies. Some lean heavily on entrepreneurial moxie, while others rely on tried-and-true templates. Yet the elements that make each program a success are the same: a consistent, well defined format, an effective, well planned marketing strategy and — most importantly — constant, detailed communication among dining program management, staff and the guest chefs.

Untangling the Hotline

Whether the visiting chef is from a long-established institution, a rising-star restaurant 2,000 miles away, or another country entirely, early and detailed preparation is crucial.

“We start by accepting nominations for International Guest Chefs about eight months out,” says Paul Carr, senior director of specialty culinary programs for Aramark. “Once we've chosen the chefs, we begin a dialogue with them, exploring the places they would like to go and the talents and skills they bring to the table.”

Aramark's program matches chefs from businesses, universities, school districts, hospitals and sports and entertainment venues abroad to similar venues in the U.S. and vice versa. Because the goal is cross-cultural education, Carr adds that the most successful matches are often between chefs who can either speak the host language or have something particularly unique to offer.

“For example, last year, two United States auto manufacturers that have an international presence in Asia hosted Japanese chefs for an authentic culinary experience their employees really enjoyed,” he says.

Once they've assigned the chef to a location, Carr and his team turn their attention to logistics. They work with Aramark's host operations to ensure a complete experience for everyone involved. “The point of the exchange is to be both rewarding and educational,” he says. “We want the chefs to return home having learned a new cuisine and culture and we want the accounts they visit to benefit, too.”

Sometimes this is easier said than done. Carr has learned the hard way that there is no such thing as too much information when it comes to planning.

“A few years ago, we had a U.S. chef go to an operation in Chile that only had ovens available for food prep,” he says.

“We just assumed the operation had the equipment he would need, and his planned menu relied on more than what was on hand. Fortunately, he was able to recreate his menu with the help of the onsite team. His experience taught us a very valuable lesson about communication and planning. More is always better. Now, before we send a chef anywhere, we require a detailed equipment list.”

A Varied Menu of Benefits

What are the benefits for Institution?
• Revitalized participation and interest in the meal program

• Increased customer, employee and staff satisfaction

• Ability to understand and respond to a more diverse population

• Opportunity to leverage the expertise and resources

• Competitive advantage in your field marketplace

• Unique training & development that creates a lasting experience for onsite employees

What are the benefits for Customers?
• Opportunity to try authentic cuisine from other regions and cultures

• Availability of familiar flavors far from home

• Collective exposure to other cultures, chefs and institutions

• Interactive dining experience & culinary display

What are the benefits for the Chef?
• A sense of being part of the greater good

• Satisfaction of sharing their talents

• A chance at career advancement

• Exposure

Carr is one of many to emphasize that lines of communication must be constantly open, thorough and, perhaps most critically, personal.

“A phone call is always better than an email,” even if you use email to follow the phone call up, he says. “And two phone calls are always better than one. Leave no questions unasked or unanswered.”

Mike Miduri, general manager for Parkhurst Dining Services at St. Francis University in Loretto, PA, concurs: more information is always better.

“Guest chef programs aren't hard to execute in principle, but you have to plan and market them carefully,” he says. “Communication breakdowns often occur when no one takes a strong lead.”

Parkhust likes to establish the host operation as the “home team,” Miduri says. “They are responsible for making all the arrangements, booking the hotels, and taking care of travel. They do all the prep so that everything is ready when the traveling chef arrives. Parkhurst provides the tools, recipes and marketing for the program. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible on the operator.”

From Flexible to Fabulous

Nobody knows food better than a chef. But nobody knows an onsite foodservice operation — and its customers — better than the director and the onsite team.

“Because of the nature of a guest chef program and onsite foodservice, it is extremely important to bring in chefs who are willing to be flexible,” says Paul Komelasky, Sodexo Campus Services district manager at Northwestern University.

“This isn't a restaurant; we have to serve hundreds of students at about the same time. Sometimes we don't have the right ingredients or the same equipment the chef may be accustomed to. Sometimes we have to change a recipe so that it tastes correct when scaled up. In these types of scenarios, the guest chef needs to trust our executive chef's expertise and work with us to find a solution we are all happy with.”

The program at Nortwestern is part of SodexoUSA's Global Chef, a program initiated in 2003 by the Sodexo Education Market Champion. This program facilitates the exchange of executive chefs between Sodexo affiliates around the world. Each Global Chef shares authentic international cuisine and traditional cooking techniques with clients, customers, staff and the on-site culinary team.

Inspired by student surveys and client aspirations, Global Chef is designed to increase satisfaction and bring a fresh and distinctive experience to dining.

“Ethnic cuisine is more popular than ever. This program helps us better meet the lifestyle needs of Northwestern's multi-cultural population while differentiating our institution,” says Komelasky. “It gives us more culinary credibility.”

Preparation is critical to the success of each exchange. Ideally, the selected chef will have two months prior to arrival in the host country to collaborate with the on-site team to discuss personal cooking styles and techniques, exchange recipes, plan menus and determine ingredient requirements and availability.

“If you have a chef who isn't willing to be flexible, the program can fall apart in an instant,” warns Komelasky. “At the same time, we've been very fortunate with our guest chefs. They've taught us new recipes and cooking techniques. They've raised our students' expectations and they've inspired us to be more creative with the tools and skills we have.”

Making the Menu Work for You

Creating a workable menu often poses many challenges in planning visiting-chef events. To avoid menu snafus, most operators require a menu trial run before the actual event.

“Once we secure a restaurant, we go and visit the chef and spend a day in their kitchen,” says Princeton's Orefice. “We watch the team prepare dishes at both lunch and dinner, then we meet with the chef or the owner or both to discuss a possible menu for our event. While we're there, we gather information about the ingredients used and where they're sourced from. We take photos of the plated dishes and watch how the team garnishes each one.”

When Orefice and his chef return to campus, they upload all the recipes into the system, scale them up and begin recipe testing.

“We like to do a sneak preview with faculty members about three weeks in advance. This reminds them that the chef is coming, and gives us a chance to test the recipes on a larger scale,” he says. Such a test run helps avoid last minute snafus and frees the chef to put more emphasis on his or her “showtime” appearance, tasting the final dishes and making sure the plating is correct.

Plating photos taken at the restaurant “help our team create the finished product,” Orefice says, adding that many of the recipes find their way to the department's standing menu library for both dining and catering applications.

Similarly, Northwestern offers a VIP luncheon for the senior administration with the upcoming guest chef's menu. “By this point, we've worked out the tweaks, so its really just good PR for the event,” says Komelasky. “And because a lot of senior admins don't have the chance to make it to the event, they are able to taste the visiting chef's food and still be a part of the program.”

While these types of programs generate lots of good will, not all guest chefs are there to solely make an appearance. At Massachusetts General Hospital, Jen Walker, MD, cardiac surgeon, teamed up with Dan Kahn, the hospital's executive chef, in a cooking demonstration. The two worked side by side preparing dishes that were — not coincidentally — heart healthy.

“It's loads of fun,” says Susan Barraclough, MS, RD, LDN, director of nutrition & food services. “It is very educational and, as you can imagine, fabulous exposure. Between 75 and 100 people came to watch our team make a delicious halibut dish and a tasty pasta.”

Afterward, the recipes were made available on the hospital's cardiac website alongside photos of Walker and Kahn at the guest chef demo.

Chefs of the Big 12, Unite!

The University of Massachusetts-Amherst puts a strong campus dining twist on its visiting chefs program, leveraging the relationships it has developed with other college chefs across the country who attend the annual Culinary Conference held on the campus.

“Our program is similar to a visiting professor series,” says Ken Toong, director of dining services. “It includes a $500 honorarium for visiting chefs. Our objective is to create excitement and variety in campus dining, educate our students on regional cuisines and showcase the signature specialties of the chefs who participate.”

Inspired by last year's visits from eight universities, the program has been expanded to 12 schools this year. Newcomers from Yale, UC Berkeley, Northwestern and the University of Western Ontario will join veteran participants from Notre Dame, the University of New Hampshire, Virginia Tech, Iowa State, Villanova, Stanford, Ohio State and Harvard.

“There is a great deal of talent among our university chef community,” says Toong. “They can — and do — learn a great deal from one another as a result of this exchange.”

The program encourages each participating school to promote sustainability and healthier cuisines for students in addition to sharing information in how to reduce and manage food costs.

As part of the reciprocal program, UMass Amherst will send its executive chef, Willie Sng, to participating schools as well. “The Visiting Chef Series is better than any NCAA competition,” Toong adds. To others who would like to initiate similar programs, “Start small and grow slowly,” Toong suggests. He began the series by using local chefs before he developed the national program.

UMass heavily promotes the guest chef event via the school newspaper, flyers, email, its website and with a display in the dining hall showcasing a photo and bio of the chef. “By the time he or she arrives, everyone is waiting,” Toong says. The advance publicity makes him “practically famous among our students.”

Signs of Success

At the end of Aramark's International Guest Chef Exchange, all 28 chefs convene at an invitation-only culinary showcase at the United Nations in New York City to allow Aramark customers, clients and potential clients to enjoy the well-honed, world-class culinary cuisine.

“It's the only time all the guest chefs get to come together and enjoy one another's cuisine at the same time,” says Aramark's Carr. “The event showcases how capable our chefs are and how proud the company is of them. It also shows our clients — both current and future — that we're an international food company.”

Guest chef programs have become something of a recruitment and advancement tool for chefs employed by management companies.

“The program gives us an opportunity to test our younger chefs before promoting them into higher level positions,” says Parkhurst's Miduri. “And it gives chefs the opportunity to travel and grow their career within the company while providing them with the opportunity to market and promote themselves.”

With enough planning and preparation, guest-chef events are a win-win-win. The chefs who share their fare get meaningful exposure while the dining services programs that host the events get an opportunity to stir new interest among diners and staff.

“These programs showcase the talent of our industry,” says UMass' Toong. “They are relatively inexpensive to execute and their effects are long lasting.”

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