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Cultivating the Culinarians

Cultivating the Culinarians

By Ann Friedland

At University of Missouri-Columbia, Assistant Manager/Sous Chef Eric Cartwright works with line employee Lily Huang on tortilla wrap prep techniques.

Adding professionally-trained chefs to the staff at Vermont's Fletcher Allen Health Care system resulted in faster, better menu items and increased sales.

Dual-roled Camp Howard, Vanderbilt's Executive Chef and Associate Director

Executive Chef Sylvia Oliveira of Bon Appetit

Executive Chef Brent Trudeau, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Texas

Catering Chef Orlando Ramos and counter helper Maritza Rivera prepare sandwiches at NYU Medical Center in New York.

Through the University of Colorado's chef exchange program, Craig Cook learns new techniques to bring back to campus during his stint at a local PF Chang's restaurant.

It's hard to dispute the observation that onsite foodservice today is a far cry from what it was just ten years ago. Greater attention to management and marketing techniques certainly have helped; but the real key is that the food—across the board— has just gotten a whole lot better. And that in turn is largely due to the growing number of professional chefs who have brought their talents and creativity to the sector.

While having a formally-trained chef on staff is still far from universal, a growing number of directors are looking to make this move and are also weighing the changes they may need to implement in their organizations to make such a position a realistic one.

"In fact, most noncommercial operations still don't have anyone with formal culinary training," observes Paul Hysen, principal of The Hysen Group in Northville, MI.

"What's more typical is a homegrown situation with a lead cook who may have started out as a pot washer, learned techniques from previous cooks, and earned tenure in a department. But a trained chef can do much more to help a director reduce labor and food costs as well as improve the quality of the food overall.

"A chef will have a better understanding of purchasing, computerized formulas, and recipe development. And if you hire the right person, it can help you upgrade the professionalism of the entire operation."

Raising the bar
That certainly has been the case at Fletcher Allen Health Care system in Burlington, VT. Richard Jarmusz, brought on board four years ago as the first executive chef at management level for the system, set about luring additional chefs and cooks with formal culinary training.

"The results have been overwhelming," Jamusz asserts. "We now have 12 professionallytrained chefs or cooks on staff, and we're doing things faster, getting out a better product and increasing variety. Customer sales are way up."

With a new food court opening soon and a room service program in the wings, Jamusz plans to significantly expand his culinary staff over the next year. And that brings up the $64,000 question: Where will he find the talent he needs?

One remarkably simple solution Jarmusz employed was simply changing the title of the position when advertising.

"Formerly, we would have advertised for a cook, but re-defining that job as one for a 'hospital line chef' attracted a different caliber of applicant," he says.

At New York City Schools, Executive Director for Foodservices David Berkowitz began a major push to upgrade the culinary aspects of his program last year when he hired the district's first executive chef.

"We're the largest school district in the country, serving 860,000 meals a day, second only to the military," he says. "With all that food in the system, we needed more culinary expertise at the top."

Hiring Executive Chef Jorge Collazo filled that void. His first order of business was to "take ideas from the private sector, add color, texture, variety, healthful choices, and just break down the stigma of eating school lunch," Berkowitz explains.

To do that, the two agreed they needed five regional chefs—one for each borough —to act as a team to implement, train, teach and educate the production staff in over 1,200 school kitchens. Berkowitz and Collazo found four professionally-trained chefs already working as managers within the district, and tapped a Culinary Institute of America graduate from the outside to finalize the new team.

As they began to make the rounds of the school cafeterias, "students saw them in their chef whites, and that alone began to build participation and confidence," Berkowitz notes. After introducing new salad bars and a tossed-to-order salad program, unexpected fruits like individually-wrapped sticks of fresh pineapple, made-to-order deli bars, and a free breakfast program, high school participation—the district's biggest challenge—grew 15% in a year, he adds.

With a background in restaurants, the Opryland Hotel and a stint at a children's hospital in Memphis, Jennifer Salmon proved a prime candidate when she became the first executive chef at WellStar Health System in Marietta, Georgia.

There, administrators were searching for someone to "take hold of retail and grow revenue" seven years ago, and since then she's done just that.

From simple things like changing the names of menu items to re-engineering recipes to enhance their flavor profiles with fresh herbs, Salmon brought a retail perspective to the operation.

To toque or not to toque
Still, it doesn't take long to see that definitions vary—sometimes widely—for culinary roles. Many in onsite foodservice look upon an executive chef's role as primarily behind-the-scenes and administrative ( developing menu concepts and recipes, training and supervising staff, managing food costs, setting culinary standards). Others consider it more hands-on, with the chef actively engaged in the work of the kitchen.

Many chefs coming to onsite for the first time do not expect a heavy administrative load that's common in many foodservice departments. When such expectations differ, it can cause considerable friction.

At Madera Community Hospital in Madera, CA, Nutrition Resources Director Carrie Der Garabedian, MBA, RD, was "bound and determined to improve healthcare foodservice," and created an executive chef position to reach the goal. Despite good intentions, "it didn't work out," she says. "People I hired for the position didn't enjoy the supervisory aspects of the job."

After re-defining the position, she says she's found the perfect team for her needs, headed by Certified Sous Chef Matt Crum. He is supported by chefs with culinary school backgrounds who are in the midst of meeting various certification requirements through the ACF (American Culinary Federation).

As a working chef, Crum operates right in the heart of the kitchen, at display stations, or manning the outdoor barbecue, but has also taken on the role of training other cooks and chefs at the hospital.

"He's shown a lot of leadership, and is in actuality a Lead Certified Chef," Der Garabedian notes. "We're working on getting the official approval for that title now."

Content with her current arrangement— with trained chefs but no executive chef— Der Garabedian has attained her goal of improving foodservice while increasing revenue. The cafeteria boasts bountiful fresh foods made with in-season ingredients, scratch soups, exhibition cooking, roasted whole turkeys, and a full breakfast menu where none existed previously; and sales from 2001 to 2004 increased 45% (although she acknowledges some of that improvement is attributable to a new POS charging system).

As further proof of her team's culinary respect within the community, private pay catering zoomed up 83% in one year, with another 50 to 60% increase expected for 2005.

When Julaine Kiehn, director of campus dining services at the University of Missouri at Columbia, began hiring chefs with culinary degrees about seven years ago, she decided to begin with sous chefs rather than an executive chef right off the bat. "We knew we needed to grow our culinary side, but if we had started out with an executive chef, the managers would have rebelled! So we grew it the other way," she explains.

Currently, each of five sous chefs report to the manager at their individual location, and work together to increase the quality and variety of the food.

"The managers have come to see the value of culinary expertise in their programs," Kiehn says. "We now believe we're ready for the next step—hiring an executive chef —and that our managers won't feel threatened by the idea."

Kiehn sees the executive chef's position much like that of a corporate chef, who will "support the sous chefs, and work with them and individual managers to meet mutually agreed-upon goals."

How do you know who will make a good fit as an executive chef in onsite? Consultant Hysen offers one view: "I think executive chefs that stay and thrive are by nature trainers and love to teach as well as do. I've made three executive chef placements recently, and in each case, those chefs had an education component in their background. Some still teach at least one day a week. In noncommercial settings, it's important that an executive chef have that kind of orientation."

Such was the case for Paul Hubbard, associate director of food and nutrition at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York. He hired his first executive chef, Eric Ingoglia, this past January, because Ingoglia met all of Hubbard's "desirable skill sets" for the position.

"As a culinary instructor for eight years, he has an ability to teach others culinary arts; he has a clear application of skills (he and his wife own a bakery); he understands and is efficient with computer systems; and he is in a position to incorporate cuttingedge culinary trends into our facility and impart them to the culinary staff."

The appeal of onsite
The "quality of life" issue is still the reason countless chefs cite for initially switching from the retail sector to onsite—from better hours and vacations to health benefits, continuing education opportunities, and retirement plans. But most also express other, less tangible reasons for making the transition.

Sylvia Oliveira, executive chef at Bon Appetitmanaged Carlson Companies in Minneapolis, recalls meeting a Bon Appetit general manager at a bistro where she once worked:

"He said all the right things—that the company puts an emphasis on food and customers first; that they use fresh ingredients and make stocks and soups from scratch; that I could expand my education and start a 401(k) plan. My eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store. I said, 'What's the catch?' But there was none."

After 13 years with the company, Oliveira notes "it's like working for a family business, only without the dysfunctional part. The support, in the form of a chefs exchange and regional networking groups, plus an emphasis on social responsibility and sustainability, encompasses all of the things that are important to me."

Camp Howard, associate director and executive chef at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, observes that a gratifying aspect of working in campus dining is that "it's an environment where the bottom line doesn't drive everything, like in retail restaurants. Education comes first here, and that's a great perspective to have on your job life."

Before taking on the executive chef spot at Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas, Brent Trudeau, a CIA graduate, had worked as a culinary instructor and in high end catering.

"If you had told me ten years ago that I'd one day be executive chef at a school district, I would have laughed," he says.

"But as I considered this job, my preconceived notions about school foodservice peeled back bit by bit. I was impressed with the people, and the centralized production facility presented an interesting challenge. So I made the big shift from foie gras and brioche to chicken nuggets and soft rolls. But after all, it was just a shift in emphasis. And there's a huge amount of satisfaction when you're contributing to the education of children."

For Jennifer Salmon, in the seven-plus years she's held the culinary helm at WellStar, "I've never worked the same job two years in a row. There's always something new and challenging. And it's really rewarding to see how people appreciate getting this level and quality of food in a hospital."

Observes Madera Community Hospital's Matt Crum: "In a restaurant kitchen, there are [often] no policies; it's a dictatorship. Here, it's more of a democracy. It's organized and there are rules."

But that still leaves plenty of room for creativity. "I feel fulfilled as a chef here," Crum adds. "In the cafè, we're changing menus weekly, so there's lots of room for experimentation to keep everything fresh and not let the concepts get stale. Catering lets me really challenge myself and my capabilities."

The art of cultivation
To make sure chefs and culinary staff feel valued, many directors cite such efforts as encouraging entry in chef competitions, paying for continuing education, sending chefs to local and national food shows, promoting from within, and providing growth opportunities. Some, however, have established specific, on-going programs that significantly contribute to the overall culinary bent of their operations.

When Executive Chef Don Miller recently took over from the retired and renowned Chef Dennis Ellis at At the University of Notre Dame, he asked the staff to tell him the one aspect of the existing program they wanted to make sure he maintained.

"To a person, they urged me to continue with the culinary arts classes," Miller says. "About 35percent of my job is running and managing those culinary programs. At Notre Dame, we like to promote from within, and the classes provide an ideal way to identify good prospects."

Notre Dame's classes vary in focus and length. They include everything from 20-minute "quick hitters" that demonstrate how to blanch and skin a tomato or match herbs and spices with vegetables, to culinary math classes for those struggling with recipe conversion, to five-day classes on modern sauces, salsas and glazes, to a 15-week course on best culinary practices.

"Many people in big kitchens have no formal training. If we don't provide it for them, we'll never improve the quality of our product or take our programs to the next level," Miller says.

To address upper-level chef issues, Miller organized the university's new Culinary Council of Chefs. "We have 12 unit chefs on campus, and the purpose of this group is to promote professionalism within their ranks. We want to take advantage of all their culinary knowledge and background," he says.

In monthly meetings, the chefs' discussions center around four key issues: education and training, recipe management, business (food and labor cost controls), and ACF/NACUFS attendance and participation. "It's not a complaint session," Miller emphasizes. "The idea is to build a consensus around ideas and problem solving techniques as they relate to culinary applications in the university environment."

At the University of Colorado in Boulder, Executive Chef Kerry Paterson started a "chefs exchange" program two years ago with local restaurants. "During the down times on campus [such as semester holidays], most of our culinary staff would get sent to housekeeping, but we decided to give them a taste of the restaurant world instead, and now place many of them in restaurant kitchens during those two-or three-week periods," he says.

While the university pays their wages ("it's like they're attending a workshop or conference"), the campus cooks shadow the crew at four to five core restaurants within the program—which are more than happy to have the free labor. The restaurants, ranging from gourmet delis to fine dining establishments, provide a chance for Paterson's staff to "learn speed, line cooking and more a la carte techniques," he says.

"The staff gets valuable training, and when we do guest chef nights, showcasing local restaurants on campus, it's payback time!"

Another side benefit is that many of the cooks come back "more appreciative of the campus environment," Paterson laughs.

Balancing egos
Although prima donna chefs with attitudes may be fun to watch on television, directors agree there's no place for them in onsite foodservice.

"Certainly in the interview process, you look for a good resume and background, someone who knows food and HACCP procedures," says NYU Medical Center's Senior Director of Food & Nutrition Services Carol Sherman, RD.

"But you can't always tell how they're going to react to healthcare restraints. Those that don't want to listen, or who feel compliances, budget constraints and oversight don't apply to them don't work out. But the majority do. They rally and thrive."

Consultant Hysen warns it's crucial to explain to prospective chefs up front that they will be part of a team. "Done right, that will dissuade some [who wouldn't be a good fit] from pursuing the position further."

Dave Prentkowski, Notre Dame's foodservice director, notes that "when you strive to be market driven, as we do, you're constantly listening to what the customers tell you. That doesn't allow for a situation in which your operation is driven by a chef, as in the case of a celebrity restaurant. We can't have a chef telling our customers what to eat. If a customer wants a cheeseburger, they'll get a cheeseburger. The chef's job is to make sure that's the best darn cheeseburger available."

No regrets
Once won over to the camaraderie, team play, benefits and lifestyle advantages of onsite foodservice, many chefs are ready to devote many years to the industry. But do they ever miss their former lives on the retail side? When pressed, one onsite chef admits to feeling nostalgia for "working that really busy line, cooking a smaller amount a la minute, with food in the skillet for one person, versus 25."

Some long for the mindset in which every plate of food is an event. Others miss getting to use fancier, more expensive ingredients on a daily basis. Yet another acknowledges that somewhere down the line, he'd like to realize the dream of owning his own restaurant—but not as a working chef.

Still, those chefs happy in onsite consider such limitations a small price to pay for the overriding rewards of working in noncommercial. Says executive Chef Sylvia Oliveira: "the only way I'll leave this side of the business is 'feet first.'"

Recruiting Resources

Beyond turning to the local newspaper's help wanted section, onsite operators in the market for a new upper-level or executive chef may want to contact these resources, all recommended by directors contacted by FM.:

  • Industry associations and their local chapters.
  • Chef groups and associations --American Culinary Federation (ACF); Research Chefs Association.
  • Foodservice consultants or headhunters.
  • Online job bulletins and search sites (,
  • Business associates, such as brokers, vendors, suppliers ("even the delivery guys, who often have a line on talent looking to move on").
  • Chefs in the community, who may be aware of candidates looking for the the qualityof-life aspects of onsite positions.
  • Culinary schools and community colleges with culinary programs (don't focus solely on graduates, but explore the interest level among instructors, too).
  • Other directors and industry peers.
  • Internships. Offering internship positions to culinary school programs: it could be a way to groom a future chef.
  • Chef networking. Making sure "guest chefs" from local commercial establishments get a good feel for the advantages of onsite when they visit —from better hours and benefits to the quality of food being prepared in the facility, the array of equipment, and —more than likely —a cleaner environment than they're used to.

The CulinArt Approach

Director of Culinary Development Roger Beaulieu (left) and regional chefs Kevin Kenny and Ryan Deutsch work on a recipe and presentation at 1 Financial Center, NYC, a CulinArt account.

With culinary school graduates sprinkled throughout the top management ranks and a company-wide, "food first" mantra, CulinArt, Inc., the Lake Success, New York-based contract management company, knows a thing or two about creating chef-friendly environments.

In the field, Culinart chef-managers oversee many smaller accounts, while "quite a few of our existing account managers have extensive culinary backgrounds themselves," explains Director of Culinary Development Roger Beaulieu."Some of them moved up into management directly from chef positions."

The advantage, he notes, is that "having culinary people at all levels helps maintain the focus on the food, and conveys the message that we're a chef-oriented company."

That philosophy is supported by more than just a favorable atmosphere, however; it's also backed up with solid programs:

  • A regional chefs network allows for communication among those in the upper levels of the culinary side. These chefs —a core group of 12 to 15—get involved at culinary events, catering expos and food shows. There, they have a chance to work and create with one another and explore the various culinary strengths and talents that that each brings to the table. That pays off when it comes time to plan for meetings, special events, and other projects when they can draw upon each others' special aptitudes.
  • Beaulieu and CulinArt's director of training are developing a new, in-depth training and certification process for all levels of culinarians, beginning with hourly associates."They will be able to move through the process of getting certified in all the various stations and disciplines," Beaulieu says.With the goal of "contributing to and enhancing the level of professionalism," the certification program will provide a pool of qualified people in specific areas. Beaulieu notes there's a "great deal of interest" among hourly employees who want to get involved in the process.
  • A "career climbers" program solicits employees' geographic and work goals so that management can keep track of where they want to go as they move along on their professional career pathways. Those with true culinary inclinations have plenty of opportunity, Beaulieu notes, since "we've doubled in size twice within recent years."
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