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Training Culinary Talent

Training Culinary Talent

Bon Appetit employees visit a produce market for hands-on training about produce handling and use.

Notre Dame Executive Chef Dennis Ellis: "Training should function 365 days a year."

Participants in The Chefs Culinary Conference 2001, in Amherst, Mass., utilize new and refreshed skills for the intense culinary competition.

Executive Chef Mike Hampson, foreground, at the Aramark Culinary Center which is used for both concept and menu development and as a training laboratory for the company's many chefs.

Finding, training and keeping quality employees is one of the biggest challenges a foodservice operator faces today. It's clear that a well-trained and motivated staff gives operations a competitive edge—not only in retaining skilled and dedicated staff—but also by providing improved customer service and ultimately, in boosting the bottom line.

Foodservice employees, whether cooks, chefs or managers, want to be—yearn to be—groomed, trained and recognized for their expertise and contributions to the organization they work for. Surveys show that they want to perform their daily jobs with as much integrity and knowledge as possible, not only to serve the customer better, but also to grow both personally and professionally. And operators are only too well aware of the high cost of recruiting and training new employees, over and over and over again.

Today such training is becoming even more important as the industry and its customer base continue to expand on a global basis. Increasingly, customers demand not only more interesting, authentic, ethnic foods, but also expect the staff to be able to educate them about what they are about to taste, not to mention treating them with respect and professionalism. And if customers don't feel they are getting their money's worth, it's generally fairly easy for them to take their business elsewhere. Summed up: training benefits everyone involved—the employee, the operator and the customer.

Whether training is formal or informal, its ultimate success is determined by how effectively you leverage your resources, as some of the following examples show.

Cross Training and College Credit
For most employees, mastering one skill set or one area of responsibility simply may not be enough to satiate the personal desire to grow and the professional drive to succeed.

The very nature of foodservices (seasonality of menus, ebb and flow of customer counts due to weather, holidays and out-side influences, the potential for catered events) affords employers many opportunities to help develop in their employees a versatile set of skills that they can use to grow, whether they are inclined to advance in culinary or management areas.

In college foodservices, cross-training, continuing educational opportunities and chef certification are just a few ways that operators are encouraging and nurturing their staffs to explore their own professional growth.

Foodservice staff at Cornell University, for example, have several avenues from which they can attain new skills to help them rise through the culinary ranks, or even explore new careers.

All Cornell employees—including those in dining services—are encouraged to take advantage of the free educational benefits available to them through the employee degree program—whether they are interested in continuing in the foodservice field or are interested in other careers. Cornell Executive Chef Anthony Kveragas received his BS/BA from Boston University and a Grande Diplome from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Paris before coming to Cornell to get his masters. And because Cornell Dining is sponsoring him for the program, his personal out-of-pocket costs are minimal.

Of course, less formal on-the-job training is available for those who "prefer to stay away from the classrooms," says Kveragas. Many foodservice employees are cross-trained to perform multiple tasks, which promotes growth from within and makes each day a new challenge. "And the mangers here are empowered with a lot of latitude," says Kveragas, "as long as we make our bottom line goals."

In addition to sending culinary staff to regional NACUFS culinary sessions (that last three to five days), FoodService Director Nadeem Saddiqui is committed to sponsoring Cornell chefs to become Certified Executive Chefs through the American Culinary Federation (ACF), a move more foodservice departments are considering (see sidebar, p.28). For Cornell staff, this means the school pays for the exams, test materials and annual membership fees. "It's a wonderful opportunity for some our chefs who have years of experience and talent but no formal training," says Kveragas.

A Program with Follow-through
Many chefs already at a high professional level, such as executive chef, have worked their way up the culinary ladder, successes and defeats in tow. Because of their experiences, they are often able to see and evaluate untapped potential in many of their own front line employees. Directors should encourage chefs with such abilities to exercise them and to bring along a new generation of talent.

"We strive to keep employees from becoming complacent," says Denis Ellis, executive chef at the University of Notre Dame. "I have a deep seated belief than no matter what level an employee is at, or what station he holds, he or she needs, wants and should have some form of continuing education job enhancement. This not only keeps employ-ees interested in and proud of their jobs, but may even help them outgrow it!" he adds.

And that's no small task at this school. Notre Dame employs 500 FTEs, 70 managers and about 500 on-call personnel in foodservices alone. For Ellis, culinary training is really about education, "which requires more time than simple on-the-spot training, which often has no follow-up."

When Ellis came to the school 14 years ago, he was not satisfied with offering his employees culinary classes here and there, so he and his managers created a Working Culinary Training and Education Curriculum, an on-the-job training, education and testing program.

Ellis and his staff identified 13 culinary categories that take place in a professional kitchen and 361 tasks within those categories. Each skill level has a set of identified competencies that the employee must meet in order to receive certification in that particular area before he or she can move ahead. After training in a certain area, employees participate in a culinary practical and a written culinary aptitude exercise. This system encourages personal and professional growth and it also meets ACF standards. Employees who successfully complete each module can use those hours toward ACF certification.

Mentors and Incentives
"Even though we do not have a formal training program per se, the training we do have is based on the invaluable resource of mentoring," says Bill Caldwell, director of food and nutrition services for Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County, Calif.

As in many school foodservice operations, the labor pool at Capistrano is made up largely of mothers who started working while their kids were in school. Even though many do not have formal culinary training, "they bring something special to the school environment. They are extremely dedicated and effective employees," says Caldwell.

"They genuinely love the kids, express care, and show a proven commitment to provide nourishing meals," he adds. But Caldwell points out that skilled chefs and managers bring a level of professionalism to the environment that not only helps gain respect from management, but also helps to encourage front line employees to strive further to enhance their professional and personal skills.

The chef here serves as the cornerstone for culinary responsibilities, Caldwell points out. "We have a number of formally-trained chefs on staff, along with a number of supervisory people who have worked as mangers in the commercial restaurant business, who have consciously worked as mentors directly with the staff, teaching skills on a one-to-one basis."

Caldwell notes that the current staff is so highly trained that the chef here now acts as an executive chef does in many upscale environments, overseeing the whole staff, dedicating his energies toward creative solutions and not doing quite as much hands-on work. Caldwell credits the low staff turnover on this mentoring communication model to his chefs/managers and front-line employ-ees. "Employees here stay on for many years," he says.

In some cases recruiting and retaining employees boils down to money. This can be especially true at school foodservice operations, where employees can anticipate two to three months unpaid leave. But Sandra Ford, director of foodservice at Blue Valley Schools in Kansas, has come up with an incentive program that not only trains her employees, but rewards them—with cash or merchandise—for going beyond average job performance.

"Training is a component of an incentive program we have in place that strives to not only attract employees, but also to discourage them from looking for additional employment over the summer months," says Ford.

Here's how it works. Employees earn points for both attending and utilizing information that they learn through staff development training sessions. New hires may attend basic culinary skill building courses such as measuring and knife work, for example. Other employees can earn points at advanced communication sessions, on topics such as dealing with difficult people, and at personal development courses such as applied nutrition information and weight management sessions.

Employees then set goals and revisit them with a supervisor to see if they are on the path to accomplish them. The point system, based on achieving bronze, silver or gold status, allows them to earn up to two weeks additional pay (gold). The training sessions are conducted for two weeks during each school semester.

One-on-one Communication
Sometimes the simplest system works the best. A case in point: foodservice staff tenure averages about nine years at Mount St. Vincent, an assisted living nursing home and independent living facility in Seattle, Wash. Here, too, real-life handson experience is key to training, motivating and promoting staff, and obviously has made a positive impact on both morale and retention.

A formally trained operations manager and a culinary school graduate, who serves as the production supervisor, encourage employees to excel both personally and professionally by utilizing hands-on and workshop type culinary training. Professional development and culinary skill building is communicated through daily production meetings and monthly in-service training meetings on everything from sauces to sanitation.

"We've set up a system where we bring employees in at the lowest level and train them to ultimately master a specific skill-level position," says FSD Howard Hayes.

And management staff members go out of their way to recognize good deeds on-the-spot. They also give out certificates of appreciation on a monthly basis, presented in front of the employees' peers.

Communication with staff is key to retention, says Patti Dollarhide, director of nutritional services at Via Christi Regional Medical Center, in Wichita, Kan. In addition to hands-on culinary and hospitality training, each employee meets with a manager for a "personal management interview."

"These intense face-to-face meetings serve to bolster communication between upper management and front line staff. Often the greatest personal and professional growth occurs when we're forced out of our comfort zone," says Dollarhide. "In addition to skill training, these meetings clarify professional goals and the means to achieve them. But more importantly, they send the message to the employee that their opinion counts," she adds.

Heart of the House
There is no doubt that today's college chefs, managers and FSDs are well rounded and are on the cutting edge of food trends and management issues, or can be. The independently operated Chefs Culinary Conference is yet another resource for college culinarians to further hone their skills.

The idea for a chef-to-chef "meeting-ofthe-minds" specifically for the college segment was the creation of David St. John-Grubb (presently corporate chef at J.M. Smucker Co. in Orville, Ohio) and Ken Toong, presently FSD at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass. Their vision was to connect college chefs across the country for an exchange of ideas, concepts and skills. What modestly began seven years ago with 25 people, meeting for a day or two, has grown to a five-day conference with more than 100 attendees.

"The conference features intense, handson culinary sessions in the morning," says St. John-Grubb, "then breakout sessions in the afternoon, featuring dignitaries in the industry."

"We strive to cover all bases and to educate the heart and service of the house," he says, preferring that communal term to the classic "front and back of the house" designation.

On the last day of the conference, the chefs engage in an intense culinary competition that is based on the previous days' culinary principles and lessons. The competition is within ACF standards and, here again, the chefs can earn continuing education credits toward certification or American Dietetic Association (ADA) accreditation.

Training with Technology
Concentrating on promoting both culinary and management staff can be daunting, but technology brings new training opportunities to foodservice operators and employees.

"We do on-site and corporate courses, geographically training our culinary staff," says Karen Virnoche-Brown, director of education and development at ServiceMaster. In both cases, management and front-line staff work in "real-live settings, whether they're mastering skills for a new branded concept or exploring management-focused interests such as merchandising and customer service.

"We just started video teleconferencing and using the Internet for training, and our employees love it," she says. Through such systems employees learn everything from financial systems for foodservice operations to knife skills.

"Our service partners really do like to learn via the computer, especially the younger ones," says Virnoche-Brown. And why not? In this way, customized training programs are available to them anytime the employee chooses.

Leveraging National Organizations
Due to their size and resource base, the larger foodservice management companies are able to develop culinary and management staff through a number of creatively formal programs. In addition to hands-on training, newsletters and culinary school courses that often include classes on using technology in the kitchen, professional growth is nurtured through in-house chef-to-chef exchanges and networking with commercial chefs, too.

For managers and chefs working under the Bon Appetit Management Company umbrella, the importance of their position to the company's overall growth and well-being is set in the tone of the company's culture, says Marc Zammit, director of culinary development and support. "Chefs are given a sense of ownership in what they are doing and are encouraged to be creative and grow, while at the same time upholding the high quality standards of the company," he says.

For the in-house exchanges, regional chefs— both the young, inexperienced cooks and professionals chefs—get together to learn new skills and/or hone their existing knowledge. A chef or chefs who have expertise in a certain type of cuisine or method of cooking (barbecue, Asian, smoking, sauces, etc.) lead the group in instruction and information sharing. The meetings often incorporate trips to farmer's markets and end up with everyone in the kitchen, cooking, learning and sharing techniques, failures and successes.

On another level, the chefs visit a commercial restaurant operator, not only to see what he or she does in the kitchen, but to explore trends and critical issues facing every operator in the foodservice industry today.

"What's really important is that even though our continuing education efforts are supported by corporate, the information in these sessions does not come down from corporate, but is shared between chefs," he adds.

Aramark Corporation's International Guest Chef Series goes beyond U.S. borders to provide a forum for cultural exchange through the culinary arts. The company selects a group of its award-winning chefs to spend two weeks in other Aramark international customer facilities. During these exchanges, the guest chefs cook, sharing techniques and tips from their home countries while learning the systems and techniques used by the host operators.

The transfer of ideas, cooking tips and menus broadens the skill and experience base of the Aramark chefs worldwide who in turn bring home to their operations a renewed excitement to their daily jobs, new menu ideas for their customers and new training opportunities for other employees.

Training Defined
The value of training is so ingrained in the Sodexho USA culture that the company recently designated a new position to head the task, Director of Training and Implementation for Culinary. Peter Katsotis, formerly director for culinary services, holds that position and explains that the struggle that Sodexho (and other non-commercial operators) faces is that "we do not have the luxury of having a single menu like an IHOP. So we boiled it all down to the fact that all our serveries perform the same basic skills.

"For example, everybody grills, even though a burger at one account may have different properties, due to regional preferences, than the other. However, the basic qualities that make the burger good are the same everywhere: cooking it correctly and safely and presenting it well, for example. It transfers across all the business lines," he says.

So Katsotis, his staff and the human resources department designed a number of ways to communicate the basics to each unit's front-line employee and also devised ways to encourage ingenuity and creativity for personal and professional growth for both line personnel and managers.

The Culinary Council is the governing body of the culinary management staff made up of leading culinary directors from each region.

Sodexho's Chef Association is made up of regional associations within the company that foster culinary excellence through performance-oriented training and culinary networking.

"One particular methodology that we stand by is that you can't effectively train more than six to eight people at one time," says Katsotis. "The whole premise of training is that they fully practice what you've demonstrated, so the sessions must be intimate," he adds. "It can be a slow process. But it's very effective and we're sure that our cooks and chefs are trained, not just exposed."

Sodexho, too, is affiliated with the ACF through the company's own chapter, and ACF bylaws are incorporated into Sodexho's Chef Association.

Experienced Chef Training
In addition to encouraging high-level executive chefs and sous chefs to attend chef-to-chef seminars and advanced culinary training conferences, operators may want to groom their culinary talent to take a look at the other side of the business—management—and the potential for career advancement that it holds.

One way to combine the best of both worlds—culinary training and an insight into crucial management issues —is to attend the new Prochef conference conducted at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). "The seminar, just introduced this year, was a great success," says Debi Benedetti, principal with KitchenSync, a consulting company in Santa Rosa, Calif. and adjunct professor at the Culinary Institute of America.

The courses cover a full range of issues, from intense culinary sessions on emerging cuisines to essential management issues like running a kitchen as a business, using technology to improve productivity and labor cost strategies.

From basic culinary skills to advanced management training, every foodservice employee benefits from training every day. After all, "education and training should function 365 days a year— it should be ongoing in the culture, not just a one time event," says Notre Dame's Ellis.

Vendor Vision

Operators large and small are realizing that the resources manufacturers bring to the training table can benefit both their front-line workers and their management staffs. Vendors offer everything from basic product knowledge to sophisticated discussions on the future of food trends.

Tyson University has long been a premier program of this type. Operators learn not only about Tyson products, services and resources, but also take part in site visits to hatcheries and a processing plant. In addition, operators take part in seminars on industry trends, food safety issues and segment-specific issues.

"Being able to see first hand how a product is processed is not only a training issue, it's a retention issue," says Dollarhide. "In our case, Tyson brought the training to us so I was able to invite some of my cooks. Having them see for themselves how products come to market and having them treated as professionals goes a long way toward helping them realize that they are an important part of our organization."

General Mills chefs and sales force provide operators with baking and recipe training nationwide. Additionally, operators that are Gold Medal Baking Mix customers have a structured plan with General Mills for training their employees which, depending on the needs of the account, can cover 2, 4, 6 or 8-hour training sessions or can consist of a full week course on specialty baking. Products selected for preparation at these seminars are aimed at meeting the demographic, ethnic and daypart needs of the customers that the operator serves.

Basic American Foods sponsors the Culinary Enhancement Workshops for Production Managers for NACUFS (National Association of College and University Food Services). The 5-day program, developed by NACUFS members and the Culinary Institute of America, was created to help managers work more closely with cooks by understanding important culinary topics such as kitchen operations, food trends, seasoning fundamentals and vegetarian cooking strategies, to name a few.

Organizations for Chefs' Continuing Education

These outside organizations can help operators further their culinary and management training efforts.

The American Culinary Federation, Inc.,(ACF) is the largest and oldest organization dedicated to professional chefs in the U.S. today, with more than 25,000 members and 300 individual chapters throughout the U.S. and the Caribbean. ACF runs the only comprehensive certification program for chefs in the U.S., based on a rigorous evaluation of industry experience, professional education, thorough testing and ACF activity. ACF awards 10 different levels ranging from Certified Culinarian to the prestigious Certified Master Chef. Contact ACF at 800-624-9458 or visit

The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) offers a number of courses for both front line and managerial staff. Courses include ServSafe, HACCP, Workplace Safety and Presenting and Alcohol Service programs. Management courses cover issues such as Cost Control and Revenue Management, Human Resources and Diversity, Marketing, Operations and Supervisory Skill Builders. NRAEF also has a Foodservice Management Professional (FMP) Certification Program. For details, call 1-800-765-2122 or log on to

The Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers (CHART) is a 32-year-old organization designed to be a networking organization for those who train in the hotel and restaurant industries, according to Kathleen Taylor-Gadsby, CHART's current president. Trainers in the noncommercial segment are encouraged to explore the continuing education possibilities. For information, call 1-800-463-5918 or log on to

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