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The Role of the Chef in Onsite: MUFSO 2012

In the K-12, healthcare and college segments, building culinary excellence begins in the back of the house. A panel discussion at MUFSO offers examples of chefs and operators that walk the walk.

Creating a culture of culinary excellence and helping chefs and cooks on staff find inspiration and empowerment were key points on a panel of onsite chefs and operators at MUFSO.

The panel featured: David Binkle, interim director, Los Angeles Unified School District; Jim McGrody, director of culinary services, Rex Healthcare, Raleigh NC; and Ida Shen, Chef, University of California, Berkeley.

Culinary excellence means “making them want to come to us instead of having to come to us,” said Helen Wechsler, director BC Dining, Boston College, who moderated the panel.

The panelists described their  own challenges and solutions when it comes to building a reputation for culinary excellence.

‘Hospital Food is Changing Forever’

One of McGrody’s biggest challenges, he said, was the traditional way patients were being fed when he started his first job at a Washington, DC hospital.

“When I saw the patient food for the first time,” he said, “I got really sad.” It was pre-plated in Baltimore, then shipped to D.C. “I said, ‘As a chef, I can’t serve that.’”

And so he set out to change the culture. He’s been very successful, as the program at Rex Healthcare has garnered national attention for its fresher, higher quality items that taste better and present better.

Room-service menu items include lime and ginger glazed salmon, quinoa and spinach stuffed pork loin and fish en papillote. See FM's Chef Demo of fish en papillote.

Driving the move to better food has been the Black Hat Chefs program—onsite training where cooks are taken out of the kitchen for 40 hours and shown the basics. This replaces the old system of chefs who are hard working people, but never trained such things as proper techniques, food costing, knife skills or menu development.

“The difference in the chefs from the Monday they start training to the Friday they pass the test is confidence,” McGrody said. “They know more and can do things they never thought they could before.”

On the social media front, Rex Healthcare Executive Chef Ryan  is helping to bring Rex Healthcare to the forefront with his popular "New School" Hospital Food blog.

Elevating, Empowering School Chefs

At the Los Angeles Unified School District, essentially a massive operation with 1,000 units, the challenges are many. Binkle brings the challenge down to earth by looking at one ingredient: the onion.

“The onion is a connector for all of us,” Binkle said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in fine dining or in an elementary school; an onion is an onion.”

Since school children are now familiar with celebrity chefs, simply putting on a chef’s coat can empower a school cook. And branding has been a big deal in terms of Café LA, where the menu changes every day.

“For a restaurant that would be a real challenge, and we do it for $3 a meal,” Binkle said. Learn more about LAUSD here.

Fighting the public’s perception of school food being “the cheapest, most unhealthy food possible,” LAUSD has been at the cutting edge of the move away from easy “kid friendly” foods to fresh vegetables, winning the Golden Carrot Award in the process.

“Sometimes you have to have the professional courage to do what no one wants you to do,” Binkle said.

Finding Inspiration

Shen sends her cooks and chefs all over the map (literally) to find inspiration for the menu at UC-Berkeley.

“We encourage our chefs to explore new ideas,” Shen said. “We send our people to lots of conferences all over. The South Beach Food & Wine Festival was a little expensive, but so worth it. Seeing sexy food is an inspiration.”

UC-Berkeley chefs explore the rich local food scene and travel all along the West Coast—to Portland for food trucks, for example.

Inspiration can also come from the virtual world. Shen doesn’t consider time spent on food blogs and Facebook during work hours a waste of time. She said she wants her chefs to take the time to read a magazine or cookbook and often gets them subscriptions to food magazines.

Learning from everyone in the back of the house is another way cooks can find inspiration.

“Chefs need to leave their egos at the door,” she said. “No one knows everything about everything. Maybe the dishwasher knows a lot more about Puerto Rican food than I do.”

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