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The Chef-Manager Comes of Age

The management opportunities for chefs in onsite segments are distinctly open-ended today.

In June, I had the pleasure of again attending the annual UMass-Amherst Chef Culinary Conference, watching more than 200 college chefs and other attendees take part in a series of educational lectures and culinary workshops with the likes of John Ash, Mark Miller, Joyce Goldstein, Jet Tila, Roberto Santibanez and Iroko Shimbo. (You can see an animated slide show of photos taken at that event at

My contribution was to moderate a panel of directors as they explored the dynamics of healthful dining programs they'd developed on their campuses. As you'd guess, their programs had much in common, but they also had many differences.

For example, some favored so-called “stealth health” initiatives; others preferred to focus on very direct nutritional education, with caloric and other specs highly visible at point of sale. All wanted to improve the diets of their customers, but the specific priorities and goals of their programs varied significantly.

At times the interaction with the audience was lively, particularly in discussing the high-payoff — but sometimes challenging — need for chefs and dietitians to collaborate closely to ensure that these programs achieve the best results.

Afterwards, I found myself thinking that one of the areas both chefs and dietitians have in common today is that their traditional specialties — dietetics on the one hand, culinary expertise on the other — increasingly must be augmented with greater management responsibility and techniques if they are to have the most impact on onsite dining programs.

In noncommercial segments, RDs have a long history of moving into management. We have editorialized about this previously (for example, see While it has been common for chefs to make this transition in commercial restaurant operations, it has been less common in the onsite arena. But that is definitely changing.

In healthcare, I think of individuals like Mike Sabo, at Southern Maine Medical Center, Gary Vorstenbosch at Texas Health Systems, Eric Eisenberg at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. All began their careers as dedicated chefs but have taken on extensive management responsibilities as their careers have evolved.

In the school segment, you find the same trend, with former chefs like David Binkle, at the Los Angeles Unified School District, Jorge Callozo at New York City Schools and Tim Cipriano, at New Haven Schools. These individuals are employing their culinary backgrounds to help solve the immense nutrition and management challenges of large urban school districts.

In higher education, you find chefs-turned-director like Camp Howard, at Vanderbilt, or moving into middle management, like UC-Berkeley's Chuck Davies and Ida Shen.

And in B&I, where one could arguably say this trend began, contract companies have sought for years to provide the training needed to develop strong chef managers to run units that are not large enough to support both a site manager and a trained chef. Certainly, companies like Bon Appetit Management and Restaurant Associates were pioneers in this area.

Stepping back, this leads me to two observations. One is that culinary schools would do well to ensure their programs at least introduce students to the basic management principles in addition to core culinary skillsets. Whether a young, aspiring chef believes she is interested in management while in her late teens or early 20s is not a good predictor of where that same individual's career interests may lie a decade or so hence. Much can be done during that formative time to open up options for chefs as they progress in their future careers.

My other observation has to do with the developmental opportunities that dining departments themselves offer to culinary (and dietetic/clinical) staff. It is not uncommon to see employees in these positions relegated to “specialist” status, when a wise director might give them some opportunities to expand their roles. Many will decide that the responsibilities (and stress) of management are not what they are looking for. But some will find they enjoy the challenge that management entails, and perhaps that they have an unusual knack for it.

Looking ahead, it is clear that the management opportunities for chefs in onsite segments are distinctly open ended today in a way they were not some years ago. In my view, the era of the chef/manager in onsite foodservice is well underway.

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