Opportunities and Challenges of Running an Apprenticeship

By | October 4th, 2017

When Glenmoor Country Club (Cherry Hills Village, Colo.) became a sponsoring house with the ACF, Executive Chef Penelope Wong quickly found that apprentices have a lot to learn but can be a useful addition to the team.

As all of us become increasingly aware of nationwide staffing woes, we engage in ongoing searches for solutions to help alleviate the extra hours we must put in to fill the gaps. In the past, I’ve maintained a somewhat ‘regular’ schedule here at Glenmoor Country Club (Cherry Hills Village, Colo.), allowing myself to take Sundays and Mondays off to achieve that work-life balance we seek to maintain. But this last season was one of the toughest ones yet. I ended up working nine of twelve Sundays just to help my staff make it through each day.

Looking for assistance and respite for myself and the team, I decided to get involved with the American Culinary Federation’s (ACF) apprenticeship program. I familiarized myself with the requirements and was soon approved as an ACF sponsoring house. It didn’t take too long before our first apprentice applied for a position with us.

This individual had zero experience in the industry and signed up for the program based off a general interest and desire to learn how to become a culinarian. After the initial introductions and an agreement and understanding of what the apprenticeship would entail, our first apprentice started on the utility crew to gain steward hours.

This apprentice was a breath of fresh air. And it was such a novelty for my team to witness someone who came into the club with a profound desire to work and learn. This quality simply hasn’t existed in the candidates and applicants who have been applying with us lately.

Four months later and our apprentice continues to be dedicated to fulfilling the required hours as mandated by the program as well as the time required to gain merit on my team to progress. Currently, our apprentice has proven efficiency and reliability in several areas including steward, vegetable prep and baking. We’ve even started working with our apprentice on basic butchery skills.

Sounds too good to be true these days, doesn’t it? There’s another side of the story.

Two months into the apprenticeship, we hit a speed bump with this individual. Suddenly, there was a decline in motivation and overall enthusiasm. As we headed into the busiest week of our year with our member-guest tournament, our apprentice was relentless in seeking projects to assist with. Unfortunately, being short staffed throughout the entire summer season, my two sous chefs and I were running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to keep up. There was no time for teaching. There was no time for detailed instruction and follow up. Our apprentice was told to maintain the pit and assist when asked. This apprentice walked out in the middle of their shift.

Our apprentice eventually reached out to me, apologizing profusely, explaining feelings of not being needed and wanted on the team and saying all requests and attempts to help had been refused by senior staff. More noteworthy, this apprentice also mentioned the fact that all the required hours in steward had been met.

You know where I’m going with this.

The apprentice was under the impression that once the required hours had been fulfilled, they would automatically be bumped up and promoted to the next station. After realizing this serious misunderstanding, I invited this individual to come back to the club for a discussion. I explained that despite the nature of this individual’s employment on my team, anyone who is promoted must first earn that promotion based on merit and performance. Satisfying the requirements of the apprenticeship is simply an additional benefit. I had to explain that the title of “Chef” is not handed out based on the number of physical hours worked. This fact seemed to shock to our apprentice and it made me wonder what exactly are ACF instructors telling these eager, young minds when they begin their culinary education?

Coincidentally, my demi chef shared a similar conversation he had with another apprentice of ours who was also under the impression that there was a simple ladder to climb made up of hours worked to gain a title.

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with our local ACF lead instructor for the apprenticeship program. We were discussing the overall progress of my apprentices and I shared this story with him. I was very candid about the messages I had to relay to my first apprentice after only two months. The instructor took out a pen and wrote down the words “merit” and “performance” on his hand.

When he saw the look of confusion on my face, he shared with me his plan to address all the students in the apprenticeship program. He thought it was a very important lesson to learn that working a certain number of hours does not automatically guarantee Chef position. He was also less than pleased that the apprentice walked out in the middle of a shift.

We went on to discuss progress in other areas of the program and I shared with him my dilemma of wanting to push these apprentices to be faster and more efficient. After all, our operation is about high volume, efficiency, labor costs and maximizing productivity, right?

This is where another dichotomy presents conflict. In class, instructors are making sure apprentices take the time to master the knife cut and learn the skill. If they need fifteen minutes to cut two carrots, they’re given fifteen minutes to cut two carrots. If they continue making mistakes, they’re simply given two new carrots and an additional fifteen minutes.

So how do we, as the employer, manage operations with apprentices on board? We certainly don’t want to undermine what the instructors are teaching in class. And I can respect the need to learn the skill. But how can I nurture that with as much leniency and patience in the real world of cookery? I presented an all too familiar conflict when I shared my concern. He had already heard about this challenge from other sponsoring houses.

Despite the dichotomies, I have been very pleased with our participation in the apprenticeship program. Our apprentices have proven to be a welcome respite to the quality of applicants available to us from the current labor force. What’s more, being a part of the apprenticeship program has helped to reinvigorate my management staff to maintain the level of standard these apprentices, and all the staff, need to be held to.

As a result of my discussions with the lead instructor for the local chapter, I’ve been asked to participate as a guest instructor for the apprenticeship program. If that means I can help deliver the message of the importance and merits of hard work and what that means in this industry, then I’m on board.

Until we have a better solution or the pool of apprentices understand how to advance in this industry, I make sure to remind my tenured and experienced staff that they once did not know what brunoise or consommé or even a sense of urgency meant either. That will all come with time and tutelage.


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