According to Edward Leonard, CMC, Director of Culinary Operations and Executive Chef at The Polo Club of Boca Raton (Fla.), the greatest impact chefs can have is to be mentors and teachers to those around them.
We hear the term “culinary education” routinely used to explain those embarking on a career in the craft of cookery. But what exactly does “education” mean? To most of us, it has something to do with higher learning, where a student gains knowledge about a variety of subjects before focusing on a single subject.
But education became big business about a decade ago, especially in the culinary field where a degree could seem like a ticket to being the next Food Network star.
But reality has set in. And our industry now lacks the talent for many of the most important positions in our kitchens.
All too often, I come across students or graduates who don’t want to start at the bottom and work their way up the ranks. They want to come in as Chef right out of school. Yet, they lack the most basic skills. Has the glamour of being a chef superseded the responsibility of first attaining a proper education? And where are the schools when it comes to painting a realistic picture of this industry?
Some first gain a bachelor’s degree with the goal of management, not cooking or becoming a chef. These individuals use their “culinary education” for a much different purpose. (Kudos to those students for having the foresight to see that understanding the back of house will help them elsewhere, but it exacerbates the shortage of cooks even more so.)
Many culinary schools hire quality instructors who have success stories, great resumes, and real-life experiences to pass on. These schools care about their students and the education they receive. They want to better prepare them to work in the culinary field. And they have valuable knowledge and skill to pass along.
Unfortunately, there are also schools with instructors who have not mastered the basic skills, run quality kitchens, or traveled. Yet we put these people in a teaching environment with students who want to learn and then enter the industry. If you’ve never cooked in a quality volume hotel, resort, or club, how then can you accurately discuss with a classroom full of students how you would take a single dish and serve it to 400 guests?
I remember the first time I had to think through the steps I needed to take in order to complete the service. And I repeat that exercise almost daily. It was a cornerstone of my education. And so, I believe it is our reasonability to lead the way forward.
As chefs, we must ensure that a “culinary education” extends beyond the classroom. We must fill the gap between schools that do not produce quality applicants and people who are skilled, passionate and committed to our craft.
Every day in our kitchens here at Polo, I tell my chefs we are responsible for educating those around us, whether we are teaching or setting an example through our actions. Our mantra is “Inspire — Teach — Motivate.”
If a person has passion, energy, a sense of urgency and love for food, then we have a fantastic foundation to build upon. Those attributes cannot be taught in school. If a person comes out of college, a vocational school or is a career changer and possess those qualities, we are half way home. We can teach the rest. We can train and educate them on a station or about how to prep and meet the standards we have set forth. We can teach knife cuts, how to make a sauce, read tickets, compose the salad or dish in a timely and quality focused manner.
I have a young man here with a degree in sports marketing and management. He surprised his dad a few months ago, who is a respected culinary professional, and said he wanted to cook. He said he wanted to learn and become a chef. As a favor to his father, I met with this young man. We had a good hour-long conversation and I ended up hiring him and giving him the opportunity to see if he truly has what it takes to be in a kitchen.
He is raw, with no training. So why did I hire him?
Because he is also personable with a great attitude. His is smart and he walked through our kitchens with a sense of purpose. He also told me he really wanted to learn and perfect each role in the kitchen before climbing up the ladder.
These are attributes I cannot teach.
Two months later, this individual is now the garde at Polo’s new Mediterranean concept restaurant. He continues to have an uncanny willingness to learn, a great attitude and he moves with purpose.
Every chef can make a difference by investing our time, knowledge and experiences into others. Mentor, teach, motivate, respect the need to have some balance, and lead by example. And hire individuals with heart and soul.
I always thought education had to be in an academic setting. When I was with Le Cordon Bleu, I was traveling with Chef Ferdinand Metz, CMC, for a project. During dinner, I was discussing my new role as being an educator and the excitement of working with the students. He said to me, “Ed, you have been an educator all your life. You just never knew it. Look at the people who have come out of your kitchens, where they started, and where they are now. Look at the properties you have worked in and the quality of what was done in those kitchens.
“Being an educator is what good chefs do day in and day out,” he continued.
So educate those around you. Not just the chefs, but the line cooks, garde staff, pastry cooks and even stewards. Good people will grow. And they will move on to other kitchens and have their own successes. Hopefully, they will reflect on the chef who most influenced their life and pushed them to learn and become better. And hopefully, we will collectively begin to build a culinary workforce that we’re proud of.