My first venture into the culinary world started 37 years ago. I was approached by the Executive Chef to be a part of his apprenticeship program he was starting. At the time I was a bus boy in Room Service of the hotel, not a real career builder, but I made a good income through tips. When the chef asked me if I wanted to be in the apprenticeship program I asked, "Can you pay me what I am earning now?" At the time I could earn up to $100 a day in tips. The chef, Peter Konig a Swiss Chef, replied, "...I am not offering you a @#$%^ing job, I am offering you a career!" He turned and walked away. Luckily I had some friends in the kitchen that encouraged me to take the job!
Thirty seven years later I find myself in the role of culinary educator. The world of culinary education has changed considerably since my apprenticeship days. When I started there were only a few culinary education options. Today we have a huge boom in the number of culinary schools across the nation. I am fascinated by the number of students who have decided to make culinary their chosen profession. We have transformed the "pirate ship" (the kitchen) to cruise ship through the media. Although there are episodes on television that like to make the Chef into a foul mouth pirate berating his crew; the fact is everyone wants to become the next "Iron Chef". Culinary schools across the country are bursting with eager new applicants ready to become that next new "Iron Chef". Our program over the last few years has found, what I believe, to be a true "Iron Chef" experience for students, the ACF sponsored Student competition. I know professionals that could not handle what these students put themselves through! The competition is a three day event that each day pushes the team through a rigorous competition, from the cold platter, skills and the hot food competition emerges teams that have worked hard practicing every week prior to getting to the competition. For these students the competition means so much more than having earned their two year degree in culinary, they have put in so much extra time they have actually gained another year of education!
This is great for those students but what about the others who could not tryout or make the team during tryouts? What can we do for them that would give them a similar feeling of accomplishment? The answer lies in the rigor of our programs. If the program is not rigorous enough or we are just allowing students through than what is the value of our culinary program? When we have rigor we will have failure. Failure to some is not an option but if we are not failing students because the rigor is not strong enough; our graduates may fail in the professional world and that could ruin their dreams and ambition to become chefs. More importantly knowing that some students will not make it through the program will enable us to build some safety nets to catch them when they do fall. Having a means to regroup, focus and go back to the drawing board is an important part of the equation. For some students it is the eye opener they need to find success.
We must never tell our students when they graduate you are now a chef. We must be honest with them and tell they are now professionals with the credentials to become chefs. If we are graduating students and calling them chefs are we not insulting those of us who have worked hard over a number of years to become chefs? As an apprentice I understood the brigade of the kitchen and I would have never called myself chef nor would I have expected to be called chef! As I say to my students, "we are building the foundation; you will build the house after you graduate!"
What does culinary education mean today? I believe it means providing an education filled with constant assessment, evaluations and a constant supply of explanations of those assessments. When we assess our students they deserve to have feedback that they can understand and get the connection between what is being told to them and what their worked showed. If we can do this they, the student, will be learning every time they step up to the cutting board or stove. Our assessments must be clear and to the point; boil the water, assessment: did the water come to a boil? It really is that clear.