Whether flipping cardboard fish across the room or playing his clarinet, Chef Adam Weiner keeps his instruction honest, humble and educational.
By Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE
I would like to begin this article with two modified quotes:
“Let us aim for joy, rather than respectability. Let us make fools of ourselves from time to time, and thus see ourselves for a moment as the all-wise students in our class see us.” [With apologies to St. Philip Neri whose quote ends a bit differently than what I wrote.]
“The qualities that mark Chef as a lunatic genius are his absolute fearlessness and his profound, unabashed enjoyment of his own strangeness. That’s the sort of dementia (his students) respect, and perhaps even share.” Chef Dan Barber describing Chef David Bouley from Page 14 of Don’t Try This At Home.
We all get into teaching ruts. We teach the same thing day after day, week after week, semester after semester, and year after year. We get bored and thus we bore our students. When I obtained my teaching credential many years ago my two instructors, Lee and Susan Clark, drilled many things into my head, one of which was the importance of changing things up to keep from getting burnt out and to keep your students motivated and interested.
At the June 2017 CAFÉ Leadership Conference, I will be leading a round table discussion on Creative Ideas to Motivate Your Students. I have already published articles for the “Gold Medal Classroom” on Teaching with Puzzles and Playing Games as well as Shaking Up Your Teaching Style. I even wrote a quiz asking Has the Love Gone Out of Your Teaching?
In this article, I want you to think about ways to be creative, unique, and foolish to better teach and motivate your students. [Caveat: You don’t have to follow what I do. The purpose of this article is to inspire you to come up with new and unique things that fit your personal style.] I will give you several successful—and unusual—ideas. These ideas fall into two categories: one is humbling yourself and the other is new ideas for instilling teamwork.
The first idea involves acting humble. When you make a mistake, don’t get flustered, don’t explain it away, don’t apologize, and most importantly don’t blame it on a student.
When I first started teaching I was mortified every time I demonstrated or prepared something that wasn’t perfect. After a while, I realized that making mistakes was a great teaching tool. I would say “Oops,” and either fix the mistake or start over. The students were shocked. They were so used to instructors getting flustered and upset (and blaming someone else for their mistakes). The students couldn’t fathom me sloughing it off. We started playing a perpetual classroom game. When someone—a student or me—made a mistake he or she would say, “Oops” out loud and everyone else would shout, “Oops” back. [Note: We had to stop this game. When students would get jobs they would—out of habit—scream out “Oops” when they made a mistake at work.]
The funny part is that I now purposely make mistakes in my class. If I haven’t made an accidental mistake in awhile I do a purposeful mistake so the students can see I don’t get upset, I don’t blame others, and I fix the situation. Yes, I know this sounds incredibly strange but give it a try and see for yourself. Your students will love it and it prepares them for work and for life.
Recently, I did something really crazy. A bit of background is needed for this one: In high school and college I was quite an accomplished clarinet player. With graduate school, meeting a breath-taking brunette, dating her, a cat, getting engaged, getting married, car accidents, practicing law, one Dalmatian, one kid, two different cats, another kid, another cat, three Guinea pigs, another dog and 50 or so fish over the years (not to mention two sailboats) I got way too busy to even think about playing. Last year, with my youngest child off in college, I decided to start again. In January of this year, I was practicing and thought, “I am glad my students can’t hear this.” I played a few more measures and then realized that every day I ask my students to humble or embarrass themselves (depending on how they look at it) by presenting food to me. It never dawned on me in these 13 plus years of teaching--until I was practicing the clarinet-- this must be incredibly difficult for them to do.
The next day I brought in my clarinet and the von Weber Concertino for Clarinet and explained to my students how I realized how awkward and difficult it is for them as culinary beginners to submit their food to me for judging, critiquing, evaluation and grading. I told them I was going to practice while they cooked. I explained I was doing this, not only to show empathy, but also to show that everyone has areas in their lives which they need practice and patience to develop. The students loved it. They told me repeatedly it showed them it was okay to make mistakes as long as they just kept trying to get better, and they might have to do something many times before getting it right.
(A caveat: Alert your neighboring teachers and perhaps even your administrator before doing this. I had a lot of people sticking their heads in my classroom trying to figure out what in the heck they were hearing.) As a follow up, several days afterward I auditioned for the local Symphonic Band and was accepted. I told my students and got a warm round of applause, and several asked me to practice while they cooked again.
As an aside, taking a class and lessons myself has made me a better teacher. I am now much more empathetic with my students. I see what it is like to be on the other side of the classroom. I now appreciate more deeply the feeling of being in over one’s head, embarrassed about mistakes, and the time management conflicts of studying and practicing versus life. I have been reminded that you would rather do something you do well over and over again instead of pushing yourself harder to learn new things.
The next few creative ideas involve getting students to function as a team. I was having problems with teams. I would put people together in various forms and in various ways. (See Working in Teams Needs to be Taught and Picking Teams.) No matter what I did, I would have four individuals working independently. It devolved into four people preparing onions for four different dishes instead of one person preparing onions for all. One time I had a team where four people each prepared pork and vegetable fried rice. They weren’t aware until the presentation that they all had done the same thing!
I came up with a few ideas to get people to work together. The first was modeled after something done fairly frequently on “Hell’s Kitchen.” I gave a cooking assignment to each team, and then one member of the team was allowed to work on the project for five minutes while the others cheered, called out instructions, etc. Every five minutes each team had to switch the person who was in the kitchen. (By the way, when you do this watch the teams to make sure they are rotating everyone. I had a couple of teams that kept trying to send in the two best hotshots rotating just with each other.)
The second new technique I employed to increase teamwork greatly helps me maintain my title as a “lunatic genius.” I recently was in a store that specializes in unique products from all over the world. I saw a Depression Era game from Sweden on sale called “Flipping Fish.” Each team is given a cardboard fry pan, a paper fish, and a cardboard plate. Each team—working in a relay format—has to use the fry pan to flip the fish across the room to the serving plate. (I am not, I swear, making this up.) If you don’t want to buy a game but you want your students to play, you could easily make this yourself out of cardboard and paper. They had fun playing it, but what was amazing was how effective it was in improving team communication. The day before the same people worked as four individuals. After playing Flipping Fish they acted as four members of a team. (By the way, keeping up my reputation as being a “lunatic genius” the product being prepared after playing the game was—of course—fish.)
I hope to see you at the June CAFÉ Leadership Conference and if you can please join my roundtable discussion. I want to hear about your unique teaching ideas so I can take them back and use them in my class.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.