Think Tank

Sep 24, 2020, 5:25

Think Tank: A Different View of Grading in Culinary Education, Part II

17 June 2014

There should be no room for variance from a standard of expectation among all stakeholders—employers, faculty, parents and the students themselves. To ensure that culinary grads meet acceptable skill and aptitude standards, Chef Sorgule suggests employing a “passport.”

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

The first question is, “What are the critical skills that will allow students to progress within your program and reach a level of success on internship and after graduation”?

Although there are numerous core competencies that set the stage for “learning” and the ability to adapt to various situations, there is a specific grouping of more tangible competencies that are essential in building “employability” aptitudes in kitchens. If planned correctly, these aptitudes can provide the setting for the other core competencies within a curriculum.

These critical skills should be drawn from a collaborative process of involvement including faculty, industry chefs and bakers, alumni and the students themselves. Knowing the expectations of these constituencies is the foundation for building a curriculum and system of evaluation that will develop confidence and lead to student success.

Second, how will employers—both on internship and after graduation—measure a student’s skill from day one? As I mentioned in last month’s Think Tank on this topic, the original descriptors used by the American Culinary Federation for its certification program provide an excellent benchmark in this regard. Faculty and employers inherently measure student and graduate performance in this fashion:

  1. Cannot perform the task
  2. Can perform the task, but with significant supervision and guidance
  3. Can perform with reasonable speed and dexterity and without significant supervision or guidance
  4. Can perform with speed and dexterity and assist in training others

It would be safe to say that the expectation on the part of all stakeholders—faculty, employers, students and parents—is that after either the first year and certainly upon graduation a student would be able to perform foundational tasks with reasonable speed and dexterity and varying levels of guidance. Regardless of a “grade” that a student earns, this should be a reasonable expectation, or students should not be allowed to progress until that goal is reached.

Sending a student on internship or across the stage to his or her first position without the requisite competencies and confidence is not in anyone’s best interest. A “C” student who lacks the ability to handle a knife, identify ingredients, manage his or her mise en place, maintain a pristine work area, follow a recipe or understand the foundational cooking methods is never (opinion) a student who should move on through a program of study. It thus behooves a culinary program to establish a system of measurement than ensures that students, at each level through the curriculum, are able to demonstrate competency in specific areas.

The question then should be: “Is a grade and traditional testing an effective means of reaching the ultimate goals of a program and those who participate in the educational process?” Certainly, there are many reasons why grades might appear to be the right answer, but allow me to propose some alternatives.

Word-problem testing can, in some cases, create scenarios that will demonstrate a student’s ability to problem-solve and reflect on the dynamics of a decision, but all too often testing is a method of evaluating a student’s ability to memorize and not necessarily demonstrate real understanding.

The beauty of culinary arts is that an environment can be created for students to truly demonstrate their ability to perform a task, problem-solve, communicate with others and receive immediate feedback from a variety of stakeholders. This can and does happen time after time within a given class situation. The reality of working in kitchens is that it is not always necessary for a person to complete every part of a task or even solve problems on his or her own. A kitchen is a place where true teamwork becomes the most effective way to reach the goal of a properly prepared plate of food, a well-attended guest and even a profitable business.

It would be fairly easy for a chef, manager, pastry chef, restaurateur or faculty member to build a list of skills and aptitudes that every first-year student, potential intern and graduate must master at some level. These skill and aptitudes could be built into a “passport” of such that is the ultimate assessment tool for the student and the faculty member and an indication to the employer of where a student sits, where he or she needs to be, and how he or she might get to that point. Stakeholders involved in the process would offer feedback regarding those skills and aptitudes as well as the level of mastery that students should attain at any given point in the educational process.

Creating the right environment for this to take place is the responsibility of the program and its faculty. It might mean an on-campus restaurant or developing industry-type timelines and challenges in the culinary lab. Whatever environment you are able to create, it is important to design it around team situations, the pressure of deadlines, high expectations for consistency with cooking foundations and effective critique that incorporates corrective actions. The “passport” must include a significant element of teamwork assessment and open discussion about outcomes and problem resolution.

The “passport” is a ticket to move on to the next phase of a curriculum and there should be opportunity for the student to take extra time on a skill or repeat the demonstration of competency outside of normal class time. There should be no room for variance from a standard of expectation. The student either “can” demonstrate mastery at a designated level or “cannot.”

What are the advantages?

  1. Every student who matriculates can feel confident in his or her ability to perform at an acceptable level of excellence on the job.
  2. The employer can rest assured that the student hired has an acceptable and understood skill level.
  3. The reputation of the school is consistent.
  4. Potential students can feel confident that their investment in an education at your school will yield tangible results that carry a level of “guarantee.”

There are instances, still, where grades and GPA are critical and held at a level of importance that requires all programs to adhere. Articulation agreements with other institutions, especially those offering programs with advanced degrees, will likely require definitive GPA reports from your registrar’s office, and government student loans will also require minimum cumulative GPAs if a student is to maintain his or her level of financial support. Your registrar can help devise methods of transposing a Standards Based Assessment into more traditional grade measurements. This should not deter you from contemplating a change or a hybrid modification to your existing program.

The end game should be the development of an assessment method that demonstrates a student’s clear ability to perform at an acceptable level. This is and should be an expectation of any respected program.

The topic is complex and could easily fill a hefty book with numerous variables. This is just a “taste” for creative discussion among your faculty.

Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC, president of Harvest America Ventures, a “mobile restaurant incubator” based in Saranac Lake, N.Y., is the former vice president of New England Culinary Institute and a former dean at Paul Smith’s College. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.,