Think Tank

Feb 24, 2018, 21:47
The Core of a Successful Culinary Program

The Core of a Successful Culinary Program

Core curriculum concepts such as forcing teamwork, building a sense of urgency and making students sweat should be included in every educational program because they are required in the food business.

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

The key to a persons’ physical health lies in attention to his or her core. A strong core sets the stage for a fit and healthy life. The same is true with any business, or in this case – an educational program. The core in business is represented by those attributes that are measurements of the work done, the product offered, and the impact that it has on others. In culinary education, those attributes evolve around a graduate’s ability to perform at a high level throughout his or her career. So, what does a culinary program “core” look like and how can a program director assess the quality of that core?

Let’s put aside the specifics of a curriculum and the courses that make up your portfolio. Let’s look at the “core” as an informal contract between the school and the student that states unequivocally: “Once you complete this program you will be prepared to succeed in the food business.” Take a look at what this curriculum, the courses and the methods of delivery, should (or must) do:

Make the Student Sweat
The most effective programs are designed with a high level of physical and mental rigor. The program should be hard, challenging, a few steps beyond a students’ current ability, but ripe with the supportive resources to get them through it.

No Pain, No Gain
Students should be physically tired and maybe even sore at the end of every day. Remember – your job is to prepare them for the demands of a very physical industry. This preparation begins in your classrooms and kitchens.

Put Them in Uncomfortable Situations and Build Problem-Solvers
Scenario planning and training is one of the most valuable assets you can add to your program. The best chefs are seasoned from kitchen challenges, which are only unpredictable if they are unfamiliar with what might go wrong.

Make Them Financially Responsible
Every course should include a component of fiduciary responsibility. How much do ingredients cost? What is the cost of product waste? How much labor is involved in this process? Quality and quantity checks are a way of life and time is money – everything that can impact on the financial success of a food business should be front and center in your curriculum.

Connect Them to the Source
Whether it is part of a course for credit or simply an expectation of a students’ time in the program – get them out on a farm. Make them bend over to pull carrots from the ground, pick tomatoes and corn, pull weeds, tie up grape vines, feed pigs, milk a cow, and experience the processing of animals for meat. An appreciation for the source will always help to convert good cooks into great cooks and eventually solid chefs.

Fire Them
Hold students accountable, especially in kitchen classes. Treat them in these environments just as you might treat an employee in that same space. Let them know the rules of the game, have them sign a model employment agreement and hold them accountable. When they violate the expectations then walk them through the same process that every reasonable employer would follow. Provide verbal warnings, write them up, and if necessary fire them for the day if they do not act as would be expected in the industry.

Don’t Accept Mediocrity from Day One
“It’s only the introductory class,” is not an excuse for mediocrity. Poorly cut vegetables are not acceptable, skipping a step with one of the cooking methods is not acceptable, a sloppy plate presentation in week three is not acceptable, a uniform that is not clean and pressed is not acceptable, and improper sanitation and food safety is not acceptable. The grade is only one way to drill the importance of this – students must know their long-term success depends on their quest for excellence – always!

Critique so that They Become Their Own Worst Critic
Create an environment of critique where instructors and peers are focused on pointing out the need for improvement along with the way to accomplish this improvement.

Force Teamwork
Every day, in every kitchen is a team day. Evaluating a student on his or her personal performance or skill without demonstrating how he or she will “play well in the sandbox” with others is a teaching day that lacks focus. Written projects and assignments, cooking activities, and scenario planning should be designed as group efforts.

Build a Sense of Urgency
Kitchen life is stressful. Deadlines are always tight, curve balls come out of nowhere, the timeline of a dish is always seconds away from excellence or disaster, and time is money for every restaurant operation. Push students to work well, work safe, maintain standards, but at the same time – work fast. Make this a part of their performance assessment.

Engage Customers with the Student Experience
A program that does not provide ample (not just occasional) opportunities for students to interact with a paying guest is a program that misses tremendous opportunities for teaching moments. If you don’t have a student restaurant then focus heavily on internships and externships as well as involvement in special events.

Set the Stage for Grace Under Fire
The more comfortable a student becomes with his or her skills, problem solving ability, and “fit” within a team environment, the better he or she is able to work through any situation with grace. This should be one of the most critical objectives of a program.

Don’t be Afraid to Fail Them
Your standards should be modeled after industry standards. When a student walks across that stage at graduation - you, your faculty, and the student must feel confident they are ready. If they are not, then it is the responsibility of instructors and program directors to hold them back until they are.

A program that builds these concepts into a curriculum is a curriculum that will build exceptional graduates who are kitchen- and career-ready, and who are in demand by an industry desperately seeking competence and confidence. This is educational mise en place.

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..

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