Think Tank

Dec 18, 2017, 14:33
Should We Teach Students to Adapt, to Change, or Both?

Should We Teach Students to Adapt, to Change, or Both?

Culinary educators have a dual role of preparing students for business and businesses for change.

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

The importance of our role as educators should never be underestimated or diminished. We have an obligation to: the industry who hires our graduates; customers who will buy the food those graduates prepare; the larger industry and all the subsidiary businesses impacted by food; the institution offering a culinary program; faculty who are charged with the responsibility to teach; and, of course, the student who seeks our guidance. So what is this responsibility and what does it mean to teach students focused on a career in the food business?

I can assure you from my experience as a consultant the industry we serve is most concerned with our ability to prepare students to adapt to an industry with a proud history and a reasonably bright future. On the other hand, this same industry is becoming aware of the problems that exist with the old model of doing business – especially in the restaurant segment.

Countless articles dot the Internet with stories of restaurants unable to attract and retain employees, restaurant employees disenchanted with the work and lifestyle of previous restaurant generations, and meager pay scales and low restaurant profitability. The work is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging, and countless examples of poor leadership and management tend to paint a rather bleak picture. An industry that enjoyed an incredible growth spurt from the early 1970’s until 2008 has seen an increase in new challenges as young people are thinking twice about that exciting career behind the range. At the same time, customer interest in dining out has never been greater – restaurants open (and close) at an incredible rate each and every year.

Yes, we have a significant responsibility to prepare our students to adapt to industry standards and expectations. Restaurants will always seek out great workers with a great work ethic, passion, dependability, strong foundational cooking skills, organizational skills and those willing to function as part of a team. We must always hold this understanding close to our hearts and ensure that every graduate is READY for what lies ahead. 

On the other hand – do we have a responsibility to prepare students to be the ambassadors of change? Why is it that young people entering the restaurant industry quickly reach a point where this career choice no longer makes sense? Why is it that a business that for nearly three decades was one of the “hot” career choices for young adults – driving enrollments in culinary schools across the country – is now finding recruitment and retention of those students increasingly difficult? Should we, as culinary educators, discover what the issues are and address them through our curriculum and our method of delivery? Should we take this knowledge and become advocates for change in the restaurant business – showing operators how to look at their business model in a different way?

What are some of the issues that lie behind this shift in enthusiasm? Let’s take a look and then open a dialogue among our faculty and in cohort with industry leaders and students.

Life Balance is Key to this New Generation
What is a reasonable work schedule and when does it cross the line of unreasonable? The new generation of cooks can be just as passionate and dedicated to their career, but at the same time they want to have some level of balance and predictability to their lives outside of work. Part of our role as educators is to find a route to this balance and engage all parties in finding a common ground.

Food Philosophy is Important
Today’s young cooks are very aware of the importance of food and the significance of ensuring the integrity of the food supply. They have this expectation of the restaurant where they work and if that business is less committed to the big picture than today’s worker will likely look for an employer who shares this philosophy.

An Opportunity to Make a Difference is Paramount
Today’s young cooks want their careers to be about more than today’s prep list. They feel engaged when the restaurant they work for is committed to making life better for others.

Getting Beyond My Assigned Position and into the Big Picture  
Today’s young cooks want to feel part of the restaurant beyond their station. They are interested in the restaurants financial performance, how they budget, what their approach to training might be, and how they select vendors and choose the menu items that build a restaurants reputation; they thirst for the big picture.

Education Should Never End
If a restaurant fails to see the need for and benefits derived from ongoing in-service training, then today’s cooks will quickly lose their enthusiasm for the operation. The expectation of constant improvement and investment in staff is a critical point if the business wants to attract and retain staff. This is an area where culinary programs can be of great assistance to all restaurants.

Fair Pay and Benefits with Light at the End of the Tunnel
There will need to be a solution to this challenge. It may mean looking hard at the cost/profit model, and/or building efficiency into kitchen operations while minimizing the need for some staff so that more funds are available to support a highly-trained and dedicated kitchen crew, but it is important to accept that this is an issue that must be addressed. This is an area where college programs can facilitate discussions and build scenarios for change that benefit all involved.

Mentorship Equals Retention
Today’s young cooks have a vision for the future that involves reaching for that chef’s position or even ownership at some point. There is a need for those businesses that are concerned about attracting and retaining good employees, to build mentorship programs that will help these future chefs and owners set a course for achievement of those goals. Shouldn’t we help all stakeholders build a model that moves in this direction?

The question remains – what is our role in education? If we know what the issues are don’t we have a responsibility to act and not simply react? When a restaurant chef or owner says that he or she is dismayed by the unwillingness of graduates to simply accept their fate, work unpredictable hours, function with low wages and no benefits, remain only responsive to the chef’s directives and keep their ideas in check – could we show them another way? Should we prepare students to communicate their way through their actions as employees?

As we constantly look to meet and exceed the needs of the industry and the students who enroll in our programs we should – we MUST- facilitate this discussion. Our role truly is two-fold: it is essential that every student who graduates from a culinary program be prepared with the cooking skills, ability to organize, appreciation for cost control, ability to function as a member of a team, and the confidence to get the job done. At the same time, we should consider our role as a facilitator for change. If not us, then who will take on the role of preparing people and businesses for the change that is before them?

Just some ,“Food for thought.”

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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