Think Tank

May 22, 2019, 18:36
Preparing Students to be Problem Solvers – Now and in the Future

Preparing Students to be Problem Solvers – Now and in the Future

28 April 2018

Problem solving-skills can be taught and must be learned for a successful long-term culinary career.

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

Certainly, preparing students for the rigor and skill required for a successful entry-level kitchen employee is one of the most important tasks required of culinary educators. There is no question the necessary skills on day one will also carry students through their entire career. But, what will it take for each graduate to leap from entry-level cook to sous chef, chef de cuisine, and eventually executive chef?

When you take a hard look at those individuals who are consistently successful at the helm of a kitchen, you likely will find an accomplished culinarian, a person with a well-defined palate, knack for creativity, and one who inspires others. You will also find, sometimes even more significantly, a chef who can solve problems and do so with finesse and grace.

The ability to problem solve stems from a variety of experiences and competencies:

  • Confidence
  • Trial and error
  • Scenario planning
  • Knowledge
  • First-hand experience

Culinary instructors ought to be effective at building skills, nurturing a student’s creative eye, and building essential food experiences that lead to the development of palates. How successful are we at effectively setting the stage for problem solving? Problem-solvers become chefs. One unwritten job requirement is to build trust among the stakeholders surrounding the chef. Trust that the chef – no matter what – will have the answers.

Have you built problem solving into your curriculum?

Problem solving is one of the most profound examples of an across the curriculum concept. Problem solving does not lend itself to a specific course or a defined portion of the curriculum. Teaching problem-solving skills occurs when it is woven through every course within a program as a natural method of teaching. Just as is the case with technical culinary skills, problem solving requires repetition and on-going emphasis from every instructor. It is an applied skill.

Think about ways that you might encourage young culinary students to think about solutions. Whenever possible - plan for things that might go wrong so that a solution is close at hand. This “scenario planning” part of a curriculum should be integrated into every class – especially those that take place in the kitchen. Here are some examples:

Equipment doesn’t always work as it should.
Try being a devil’s advocate – walk around your kitchen classes and change oven temperatures without letting them know. Part of your “teaching moments” methodology should insist that students always pay attention to what is going on and double check, even triple check the dependability of equipment. Once a student comes to the verge of either burning a product or discovering that they are way behind because the oven temperature is much lower than was intended, they will start to have kitchen eyes and ears.

Burn some almonds or onions so that students begin to pay attention with their nose. Demonstrate constantly how to keep focus on what is taking place through their senses – no sizzle in a pan means that caramelization is not taking place, smoke from a pan may mean that the oil or butter has reached the smoke point, that smell of burnt coffee signals that a pot was allowed to fully evaporate on a brew burner, etc.

Plan for a power outage.
Create a lab situation where the power goes out. Turn off the lights and the exhaust hood and then discuss how a chef would deal with this situation, especially if there is a dining room full of guests.

The unexpected bus tour arrives for lunch.
It’s 11:45 on a Tuesday morning when a tour bus arrives for their booked luncheon involving 45 hungry travelers. You suddenly realize that the BEO for the event was fastened to the Thursday clipboard and your staff missed it. How will you adapt? Make this a group discussion with the instructor as a facilitator.

Don’t just show them how to avoid breaking a hollandaise – break it!
I know it’s hard enough to teach a student how to whisk clarified butter into tempered egg yolks and build a perfect hollandaise. Talking about how to bring back a broken hollandaise is meaningless unless the student is faced with the problem, employs the right method, and discovers it works. Once they know how to resolve the problem then it will never become unnerving again.

The baker left the yeast out of the bread dough.
Have a bread-baking class leave out the yeast or salt and then discuss what happened and what to do next. Provide ideas on uses for the unleavened or salt-less bread (croutons, bread crumbs, filler in other bread products, etc.).

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills Within Classroom Courses

Food cost percentage is eight points higher than budget – what might be the cause?
Troubleshooting food cost problems is a perfect group discussion in your Cost Controls or Accounting classes. Talk about likely sources of the problem: miscalculations with inventory, failure to raise selling prices after significant spike in product costs, cooks who did not follow portioning requirements, waste, spoilage, and even theft. Follow up with how to narrow down the problem and provide options for problem solution.

Twelve hotel guests claim they became sick after having dinner in your restaurant – what do you do?
Food Sanitation can be a tough course for students until it becomes real. Collaborate with your sanitation instructor and plan a day in the kitchen with roleplaying. A call is taken by the chef - apprently there are seriously ill hotel guests who claim that their sickness resulted from the food they ate in your dining room the night before. Have the sanitation instructor lead a discussion on what to do, what to check for, and how to move forward.

A sudden snow storm closes roads in town and your cooks cannot make it in to work – your hotel is full and guests have no other alternative for meals.
In your management class talk about this scenario and what steps a chef might take to satisfy the needs of guests and adapt to a kitchen with little to no professional culinary staff.

It’s a busy night and the ticket rail on the line is filled with orders that have just overwhelmed the line cooks. Servers are anxious, guests are beginning to complain, and the cooks are starting to look like deer in the headlights. What do you do?
It is highly likely that every chef will face this scenario multiple times in his or her career. Offer some personal experiences – talk about the panic and the chaos that did or might ensue and walk through ways to deal with the challenge. How do you bring the line cooks back from the sense of doom? How do you calm the service staff and bring them around to become supporters of a solution? How do you work with the front-of-the-house manager facing a very upset group of guests? This is one of those critical moments in a chef’s career when his or her demeanor and “take charge” confidence, will define how others view his or her ability to lead.

Problem solving is a skill that can be taught and must be learned. The long-term success of your graduates depends on how well prepared they are to make decisions and exude confidence. Build this into every “teaching moment” that you can.


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..