Think Tank

May 22, 2019, 19:10
Launching Students on the Right Foot

Launching Students on the Right Foot

14 August 2018

Chef Paul Sorgule defines critical attitudes that help students succeed from day one through graduation and beyond.

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

The two most impactful days in a student’s formal culinary educational life are the day they start and the day they walk across the stage. Most students will ask themselves: Am I ready for this? Is this really what I want to do with my life? Am I prepared and confident in my abilities as a graduate? Will I be successful?

In both cases (day one and graduation) we play a critical role and can offer reasonable answers to all these questions. This decision to begin a culinary education is by far one of the most significant in a student’s life. This decision and commitment will likely play a huge role in their future state of happiness, whom they will meet and the type of person they will become, where they will live, the lifestyle they will enjoy, the relationships and family they will hold close, and the impact they will have on their community. This is a “big time” decision, and to a degree – you will help each student reach his or her goals along the way.

Of course, the time between the first day and graduation day will be filled with important skill development and experiences. Educators need to ask themselves, “How can I have the greatest impact on day one? How can I set a course for student success?” 

Here are some critical attitudes that might find their way into your day one and everyday thereafter. These are traits that will define a student’s ability to succeed:

  • Point to the Positives
    At a time when the restaurant industry is being bombarded with negative press (sometimes, rightfully so), it is important to note there is far more good than bad that comes as a result of the work we all do. It should be noted in classes that although there is certainly room for improvement – the industry provides millions of jobs, offers an important service to the dining public, is the foundation on which tourism is able to flourish, is an incredible creative outlet for cooks and chefs, provides one of the most diverse and accepting work environments around, and has become, to a degree, much more recession proof now that dining out is part of American culture.

  • Professionalism – Always
    Students, from day one, should be shown through example how important it is to look and act as consummate professionals. This must become the standard everywhere, everyday.

  • Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Well
    Excellence begins on day one. How the student sets up a workstation, how he or she sharpens knives, the manner with which they organize a pan of food, how they store food products, label an item in storage, dice an onion or peel a mushroom, or stack dishes in a rack are all important examples of an attitude of excellence.

  • Be the Example
    Let your students know, if they don’t already, there are far too many examples of poor work conditions or work attitudes in kitchens. Students cannot emulate mediocrity but must always be the example of excellence for others to follow. Even if it means being the exception to the rule of mediocrity in an operation.

  • Team First
    Each and every day, point to the fact that kitchen work is always about “we” and not “me.”

  • Work Clean, Work Organized
    Cleanliness is our responsibility and as such must always be the standard. Make this your number one expectation of students. Close behind will be a commitment to solid mise en place in everything they do.

  • History is Important
    As important as it is to look forward, the food business has a proud heritage of superior contributions, traditions, and rules of thumb that will continue to serve anyone who ties on an apron. Respecting this helps to keep us all on a solid path while setting the stage for positive forward movement.

  • Keep an Open Mind and an Open Palate
    Students come to us with different levels of experience and exposure. If they are to gain as much as possible during their time in your program they should tuck those experiences away and be willing to listen, experience, learn, and in some cases discard them. There are new ways of preparing food, new flavors, new ingredients and new techniques that will set them up for success.

  • Take Care of Your Tools
    Whether a student’s personal knives or the equipment that belongs to the kitchen - these tools allow cooks to perform at a certain level and accomplish tasks that would be difficult or impossible without them. It is every student cook’s and chef’s responsibility to care for them.

  • Take Care of Your Ingredients
    We are all caretakers of the ingredients we are privileged to use. Show your students that ingredients are not simply commodities; they have unique personalities that are a result of where and how they were grown and how other caretakers approached them.

  • Respect the Source, Respect Those Around You
    Cooks are only one part of the chain of people who invest in the ingredients and process and present them. We are of little importance without the farmer, fisherman, rancher, processor and vendor. Teach your students to respect the work of all who are part of the chain.

  • Everything Costs Money
    Waste is a habit. Habits can be broken and re-established. Show students from the beginning there is a use for nearly every part of an ingredient. Their goal should never be to fill up the garbage can. Even composting, as important a process as it is, should not be the goal. The goal should be to find a use for everything before it finds a home in the compost pile.

  • Be Dependable
    Dependability is one of the first traits an employer looks for. Teach students how essential it is to be where you need to be, a little bit early, and always ready to work at 100 percent capacity.

  • Be Your Own Worst Critic
    Once they graduate, students’ work will continue to be scrutinized by chefs, employers and customers. With all this critiquing, the most important critique will come from the graduate himself or herself. Students should always ask: “How can I make this dish, vegetable cut, homework assignment, or team exercise better?”

  • Learn to Accept and Learn From Critique
    No one likes to have his or her work assessed. When criticism is replaced with honest critique that points to what can be improved with the caveat of demonstrating how that can be accomplished, then the student needs to learn how to take a deep breath, put pride aside for a moment, and relish the opportunity to improve.

  • Work Ethic First
    Put simply, a work ethic is to always approach the situation as “giving a good days work for good pay.” Even when pay is not a factor, people with a strong work ethic know only one approach: give it the best I have to give.

  • Learn Something New Every Day
    If every student, and every faculty member and chef, were to approach every day as an opportunity to learn something new and improve in the process then real education will result.


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..