Paul Sorgule helps directors effectively transition excellent chefs into excellent teachers.
By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC
Every chef must be a trainer. It is the most important part of his or her job. Relaying to employees how a task must be done, how a menu item tastes, and how the plate is presented is what chefs get paid to do. Since the chef cannot physically be in all places at once, it is imperative that he or she delegate the responsibility for much of the operation’s cooking. This process of showing how the chef wants things done is the essence of training. Teaching is much different – hereby creating a dilemma for culinary schools.
Let’s face it – when culinary schools opened at an exponential rate in the 80s and 90s every administrator was scrambling to identify technically proficient, level headed, and willing chefs to transition to the role of teacher. For many, it was a welcome leap from the relentless work of the chef with borderline crazy hours, the pressure of the impossible task of earning a profit, and the stress of demanding customers. There were sacrifices in terms of compensation and the control that chefs have always enjoyed when it came to planning out the day, delegating responsibilities, and demanding performance from his or her staff, but in the end, schools were able to fill their schedules with a cadre of professional chefs.
What these chefs learned very quickly was that being effective in the classroom is even more challenging than commanding a busy kitchen. These chefs did know how to train, but could they really teach? In the end, most culinary programs were modeled after the environment that chefs were most comfortable being in and program curriculum quickly fit the model of a training kitchen.
Now, when culinary schools are facing numerous challenges from a changing market, they must also address, with increased vigor, the responsibility of preparing these highly competent chef/educators to become well-prepared teachers. The following list points to the demands of teaching that are typically beyond the repertoire of an industry chef:
Getting Through to Students
The most effective culinary educators are well versed in their ability to address all three methods of delivering knowledge and skills. First, they are accomplished lecturers who draw students into the conversation about a particular topic. Then, they are exciting entertainers who have mastered the ability to prepare and present engaging, step-by-step demonstrations that reinforce the theory relayed in lectures. And, lastly, they are masterful orchestrators who effectively fill the role of kitchen chef as they allow students to engage in the process of showing their cooking understanding. None of these methods are effective on their own – there needs to be integration of all three if real learning is to take place.
Classroom Interaction – Educo
The Latin root word for education is “educo” which literally means to draw forth. The best educators are those who can engage all students and involve them actively in the process of learning.
How does an instructor operate a classroom of diverse students, with different backgrounds, different levels of understanding, and different ways of assimilating information? How does an instructor retain the attention of students whom many assert are no longer able to stay focused on a topic for any length of time? How does an instructor plan and deliver a program of learning that can draw even the least confident student into discussions? The area of classroom management is far more challenging today than it ever was and the skills needed to address this are not necessarily transferable from the environment that chefs are most familiar.
Classroom style does come into play just as kitchen management style and leadership is unique to each chef. It is style in conjunction with knowledge that allows certain teachers to shine in the eyes of a student. Style can be transferred from the restaurant kitchen to the classroom as long as the chef has the patience to listen, the breadth of knowledge that allows credibility, the discipline to be consistent, and the presence to draw respect from the audience.
Knowing How to Effectively Measure Performance
Certainly, chef/educators understand that a baseline of consistent measurement needs to be in place. We use all types of tools to accomplish this: tests, reports, classroom participation, practical exams, etc., but true measurement is drawn from an understanding that what really counts is effort and demonstrated improvement. Knowing how to address and relay this when each student is uniquely different is an acquired skill that can take a teacher many years to master.
Syllabi and Lesson Plans – Progressive Learning
Then there is the challenge of conformity to a model the college deems essential. Chefs in a kitchen have near total autonomy in how they plan, organize, and deliver information and product. Teachers in the classroom need to conform to templates and processes that share some level of uniformity. This can be very frustrating to a chef who is not accustomed to following directives and working within a democracy.
Research and Building a Base of Deeper Knowledge
As much as a chef feels that he or she is accomplished and knowledgeable – when standing in the shoes of an educator that same chef may find his or her true understanding of a topic or process is lacking. Every day in the classroom is another opportunity for the chef/educator to improve that base of knowledge. Chefs as educators must invest significant time in fine tuning that base of knowledge, improving skills, and learning how to effectively deliver that material. The rule of thumb is for every hour in the classroom or teaching kitchen, the chef should spend at least twice that amount of time in preparation.
The Patience to Accept the Process
Chefs know how to make decisions and change direction in the moment; the kitchen demands this. When faced with a decision that impacts curriculum and course content most chefs would feel very comfortable adjusting at a moments notice, changing direction without much fuss, and accepting change as an everyday responsibility. Decisions move much, much slower in an educational environment and that takes its toll on chefs who find the process difficult to accept. Most kitchens are not democracies, but colleges try very hard to be (sometimes to a fault).
A Different Type of Rigor
Chefs rule their domain – the kitchen is a place where rigor is a way of life. Everyone needs to work hard, sometimes harder than others outside the kitchen would accept. Rigor is critical if the job is to get done and if the restaurant is to be successful. Rigor in the classroom is just as important, but there is a level of patience and understanding that must be part of the formula. You can’t fire a student and there is little satisfaction in failing them if the potential exists for their success. Educators push and guide students through the process of understanding the importance of rigor (hard work) and learning how to manage it.
Being a Chef is Not Easy, Neither is Learning to Become a Teacher
Within a very short period of time, the chef who transitions to education learns to appreciate just how challenging it is to be great at what he or she does. The demands are different, yet the expected outcomes are the same. Just as every chef strives to be excellent at what he or she does and knows how important it is to invest in constant improvement – so too, must a chef understand that he or she is an educator first and foremost and this requires equal investment.
As a culinary program dean or director there is no greater responsibility than to invest in effectively transitioning excellent chefs into excellent teachers. It is important to maintain an understanding of how to train, but now these chefs must learn how to teach. Students who are taught properly are able to problem-solve, adjust when they need to, research answers to questions they face, create from a base of knowledge rather than just replication of a method they were told to follow, and feel the confidence that only comes from a deeper understanding of what lies before them.
Invest in your faculty by finding the funds to attend workshops on teaching excellence, align them with mentors who have mastered the classroom, schedule in-service training sessions on classroom management, push chefs to work toward advanced degrees, and facilitate a program of peer reviews that are not viewed as punitive or impactful on annual performance reviews. This is the number one job for every dean and director.