Think Tank

Oct 22, 2020, 14:07
Building a Curriculum Around the Ideal Graduate

Building a Curriculum Around the Ideal Graduate

01 October 2020

Employers report core aptitudes are just as important as specific culinary skills in new hires.

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

Businesses build an operational process as a means to a final result. The same leaders also define a company’s mission and vision to align with that result. The question they ask is, “Is this process leading us toward accomplishing the goals defined in our mission?” The ultimate goal is visualized at the macro level while the operational process fine tunes the specifics of achievement. Is there any reason why a culinary education should be different?

Culinary education’s goal on the macro level can be defined by this question: What is the ideal culinary graduate? This could be the mission of every culinary program in the country. Establishing what that means will be unique to the: graduate’s market, school’s strengths, faculty’s capabilities, institution’s commitment, and program leadership. Establishing the details associated with an ideal graduate has never been more important. Having a vision and mission provides the framework while research and ideation will help establish the specifics.

Finding the right mix of “mission” and “ideal graduate” specifics is crucial in a highly competitive environment with loads of limiting factors brought on by the pandemic, the economy, and a struggling restaurant industry. Consider these questions when determining the most effective way to deliver a program with well-defined specifics: What are you good at? Who is most likely to hire your graduates? What are employers looking for? What are the future career opportunities for culinary graduates? What skill sets will students need?

What is most interesting in discussing the labor pool with restauranteurs, chefs, and other food operators, is that most people separate core aptitudes from specific skills, noting that both are important and lead to the ideal graduate.

The core attributes employers require are universal regardless of the company, the product, or the position. Are you building this into your mission?

  • Dependability
    From day one, the most effective culinary programs will drill in the importance of dependability. It has been said countless times before, “On time means 15 minutes early. Students need to approach each day in the kitchen with this commitment. They must be ready to hit the ground running in proper uniform, well groomed, mentally sharp, and ready to face the world. Additionally, it is imperative to stress the importance of finishing every task at the level of excellence required, no matter what. This is what their employers will expect; this is how those same employers will judge the quality of your program.
  • Sense of urgency
    Time and again, employers have said to me, “Students don’t seem to get it. There is never enough time so focus and pace are essential. They need to learn to approach every task as if it were absolutely critical.” Put time constraints on students when they are in labs. Keep the tension up just high enough so that it is sensed by all.
  • Organized and efficient
    At the top of your student assessment rubric should be organization/mise en place. As a chef once told me early in my career, “If you are properly prepped and organized you can handle any amount of business. If you are not then your world will collapse.” Take no prisoners when it comes to expectations of organization and make it a habit.
  • Self-starter
    Chefs expect that a culinary graduate will always jump at the chance to take on more and will never accept being idle. If the current job is done they should be the first to ask for more or find some other looming task that needs to be addressed. Recognize students in your classes that fit this mold and talk about how important it is to show that energy and enthusiasm.
  • Cost consciousness
    The property chef is always under the gun from the manager and owner to run a financially efficient operation. The chef must control food cost to budget standards, labor cost, inventory, and keep equipment repairs in check in addition to the obvious expectation of excellent food, a professional team in the kitchen, and smooth collaboration between the front and back of the house. At the end of the week, these are the measures that define his or her success. Build cost consciousness into everything that takes place in your student kitchens. Measure waste, put a cost figure on all equipment including china and glassware, talk about a purchase price and yield in every class, cost out every recipe and show how to convert that into a profitable selling price, even affix fictitious rates of pay to each student in the kitchen so that they can see what today’s preparation would cost an operation in a restaurant setting. If they are cost conscious now, then they will be advocates for controls from that first job on to an eventual position of chef.
  • Professionalism
    Do not tolerate any unprofessional behavior in your kitchen. Call it out if it occurs and facilitate any behavioral issues as per the college policy. Scenario plan unprofessional behavior in classes and talk about resolution. This has been the downfall of many talented chefs in the past. Don’t allow your students to walk across that stage until they understand the consequences and learn to appreciate the right way to approach the job and interactions with others.
  • Commitment to excellence
    Students must be shown that every task is important. That every step in cooking and service should be measured against an expectation of excellence. If you peel onions – do so as if the onion were the most important part of a meal. If you wash dishes –do so as if the plate were a canvas for an exceptional work of art. If you cut those vegetables – have them practice until that perfect brunoise becomes second nature and done with speed and finesse.
  • Chain of command respect
    It has often been said that you don’t have to like your boss, but you do have to respect the position that he or she holds. An employee can always choose to move somewhere else, but while in the kitchen he or she should function in accordance with the system of respect for the position. The chef might be wrong, but in the heat of the moment, “Yes chef,” is the appropriate response. Your feelings and disagreement can be handled later as a one-on-one discussion. Expect your students to respect positions in the kitchen, even when you assign a peer student to take on a leadership role.
  • Strong foundations
    Obviously, employers will expect that your graduates understand the foundations of cooking, terminology, methods, ability to follow a recipe, reasons why certain steps are important, and how to approach adjustments in flavor. They may not expect that a graduate will do so without first checking in with the chef or asking for other opinions. But, the graduate’s culinary foundation should be a given.
  • Follow through and consistency
    Finally, the chef employer will and should expect that given a task, the graduate will stick with it until the job is done correctly and that he or she will do so with dependable consistency. Chefs seek out the ability to trust a young culinarian to do just that. Make sure this follow through is expected in the culinary lab as well.

The specific details necessary to prepare students for careers related to your program’s mission and vision as well as its brand and reputation, is very unique to your school and must be a result of strong lines of communication with future employers and lively ideation sessions with faculty and advisory boards. Find your niche and take on the approach you intend to be the best at whatever is required to excel in that arena.

A good start is to link with and utilize the dynamic interviews and advice from CAFÉ Talks Podcasts guests. Make sure to integrate this effective tool in your curriculum as a reference, lecture supplement and assignment.

Plan Better – Train Harder

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..