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The Kids are Alright

The Kids are Alright

They’re Starting from the Bottom…and the Newest Generation of Culinary School Grads are Just Fine with That

You’d think that growing up with Emeril and Bobby on TV 24/7, an endless stream of resources dedicated to all things culinary, and an ever brighter spotlight on the foodie culture, might lead to a generation of students ready to step into a starring role from the minute they graduate. Don’t be too quick to judge the oft-misunderstood Millennial employee though. Culinary schools are prepping them well, with the right blend of knowledge, skills and humility, and you’ll find the latest wave of student-craftsmen ready to roll up their sleeves and earn their toques the right way. To paraphrase Drake, they’re starting from the bottom, now they’re here...and Restaurant Inc explores how this is playing out from the perspectives of veteran culinary educators, a high-profile restaurant group employer and a resourceful young graduate with a rock-solid work ethic.

Schooled for success

From the beginning, even before they’re accepted into culinary college, students are vetted with a discerning eye at the prestigious Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York. Career Services & Administration Director Maureen Drum Fagin says: “We are there from the get-go to make sure students understand the reality of the industry. There’s always a small proportion of students who are envisioning their own TV show, but by the time they are admitted, they’re more aware of what to expect.”

The newer students may be a bit more food savvy because it’s all around them, she agrees. “You’d have to be dining out constantly to see all these ingredients and techniques, and behind the scenes in kitchen videos that are now accessible to everyone. But overall I don’t see a real difference in students’ attitudes over the last decade, although they may be somewhat less informed about work life in general, as high schools don’t place a lot of emphasis on this anymore.”

The ICE Career Services department makes another much-needed appearance on the third day of a student’s career, when they review a variety of fundamentals: entry level jobs and what to expect, pay scales, promotion paths, and how long to stay at a particular position before moving on. After 440 hours of classwork, another 210 hours are spent in an externship program. Last year 565 students received this valuable onsite training at a restaurant, hotel, catering kitchen or other culinary enterprise, as well as an invaluable entrée into the network of industry professionals, according to Fagin.

“This has always been part of our program, and it’s where all the learning comes together when they can apply it in actual situations and learn what it takes to succeed in this industry,” she says.

Real-world working experience is also key to the top-rated School of Culinary Arts program at Kendall College in Chicago. In addition to courses that combine classroom learning with hands-on time in the kitchen, a stint at the Michelin-recognized Dining Room at Kendall College and internships at the city’s renowned community of restaurants is part of the rigorous training provided to those seeking a bachelor’s or associate’s degree in culinary arts. Now vice president of the school, Chef Chris Koetke has been a witness at the frontlines of the culinary literacy explosion since becoming an instructor in 1998, but he too believes there is not a marked difference in students’ expectations over the years.

“They come in with high expectations, yes, but that’s a good thing. There were always students who came to us having extensively read and prepared themselves,” says Koetke. “The difference today is that access to information is so much easier, but having said that, the core of what motivates people, their hopes and dreams, and the amount of discipline needed to turn their passion into reality, has never changed.”

Koetke says that when he asks students ‘what’s your big dream, where do you see yourself 10 years from now?’ the answers are surprisingly down to earth. “Our program is intensely challenging and if they come in with unrealistic dreams, those are dealt with pretty quickly! Most don’t expect to be chef at the Four Seasons or have a Food Network contract waiting for them, and if they do, I advise them to rethink it. The likelihood is quite small, and I tell them not to put all their eggs in that basket.”

Instead, he recommends holding on to the big dream, but loosely. “You may have a certain game plan, but keep your eyes open because life has a funny way of presenting opportunities that you don’t expect.” He speaks from personal experience: after years of serving as an executive chef, he responded to a phone inquiry from Kendall College that led to his current calling. “I discovered this is what I love to do. There is nothing more satisfying to me than watching students achieve their dreams. None of that would have happened had I not been open to taking that phone call.”

Great expectations

Just where are these freshly minted chefs headed? Virtually anywhere they want, as the scope of possibilities continues to blossom and the labor market tightens. While that makes it a challenge for employers seeking qualified candidates, students can choose everything from traditional entry-level stints in a restaurant kitchen to opening a food truck to catering companies to cruise-line cooks to R&D for a food manufacturer to teaching positions.

“Our students are hired easily. We receive constant requests from businesses,” maintains Koetke, pointing to a stunning 96 percent employment rate within six months of graduation for the class of 2014, a trend he expects will hold true for this year’s crop as well. He credits the stellar reputation of Kendall’s thorough training and preparation, and the emphasis on considering the limitless ways to hone their craft. “Our graduates are all over the place, reflecting the vastness of our industry. We draw attention to all opportunities, and one of the biggest is in the senior living market – it’s vibrant, interesting and growing.”

At ICE, which proudly lays claim to launching 11,000 careers since its inception in 1975, Fagin advises students to start in restaurants versus corporate dining or prepared foods businesses. “We feel it is the best initial training ground coming out of culinary school, and we recommend it even to those pursuing a career in food media. Once they gain that experience, they can pursue any one of a number of different paths within the industry.”

The Millennial value proposition

So for today’s culinary graduates, the world is indeed their personal oyster. They’re well prepared, well read and well trained, and ready to be wooed by employers who offer the perks that matter most ... not money or fame, but intangibles like flexibility, connection with fellow employees and developmental trails. Koetke explains: “Their growth doesn’t stop the day they graduate. Culinary school is just the first step. Employers should make it clear they will invest in their new hires by putting them on a growth track, enabling them to gain meaningful experience.”

Adds Fagin: “New graduates want to feel invested in the organization, so employers may want to take the time to explain why they’re doing things a certain way ... and give them the opportunity to suggest how things might be done differently.”

Principles like these are at the core of the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), with 1,800 employees and growing under its umbrella of some of New York’s most popular restaurants – Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack among them. Rachel Hoffheimer, senior manager of talent acquisition, sees her mission as communicating those values to potential employees. “We have great brand and name recognition,” she says, “but we still need to get the message out there that we’ve built an entire system around developing and supporting our employees, allowing them to be authors of their own destiny.”

In return, she looks for a willingness on the part of applicants to learn the business from the ground up. “If they have the humility to be comfortable starting as a back server or runner, that goes a long way. It enables them to learn about the food, interact with the kitchen team, understand how to present food, speak about the menu and enhance the guest experience. Or they may start as a host, be that first line of interaction, and learn how the process flows.”

Smartly tapping into the desire of young employees seeking a defined path to growth, USHG will launch the Leader in Training program this spring. “Students just light up when they hear about this concept,” says Hoffheimer. The 12-month program allows new hires to rotate among several restaurants with a front-of-house or back-of-house focus, learn about different aspects of the business, including inventory, operations/receiving and forecasting, attend coaching sessions, and participate in wine and beer classes with master sommeliers. “It’s a timeline we use for most new employees, but this program has more support and structure around it, and additional opportunities for development within other USHG businesses.”

On his mark

If you’re not yet convinced of Millennial grit and determination, meet Mike Kubiesa, a recent graduate of Kendall College set to make his mark in the culinary world. There’s little doubt he will succeed, with an already impressive track record of setting lofty goals and consistently achieving them.

Kubiesa grew up with that unmistakable strong connection to the kitchen most practicing chefs have felt from a young age. As a youngster, he cooked extravagant meals with his mother and grandmother, learned to can food and ran his own experiments after watching Emeril Live and Alton Brown’s Good Eats on television. By high school, he was head chef at the school restaurant. Although he took a more traditional college path, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications, within a year, the passion for the culinary drew him to enroll in Kendall’s accelerated associate’s degree program. His goal: to be at the top of the class. Mission accomplished, and then some, as he also earned a spot on the college team for an Italian cooking competition.

After graduating last spring, he set his sights on a position with Flik Hospitality Group to achieve another goal – working with a major NFL team. He spent months researching the possibilities, and trying to find the right opening. It will come as no surprise to those who know him that Kubiesa is now working at his dream job, feeding the Chicago Bears and their coaches at the Halas Hall headquarters. As the nighttime supervisor and coach’s cook, Kubiesa logs at least 50 hours a week preparing dinners, working with night prep cooks, cleaning the kitchen, and making sure everything’s in place for the next day. Hard work, but nothing he didn’t expect after taking on 12- to 14- hour shifts during an earlier internship at a fine dining restaurant.

“I was at the bottom,” he acknowledges, “and that gave me the motivation to give my all every day.” He soaked up the experience, pickling and preserving foods, helping out on the hot appetizer line, making pre-dinner bites and the family dinner and gratefully accepting the chef’s critiques.

It’s why his advice to aspiring chefs is grounded and practical. In his eyes, it’s not about riches, fame and your own Food Network show. “If you think like that, you’re not going to succeed. Right now it’s about learning and working hard. Arrive early, stay late, be on top of your game, and give it 100 percent effort,” says Kubiesa.

That’s the kind of commitment valued by any employer, but particularly those in the culinary world. Rick Bayless, author, and Executive Chef and Co-Owner of the James Beard award-winning Frontera Grill, says: “You only master a craft by doing, so coming out of culinary school and expecting that you are a master craftsman is never going to happen. I always tell students, put your head down and master your craft because it’s only in the practice that you will become that master that probably in your head you are dreaming of being one day. It takes a really, really long time.” Executive Chef Mindy Segal, owner of a thriving Midwest café, (http://hotchocolatechicago.com) agrees: “Ask a bartender what’s the perfect Manhattan? It’s when you make it 500,000 times.”

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