The True Role of the Chef

Mary Petersen is one of those rare individuals who falls under the heading of a silent superstar. She continues to have a tremendous impact on the quality of culinary education throughout the United States and the integrity of our profession without seeking the recognition that is due to her.

I have known Mary, admired her dedication and professionalism, and have called her a friend for a few decades. Her work with American Culinary Federation Accreditation set the stage for insuring that culinary schools meet a universal standard for excellence and her current organization: The Center for Advancement of Foodservice Education (CAFE) is the gold standard for in-service training of culinary faculty from coast to coast.

I am very pleased that she has agreed to offer this guest commentary for culinary cues.

For those unfamiliar with CAFE, check out their website at: http://www.cafemeetingplace.com.

Mary wrote:

“I was trying to think of a phrase which captured the role of a chef and therefore, the role of a chef instructor. Words like techniques and inspiration and even wellbeing crossed my mind. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

I believe that the role of a chef (like the role of a business manager or bus driver or team captain or blog creator) is to “figure things out.”

As a coordinator of special events (for chefs) around the U.S., I am no stranger to moving various pieces around according to a check list of “things to do to ensure that the event goes well.” Programming, marketing, hotel blocks, meal functions, assessments, etc., are part of my vocabulary in order to make attendees as well as the hosts of these events feel that they have been involved with something worthy of their time and effort and dollars.

What I do three to six times a year, chefs do on a daily basis, multiple times. How can they teach those skills? How do they help eager students learn from their mistakes so that they become worthy of a paycheck?

Schools are offering both cooking and service opportunities through catering and even running restaurants. They encourage internships and then after a couple of years, chef instructors pop a toque on their students’ heads and wish them well.

Their first chefs expect them to work twice as hard as experienced co-workers; they expect an incredible volume of output; and they expect these beginners to keep quiet and learn.

But chefs also take time to show them shortcuts; they complement them on their efforts; and they feel hugely proud when they become a viable part of a team.

I heard a well-known and respected chef say that when a student asked to be an intern in his kitchen, he (the chef) told them that they should pay him for the time they spent with him. The audience gasped when they heard this. The chef then said that if he hired the intern, then he would refund all the money he had been given.

Fair? Depends on how hard the intern wanted to work and how much he was willing to listen and learn productivity. By the way, this was not in New York City!

The chef in the classroom or in the first job wants the student/worker to succeed. They have high standards of effort required and more than anything, they want to produce someone who can figure it out.”

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