Culinary Training Gets Things Cooking

Summer affords operators the chance to bring their culinary staff up to scratch.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Tufts University partnered with US Foods to conduct
a training.

It’s summer and for many C&U operations that means there is a little time to breathe and reboot. A focus on the culinary for the upcoming year is often an important aspect of summer training. FSD spoke to three schools to see how they promote culinary training in the summer and throughout the year.

A partnership for culinary at Boston College: Like many colleges, Boston College, in Chestnut Hill, Mass., encourages its employees to take advantage of the school’s academic programs. Helen Wechsler, director of BC Dining, says her department wanted to encourage its employees to take advantage of this perk but there was just one hiccup: BC has no culinary school.

“We wanted to start some kind of path to promotion from within,” Wechsler says. “If I had a third cook who wanted to be a second cook but he or she was missing a certain skill set, we knew they couldn’t get those skills through the traditional path at BC. So we came up with a partnership with nearby Newbury College, which has a culinary program. They put a certificate together for us and we went to BC administration and worked it out with them so they would accept the certificate from Newbury.”

The certificate requires employees to complete six classes at Newbury. The classes were chosen, according to Wechsler, in order to hit critical areas where cooks might lack skills that are needed to be promoted. The classes are culinary science & theory; soups, stocks and sauces; American cuisine; garde manger II; international cuisine and supervisory management.

“The culinary science & theory course is a real foundational class so we thought it would be a good fit for people who didn’t quite understand the science and the methodology behind recipe writing,” Wechsler says. “The soups, stocks and sauces class gives employees the abilities needed to get to a higher level cook or to do catering events. American cuisine is, again, more foundational. Garde manger II is very good specifically for our cold prep cooks who want to be leads at the salad bar. International cuisine is good for just giving someone a more well-rounded base in ethnic techniques. So for someone who perhaps is a grill cook who wants more skills like using a stir-fry, they would be interested in that class. Supervisory management gives a nice skill set for those who are looking to go from second cook to first cook or first cook to production manager/supervisor.

“Most just go and pick and choose a few of the classes to improve their skills,” Wechsler says. “The way it usually works is when a cook is up for a promotion they have to take a test and do a blind market basket. Often if the cook doesn’t do well on that that will motivate them to get a little extra training.”

Beyond the chance to earn the certificate, Wechsler says most of the department’s internal culinary training is much less formal. The most successful way to train the department, Wechsler has found, is to retain cooks for catering where more sophisticated work is being done, while still at a high volume.

“[Our department] used to be very insular,” Wechsler says. “You worked in your unit and didn’t move around. We realized that sometimes the most valuable assets you have are right under your nose. It was very nice to be able to look at our entire culinary team and say, ‘you know Joe might be a really great idea for when catering has a hole to fill at an event. Why don’t we give him some overtime and see how it goes?’ Then we had more cooks saying they’d be willing to work in catering for overtime or in the summer when their unit closes. It’s a great way to further their professional development while still on the job.”

Taking advantage of technology at Penn State: With a sprawling operation like Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, getting all the cooks in the kitchen for training is nearly impossible. That’s why Bill Laychur, corporate executive chef for Culinary Services, and his team hold a training every August that is presented over a live feed.

“Mark Kowalski [executive chef for Culinary Services] and myself take the new recipes for the year and split them up,” Laychur says. “We set up cameras that broadcast a live feed to all our cooks who are watching in the dining area. We do that in conjunction with our AV department. We burn a DVD at the same time so anyone who is not able to attend can still see the presentation. It works really well.”

Laychur says taping the session is also helpful for when the menu items finally come up in the cycle menu. Cooks can pull up the video and get a reminder on how the dish is made.

“For example, one of the new items we are doing this year is a Moroccan chicken and butternut squash soup. When we get that burned on DVD we would send copies out to everyone. That item may come up in week two of the semester. So on week one of the semester the manager might call the cook in and ask, ‘Are you comfortable with doing this Moroccan chicken and butternut squash soup?’ The cook can pull out the DVD and even though they saw us demoing it live they would be able to reference the DVD as a reminder two days before they make it. We have found that when you do training in August and then it’s October before that item comes up on the menu, people tend to forget a lot.”

After Laychur and Kowalski demo all the new items, which is anywhere from 10 to 16 recipes a training, the training attendees are broken up into teams of about four or five cooks. The teams go in the kitchen and prepare the items.

“Then the cooks put all those items on the line and that is their lunch,” Laychur says. “In the afternoon we try to do something a little different each year. Last year we focused on Indian cuisine. We had a woman come in and cook authentic Indian cuisine and then our cooks went into the kitchen and cooked those recipes. This year we’re focusing on some Asian cuisines such as Thai, Korean and Vietnamese.”

Laychur says one of the biggest challenges of putting on this training comes from the fact that the Commonwealth campus is on a different menu and different format. The University Park locations are mostly all-you-care-to-eat programs. However, Laychur says, that doesn’t mean that some of recipes created for the training aren’t used on the Commonwealth menu.

“We invite all of our cooks from the Commonwealth campus to come to the training because many of the items are the same or similar to their menus, just in a different portions size,” Laychur says.

“[My best advice would be] to plan early. Don’t ever think you can wait until later because next thing you know the semester is starting and you are scrambling to plan.”

Vendor training supplements promotion progression at Tufts University: The standard culinary training was upgraded this year at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., when Michael DeSimone, assistant director of dining operations, worked closely with the department’s foodservice distributor US Foods. US Foods Executive Chef and Brand Manger Bob Kark and DeSimone worked together to create a supplemental training program that would ultimately help cooks move to the next level.

“[With this training] we were targeting pizza grill cooks and third cooks,” DeSimone says. “Our cook progression is pizza grill cook, third cook, second cook, lead second cook and then first cook. First cooks and lead second cooks pretty much run our kitchens here. So we have a progression plan in place that progresses our pizza grill cooks to third cooks. We encouraged them to attend this training as part of the checklist to progression. [The checklist includes items like preparing mise en place properly and specific knife skills]. Last year we progressed four cooks from pizza grill cook to third cook.”

Three sessions were presented at the US Foods training. According to Patti Klos, director of dining and business services, the first session, basic sauces, covered making a roux and cornstarch slurry. The second session focused on recipe workflow and built on the first—cooks made recipes using the roux and slurry techniques from the first class. The class also emphasized batch cooking, which is something the department is doing more of, according to DiSimone. The third session was perfect grill marks and finishing in the oven plus mise en place, workflow, teamwork and food safety.

“These topics are fundamental building blocks and they complement all of our recipes,” says DiSimone. “Making a roux and a starch helps us because we try to do as much from-scratch cooking as possible. We want to provide theses cooks with the resources and tools necessary to execute from-scratch recipes and to help them fulfill the requirements to progress to the next level. These sessions are targeting what the core competencies of the third cook are.”

Working with Kark from US foods also brings a fresh perspective to the training, DiSimone says.

“It’s good to have an outside chef come in here and give us his opinion on what we should be focusing on,” DiSimone says. “We look at building blocks and look at what classes we’ve done in the past to decide on the topics. We also look at what is current on the menu.

“The biggest challenge is just actually getting the cooks to attend since it’s not mandatory,” DiSimone adds. “I try to work with them and unit managers to make them understand this is important. You are only as good as your staff’s skills.”