Executive Chefs: Cooking Up Change

Published in FSD Update

In segments where chefs were once an oddity, they now are legion, and they’re making a difference.

By 
Paul King, Editor

Sam Austin, chef and foodservice director at Claridge
Court, says 75% of his time is spent talking with residents.

No longer are chefs in non-commercial foodservice an anomaly, labeled as freaks or burnouts from the restaurant business. Now, they are a sought-after commodity. They have a value far beyond simply the celebrity status many chefs enjoy today. They are helping to change the face of non-commercial foodservice—even in colleges and universities, where chefs have been a dining service staple for years.

When David Martin, director of food and nutrition at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center, in Phoenix, started with Saga Corp. 30 years ago, he was “only the third chef in all of healthcare.”

When Sam Austin accepted the job as director of foodservice for Claridge Court, a retirement community, in Prairie Village, Kan., 11 years ago, his colleagues chided him for “working in an old folks’ home.”

And when Tim Cipriano, foodservice director for the Guilford School District, in Connecticut, applied for his first position in school foodservice 10 years ago, the interviewer asked him, “You’re way overqualified for this position. Why do you want to do this?”

Oh, how the times have changed. No longer are chefs in non-commercial foodservice an anomaly, labeled as freaks or burnouts from the restaurant business. Now, they are a sought-after commodity. They have a value far beyond simply the celebrity status many chefs enjoy today. They are helping to change the face of non-commercial foodservice—even in colleges and universities, where chefs have been a dining service staple for years.

Satisfying culinary challenges

“I think most definitely that chefs are making a difference these days,” says Gail Finan, director of dining and retail services at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. “First, they are bringing the awareness of ingredients that we need because of allergens. That is becoming a bigger issue on campus, and parents want the knowledge that their children will be protected. Chefs can make sure that recipes and procedures are being followed.”

More than that, chefs are valued for their creativity, adds Finan, who has 13 chefs on staff at the 21,000-student Ivy League school. Whether it’s making sure that international cuisines are presented authentically, coming up with new items for vegetarian and vegan diners or advising staff on how to improve the flavor profile of a dish while reducing fat and sodium, “chefs are making invaluable contributions to our programs.”

Camp Howard, director of dining at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., knows better than many directors how valuable chefs have become—because he is a chef himself. Howard is one of the new breed of chef managers, who bring with them both culinary skills and a management background.

“I think what chefs bring to the equation is the understanding of how to control costs and get the most bang for the buck,” says Howard, who was Vandy Dining’s executive chef before becoming its director. “They can help with purchasing, they know what quality is and, with sustainability so important on college campuses, they can work with farmers to help them understand what we are looking for.”

Retirement communities are often compared to college campuses, albeit with a much older clientele. But the value of chefs to this market is equal. Like college students, seniors have become more educated about food, are more worldly and bring with them more demands than ever for high quality and diversity.

“The demands of a retirement community are far above that of a restaurant,” says Claridge Court’s Austin, who came to the community nearly 12 years ago after working in several restaurants, country clubs and resorts. “We feed our customers every day, and so it’s very easy for them to nitpick. My job is to make sure the residents are happy.”

Claridge Court offers on-demand dining at two restaurants between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. In addition to a menu that changes daily, Austin offers a 20-item
alternative menu with everyday items like chicken salad, tuna salad, burgers and the like, because “sometimes you just feel like having a bowl of tomato soup.”

“We look at dining as the most important activity the residents engage in,” he adds. “This property asks for top-quality food and gives me the staff and budget to do that.”

Like many non-commercial chefs, Austin got his start at Claridge after tiring of the restaurant regimen. He notes that his colleagues at first would make fun of him, “but that was usually on a Saturday night, while I was eating in their restaurants, and I would say, ‘What are you doing working? I’m off this weekend.’”

Valuable commodity

Today, there may be no market segment that values chefs more than school foodservice. Fueled in large measure by first lady Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move To School program, school districts are working hard to bring chefs into their operations, either on a full-time basis or in a consulting role. The new USDA meal regulations have only upped the ante, Guilford’s Cipriano says.

“The major value of having chefs in schools, especially with the new USDA guidelines, is to find the flavor of food,” says Cipriano, who is a celebrated chef in his own right, known in Connecticut as the Local Food Dude. “Over the next few years, sodium levels are going to decrease to basically nothing, so we’re going to have to be very creative with our seasonings and how we can keep the flavor profile and get kids to eat. Our No. 1 goal is always participation.”

Cipriano is considered one of the pioneer chefs in school foodservice, beginning his school career in 2004 as a chef at Dodd Middle School, in Cheshire, Conn. He admits he is the stereotypical non-commercial chef: a restaurant chef who became burned out by the long hours and stress of restaurant life.

“I was married, kids were on the way,” he recalls. “The ability to get into schools and make a difference for my family life, that was the only thing I was thinking about. And then when I got into schools and saw how school food was slowly but surely getting better, I saw how I could make a difference.”

Cipriano became involved in the farm-to-school movement and garnered national attention while working as executive director of foodservice for New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools. He was one of 10 chefs selected to help Michelle Obama and Sam Kass, assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator at the White House, create Chefs Move To Schools. The program seeks the help of chefs around the country to promote healthful eating among children, as a way to help stem the childhood obesity epidemic.

The story of Steven Burke, foodservice chef for the Austin (Texas) Independent School District, is similar to Cipriano’s. Coming from a fine-dining background, Burke was working in product development for a gourmet grocery store chain, but he desired something with saner working hours and a better quality of life. Burke’s wife was a teacher, and so he “took the dive” into school foodservice.

“My expectations were really low, and I didn’t expect to stay very long,” Burke recalls. “I never ate in the cafeteria when I was in school. I always brought my lunch. But when I started here I was amazed at how far school foodservice had come, and now I’m pleased at how far we’ve come since I got here.”

He also notes that similar changes have taken place in districts all over Texas. For example, when he started he knew of only two other chefs in Texas schools. Now, he says, there are at least six chefs in the Austin area alone, and the area has a state-funded regional chef, Kelly Waldron, who aids smaller districts that can’t afford a full-time chef.

Burke has been able to improve foodservice most by bringing more from-scratch cooking into the mix. But he believes his biggest contribution has been “giving a face to this entity called school food. I do a lot of PR on behalf of foodservice. I go out there and explain what’s going on.”

Burke’s biggest challenge, as might be expected, is dealing with the new USDA rules.

“We’ve worked so hard to create this great quality food, and then they throw us this curve ball,” he says.

Because a full-time chef is a luxury many districts can’t afford, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) has embraced Chefs Move To Schools, creating the Chef’s Table, a committee tasked with establishing “a network of partnerships and resources that school foodservice professionals can utilize when working with volunteer chefs and the greater community.” Danny Seymour, dean of education for SNA, says the Chef’s Table has been folded into Chefs Move To Schools. Through their combined efforts, chefs are being made available to schools that may not be able to hire a chef to work on staff.

Examples of the movement’s outreach are plentiful and impressive. The Idaho Department of Education hired a chef to create recipes for use in all Idaho districts. The chef is now offering web-based culinary training for school nutrition professionals. Similarly, the Maryland DOE has taken funds from the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to hire chefs to run culinary boot camps for school foodservice staff.

Individual schools districts also have worked to bring chefs in to develop recipes, train staff and talk with students about healthy foods—particularly fresh produce. Cipriano wholeheartedly supports such efforts.

“It’s a major benefit to have chefs come in from the outside,” he says. “That was the main reason for the Chefs Move To Schools movement, to get chefs into the schools to engage kids through food, and it has worked. [Students] see somebody new come in and they get excited. The number of food TV shows that are out there and how chefs are portrayed as rock stars certainly has helped.”

Tapping creativity

The creativity and “star power” that is making chefs so valuable in schools also works in hospital foodservice. Another segment where chefs were once a rarity, hospital foodservice has become a key career opportunity for culinary talent.

“It has gotten to the point where if you have a kitchen you have a chef,” says Banner Thunderbird’s Martin. “It’s like you can’t have an OR without doctors. And it’s not just having a chef but multiple people. I am a chef, my executive chef is from Bolivia and I have three other culinary graduates from a local school. There are five of us here.”

Patti Oliver, director of nutrition at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, in Los Angeles, where there are five chefs—four of them certified—says chefs have become prized, and not just for their ability to be creative with patient meals.

“They have brought us to another level in several ways,” Oliver says. “Our CEO likes to have nice catered events, even at his home, and he will use our chefs to do that. We also do a lot of fundraisers and dinners for donors, and often our catering staff is used. Sometimes even physicians will hire our chefs for events.”

She notes that her chefs’ ability to prepare upscale items on a budget is one thing that makes them so valuable.

“We’ve gotten raves on our salmon, which chefs will roast as a whole side wrapped in banana leaves,” she explains, adding that she thinks it tastes so good she “won’t even order salmon in a restaurant any more. I’ve been spoiled.”

In addition, there is the public perception of chefs.
“It doesn’t matter where they went to school,” Oliver says. “People see the chef’s whites and the toque and it makes an impression. My chef, Gabriel, will go to visit patients all the time, and they always are excited to see him.”

She recalls one story of patient rounds, which involved her, her assistant, a dietitian and Gabriel, where one patient seemed disinclined to end her telephone conversation as the team walked into her room—until Gabriel entered. “The woman said, ‘I’ve got to go. The chef just came in,’” Oliver recalls.

Martin, who worked for Sodexo before joining Banner Thunderbird last year, says that perception is often used to the advantage of foodservice management companies.

“It was a strategy with Sodexo on our sales surveys,” he explains. “If I went in wearing a suit and tie, I was just another ‘suit,’ as they say. But if I went
in in my whites and put my chef’s hat on and walked into the kitchen, staff would tell me things they wouldn’t tell the ‘suits.’ They would tell me things they weren’t supposed to tell me. The uniform really portrays an image.”

Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef for Swedish Health Services, in Seattle, cautions that although patients and staff may be impressed with a chef’s uniform, the public at large might not be as enamored.

“I don’t know that there is any kind of great perception that foodservice in hospitals is any better than it used to be,” Eisenberg notes. “When I tell people I am a chef, they are impressed. When I tell them I work in a hospital, they are like, ‘Oh. Oh. Oh, OK .’”

He also believes that not all healthcare foodservices are at the same stage as large, urban institutions.

“I think there are still just as many healthcare operations in the middle of the country that long to do what I have done and have moved past already,” he suggests. “It really depends on what the organization’s philosophy is about foodservice.”

No matter the public perception, chefs in non-commercial foodservice still have other challenges, despite the many benefits—better hours, less stress, and valuable healthcare coverage and retirement plans among them—they gain from working there. Paperwork is perhaps the biggest headache, especially in hospitals and schools.

“The most frustrating thing to my chefs [is] the regulations and the need to document everything,” UCLA’s Oliver says. “CMS and Joint Commission are getting very specific on regulations, especially regarding the new food code.”

“Chefs have always had an issue with conforming to a budget,” Banner Thunderbird’s Martin suggests. “If there is a downside for chefs in non-commercial it is that they have to live within certain parameters, and that can be hard. Healthcare can be very restrictive.”

The dietetic connection

Another eye-opening aspect of non-commercial foodservice for many chefs is the need to work with dietitians to establish the balance between great food and healthy food.

“Recipes have to be three-dimensional,” Martin says. “Cooks just follow recipes and may never have seen a dish being prepared, and that’s one-dimensional. Chefs bring the flavor and appearance, which completes the three dimensions.”

But a chef having to deal with a dietitian can be like oil and water. Martin compares it thusly: “You have art majors working with science majors, and that’s the rub sometimes. But if they work together, they can help bring everything together.”

Swedish’s Eisenberg says there still exists a divide between the chef’s role and the dietitian’s role, especially when it comes to creating patient menus.

“But it’s improving,” he adds. “There is a lot more dialogue and collaboration going on between [chefs and dietitians].”

In school foodservice, Guilford’s Cipriano says that collaborative effort has become essential.

“Chefs are important, but dietitians have to be actively involved in the process,” he notes. “In order for us to produce great food that meets certain ranges, you need that background.

“That is the biggest challenge in schools, aside from the paperwork: How far can you take that creativity?” he asks. “You can go pretty far, but then some regulation stands in the way.”

So the ideal chef for non-commercial foodservice would be one who possesses both a culinary and dietetic background. That can be a problem.

“Finding a chef/dietitian is like finding Bigfoot,” Eisenberg says. I’ve only met one other person, besides Angelo Mojica [UNC Healthcare’s foodservice director], who has that skill set, and he’s the person who applied for the job I have now.”

But Johnson & Wales University, in Providence, R.I., is trying to create such a hybrid. For more than a decade, the university has offered a bachelor’s degree in
culinary nutrition.

“We created this program because, particularly in school foodservice, the need to know nutrition is paramount,” says Suzanne Vieira, chair of the culinary nutrition department, who adds this is the only such program in the country. “We integrate nutrition and culinary arts in the same degree program. We teach classes in subjects like vegetarian cuisine, creating healthy desserts, spa cuisine and sports nutrition.”

More recently, The Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., added a class to its four-year degree program entitled Foodservice Management in Healthcare. The class is taught by Lynne Eddy, R.D., a former hospital foodservice director in New England. In addition to class time, the course involves field trips to various hospitals in the greater New York area.

“I think that’s great,” says Eisenberg about Johnson & Wales’ and the CIA’s efforts. “That’s going to go a long way toward bridging that gap between the culinary side and the nutrition side. Those chefs are going to be very valuable, and not just in our segment but in the whole restaurant industry.”