Homegrown Culinary Training

In the UNC Healthcare System, the good chefs wear black hats—and they're proud of that fact.

With the hundreds of culinary schools and chefs in the foodservice industry willing to lend their expertise, there are any number of training programs and partnerships of which directors in non-commercial operations can avail themselves these days.

But as far as two foodservice directors are concerned, none of them can hold a candle to the in-house training program in the University of North Carolina Healthcare System called Black Hat Chefs. It has provided much needed—and valued—training to some 30 cooks at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and another 15 at Rex Healthcare, in nearby Raleigh.

Granted, the two men—Angelo Mojica and Jim McGrody—may be biased. After all, Mojica, director of food and nutrition at UNC, and McGrody, who holds the same title at Rex, have built the program from scratch during the last five years.

Still, their argument has merit. Hospital administrators have been so impressed by Black Hat that they approved the hiring of a full-time instructor for the program. Turnover among cooks is almost nil, and retail revenue at UNC is up more than $200,000 over budget, a fact that Mojica attributes to the quality of meals being prepared for the retail locations.

“It’s taken a big investment on our part, but what it has done for our cooks, and what it has done for our food and our program, is priceless,” says Mojica. “We’ve probably spent more than $100,000 on this program, but I think we’ve made that back in retail sales, in really bad economic times, because our food quality is so good.”

Black Hat is a mandatory, four-tiered program that provides cooks with culinary training in week-long modules. Cooks have the ability to earn rank, bonuses and, eventually, a promotion if they can reach the top level.

From frustration to fruition: Although the program is about five years old, its genesis goes back to the days when McGrody worked in contract foodservice.

“I had proposed a training program [in the past] and it never really went anywhere,” McGrody recalls. “In the contractor world, they have so many programs that they try to shove down your throats that it was kind of, ‘uh oh, here they come with another program.’”

But when McGrody worked under Mojica at UNC as his associate director in charge of retail, he was able to convince his boss that the idea’s time had come.

“Jim and I had just opened this retail area,” Mojica explains. “We opened the facility together. We’d both come in at about 4:30 in the morning and prepare the food, and then I’d leave around 11 or 12 to do my administrative duties and Jim would stay for the remainder of the day.

“What we found was that we were having to train these cooks on a lot of the basics. We had what I call potwasher cooks—you know, yesterday they were potwashers and today they’re cooks. And they just didn’t know very much. They bluffed their way through a lot of what we told them to do, and they made a lot of mistakes.”

With this realization in mind, McGrody laid out his plan to Mojica.

“The uniqueness of our situation was that we had opened a brand new retail operation,” says McGrody. “We hired the whole staff new, so there were no old habits. When I talked with the cooks I would ask them what they wanted to do with their careers, and they said they wanted to become chefs.

“So I started, literally, by coming in with a side of salmon and teaching them how to break down salmon. I had a bunch of old CIA videos, so I would roll a TV into the kitchen and we’d watch them. That’s how the program started.”

McGrody suggested the name Black Hat Chefs in honor of the instructors at the U.S. Army Airborne Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., where he received his Army training. Instructors are informally called “Black Hats” because of the black baseball caps they wear while teaching.

“When I think of Black Hats, I think of well-trained, well-executed, professional individuals,” says McGrody. “The kind I met at Fort Benning. They ‘get it.’”

Mojica explains that the program was tweaked a few times in its opening months as he and McGrody struggled to find a format that worked.

“It started where I would be teaching them roasting, and Jim would be teaching sautéing and other people got pulled out for one piece or another, so we all became instructors,” Mojica notes. “But it was tough to get everyone together.”

That approach morphed into “Saturday University,” in which the management team came in every other Saturday to train those cooks who weren’t on duty that weekend.

“That didn’t work, because the people who were off really cherished their weekends, so it was tough to get buy-in,” Mojica says.”

Dine With the Director: It took an off-handed suggestion from another associate director, Ryan Miller, to give Black Hat Chefs the boost that it needed to become a solid training program.

“To try to keep staff informed, we started Dine With the Director,” says Mojica. “Ryan wanted us to take people out to lunch, but we didn’t have it in our budget to do that. So I suggested we bring people together within our own facility. We would invite about a dozen people from our department, and it would be my time to talk about what’s going on in the department and the hospital.”

As a way to showcase what UNC cooks were learning in this fledgling program, Mojica decided that as part of the Black Hat training the cooks would be required to prepare a meal for Dine With the Director.

“After one or two of these, we decided to invite our VP and associate VP,” Mojica adds. “That is when the program really took off because they were amazed at the kind of food our people were preparing.”

The problem was that, given the time constraints of managers, Mojica was able to train only about one cook per month.

“We couldn’t get people through the program fast enough. So I approached the VPs and said that if we could hire a chef from the outside, on a part-time basis, we could put more people through. They approved it, because they saw what it was doing for the quality of the food and what it was doing for staff morale.”

With the arrival of Susan Gardner as culinary development specialist, the program became what McGrody had envisioned in his daydreams while working in contract foodservice. All of UNC’s cooks have reached Level Two or Three, and some are beginning to work on Level Four. At Rex, progress has been slowed by the fact that McGrody had to spend much of his time the first couple of years in transition mode. (He was brought to Rex from UNC three years ago to take the foodservice program self-op.) However, all of his cooks have been trained at Level One, and he has begun to plan for Level Two training.

Nuts and bolts: The first level involves basic cooking skills: food safety, knife skills, making stocks, how to sauté and how to roast. Cooks are given a 40-page notebook that outlines the curriculum.

“Everything builds on what has come before,” McGrody says. “So by Thursday they are learning to break down a chicken, but they’re also using the bones to make stock.”

Thursday also involves a trip to the local farmers’ market, where cooks can purchase items for the meal they must prepare the following day.

“We give them certain guidelines so that they have to do something different. They can’t rely on the same old menu items,” McGrody says. “They have to cost it out, with the parameter of keeping it under $5.”

At the Friday meal, the cooks must explain to diners what they prepared, how they prepared it and what value they got out of the week. Mojica and McGrody serve as the judges in their individual facilities. There is also a written test cooks must pass.

Those who are successful receive a chef’s coat with both their name and Black Hat Chef embroidered on it. Also stitched into the collar is a black star, signifying the level they have reached.

“In our facility, every time you reach a new level, you get a new chef coat,” says Mojica. “Then, if you’ve managed to keep your skills set up—we do random audits to test them, and you’re allowed three demerits—you get a bonus of $500 per rank per year.”

The flip side, he adds, is that cooks who receive three demerits lose both rank and their bonus.

In Level Two and Three, the requirements get tougher and the training more intense. “In Level Two, for example, we get into poaching, steaming and braising,” says McGrody. “The food cost math becomes a little harder. In the next level we get into bread and pasta making, things of that nature. And everything builds on what came before. We remind them of what they learned and make sure they don’t forget it.”

One of the requirements for completing Level Two is that the cooks must plan an entrée for the cafeteria, cost it out, prepare it and then go to the cafeteria and talk about the meal in front of customers to try to sell it. To make it a little more challenging, the cooks must do this at 2 p.m., after the lunch rush is over.

“It’s incredible what has happened,” Mojica says. “These guys really compete to try to sell their meals. I think the record is 89 meals. They’ve become so competitive that we send an email blast to about 3,000 people to let them know that a Black Hat meal is coming. We cap the meal at $6, and there is a discount for employees, so for maybe $4.80 you may get a specialty bread, a farro risotto, a grilled salmon with a homemade sauce and vegetables.”

In the third level, the Black Hat meals are opened even further. “We set up a meal for 30 people,” explains Mojica. We give 10 seats to nursing staff. We give 10 seats to our own department and we sell 10 seats at $10 a head. We’ve done four of these, and we’ve sold out seats three months in advance. The Black Hats have become something. It has its own life behind it.”

Homegrown: What seems to make the program work is twofold. McGrody says it is the fact that it was created and is maintained in house.

“I’ve seen corporate chefs come in, and it never works,” he explains. “When you have corporate chefs or instructors from the CIA come in, the continuum of learning stops whenever they leave. They come in and set up that great program in a hospital and everybody loves it, and then the guy leaves and the program turns into Joe, the cook who’s been there 20 years. The problem is, not doing it the way the chef was doing it, and the manager doesn’t understand and the director doesn’t understand so the program deteriorates.

“I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to hire people who have the same passion that we do and will keep it going.”

Related to that is the fact that management can continually monitor progress.

“The program works because we teach a standard and then we hold them to that standard,” says Mojica. “My whole career I’ve had managers come to me and say things like, ‘He’s a cook. He should know how to sauté. He should know how to roast.’ Why do we assume that they know already?

“But if we teach them the skill then we can hold them accountable for the skill. For the first time, we can honestly say to cooks, ‘I know that you know how to do. . . whatever we’ve taught them.”

McGrody echoes Mojica’s comments. “When we teach somebody to sauté, it doesn’t stop there,” he says. “We police it. If we see somebody overcrowding the pan, we stop them and ask, what did you learn in Black Hat training? You do that a few times and then you see that person correcting the new guy. They start to encourage each other.”

A matter of pride: More than that, Mojica says, he attributes the success to the fact that it is the department’s own program.

“This is not just a program we pulled off the shelf,” he says. “This is something that we live and breathe every day. Every Friday we have a Black Hat huddle. It’s me, our executive chef, our administrative assistant—who also is a chef—our associate director in retail, our staff development specialist and our production manager. We talk about the program; how to market it and how to get the team even more involved. Every day they get better and better.

He adds that the cooks have taken to the Black Hat program as a matter of pride.

“The other day we had a cook we needed out on the grill station. He pulled me aside and said, ‘You see this collar? I’m a Level Three. I really think you should utilize me more in the back of the house and put a Level One cook out here to work on the grill station.’ Rank is important to them.

“At one point, our VPs were wondering, ‘aren’t you going to train these guys and they’re just going to leave?,’” Mojica adds. “But we’re finding that they are not leaving, because we are giving them these bonuses and recognition, and they’ve already got great benefits and good working hours, and we continue to teach them. They are so excited about what we’re doing for them.”

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