A new breed of chef/managers and executive chefs places a stronger emphasis on food.
With issues like payroll, scheduling, purchasing and sanitation to worry about, it can be difficult for foodservice managers to remember the reason they run their operations: the food. There is no one way to handle the culinary side of a foodservice operation. Schools, hospitals, corporate and university dining centers all have to decide how to deal with culinary issues.
Background check: One emerging industry trend is to hire foodservice managers with a culinary background to be chef/managers.
At Morgan Lewis law firm in Washington, D.C., a Guest Services account, Chef/General Manager Dennis Nowe says having culinary experience is an advantage when it comes to serving his more than 400 customers.
“Anyone can give someone a recipe and say ‘here, make this,’ but my favorite style of management is by example. It’s also an advantage when you have a lot of culinarians [in the kitchen] and they know that the manager [has culinary skills], there is a little bit more respect,” Nowe says. “They know that I know what I’m talking about and it really does up their game.”
Lisa Kurth, executive chef for Bon Appétit at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY advertising agency in Los Angeles, says there is no time for the “hat change” between chef and manager. “I was a chef first and always will be. [In management, it’s important to] share the good and bad and let everyone feel that they make a contribution,” Kurth says. “Give them ownership so they have an understanding of the puzzle they are a piece of.”
Erik Schunk, RD, director of food and nutrition services at 252-bed Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, PA, also serves as the hospital’s executive chef. Like Nowe, he understands the importance of allowing his employees the freedom to shine.
“I allow my cooks much liberty after it is earned and competence is demonstrated,” says Schunk. “Suggestions are always welcome and micromangement is forbidden.”
Jumping in: Gary Brautigam started at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania as executive chef but was recently promoted to director of food services. He still draws upon his culinary experience to manage the feeding of the school’s 2,600 students. Brautigam says one of the most important aspects of culinary management is the willingness of a manger to accept change.
“Managing works best when you work with and support the employees,” Brautigam says. “When the staff knows that you are capable and willing to jump in to get through a challenging time, you set an example for a great team.”
Field guides: One place where you still won’t find many chef/managers is school districts. But larger districts have started hiring executive chefs to retool menus and manage the culinary side. At New York City Public School District, Executive Chef Jorge Collazo knows how important culinary management is. With more than 850,000 meals to prepare daily, Collazo spends much of his time communicating with his nine chefs, spread across the city’s five boroughs, about issues like labor and sourcing.
“One characteristic we look for in hiring chefs is that they must understand organizational dynamics and be able to communicate effectively,” Collazo says.
New York City public school chefs spend a lot of time building participation, in part with specialty programs such as a new Gyro station. Collazo writes instructional field guides for his chefs to implement programs properly.
The Boston Public School District is also in the process of revamping its school foodservice. This past March, Executive Chef Kirk Conrad came aboard to execute a pilot program in two of Boston’s middle schools. Conrad has rewritten the school lunch menus to include more fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and, whole grains and more items made from scratch.
To implement the program, Conrad gives the managers at the two pilot schools daily hands-on training.
“My managerial approach is to treat all the workers with as much respect as possible. I’ve had great success with that, and we can still get the food out and make it look how it needs to look and taste how it needs to taste.”
At 339-bed Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, WA, Manager/Executive Chef Christopher Linaman thinks hospitals should be culinary-driven. “One can build the most elaborate cafes, offer room service and have the nicest facilities, but if one doesn’t have a competent culinary staff and leadership, it will be in vain,” Linaman says. “In today’s food-saturated media [with things like the Food Network] our consumers are more savvy and they have higher expectations than a Salisbury steak or mac and cheese.”
Linaman joined Overlake Hospital more than a year ago and he says it was a challenge to overcome long-standing practices, recipes, attitudes and expectations. They made inspiring change—one of the reasons he was hired—more of a challenge. Some of those changes include going “green” and the addition of natural and organic produce as well as eliminating trans fats and buying bread from a local bakery. With all the changes, Linaman used several management strategies.
“Patience and working with the staff on the changes [as well as] giving them some ownership helps,” Linaman says. “Change done correctly will inspire more change. Utilizing the sometimes untapped talents of those you work with and practicing lively, genuine communication with both your staff and superiors [improve the culinary side of the operation].”
Focused On Food
Princeton’s culinary program brings dining services closer to customers.
Back in 1993, Princeton University in New Jersey had one chef for the entire campus. Now, 15 years later, Princeton has made a large push to be known for its culinary-driven dining. Director of Dining Services Stuart Orefice says the push really kicked up in 1997 when his department started training hourly employees to be sous chefs. Since then they have been replacing managers with chef/managers.
“Managers tend to be focused on the bottom line so having a manager with a culinary background really helps,” Orefice says. “The cooks know that the manager knows what they are talking about. They really bring the whole package together and provide the restaurant feel that we wanted.”
In addition, each of Princeton’s dining halls has a chef, who has the freedom to create their own menus.
Training: Orefice says the chef/managers’, unit chefs’ and cooks’ training was an integral part of the culinary-driven program. In addition to the usual in-house training, the department brought in restaurant consultant Hospitality Works to help train staff.
Recent additions and renovations also helped the department to define its culinary-driven program. A new dining center at Whitman College as well as a renovation at Rockefeller/Mathey College provided the necessary equipment and ambiance. Both Whitman’s and Rockefeller/Mathey’s serving areas have five stations, which include brick pizza ovens, as well as hot entrées, soups, salads and made-to-order sandwiches.
“The display cooking areas and increased serving area space allow our culinary team to provide creative menu selections to capture the entrepreneurial spirit,” Orefice says.
Dan Slobodien, chef manager at Whitman, is used to juggling the duties of a chef and a manager since he had been the chef/owner of his own restaurant, the former Dan’s on Main in Metuchen, NJ.
“The challenge of taking a foodservice environment to a level of a fine restaurant is irresistible, and it would not be possible without my culinary training,” Slobodien says.
Another new addition is onsite wellness managers. Sue Pierson, RD, assistant director of residential colleges, says they now always have a wellness manager at both Whitman and Rockefeller/ Mathey. With the old system, Pierson reviewed the standard menu for all the dining centers, so she could identify allergens and make sure they were not serving all high cholesterol food or foods that wouldn’t satisfy a vegan or a Kosher student. Now that the chefs create their own menus, Pierson says it was important to have wellness managers on site to assist students with menu choices.
“Culinary and nutrition go hand in hand and having a wellness manager on the unit team ensures that the chef creates a menu keeping that in mind,” Pierson says.
Cooking Up Change
A professional chef tries her hand at covertly creating nutritious cuisine.
A professional chef for more than 20 years, Bridget Collins recently joined the Medford School District in Massachusetts as the district’s first executive chef. “The role of a chef is a job that if I were to take on—not that I’m a qualified chef—I would be spreading myself too thin,” says Jeanne Irwin, school lunch director. “It seemed Bridget had been thinking about this position even before it was created.” Collins talks about her plans to improve the nutritional value of Medford’s school menus.
“Over the past four years, [Medford] has removed all the sodas as well as products containing trans fats. They have already incorporated healthier snack products, which are all portion controlled. Nothing is fried and everything is baked fresh, including the bread. So they had already made that part of my position easy. My main objective is to work with what we’ve got and improve the nutritional integrity of the finished product as well as taste and appearance. I want to serve what kids will eat and slowly expose them to foods that they may eat.
Our main goal here is to improve the quality and nutritional integrity of the food using the resources we currently have, while searching out some new innovative, yet affordable ones. I know this is achievable. We hope to work up relationships with local farmers, which would fulfill my personal goal of integrating local, organic and sustainable produce, cheese, breads—whatever we can.
I’m starting with breakfast, for several reasons. Many kids go to bed around 7:30 or 8:00 p.m., and if they are waiting until lunchtime the next day to eat, that could be almost 15 hours without nutrition. Studies show that this affects behavior, test scores, concentration, etc. Also, we have 31% of our students who receive free and reduced meals. The food we serve them may be the only food they eat during the day. It’s our responsibility to ensure that they are getting a healthy start each day. For lunch, I want the kids to eat more fruits and veggies. They are offered now, but my goal is to get more of them interested in taking them, so I must be creative with incorporating fresh produce into what they are already used to, like pasta with veggies and chicken salad with grapes and celery. Children are exposed to current food trends through the media. For example, if we offer panini sandwiches or focaccia, most of them will have a good idea of what that is. Above all, it must be nutritious and I will ensure that. [In my first week] I spent a good deal of time observing what the kids were choosing—hot lunches, sandwiches, salad, fresh fruits, snack items—from the lines as well as what the kids were bringing in their lunch bags from home. I got to see what food got thrown away the most and what foods were most popular, like tacos.
Many school foodservice directors, including ours, are buried under mountains of paperwork. They are overwhelmed, so how can they have time to research new recipes? A chef tends to be the creative contributor to the equation. The chef has the task of observation, research, testing and implementing.
I am the coordinator between the foodservice director and the staff and, in some respect, their supervisor. I will be responsible for training the staffs at the individual schools when we are implementing a new menu item or idea and following up to be sure that it is working as it should. I have a low-key approach to management and believe that it is most important to listen and observe first, get to know the system and the employees and get as much feedback and input as possible before plowing ahead with grand ideas. Some of these women have been with the school lunch program for more than twenty years. They have a lot of experience and a lot to tell me. I want to assure them that change isn’t a bad thing and we can all work together for the sake of the children—and they love the kids. Educating the workers as to why this is so important to the health of the kids may inspire them.”