Knowing what you don't know

My friends who follow this philosophy.

Where I grew up, we had a legendary middle school teacher who drilled this mantra into each generation of students: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” No one models this philosophy better than three Certified Master Chefs whom I am lucky to call my friends.

Each of them—Tim Ryan, Mark Erickson and Victor Gielisse—happens to work at the Culinary Institute of America. Each has continued to pursue higher learning despite professional portfolios of accomplishment that most of us can only dream about. Tim and Victor both have doctoral degrees. Mark has an MBA, and his relentless curiosity is behind many of the CIA’s programs that are opening up new areas of food exploration, ethics and academics. Together, they and their teams are creating lifelong learning opportunities that will benefit both food professionals and just about anyone who eats.

All this was on my mind recently as I sat through a program at the CIA called the Culinary Excellence and Innovation Program (CEIP), which is underwritten by Hormel Foods and was created through the cooperative efforts of Hormel Foods, the CIA and Ideal Media—publishers of Restaurant Business, FoodService Director, and

The CEIP was created to provide a lifelong learning opportunity delivered over 18 months to 16 fast-track culinarians who were identified by their employers as future industry leaders. The excellence and innovation training they are now receiving is in four specific areas: flavor exploration, health and wellness, leadership, and menu research and development.

The leadership module that I attended was a deep dive into the ability to create an environment where all stakeholders know what is expected and are committed to overcoming challenges, accepting change, achieving goals, building strong teams and using influence to persuade and guide. I didn’t actually write that part—I stole it right out of the curriculum. Pretty heady stuff for a culinary crowd.

CMCs Gielisse and Ron Desantis built on that premise by outlining specific competencies and traits, using words like integrity, humility, risk tolerance, inclusion, energy and respect. It was important stuff that you either have or you don’t, and vague, undefinable terms like “vision” were noticeably absent from the agenda. What was on the agenda was a clear roadmap to developing and measuring both leadership and management skills (which, as we learned, are very different).

Also on the agenda were case histories presented by Steve Binder, group vice president of Hormel’s refrigerated foods division, and Steve Ells, founder and chairman of Chipotle Mexican Grill. Binder spoke about scaling up a leadership culture at a large supply-side company, while Ells outlined not only the creative story behind Chipotle’s initial breakthough in fast-casual dining but also confidential details for driving innovation to the next level as Chipotle approaches the critical 1,000-restaurant level.

The next CEIP session convenes next April, but the bad news is all the seats are taken. The good news is that a new class will enter in the fall of 2010. If you are interested in learning more (there’s that word again), go to for more information. Or you can always contact me at



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