It's Back to School for These Professional Chefs

Chef Walter Potenza is a successful chef and entrepreneur. In addition to being director of Chef Walter's Cooking School for adults, he teaches culinary arts at Providence Career and Technical Academy (PCTA), which combines a college preparatory academic program with technical training so that graduates can enter college or a technical institute.

He says of his role as high school teacher, "This is a different opportunity working with children because I believe that once they are 18 years old, they can no longer become great chefs. I think that great chefs have to start at 14."

No, that was not a typo. He said "fourteen."

"A typical European apprenticeship starts at 14," says Potenza, who hails from Italy. "It is also the age a young person's palate transforms, when they go away from parents 'food supervision to friends' influence and surroundings."

At PCTA Potenza uses an industry-standard textbook for hospitality education and an advanced culinary text to teach the classics ("We do not allow changes to those recipes," he says), but he believes the best chefs "cook by impulse." In his opinion, the accused mystery basket technique (where chefs must create a dish – or some – only from the ingredients included in a basket and sometimes some stock items) is best for stimulating creativity while also allowing him, as their instructor, to learn students' flavor profiles.

Not that their profiles are very complex in the beginning. Potenza admits that during the students' first year he works relentlessly to make them "walk away from ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard."

Potenza himself never went to college for cooking, but began working at age 18 with the best chefs the state of Rhode Island featured at the time. By the age of 24, he was a restaurant chef and opened his first restaurant at age 28.

"I am a self-taught culinary, who fell into the business by pure necessity.

Listening to Potenza talks about the art of cooking, it seems "study and research" to him was not heavily reliant on textbooks, which may be useful tools, but not among the most essential requisites for success. "The life of a chef, it's very little about cooking," says Potenza. "It's about discipline, it's about self-esteem … Being a chef is a technical thing, but there are many other elements behind it. I teach them a lifestyle … It's not just about cooking. can teach to anyone who walks through the door. But to become chefs, [students] need to redesign their own lifestyles, their own personalities. "

Which is a much easier task if a person is, say, 14.

"I disagree," says Joe Pitta, a lead teacher in the Culinary Arts Department of Minuteman Career and Technical High School in Lexington, Mass. Before Pitta arrived at the school to help build culinary foundations for future chefs, he led a colorful culinary life of his own, which began at the ripe old age of 20.

"I always liked food and cooking, but I did not start my career in it seriously until around age 20. The main reason I wanted to cook was because I wanted to travel." And he did. Pitta benefited from a federally funded job corp program that trained people in the essential elements of hospitality on freighters and passenger ships on the West Coast. He was even a food specialist with Amtrak. Sometimes Pitta felt that some formal training was necessary to continue in the field successfully. A few certificates later, his traveling days were behind him and he was chef at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel, Boston, before moving on to the Stouffer Bedford Glen Hotel, in Bedford, Mass.

Pitta recalls, "The hours were grueling and not at all conducive to family life. And I had a family. So I left the hotel business to become a volunteer educator."

He admits his hours now are enviable ("Really, you can not beat a teacher's schedule," he says), especially in the summer when school is out. But that does not mean Pitta stops working. In fact, that's exactly when he begins his other job: cooking for one of the Red Sox owners and his guests in the owner's ballpark suite.

It's been 24 years since Pitta made the decision to change jobs and he is still happy he did. In the beginning, though, he admits it was a tough transition. As a chef, everyone listened to him, asked "How high?" when he said "Jump!" Kids, however, "had no reverence" for him.

And similar to Potenza, Pitta must work hard each year to motivate kids to try foods that are different from what they served at home or at fast food restaurants where so many of them often eat. "Even those who say they want to be chefs tell me, 'I do not do fish.' But this lack of experimentation is common among kids: I have a 17-year-old at home who mainly eats chicken nuggets. "

Another culinary challenge, and one that's relatively new, is the fact that kids are more active these days than they were when Pitta first became his teaching career. "The school tries to address it, la telly by building alliances with local farms for produce and dairy products. prepared food. "

Minuteman Tech has a very structured program that also uses an industry-standard text for hospitality and foodservice. Technique is stressed in the program as are basic cooking methods, although "recipes they can find online," says Pitta. When students leave the school, their sanitation certification is very important to possess because, as Pitta says, "We want them to serve safe no matter where they are." And with a 400-hour work study component to the program, their students end up everywhere.

"In this industry, there's a niche for everyone: sports, nursing facilities, catering, airlines, snack bars, you name it," says Pitta. "So if a [culinary] student is 14 and knows exactly what he or she wants to do, well, that's a gift, and that's rare."

But even if a student is young when embarking on a career in the culinary arts, it does not mean he or she will succeed. No one knows this better than Christopher Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts of Kendall College, Chicago. Koetke has cooked professionally, since 1982, in some of the best restaurants and pastry shops in France, Switzerland and the United States and has received numerous industry awards.

He admits that he once had fairly established notions about the "right" kind of person who would succeed in the foodservice industry. But those opinions have changed and keep changing over his 13 years of experience in higher education.

"I recently went to a restaurant where a former student was the chef. . "

Who knows how the transformation occurred, but most likely part of this chef's success was in finding the right fit for himself in the industry, for his particular skills and personality.

Koetke says, "There are chefs with big personalities and for them, television is a great career. We tell students that there really is a place for everyone who is interested in food and in serving people, because ultimately this is a business of joy, of happiness through great service. "

To help students achieve this level of service, Koetke stresses to them the importance of professionalism. "Having pride in the industry, respect for the ingredients, the places you work for; working hard and giving 100% – it all results in doing a great job … Students must own their work ethic to succeed."

Of course, students' basic skills need to be solid, too.

"I'm reminded daily of the critical need for students to receive proper information and training as early as possible to perform at their greatest potential at every stage in their educations." and experienced chef / entrepreneur] and I recently wrote The Culinary Professional to arm future cooks with a foundation in contemporary cooking and help them launch their careers with confidence earned from fully understanding the basics and their applications to modern foodservice. "

In addition to using the textbook, which comes with an instructional CD that also includes foodservice forms and worksheets, standardized recipes, and activities to improve students 'math and vocabulary as they refer to the industry, instructors monitor students' skills constantly. Koetke says, "They can read about knife skills all day long, but they must actually do it to own it."

Though Potenza, Pitta, and Koetke may not share many similarities where formal education is concerned – getting one or giving one – they all agree on one thing: The most vital element an emerging chef must possess to be successful is passion. Koetke may sum it up best: "If the fire's not there, it will not work."


Rick Smilow, president and CEO of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, writes about the field of education, among many others, in his recent book Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food with Advice from Culinary Professionals. " He writes, "Teaching others about food is a career path with increasing opportunities, thanks to the growth the culinary education market has seen over the last two decades."

Whether in professional programs that offer students some kind of formal credentials or in recreational programs where students do not seek careers in professional culinary environments there are full-time and part-time occupations with salaries and experience requirements that range as broadly as the jobs.

Culinary Careers compiles professionals' thoughts on their jobs in these diverse fields, and includes advice, descriptions of a typical day, hours, responsibilities, skills required, salary and job outlook among other, more subjective topics such as what they like most and least about their jobs. The book is hoped to be a tool for those who wish to get an idea of ​​what to expect in various positions, whether they are interested in entering the food service industry or are experienced and looking for growth opportunities.