Becoming A Cooking School Teacher / Chef Instructor

Brilliant Chef Instructor Jacques Pepin courtesy of United Artist/ Everett

An Original: Chef Instructor Jacques Pepin courtesy of United Artist/Everett

It’s one thing to be a great cook and quite another to be a great teacher.

To become a teacher the first thing to do is to take an examination…of yourself. By this, I mean, literally figure out who you really are. For instance when we buy a camera, we are really buying are memories made tangible. When we reserve a room in a hotel, we are buying a good night’s sleep.

The legendary restaurateur, Joe Baum said, “People don’t go to a restaurant to be fed, they go to be served.”

All this is a preamble to saying that a culinary teacher has to figure out just what kind of instructor to be. Do you want to be respected and loved or admired but feared? Chef instructors who choose to yell at students and belittle their clumsy efforts do so because they truly believe this is the only way to teach and to learn. Perhaps because this is the way they were treated when they themselves were young and inexperienced.

Chef instructors at professional culinary schools are responsible for training students and providing continuing education for experienced working chefs. They provide practical, hands-on instruction in cooking and also: in purchasing; cost control and budgeting; menu development; product utilization; time management; ethics and professionalism. The job entails developing a curriculum, writing lesson plans, grading homework and class assignments, administrating tests and examinations and evaluating students’ performances.

Classically trained chef instructors draw from their hard-earned experience to teach others. A minimum of five years experience working as an executive chef in a restaurant kitchen, bakery, catering company or other branch of the hospitality industry is usually mandatory. As part of the interview process, prospective instructors may be asked to prepare several dishes and demonstrate their ability to convey knowledge to students. They may have no formal academic qualifications, although people entering the field now generally do.

A successful chef instructor (like the beloved Jacques Pepin) must be able to solve problems and maintain discipline in the classroom. As with all teachers, chef instructors acknowledge that classes vary one from another. A significant indication of the chef instructor’s competency lies in his/her ability to transform the bad or bruised apples into polished chefs, not just make the already shiny ones shinier.

In other words, a good teacher combines the attributes of sainthood with the benign affection of motherhood or Attila the Hun.

As the world shrinks, the interest in different cuisines expands. We travel more easily than ever before, and while all this movement has created a cross-pollination of food cultures, it also has spurred interest in learning about “authentic” cooking customs. Destination cooking schools and culinary tours for food lovers are a growing business. Schools are thriving in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and China and Japan and many other countries.You Dont Have to be Jewish to love Levy's Rye Bread

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A chef can teach the foods of the Americas anywhere in the world; even on a cruise ship where passengers are treated to cooking demonstrations while sailing the oceans blue. Once docked, a chef may be engaged to conduct a culinary tour of the region.

Another opportunity for a chef instructor is to conduct a culinary walking tour. One such program in Manhattan limits the class to 20 people. The fee also includes lunch and is $65 per person.

Avocational classes remain the most popular cooking lessons in the country. Not everyone interested in food has the time or inclination to go to a professional cooking school, so the next best thing is to take a few classes. Some avocational culinary schools teach a wide array of topics and attract the same students, class after class. They also offer a few professional level classes as well. Their students may go on to work as caterers, cooks in gourmet stores, food writers, travel tour guides, food stylists, personal chefs and private cooks. Others just go home and throw fabulous dinner parties.

People who teach cooking have a passion for it. They love the creativity, the give-and-take of the class, and the interest their students bring to every session. They get their ideas from any number of sources and they shape them into cohesive classes. Not everyone who teaches cooking is brilliant at it, but those who are usually cultivate a loyal following.

Cooking school teachers must keep up with the times. Last year’s pasta class will be this year’s whole-grain class. A course on roasting morphs into one on slow food cooking. The public is fickle and tastes change.

For occasional work, both Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma stores offer hugely popular cooking classes conducted by chefs and cookbook authors. Historic sites and homes like Williamsburg and some museums offer cooking classes too. Then there are chefs with an academic background who may consider teaching a class on such topics of as Shakespeare in Love (with food).

Darra Goldstein, a professor at Williams College, says she decided to offer a new course to pique student interest. She named it “Topics in Russian Culture: Feasting and Fasting in Russian History.” It is designed to teach Russian culture through the prism of food. In the 200-odd-year history of the College, this was a groundbreaking course. The college had never before listed a regular class in food studies.

She says, “Because I also wanted my students to experience food as pleasure, I supplemented the class meetings with extracurricular events. We celebrated the Russian pre-Lenten Butter Festival with an all-you-can-eat blini dinner and went on a mushroom hunt, for which the students prepared by reading Tolstoy’s evocative passage on mushrooms from Anna Karenina. We were thrilled to find an abundant patch of morels!”

The seminar concluded with a four-course Russian feast. Each student researched and prepared a traditional dish, and the results were impressive. In addition to the familiar borscht and pirozhki, they enjoyed a 19th-century cold beverage made from pounded pistachios, homemade kvass (an effervescent drink made from fermented black bread), eggplant caviar, a large pie with four different fillings straight out of Gogol’s Dead Souls, and varenki, Ukrainian sour-cherry dumplings.

Clearly a chef instructor or a cooking school teacher can choose to teach and travel along many paths.