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Culinary Spotlight: Culinary Education: You Get Out What You Put In

Photos by Alexandra Martin

I graduated from culinary school in 1997. It seems like just yesterday to me, but I’m sure my cooks see me as the old guy in the kitchen nowadays. After school, I spent three years in a culinary apprenticeship program that allowed me to experience a wide variety of kitchens and chef personalities.

One of the issues with a formal culinary school format nowadays is that they often lack the “real life” experience needed to succeed in the restaurant industry. A controlled cooking lab can certainly provide a great learning experience, but oftentimes leaves a student lacking a basic understanding of a professional chef’s daily expectations. The truth is: the culinary industry is not as much about being trendy and cool as much as it is about turning a profit and staying in business. It doesn’t do much good to serve the coolest food in town if you not able to make payroll next month.

Chef Eric Watson talks about culinary education
In the kitchen of one of Watson’s classes at Minnesota State’s Culinary Arts program

Recently, my wife and I took on a whole new career venture. Rather than continuing to run restaurants day-to-day, we are now looking into teaching others how to. I will be the first to admit that the difference in managing a crew of cooks in a restaurant and teaching a classroom full of students is tremendous. The daily expectations are nowhere near the same from the student or the chef. In a restaurant, I pay folks to come to work. I have a legitimate expectation that they will follow my repetitive routine day in and day out with the understanding that they may someday be the next in line for a sous chef position. In a classroom, however, the student is “technically” paying my salary. My how the tables have turned!

My wife Sara and I are trying to think outside the box and create a culinary program that bridges the gap of traditional culinary education with an apprenticeship format. We are trying to lay out the textbook information and theory side-by-side with our own experiences. Oftentimes, our own experiences suggest that the textbook is just plain wrong. Other times, the textbook suggests that Sara and I were operating inefficiently. We want to lay it all out there for the students to consider. We’d also prefer that they graduate with a modest sized set of solid skills, as opposed to a vast variety of fragmented notions and techniques.

Chef Eric Watson talks about culinary education

Our new job is a delicate balance of being just firm enough to provide a realistic experience of what may lie ahead with the understanding that they also want to have a fun and somewhat gentle experience while in school. I realize that college isn’t supposed to be a job, but I also have an old-school mindset that you’re supposed to push yourself to be exceptional at work and at school.

Culinary school is often seen as a way to pursue a career of glamour and trendy cooking techniques. It’s seen as a way to secure a sweet gig at a top rated restaurant in a cool, urban environment. When in fact, our job as an instructor is to prepare you for the inevitable butt kicking you will be receiving once you walk out those doors. If we don’t prepare you for that, then we have failed miserably. I’d like to think Sara and I will be doing just that. Providing our students with information, tools and opportunity. What the student chooses to do with it is up to them.

We hope to continue serving the culinary community for many years to come. Just in a different capacity.

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Eric Watson

Written by Eric Watson

Eric Watson is a monthly contributor for Fargo Monthly. He is the owner
of Rustica and Mosaic Foods in Fargo, and is also the founder and president of the Fargo branch of the American Culinary Federation.

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