the Key to Culinary and Professional Growth

Great cultures thrive when their population is educated. Education is not only a part of the vision but also a crucial tool for applying knowledge, making it an integral mission. As my esteemed culinary mentor once said, “Lawrence, regardless of our background or skill set, we must give back.”

Diplomas and certifications serve as reflections of one’s professional journey and self-discovery. Education can be challenging and daunting, especially when the desire for success overshadows the humble pursuit of knowledge. I experienced this personally in 2002 after obtaining a Master Chef certification. Despite my success, I felt overwhelmed and insecure about my abilities when faced with the culinary basics during a Mobil 5-star weekend. It was a humbling experience that made me realize passing an examination does not automatically make me a Master Chef. It compelled me to retrace my journey, strengthen my weakness, and foster a sense of humility within the certification community. The wisdom gained from that experience continues to bolster my past achievements and instill confidence for future educational pursuits.

In our profession, every chef carries the responsibility of shouldering the educational burden. While there are various interpretations of this responsibility, self-development often takes center stage. The culinary industry has traditionally been a “blue-collar” business, attracting individuals who can endure long hours.

During a recent visit to New York, a member in the process of hiring a new Executive Club Chef asked me about the importance of certification and whether it was a factor in their selection process. This opened an opportunity for me, as a chef, to explain the deeper purpose of certification within the culinary world. I understood his perspective coming from the legal profession, which requires a degree to practice. I elucidated the distinction between calling oneself a chef and being a Certified Chef, which holds significant value within the American Culinary Federation (ACF). These educational achievements led me to believe that those who certify themselves are lifelong learners, continuously expanding their knowledge and perspectives of the industry. It becomes challenging to become institutionalized when one continually changes their educational environment. This prompted us to discuss how pursuing an MBA in addition to a law degree could be a positive attribute for candidates at his law firm.

When interviewing chefs from diverse backgrounds, a recurring theme emerges, as scholar Jordan Peterson has pointed out—those who can effectively communicate through writing and speaking are more likely to succeed in life. Education propels individuals to evolve their skills, leading to a better understanding of oneself and others. This commitment to lifelong learning strengthens the culinary industry and portrays chefs as partners, strategic visionaries, and artisans. Fraternal organizations such as the Club + Resort Chef Association, ACF or the Club Managers Association of America (CMAA) encourage their members to strive for a deeper understanding of the industry’s evolving requirements. Recertification of culinary degrees plays a central role, requiring professionals to present portfolios showcasing their self-developed exposure.

In our industry, chefs need not only to possess strong stamina but also to possess keen and developed minds. With the industry evolving at a rapid pace, countless opportunities await chefs, and without ongoing education, one risks being left behind. This reminds me of the insightful words of author Thomas Friedman, who stated that “if the Middle East builds its economy from the ground up, its human capital will never be fully developed.” This comment was made in response to media scrutiny of human rights issues in the region.

When reviewing a chef’s CV professionally, I look for several key attributes that may predict success at the next level or organization:

  1. Personal culinary culture: I explore the individuals they have worked with to understand the exposure they have received and how well they can execute proper cooking techniques. Teaching a chef how to cook should not be a primary value proposition of the job.
  2. Education influenced self-development: Beyond basic culinary education, those who find the time and energy to pursue additional certifications or education while holding jobs demonstrate a strong curiosity for lifelong learning. They challenge the status quo, avoiding complacency even in the role of an Executive Chef.
  3. Association or community participation: A chef who understands the value of building a broader network contributes to a robust mentorship structure. Taking on professional responsibilities and assisting others is essential for personal satisfaction and personal growth.
  4. Adaptability and reinvention: Chefs who embrace change and willingly reinvent themselves in terms of skills, positions, or education exhibit a desire to face challenges and act as change agents in both their personal and professional lives.

While checking most of these boxes does not guarantee success, it indicates that the individual is likely a self-starter, proficient at managing tasks for themselves and others, and discontented with merely maintaining their current status as a leader and chef. These observations serve as a foundation for understanding candidates until I have the opportunity to hear their personal stories.

Taking a page from the Harvard Business Journal, it is natural for professionals to undergo re-education an average of four times throughout their careers. Falling behind is a natural occurrence, but remaining stagnant leads to institutionalization and renders one unemployable.

Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC, ECM is a Certified Master Chef and Search & Consulting Executive for KOPPLIN KUEBLER & WALLACE. He is also Executive in Charge of the Club Leadership Alliance Food & Beverage Experience Network. Prior to joining KK&W and CLA, Lawrence served as General Manager/COO of the 146-year-old Union Club of Cleveland. His impressive 30-year career spans the globe with roles in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as some iconic operations state-side, including The Greenbrier, MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, The Ritz Carlton Company and The Waldorf Astoria Hotel.