Culinary training merges with two hot areas

Business is the hottest degree on campuses right now. Health care is the hottest job sector. Culinary careers are just plain hot. How can these work together?

Starting this fall at Kendall College, business majors can earn a concentration in food service management. Culinary arts majors can concentrate in culinary nutrition, a crucial part of the health care field.

"There is an academic need within the Chicago area and beyond for culinary nutrition and food service management programs," says Kendall President Nivine Megahed. "We're able to open up a new world of career opportunities for our graduates."

Since Chicago is such a foodie town, it's a great place for elite culinary training. Kendall College has earned a reputation as a top school for this, with many award-winning chefs and restaurateurs on its alumni rolls.

Education served with style

Kendall students learn in a $60-million, state-of-the-art, six-acre riverfront campus that opened in 2005 in Chicago's Goose Island neighborhood. It has become part of the city's culinary scene, with its own student-run restaurant that offers sweeping views of the Chicago skyline. The college offers five bachelor's degrees: culinary arts, business, psychology, early childhood education, and hospitality management. So it is well positioned to serve up two new concentrations.

It doesn't hurt that the dean of the School of Culinary Arts is somewhat of a celebrity chef himself. You might recognize Dean Christopher Koetke's name from his weekly guest spots on WGN-TV and appearances on WGN radio shows in Chicago. Or his cooking show, "Let's Dish," on the Live Well HD Network. In his chef days, he worked at L'Escargot, Le Francais and Les Nomades in the Chicagoland area. He trained in France, where he cooked in some of the finest kitchens.

But Koetke also has a business side. He earned an MBA from Dominican University, so he is in a unique position to understand why a business major might want to concentrate in food service management.

"We have a lot of contacts within different segments of the food service industry," he says. "They come to us and say, 'Send us your grads.' We say, 'Tell us what we can do to better serve you.' Through a number of those conversations we found that there are careers based in the world of business that need people who understand their particular industry, such as health care. Some of our students' potential employers need people who understand food but are essentially business people."

Serving the masses

Business graduates with a concentration in food service management will be prepared to seek employment in a wide range of network-based, large-scale operations such as chain and franchise restaurants and catering companies, as well as large retailing and food delivery entities that package, prepare and/or supply food to schools, health care facilities and other commercial businesses.

"The food service industry is a gigantic sector and there is a huge variety of jobs there, with companies such as Sodexo, Compass Group and Aramark," Koetke says. "These are huge, international companies."

Koetke adds that Chicago is placed well geographically when it comes to the business of food. Food manufacturing is big in the Chicago area, with companies such as Kraft, Sara Lee and Quaker. "They are looking for people with solid business skills, but they want them to understand the core business," he says.

A business graduate with this concentration would likely take an entry-level management position. They might work in a finance department, in logistics, operations, procurement of food or distribution, Koetke says.

Special courses would include Quantity Food Service Production, Logistics of Food Service Management, Consumer Behavior, Ingredients, and Nutrition and Food and Beverage Management.

The cooking business

Recent grad Jaime Perry was also a celebrity of sorts while at Kendall. She won a $20,000 scholarship in a Kraft cooking competition, besting two men from two competitor schools. (She cooked braised rabbit leg ravioli.)

Later, she worked at the Gold Coast restaurant Table 52 under Art Smith, who was Oprah's personal chef for 10 years and was a recent contestant on "Top Chef Masters." "At Table 52, I cooked for the president and Michelle Obama. They're friends of Art Smith," Perry says proudly. Also Beyonce, Robert Redford, and George Lucas. Unfortunately, we were never allowed to leave the kitchen."

Now Perry works on the business side of the kitchen at Ed Miniat, a Chicago-area supplier of cooked meat products. This may not sound glamorous, but it’s fascinating work for Perry.

"If a company is looking for a new pot roast, they might contact us to develop one for them. For example, we do the barbacoa [spicy shredded beef] and carnitas [spiced pork] for Chipotle," Perry says.

The process to get a product from conception to a frozen meal or restaurant is long, but when it works, it's great. Perry puts together the presentations for chain restaurants and food manufacturers. "We travel all the time to show upgrades to products and things they want," she says.

The Ashkum, Ill., native says her Kendall experience and connections were key to landing her job. "Other people from cooking schools applied, but I was the only one with a bachelor's," she says.

Now she serves on Kendall's advisory board, and also gave input on the two new concentrations. After hours of assessing the strengths and weaknesses, she's confident they'll appeal to future students and employers alike.

Good and good for you

The second new concentration, culinary nutrition, is a dream come true for assistant dean Associate Dean of Culinary Arts Renee Zonka. She's a registered dietician and a certified executive chef with a long menu of experience and credentials.

"My whole career I've blended culinary and nutrition," she says. "It's exciting to see something that I believed in for years and years come to fruition."

Years ago, while working as a dietician at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn she would offer cooking and nutrition tips to her patients on how to make their diets more palatable. "When people are chronically ill or dying, food is often the last good thing in their life but they are restricted on what they can eat," she explains. "I helped give them diets so they have pleasure and family time, but still maintain their dietary needs."

Now that the food service industry is recognizing that it is important to feed people healthier, culinary nutritionists are in demand. "We have gotten a good response from industry [about this concentration], especially the corporate dining world, which includes health care, institutional, correctional, senior living centers, etc.," Zonka says. "People want really good food."

Courses in the concentration include Human Anatomy and Physiology, Human Nutrition I and II, Humans and Other Living Things, Nutritional Food Technology, Nutritional Cooking and Vegetarian Cuisine.

"To study the science of nutrition you need science," Zonka says. "The other Kendall students don't take this much science."

Potential jobs graduates may be qualified for include food service manager of a nursing home, an executive chef in a long-term care facility or senior living center, or in corporate test kitchens doing research and development. They can also work in restaurants. "In chain restaurants especially, they like people to have culinary nutrition training for menu and product development," Zonka says. "Some of our students also write for professional magazines." Ultimately, with multiple credentials like we're offering, you're more competitive," Zonka says. "No other school in Illinois has this." ■