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Guest Speaker: Fork-Tender/Tough Love and the Zen of Classroom Management

By Victor J. McNulty

guest_jan10To the ACCSC’s Instructor of the Year, a bad student is any good teacher’s job. The trick is to inspire the uninspired.

Gordon Ramsay aside, the days of screaming chefs ruling with an iron fist over the kitchen kingdom has pretty much ended, in the U.S., anyway. We now live in a litigious/PC society where such behavior can get you into hot water, pun intended. If the chef should raise his or her voice, throw an item or mention an employee’s questionable upbringing, the ensuing results would not be worth the momentary satisfaction.

Most people are not motivated negatively, or at least not motivated to please their aggressor. They may even be driven to quit, steal, complain to a superior, vandalize, contact agencies like the Department of Labor and the Better Business Bureau, fist-fight or the crème de la crème (pun fully intended) of contacting the dreaded harassment lawyer. I’ve seen all the above.

Culinary schools are no exception to the changing mindset, but when I attended cooking school some 20-odd years ago, it was a different story. My alma mater, The French Culinary Institute, was a small but growing start-up in the Soho section of New York City with an accelerated method and technique-based program, on its way to the institution it is today. My instructors were true “old school” French masters, some of them right “off the boat” with names like Francois, Ghee and Christiane. There was a lot of the tough-love approach, often sans the love part.

It never bothered me, maybe because it was rarely directed at me, or maybe 12 years of Catholic schooling thickened my skin like uncovered pastry cream. At least Chef Ghee never hit me with a yardstick. They did occasionally yell at us in French, though, not that we fully understood, but you can usually decipher the swear words in any language. Every now and then, when they would get so frustrated with their young apprentices, they would attempt some slang in English, usually missing the mark, mixing up their “f” and “sh” words.

Still, I can remember as if it were yesterday the methods they taught me. Now I am a chef-instructor at The Culinary Academy of Long Island, a small but growing school in the suburbs of New York City with an accelerated method and technique-based program, on its way to great things. So when I teach recipes for consommé, hollandaise, ratatouille and brioche, I do it in the traditional manner, minus the incongruent cursing, of course.

I’ve always been of the philosophy that “There are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners.” If I have to reprimand students because they did not perform their tasks correctly, it’s not their fault, it’s mine. If they do not succeed, that means I failed as a teacher. I don’t like to fail. True, there are situations where they just don’t get it, but it is our job to make them get it. And it’s harder than it was 20 years ago. Now, instructors are battling adult ADD like the plague. In the instant-satisfaction era of texting and Internet access literally at students’ fingertips, it is difficult to explain to would-be chefs that braising a short rib is a long, involved, slow and steady process to get to fork-tender.

So which way should an instructor go? Stick to the boot-camp approach. After all, the kitchen hierarchy is based on a military model. Even our coats mimic Napoleon’s uniform. How about going the other way and being the easygoing teacher that everyone loves? I don’t believe either works. I came across a quote while studying the Tao De Ching that has truly helped me as an instructor. It goes:

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man but a good man’s job? If you do not remember this, you will get lost. No matter how intelligent you are. It is the great secret.

What that means to me as an educator is that a bad student is a good teacher’s job! Anybody can teach the “A” students. Anybody can teach the overachievers. Anybody can teach the naturals. But can you reach the rest? The “D” level, the cut-ups, the ones who struggle to understand? Inspire the uninspired. That’s the great secret. That’s the trick.

So I try to find a way to cater to both, another pun. Lifting up the ones who need it and challenging those who want it. You have to be flexible. You have to be firm. You have to be fair. You have to be respectful, of people and food. You have to be like water. Water is the most powerful force on earth. Something we all need. Something we are made of. Something that can find its way through the smallest of openings. Water can kill you, but without it you would die. We have that same kind of power over our pupils. We need to honor that responsibility. I think of my teaching style as classic French peppered (as always, pun intended) with Zen wisdom. Confucius meets Escoffier, so to speak. A fusion cuisine of philosophies.

Ironically, on the day I am writing this article I had to yell at my class for a serious infraction. But since I never raise my voice, they were quaking in their Crocs. They won’t commit the same offense again. “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness,” is how I calmly ended the Hell’s Kitchen-esque verbal abuse. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, I suppose. Oh yeah, pun definitely intended.


Victor J. McNulty is a chef-instructor and the continuing-education director of The Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset, N.Y. He was recently named 2009 Instructor of the Year by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC). (See “Latest News.”)

3 comments

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  • Jennifer Jolis
    Jennifer Jolis Wednesday, 02 June 2010 06:39 Comment Link

    Oh, excellent. The middle way. It would be a pleasure to hear more on this subject from Chef McNulty.

    I also concur with the first comment--the path is not always clear.

  • Isaac Frerichs
    Isaac Frerichs Monday, 25 January 2010 01:35 Comment Link

    This was a great artical. I would like to see more examples of how you employ your techniques. I am a new instructor and find that as my class sizes get bigger, it becomes much harder. When I had a class of 8 students, it was easy to pick up students who had bad grades but now with a class size of 25, it is really tough. For example, going over a recipe the day before with all the students and then going over it the next day, twice. Then checking to see if they have any questions. Then someone asks a question that you went over three times. How do you handle that? I know that we are teachers and instructors but I also think that we have a moral code to get them ready for the industry. I seem to struggle with this a lot.... teaching versus getting them ready for the industry.

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