Culinary Institute of America President Dr. Tim Ryan Hints at New Courses in Entrepreneurship, Opines on Celebrity Chef Culture
As many Toqueland readers know, I’ve been working on a book about the American chefs and restaurants of the 1970s and 1980s. One of the great pleasures of this project is that it’s given me an opportunity to sit down with some of the most important figures in food, and hear their backstories firsthand.
It also gives me a chance to check in on new developments which I did when I recently sat down with Dr. Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America. Over the course of about 2 1/2 hours, we had a fascinating and far-ranging conversation that covered everything from how he first got interested in cooking (a legendary Time magazine cover story about Paul Bocuse, whose name now graces the school’s flagship restaurant, had something to do with it) to his role in creating the American Bounty restaurant on the CIA campus, to who his classmates were at “the Culinary” (among them was Susan Feniger, whom Dr. Ryan recalls was easy to spot because she was one of but a handful of women on campus at the time).
All of that will stay in the vault until the book publishes but when I asked the good doctor if there were any new developments on the horizon at the CIA, he offered up a hint of a new column of courses centered on the business of cooking. Though he couldn’t divulge the nitty gritty just yet, here’s the relevant snippet of our conversation:
RYAN: I can’t tell you specifically what we’re doing, but it’ll be big. It’s how we do an even more effective job seating entrepreneurs, because that’s one of the things that starts back in this very era that you talk about [in your book] — chefs as entrepreneurs. And we’ve had great success everywhere from Grant Achatz as an entrepreneur at the highest end to [Chipotle founder] Steve Ells . .. . so how do we help even more people become entrepreneurs and avoid some of the pitfalls?
TOQUELAND: You’re talking about classes that would be more in line with what people might think of as a traditional MBA-type program, but not exactly that.
TOQUELAND: Something in that direction to complement the culinary arts.
RYAN: What we’ve seen happen through this era [the 70s and 80s] is they’re excellent chefs and they cut bad deals. Not unlike the music industry . .. back to Bruce Springsteen [Editor Note: The Boss came up in our conversation; we're both fans.] who legendarily, he wants to cut that first record so bad, he makes an unbelievably bad deal with his first manager and gives away all his rights forever. That still happens in the restaurant industry because young chefs want to get that first restaurant open and they figure that it’ll work out or that everybody’s honorable, or if they work hard things will take care of themselves. And they often don’t . .. some are able to successfully re‑launch and others aren’t. That’s really a missing component .. . So we’re going to hopefully help in a significant way prepare future generations of chef entrepreneurs.
Another development that will be tracked in the book is the emergence of the “celebrity chef,” something that was unimaginable to those who got into cooking in America in the 70s and 80s. I asked Dr. Ryan how much this allure of television and other avenues is discussed at the CIA. His answer:
“Does the school discuss that? Yeah, we discuss this kind of stuff all the time . .. How does that affect our current student body? Well, in a couple ways. First of all, I absolutely am positive that the student body we have right now is the best and the brightest student body in the history of the CIA . .. the preponderance of our student body are so much sharper than I was when I was their age. So much more motivated. So much more worldly and traveled . .. because of media, because of the rise of chefs, we’re just attracting better folks.
“Now, my generation turned out great, by and large, but if you would have looked at that student body then, even though from there emerged Larry Forgione and Dean Fearing and Jasper White and Brad Ogden and Susan Feniger and people like that, it was a different kind of student body. If you compared apples to apples, the students as students back then and the students today, the kids today are far superior.
“Do they all have scripts for their made for TV movies or pilots for their shows [in mind]? Maybe to a certain extent. But . .. in terms of the admissions process, we require industry experience. That’s a great leveler. .. on average, students have 22 months of industry experience before they come here. That is an unbelievable filter. If you think that to work in a kitchen there’s lights and you throw some spice on a plate and everybody claps and that’s what it is to be a chef, you are quickly disavowed of that idea once you first start to work in a kitchen. And that’s really, really powerful.
“We require two letters of support from people in the industry, which is also a great leveler. We don’t accept everybody, which is a great leveler.. . we don’t want students if their aspiration is just to be a media personality. That’s not our profile. That’s not what we want, and so we try to filter them out in advance. And that’s not what we encourage while they’re here, though it is one of the fundamental changes, I think, that in my generation it was inconceivable that you were going to have a TV show. .. now, it’s commonplace . ..
“So it’s definitely on the students’ minds. There’s no question about it. They have a different awareness. So is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, you know, it is what it is, and there’s positive aspects of it in that it’s helping to attract even brighter, better kids . .. but they’re going out into a profession that’s a lot different from what me and their parents did. And that’s the good news and the bad news. So we hope that they don’t get distracted by the media, but some will. There’s no question.”