Food Services creates 5-Star Academy to sharpen staff members’ culinary skills

Food Services employees cute vegetables.

Executive Chef Rick Farmer instructs TaQuoneo Herndon, Lorena Loa-Martinez and Miriam Loa-Velasquez.

It's 5 a.m. in Kay Kafe's kitchen. Food Services staff members arrive for their shifts, preparing for a busy day of serving patients, families, employees and visitors. The day begins with three words that set the tone for everything that follows.

Mise en place.

The French culinary term means "everything in its place," and it's a mindset that helps chefs and cooks such as Lorena Loa-Martinez prepare for the day. That preparation encompasses everything from cleaning equipment and surfaces to placing utensils and ingredients nearby for easy access.

"When I get here in the morning, the first thing I remember is mise en place," said Loa-Martinez, a chef de cuisine who joined St. Jude in 2010. "We get everything ready before we start."

Loa-Martinez had never heard the phrase until last year when she took part in a new training program created by Dave Reeves, directory of culinary operations for Food Services, and Executive Chef Rick Farmer.

Reeves encouraged Farmer to design the 5-Star Culinary Academy to help staff members enhance their culinary skills and knowledge. Farmer and Reeves searched for existing platforms but ultimately decided that Farmer's  many years of experience as a chef and teacher would be the perfect foundation for a culinary 101 program.

"We already had what we needed here at St. Jude with two experienced executive chefs (Farmer and Michael Vetro) to build our own training program," Reeves said. "This is part of our  overall strategy to emphasize professional development, retain staff and enhance our customer service."

Farmer, who joined St. Jude in 2012 after many years as a restaurateur and culinary instructor, designed three levels for the program, which launched in January 2018. Sessions involve weeklong training at Target House, which has an available kitchen for hands-on learning and a conference room for instruction.

Two chefs spend the entire week with Farmer. Days begin with classroom time, instruction and videos. Learning transitions to the kitchen for afternoon activities.

"We want to change our whole culture from dietary to culinary by exposing our staff to advanced techniques and learning," said Farmer, who has worked as a chef in Memphis, New York and throughout Europe.

In addition to learning practices like mise en place, students learn how to properly blanch vegetables, dice onions, cut produce into thin julienne-style strips as well as expertly sauté, grill, roast and braise. They are also introduced to culinary math. Because Kay Kafe serves thousands of customers daily using standardized recipes, Farmer teaches how to scale recipes while stressing the value of cost and reducing waste.

"This class has been phenomenal for all of us. I use something every day that I learned and incorporate it into whatever I am making, whether it's a sandwich or an entrée," said cook TaQuoneo Herndon, who joined St. Jude in 2010.

The skill level rises throughout the week, culminating in Friday's finale, which includes a 100-question quiz and the meal preparation for about 40 Target House staff members. Menu planning begins Wednesday afternoon. Farmer and the chefs visit a local international market on Thursday to select ingredients.

At the market, Farmer makes suggestions, but the visits aren't just about selecting food. They are a venue for education and interaction. Loa-Martinez and her sister, Miriam Loa-Velasquez, also a chef de cuisine, shared their knowledge of produce from their native Mexico during their visit.

"We've been to the market before, but we learned so much about all types of produce and how we can use it to make some great dishes," Loa-Velasquez said.

Friday begins with a quick material review, then the meal is prepared and served. After a deep clean of the kitchen, students take the quiz. Students receive a star for completing each phase.

Phase 2 of classes begins soon and will cover advanced knife skills, more culinary math and a crash course in soups and sauces. Staff members will remain sharp through a new online culinary training program purchased by Food Services. Each participant will have an account and be able to progress through the program at their own pace. Training will be expanded to satellite servers in Food Services with a focus on customer service and cleanliness.

"It's really been a positive experience," Farmer said. "This program shows that we are invested in them and care about their professional development."

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