Restaurant Industry Change Opens Doors

The restaurant industry offers excellent career opportunities.

But it also has two albatross-like myths weighing down its neck.

One is the fear that it is a purgatory where the laid-off go to keep the cash flow up until things get better, or a place where college students must work because they don't yet have the experience in their chosen field.

The other is the dream of going to a French cooking school and then opening a cozy little restaurant with a happy, loyal clientele.

Like any career, the culinary-arts end of the hospitality industry has a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps aspect in the beginnings, and seemingly dazzling perks as you approach the top.

"It's a very tough business and not particularly high-paying when an individual enters the business," says Tom Griffith, director of recruiting at Restaurants Unlimited, which recently opened its latest tony restaurant, Palisades, at the new Magnolia marina.

"You have got to have a passion," he says.

"The service industry" is the label given to all lines of work where a service is provided, whether it's the peanut seller at the Kingdome or a yacht skipper who hosts his or her boss once every six months. But the hospitality industry in general, and restaurants in particular, is a visible driving force of the service sector.

The restaurant industry has changed and matured during the past two decades. Gone are the skittish sous chefs who make a career by trying to divine their chef's secrets but not daring to ask or get in his way. Today there are two ways to move in the industry: schooling and experience.

Most area community colleges, often a career-testing ground for high-school graduates and returning students, offer culinary arts, hospitality and management programs to provide education about and experience in the restaurant industry.

At North Seattle Community College, students learn to "cook for, wait for and host for" customers in the school's cafeteria, says Darrell Mihara, program director. A regular schedule of classes leading to introductory and advanced certificates as well as a two-year program toward an Associate of Applied Science degree in culinary arts is offered during fall, winter and spring quarters.

"We encourage them to go through the whole program, but some are interested basically in learning to wait tables," Mihara said.

During the summer, the kitchen is staffed mostly by low-income students from the Center for Career Alternatives to teach them "basic restaurant skills and an ethic" as a foundation for a start in the industry, Mihara said.

Seattle Central Community College's culinary arts program, which closed and was rebuilt from the ground up two years ago, has become one the area's premier programs.

"We've changed totally," says Dave Madayag, chief instructor, to keep up the higher degree of professionalism that has transformed the industry since the mid-'70s. That's when the American Culinary Federation instituted national certification standards for chefs, from apprentice to executive, and for culinary educators, such as Madayag.

And the new professionalism came, Madayag points out, at a time when awareness of fresh, nutritional and ethnic foods began to mushroom. Computers also were beginning to change the face of the restaurant industry, and knowledge of the psychology of appearance, style, theme, setting and customer service became more important to success in the industry, Madayag says.

Knowledge in all areas is a must, he maintains. One of his classes has an intense exercise know as the "Chef of the Day." Madayag reels off the requirements:

"You have to make the whole menu. It can follow a theme, such as vegetarian or ethnic, but you have to create the whole thing, the amount of food, the ordering and purchase, the `verbage' (menu descriptions), the prices after a cost analysis, the stations in the kitchen, who is going to staff those stations, who will be waiter, the host, what will be the atmosphere. It's tough. I know there's some chefs out there in the industry right now who can't do that."

Many people who come to his program are changing careers.

"We're getting a lot of career-changing people," Madayag says. "People who've been out there in the work force and found out it's just not fun, it's not rewarding, and who are coming back and taking culinary arts or baking or our management program. We have students in here who have not only BAs but master's degrees, very intelligent. Older students. I'd say we're looking at 65 to maybe 85 percent are career-changing students."

One of the attractions, he says, is the tangible reward that comes from preparing food. "You can actually put a product together - your product - and be rewarded instantly with that."

Madayag also cites teamwork and challenge as attractions and recounts that one of the highlights of his own career in the industry was as executive chef at the Sun River resort in Oregon's high desert. When he arrived at the resort, turnover was high and morale wasn't. He started some classes on cooking, ice carving, presentation, menu creation. His crew became eager and confident. When a prestigious group of under-30 millionaires came for a weeklong stay, Madayag's crew knocked their socks off with ever-changing menus, dazzling presentations and spotless service. It was exhausting, but rewarding.

Stress? Sure. "But you can use stress to get everything right. When you get that reward as a team, then nothing feels better. And you have gained knowledge, confidence, and the stress level is reduced. Next time you know more about what you're doing."

The old stereotypes of the temperamental chef who keeps all his secrets is long gone, Madayag says. You can't survive in the industry that way anymore. "High turnover is not because of wages, it's because of boredom. You have to have training" so workers know their next job can be a step up, he says.

Keeping her eyes on the prize was exactly how SCCC graduate Charmaine Eads charted her career. Now the executive chef at the Manor Farm near Poulsbo, she began to work full-time as soon as she began to take classes. That's what most people do, Madayag agrees, and why most classes are in the morning. Experience is learning in this industry.

Eads began with the notion that while schooling gives you a sound foundation, "Really you are only as good as your resume. People should make that choice right away. Work for the best in town." Instructors can help. "You ask them to evaluate you, and then get a letter of recommendation," she says, adding that's one of the few ways to stand out against the competition.

So Eads started at the Sorrento Hotel as a prep person in the banquet kitchen. For two years she worked both school and job, and the combination left her with a key to success in the restaurant industry: "Speed is as important as talent. And accuracy is the most important."

From there she concentrated on "smaller, more elegant houses whenever possible; that was the springboard." She took jobs with "not great pay but position." Eads used her presentation skills to build a reputation. She landed a lower-paying executive chef position before moving on to the same position at the high-profile Stimson Green mansion. That led her into her own business as a caterer for 6 1/2 years. Then she went to New York to help to run an $8 million high-profile catering enterprise.

Seattle's reputation as a restaurant town can help aspiring restaurateurs, Eads says, and was key for her career movement upward.

"It's huge! In New York, people said, `Oh, the food is great there.' . . . It served me very well. I don't think if I was from California I would've have got the offers in New York. I think it was because I was from here."

The need for good managers in the restaurant industry is a bottomless pit, says Griffith of Restaurants Unlimited, who serves on the Seattle Central culinary arts program Technical Advisory Committee.

"If you're good, you'll stick out like a sore thumb," Griffith says. "Our industry is so labor intensive that the key to moving up the ladder is to get a bunch of minds working together toward a common goal. We really look for innate leadership skills."

Madayag also sees this focus among the new breed of students that show up at his door.

"I think they're looking at it a little more intelligently than students in the past. They have a definite goal, whether they're going to be a chef, owner or go into catering or restaurants.

"Almost all of our students are working full-time in the industry. . . . Some of our students are out there as waiters and waitresses. But I think in the back of their mind they want to get to `back of the house' (the kitchen and offices). If they take a job at the `front of the house,' they're analyzing management and customer service as well as looking to the back of the house to see how well things are running there."

Madayag, who says he can never enjoy eating out because he's always analyzing how the restaurant works, nevertheless believes that his career has rewards no other can match. The aforementioned feelings of accomplishment and growing professional opportunities, as well as travel (he's been hired to critique restaurants in Singapore and many other exotic locations) and job security.

People should never throw away what experience they have in the industry, he says, as do many students who use restaurant jobs as a means to get through school. Supplementing any experience with some training in school can never let you down, he says:

"Even if you're not 1,000 percent sure, you'll never not have a job in this business."

Madayag will conduct an orientation at 1 p.m. Thursday in Room 2114 for those interested in investigating culinary arts as a career, and introduce the Seattle Central's program. Call 587-5485 for information and directions.