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Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010

Teaching Great Cooking

Potawatomi’s Culinary Academy

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Potawatomi Bingo Casino is known for the quality of the food served by its catering department, its award-winning Dream Dance restaurant and 10 other food venues within the complex. One reason for this is the casino’s Culinary Academy, a program modeled after courses taught at the Culinary Institute of America.

The Culinary Academy is the brainchild of Potawatomi’s executive chef, Peter Gebauer. When Gebauer joined the team in 2006, his objective was to assess the culinary department and prepare it for the casino’s $240 million expansion.

What Gebauer found was that there was no standard. Some people in leadership positions were completely qualified, while others had arrived there because of tenure and lacked the skills expected of their station. It was time not only to get everyone on the same page, but also to raise the bar.

“As department head, it is my responsibility to provide the tools to bring culinary team members where I want them to be,” Gebauer explains. “That’s when I had to think about the Culinary Academy.”

Throughout his long career as a professional chef, Gebauer has recognized the importance of a culinary education that emphasizes mentoring. During his final two years as executive banquet chef at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, Tenn., Gebauer was responsible for the resort’s American Culinary Federation-accredited apprenticeship program. He was also an instructor at Disney’s culinary apprenticeship program during his tenure with the company in Florida. Since 2007, he has been on the culinary program advisory board at Waukesha County Technical College, where he and other board members are charged with providing the right curriculum to prepare students for life after education in the culinary industry.

Classes at Potawatomi’s Culinary Academy are divided into three distinct levels for employees. The 11 Level I courses are held weekly during working hours and cover culinary fundamentals, including knife handling and mise en place (organizing and arranging the ingredients prior to cooking), as well as roasting and pastry 101.

Gebauer recognizes that students can’t learn all there is to know about braising during a one-hour course. They are given valuable hands-on experience, instructional sheets and homework during the class, but then Gebauer relies on Potawatomi’s supervising managers in each kitchen to hone the students’ skills through guided repetition.

Students, who are tested according to benchmarks comparable to the standards of the American Culinary Federation, take a web-based exam of 100 to 130 questions. The Level I test evaluates the students’ understanding of ServSafe, a food safety training and certificate program administered by the National Restaurant Association (all culinary team members are required to become ServSafe-certified in their first 90 days of employment), Potawatomi’s philosophies and culture, and culinary basics.

When students complete the one-hour test, they are graded and given a summary of the questions they missed, which their supervisors will use to give them constructive feedback. Students who fall short of an 85% score can revisit the test beginning a month later, provided that they take more classes.

In September 2009, the Culinary Academy started offering six Level II, or advanced, classes that include topics such as egg cookery, wok cookery, cheese making, sushi 101, sustainability and cost control.

The Academy’s Level III courses cover food production through Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), a systematic preventive approach to food safety that addresses biological, chemical and physical hazards. Level III isn’t just the science of cooking and storing large quantities of food. It also covers more advanced creative endeavors such as wedding cake baking and decoration, as well as ice carving.

Before Gebauer begins a new class, he and other supervising chefs review the previous class and modify it so it remains current and applicable to the casino’s changing needs.

Some Potawatomi employees working outside the food and beverage department have approached Gebauer because they’re interested in taking classes through the Culinary Academy. When asked if he would ever open courses to the public, Gebauer is hesitant.

“The objective and the commitment is to train our culinary department,” he says. “But I wouldn’t rule it out.”

While the purpose of the Potawatomi Bingo Casino Culinary Academy is self-serving—it focuses the entire culinary department on quality and service, attributes that generate business, after all—it provides team members with an education that is not only free of charge, but one that pays them to participate, elevating this opportunity far above an “employee perk.”
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