We sat down with Chef Keith Denard Jones, a culinarian with a career that spans more than forty years. With his experience as the executive chef of Honey Smoked Fish Holdings, a former member of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs and President/Owner of Chef's Secrets, Chef Keith gave us his expert opinion on the future of training in the food industry.

What is your training approach? Are you mostly hands-on or do you use digital?

As a chef, I live in two different worlds. The culinary side is completely hands-on. Consistency is the secret ingredient (if you will) to any successful culinary operation. Time and again food items need to be the same, so as a chef you need to work with your team members to make sure you teach them exactly how you want the recipes and menu items prepared. Hopefully, the chef has the time to train the complete culinary team and if not then a valued member or manager of his/her staff will be the one. I cannot overstate this at all, training for consistency is critical and must be handled with the respect and importance it deserves.

The operations side is a case study on digital and this is how the chef communicates to upper management with respect to the numbers, which can be summed up in one-word REPORTS! How successful (or not) is the operation running from a numerical/monetary point of view? All culinary operations live off of projected numbers and it’s the management’s goal to hit and/or exceed their forecasted projections. Every day that the business is opened it creates a numerical picture that says how efficient and profitable they are and typically the management team will meet on a regular basis to go over the reports.

If the numbers aren’t good, then the management team needs to react with speed and a sense of urgency to identify the problem(s) and solve them asap. The better the chef and team can do this, the better their chances for overall success. Every operation will have some form of reporting that the chef needs to understand and master to effectively communicate with management and/or ownership of the establishment. Chefs understanding the digital components of their operation and communicating that information to their management team is just as important as the consistency of the food!

How does culinary training differ from other sectors?

Most culinary operations survive off of slim margins which translates into them not having any extra time to waste on ineffective training programs, so they need to acknowledge and deal with real hard issues right up front. Verbal, physical, alcohol, substance, and sexual abuse. Racial and sexual discrimination. Then there’s typically a foreign language need or more for the staff. Another major challenge is the maintenance and control of a perishable inventory and they must understand and adhere to all of the requirements of their local, state, and federal government codes, etc. Everything mentioned up to this point is internal and again should be mastered before they go live in serving customers. Successfully managing those customers' visits and experiences is the goal but today’s customers have seemingly unreal time expectations and the very real ability to give instant feedback on the food and service. It’s like a virtual minefield where a wrong step in any direction can significantly hamper or kill any operation in no time at all. I don’t know of any other business quite like it and struggle to find the answers to why so many people want to own a restaurant?

What do you do to make learning fun?

What I do to make learning fun is to engage and become a part of the process! I always try to provide a bigger picture perspective so whoever I’m working with can see more than just what’s in front of them. Answer the question “why” before it’s even asked? I also try to give gifts and/or incentives to help. I’m also big on overall morale and constantly look for ways to improve it. Gift cards, lottery tickets, cash, etc. are all nice and appreciated but when all is said and done, you can show you care in any number of creative and inexpensive ways.

What do you look for in a great training manager?

I typically like to promote from within, which gives me a really good understanding of the candidate as we have a history together. One of the best qualities I look for is empathy. To be successful in this business you need determination, perseverance, motivation, and balance. I look for all of these qualities in anyone who’s looking into management positions.

How does technology influence training culture?

The world is changing so fast now all because of technology. Everyone must adapt or be left behind and this is true in the culinary field as well. There have been significant advances in our entire industry from farming, harvesting, food production, packaging, machinery, systems, robotics, etc. Most of the new technology that’s incorporated into the industry was designed to make it more efficient. Operations have also been influenced by new technology and in both cases end-users need to be trained on how to use it. This is a constant and actually goes hand-in-hand. Depending on the technology, companies pay a lot of money to have people come in to train their staff. I actually used to work for a couple of different companies where I was a certified chef responsible for training other chefs or management on how to use and incorporate the latest oven technology (Combi-Oven) into the overall flow of their operation. This was huge about 7 years ago and has only become more necessary as the latest advances in kitchen equipment have continued to evolve.

What advice were you given early on about training that stuck with you?

Some of the best advice I ever received was “The chef cannot do everything him/herself, you can only be as good as your crew.” Train your people well and reap the benefits. Train your people to think like you and ultimately replace you. When you can do that, you know you’re being the best leader possible and doing the best job for your organization.

How has training changed since you joined the industry? How do you think it will continue to evolve?

There is no question that training has evolved over the years, becoming much more specific and targeted in nature. Content has increased to the point where you can find some form of training on just about ANY topic or subject imaginable. Technology has kept pace with the evolution and coming out of the catastrophic effects of the pandemic, the computer and virtual processes are taking front and center stage. It seems like only yesterday that the primary method for training was some form of in-person class or expert visiting your establishment and delivering the lesson/materials. It was a thriving business, where training classes or seminars for continuing education credits were offered all over the country and prospective students paid their money and attended the training.

Going forward, virtual learning has carved out its place now and will be a part of how training continues to evolve. I think a lot of the institutional accreditation will go away and many “experienced experts” who have knowledge gained from working in the particular field for any number of years will take advantage of the virtual boom and develop their own content/training materials/class to sell to the public. This could force the hand of a lot of higher learning institutions which could make them want to search out certain individuals and bring their content under their umbrella, giving those people “adjunct professor” titles. I also think that the content offered will become much more specialized and focused. If you want to learn about a certain aspect of a subject, you’ll be able to go out and find exactly what it is you want to learn without any extra content/material.