Quality Conversations: American Culinary Federation

A conversation with Lori Weber of the American Culinary Federation is warmer than a preheated oven and more cheerful than a plate of macaroons—in other words, a real treat. As the ACF’s director of education and programs, Lori plays a key role in promoting the professional image of American chefs worldwide through culinary education at all levels. After meeting her at the ASPA conference last month and having an animated chat aboutaa accreditation, we knew we needed to schedule a follow-up conversation to capture more of her perspective on the industry, from current challenges to future opportunities. We’re proud to present this Quality Conversation to the  accreditation community. Let’s dig in.

American Culinary Federation Education Foundation Logo

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Lori. To start things off, can we talk about ACF’s mission?

Sure! The American Culinary Federation is committed to establishing a standard of excellence for chefs. For the ACF Education Foundation (ACFEF), which is the educational and philanthropic arm of the Federation, our goal is to prepare our students—who are the next generation of chefs—for the ever-changing working environment. And that involves a variety of different steps, because it’s inclusive of our employers and industry operators: what are they looking for in someone that they want to hire from a baking, pastry, or even savory perspective? I feel it’s our moral obligation to seek input from our industry partners, mull it over, and translate it into educational materials and learning opportunities for our students.

So a big part of your job involves keeping your finger on the pulse of what the industry wants and making sure your educational materials reflect current needs.

Exactly. This way we can feel confident that our students will hit the ground running in an environment in which they are accustomed to operating. If we can tie all of those pieces together and consistently reevaluate and adjust our approach based on the changes that happen in the culinary industry, that’s how we can stay ahead of the curve and keep on top of trends.

Excellent. What are some of the challenges that the accreditation community is facing today?

This sounds simple, but one of our biggest challenges is just informing and educating the public about accreditation. What is accreditation, and why does it matter? How does accreditation add value to the public, to the students, and to the programs and institutions that are accredited? I think it would behoove those of us in the higher education community to come together and establish a campaign that educates the public, and even our own programs and institutions, and students, about why this is an important component of the educational process.

It’s interesting that you put your own programs and institutions in the mix.

I do, because there are a lot of misconceptions out there. For example, many of our programs get extremely anxious when it comes time for their accreditation or reaccreditation visits. And what we try to communicate to them is that we are not here in a “gotcha” capacity. We’re not sending our evaluators in with white gloves looking for every opportunity to throw you under the bus. Rather, we are here to help educate you and work as a partner to create a level of trust between our two entities. We want our programs to realize that we are here to make sure that they are equipped, educated, and supported in such a way that in the end, our students are getting the best possible education they can get, and they are appropriately being readied for the workforce and a career pathway. This is a long, dynamic partnership that we’re trying to create and evolve over time, and if we can accomplish that, we will make huge strides in being able to, in a different way, communicate the value of accreditation.

That’s a great answer. I feel like you have such a daunting job because of how quickly and dramatically technology has changed the educational landscape. How do you keep pace with tech developments?

I strongly believe that you have to be an ongoing learner, because knowledge is the one thing—my grandfather always taught us this—that no one can take away from you. Even the best CEOs in all of the books I read are examples of that. They never settle for where things are, they’re constantly seeking out information and identifying new opportunities and pathways for learning. I think that is incredibly important, to never rest on your laurels. It can be very challenging in the culinary industry, though.

How so?

Our chefs and members have come up through a variety of different ranks. We hear stories of chefs who would yell at people in the kitchen and throw pots and pans, and so to be able to transcend that environment and move it into the next century can be a challenge. Also, chefs tend to be very visual people, so we take the time to supply our programs with a lot of visual information in tandem with the written documentation. One of the other things we’re planning to roll out this year is a series of fireside chats: we want to give our emerging professionals an opportunity to learn from some of our more senior or retired chefs, and this fireside chat initiative is a great way to enhance the student learning experience.

That’s really lovely. So you’re creating a sort of knowledge transfer from one generation to the next.

Right. So often people serve their time in a volunteer capacity, give it all they’ve got, and then they’re sort of set out to pasture. That is a travesty on so many levels because chefs, by nature, are mentors. To be able to provide a forum for different entities to come together and understand each other can only benefit the industry, I firmly believe that, and I know it would benefit our programs. So that’s one of the things we’re looking to implement this year and going into 2019.

That’s fantastic. I love this idea of looking back and looking ahead at the same time, to make sure you’re capturing that hard-won wisdom and sharing it with the new generation in ways that are really meaningful.

I think too this day and age—this is just a personal view—people don’t feel as valued as they have in years and generations past. We need to value people and help them understand what a significant impact they can make, not only on the industry, but on society as a whole, when they share their passions with the community.

I know accreditation from the perspective of our accreditation management software, but I’m curious to learn from you, given the size and scale of your organization, how do you manage your workflows and stay on top of everything? Do you have advice for other accreditors?

Well, as you know, a lot of accreditation is process. There’s no way around that. And the challenge there is that organizations and departments like ours can get very caught up in the minutiae when it comes to process because there’s always process improvement. Talking about bylaws, talking about knowledge and competencies, talking about policies and procedures, operations, and all of those components that facilitate our ability to acquire the information we need to capture data and analyze quality, etc.—it’s certainly all important. But beyond that, it gets back to what I mentioned earlier, which is providing that community of partnership that is, above everything, the most important element of the job that we do. It’s about building those relationships and again, it comes back to that trust level to know that you can rely on us to support you, to provide information, to seek out whatever you might need to help that individual program be the best it can be. Sometimes, in our case, that means touching base with a program that might be flourishing and asking that program coordinator, or supervising chef, or even the students, to lend a hand to this other program that’s in the nearby vicinity and work with them, mentor them, share best practices. We can facilitate those relationships and make some of those connections for our programs as well.

I have to say, it all sounds so positive and helpful. This is one of the aspects of accreditation that I’d like to share with the world—your whole job is to lift up the field you support.

Precisely, and that positivity starts within the walls of ACF.  Personally, I’ve tried to create a culture of helping one another and being there for each other and delving a little deeper into what the definition of teamwork really is. One of the things that I like to do is engage our committees and commission in the strategic planning process. When you’re planning strategically, you have to include the people who will be actually doing the work.

That makes a lot of sense. What trends do you see in accreditation?

For education, there is clearly a trend toward speed-to-market with respect to graduation. I’m on the fence about that personally, and it’s something that we’re analyzing from all angles right now. Speed-to-market has been touted as a way to reduce student debt, but we have to make sure that what’s best for the student overall doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. If we’re pushing somebody out at such a speed that they’re not able to transition into the workforce successfully, it’s going to cause huge problems down the pike.  It’s not always about speed, because some of this takes time: you have to learn knife skills, and you have to understand safety and sanitation if you’re working in the food industry.

Yes, please! As a frequent restaurant-goer, I support that.

Absolutely. No one wants to go to a restaurant and be served food that’s been cross-contaminated or worse, so we have an obligation and a job to do, not only to the student but to the public. I think this whole speed-to-market idea runs the risk of diminishing the importance of an education by putting money at the core of everything. But I do understand the need for us to come together as a culinary community to find ways to reduce the cost of tuition without negatively impacting the students’ learning in any way, shape, or form. Again, it’s about getting people together to share their ideas and perspectives—that’s how we move forward.

That’s great. Is there anything else you haven’t had the opportunity to share that you think would benefit the story?

I’d say that right now is an exciting time to be in the accreditation field. We, as accreditors, have the opportunity to be real forgers and take on the things that we feel are in the best interest of our core client—the student. If we can get information out, and create a campaign around the importance of what we do, the importance of modernization without compromising quality, we can really move the needle. Everybody has a role to play in that, and it’s not for us to be judgmental or predetermine who has valuable things to say and who doesn’t. I think we should be much more open-minded to embracing opinions, attitudes, etc. without blowing a gasket, and we should be able to negotiate with the betterment of the student in mind. We have the capacity to do that, it behooves us to do that, and it’s something that needs to be done! Creating a marketing campaign around who we are and what we do is one of the very top priorities for our accreditation commission, and I would love to be able to see that resonate at much higher levels so that collectively we can have an impact on our students and on the public.

That’s a perfect way to bring our conversation full circle. One final question: do you have a favorite recipe, or food story, that you’d like to share for fun?

My cooking story would be more of an embarrassment than anything else: I used to be really proud of making boxed macaroni and cheese and adding tuna to it, and calling it a casserole! But when I go on accreditation site visits, it is just phenomenal to me how the students put me to shame with the gorgeous dishes they prepare. I’ll ask them to show me how they create these dishes, and they’re so excited to share, and I just feel embraced by their enthusiasm and passion. I get all emotional, I can’t help it. I look at these cakes and pastries, and I feel like a mom to all these people, and I’m like, “I am so proud of you guys!” It’s the best feeling, and it encourages me, frankly, to try different things, so I am branching out a little bit. Like I might add a little more now to my mac and cheese casserole, but I learn from these folks at every single level, and they’re so encouraging, they’re like “You can do it!” and I’m like “Yeah I can do it!” and it may not ever look like theirs, but they’ve inspired me, and I think that’s what it’s all about.

Beautiful. Thank you, Lori—it’s been a real treat.

Thank you.

To learn more about the American Culinary Federation, visit their website, connect with them on LinkedIn, and follow them on Twitter. To find out more about ARMATURE’s accreditation management software—a holistic out-of-the-box product that you can configure to meet your specific needs—contact us. We’d love to learn about your accreditation challenges and share how our customers are using our accreditation management software to manage their end-to-end accreditation processes.