Interview with Chef Christopher Graham, Culinary Consultant

August 30, 2001

Chef Christopher Graham has more than 25 years experience in food service management and is owner of Colorado Culinary Solutions, a culinary consulting business which has been in operation since 1995 and has served clients such as Nestlé Canada and Royal Caribbean International. He also recently became a partner with Food Tech, Inc., another consulting firm where he serves as Advisory Chef / Culinary Operations Consultant.

Chef Graham's consulting expertise includes menu engineering and recipe analysis, management information systems, culinary training and team building, and cook / chill advanced production systems. In particular, he is on the leading edge of cook / chill technology and has made presentations at several conferences on the subject.

Prior to taking on culinary consulting on a full-time basis, Chef Graham worked in the academic sector for many years as an instructor and director of food service programs, including stints with the University of Northern Colorado, Ripon College and Moraine Park Technical College.

He received a BS in Hotel and Restaurant Management from the University of Wisconsin, Stout, in 1976 and certificates from the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone, and Hospitality Institute of Technology. Chef Graham is a member of the American Culinary Federation, Culinarians of Colorado and the Research Chefs Association.


Chef Graham & His Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Career / Job Info. & Advice   |   Education Info. & Advice   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks
 

CHEF GRAHAM & HIS CAREER

When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in culinary?

When I was in a senior in college. Hotel & Restaurant administration was the degree program I was enrolled in, but I wanted to always split my interest between operations and culinary.

Tell us how your career in the culinary field has unfolded. Where did it start?

I have been cooking since the age of 16, starting at small hotels and country clubs. Gradually, my role evolved to the sous chef level during my first two years of college. Certification did not exist then, so I never placed a lot of emphasis on it. I chose to change my major in college from Architecture to Hotel & Restaurant Administration and finished my degree at the University of Wisconsin, Stout.

After a short stint with Hyatt Hotels, I chose to pursue an interest in teaching and was hired as a Chef Instructor at the Community College level. I was young and really had to work hard in order to develop professional skills that would compliment those of my European colleagues, who were also faculty, but with 15 years of international experience or more.

How did you first become involved in culinary consulting?

After my first year of teaching, a former colleague asked if I would troubleshoot an operation in Michigan, operated by Brooke Hotels. I did so and ended up hiring a new manager, re-engineering the menus, testing and standardizing recipes - all in the span of two months. I was 23. The following summer, I was asked to do the same for Park Plaza Restaurants in Wisconsin.

After that, I took a one-year sabbatical and worked for Hospitality Unlimited as a consultant chef to troubleshoot their healthcare, business and college accounts. I was offered a position with one, and I stayed with the company for 10 years. During my tenure, I was fortunate to work for the owner's foster father, Chef Louis Szathmary, and I worked in Chicago at his restaurant, The Bakery. I studied in the famed upstairs library, which has since been donated to Johnson & Wales University and consists of 400,000 artifacts and books. It is currently known as the Culinary Archives and Museum at J&W.

What brought you to found Colorado Culinary Solutions? Exactly what does the company do?

Well, I recently merged my company with Food Technologies, Inc. Owner Susan Smith, M.S., R.D. is the person who encouraged me to remain in Colorado to pursue consulting on a full-time basis five years ago. I was on contract for Nestlé Canada at the time, traveling out of Boulder, and I chose to remain here and start my own firm. In an effort to provide a balance of culinary operations and food science expertise to a diverse client base, Colorado Culinary Solutions has in effect become part of Food Tech, Inc.

Since you've merged with Food Technologies, does Colorado Culinary still exist? Do you have a new title or position with Food Tech?

I am an active partner with Food Tech, Inc. with the title of Advisory Chef / Culinary Operations Consultant. Colorado Culinary Solutions does exist, but only as a sub-contractor to Food Tech and / projects that exclude HACCP, recipe R&D and business that Food Tech goes after exclusively with major design groups who require our services.

You've also worked extensively within the university system in culinary instruction, catering, and food service management. How has this experience furthered your career in culinary consulting?

I was able to use my summers to pursue consulting to enhance my background and credentials. Being able to target problems in various operations and resolve them by teaching and cooperating with others has been influential in my ability to excel. My teaching role goes hand in hand with that of the Research Chef, which has positioned me as a candidate for top executive positions with companies such as Mangia! Mangia! in Santa Fe, NM and Royal Caribbean International. However, my desire to remain in Colorado has motivated me to remain in the profession I am in. There are very few top executive positions here.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

My greatest success is probably the cook-chill manual that I authored for Cleveland Range, Inc. and the subsequent presentations, training seminars and kitchen startups that followed in various parts of the world. My next presentation is scheduled for this fall at the North American Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM) show in Orlando, Florida, one of the largest equipment shows in the United States. In addition, I am involved closely with Dr. Vala Jean Stults, coordinator of the Center for Innovative Foodservice Technology project at California State University, Long Beach.

Setbacks have been many as well. Building a consistent client base is always difficult when working on your own. That's why I chose to merge with Susan Smith and be part of Food Tech, Inc.

Is there more still that you want to accomplish in your career?

I want to be involved starting in a major start-up company, most likely Home Meal Replacement. No one has taken HMR to a retail quality of, let's say, a Whole Foods Market and marketed a healthy, chef-driven, packaged meal components for a competitive price. Part of my dream is also to remain here in Colorado, but if necessary, I will move to achieve this last milestone. Then, I will go back to consulting until the next life.

 

THE ACTUAL WORK

What exactly do culinary consultants do?

The work varies from "cook for hire" to working for the Food Network (example: "Naked Chef"). There, an up and coming breed of Research Chefs who either develop and signature their own product lines, develop products for others or a combination of both. Ron Pickarski, Chef / owner of Eco-Cuisine in Boulder is one such individual. Eric Caree and Michel Laurent are both considered tops in our business as well.

As president of Colorado Culinary Solutions, please describe a typical day at work for you.

Reading up on the latest trends. Fielding calls or emails from clients. Computer-based cost analysis, recipe review and specifications. Writing Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans, etc. are also common. These are food safety management systems and part of Serve Safe training, also required by United States Department of Agriculture as of Jan. 2001 for food processors, preparing items for sale (hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.).

Do you still spend much in the kitchen?

Depends on the project. Many times it is working with management with strategic planning or writing process / procedure manuals.

What are some of the challenges of being a culinary consultant?

The number one challenge of my business is to keep working and still have time market myself. The other challenge seems to be my credentials. Exposure to many segments of culinary in all parts of the world, combined with specialization in cook-chill advanced production systems, has its draw backs.

The first is that companies are hesitant to consider me as a candidate for a position because of my independence and the perception that I am too high-priced for their needs. The second is that my knowledge of thermal pasteurization scares many chefs and operations from "the old guard." It's the wave of the future, no doubt, but our industry is slow to change. I do believe it is coming around, and you will continue to see growth of proprietary prepared foods for hotels, restaurants, and noncommercial food service. Right now, we have four resorts in Las Vegas with fully operational cook chill plants in-house. The future has arrived.

Your response leads me to believe that there's a connection between "thermal pasteurization" and "cook-chill". Is there? Can you tell us a little more about this issue and its importance in the industry?

Cook-chill seems to associate with a certain degree of negativity related to school systems, hospitals and prisons. Reason: no culinary support, sub-standard ingredients and poor support from the equipment manufacturers, resulting in a very poor quality reference. Many operators, with or without chefs, struggle to understand the technology and the need for better ingredients.

Thermal pasteurization can refer to products cooked with or without oxygen, prepackaged or otherwise, usually prepared in advance and chilled to safe temperatures to gain a certain shelf life.

Part of my role is to provide services that counteract this precedent and bring quality and expertise to the table. The rest boils down to whether the operator can afford, or even has a desire, to improve after the initial investment in equipment and facility.

Chefs can distinguish themselves through certifications, like Master Chef. What kinds of credentials are important for culinary consultants to pursue?

None other than membership in the Foodservice Consultants Society International, but that is mostly for design, not culinary. Being a Master Chef obviously doesn't hurt, but the title doesn't distinguish one's ability to concentrate on operations, food safety and technology.

 

CAREER / JOB INFORMATION & ADVICE

What are the best ways for graduating culinary students to find a job in culinary consulting?

  • Experience with numerous large companies.
  • Belong to Research Chefs Association and Food Technology organizations.
  • Network like crazy.
  • Have ready cash reserves to carry large amounts of travel expenses and receivables of up to $10,000, maybe more.

How much are culinary consultants generally paid? How about those at the top of the profession?

Depends who is being considered. On the low end, with a contract company, they offer $300 per day average. For that rate, you are better off working for someone else. Average rates are $100 per hour or $800 per day, keeping in mind that one doesn't get paid for prep days, personal research, marketing, office overhead, benefits, etc. Top pay is $2,000 per day.

Is it important to spend time working in the culinary field, as a chef or manager, to be successful as a culinary consultant? If so, why and how much time would you say is necessary?

Ten years, minimum, in numerous industry segments. That way, the professional can correlate similarities between different segments. Example: Cruise line food service resembles what we are now seeing in Las Vegas.

What are the most important qualities that make a successful culinary consultant?

  • Great communication skills
  • Knowledge of the latest culinary trends and challenges
  • Basic knowledge of food science
  • Computer software knowledge for analysis and presentation
  • Willingness to do public speaking
  • Willingness to risk it all, for sure.

How is the job market right now for culinary consultants? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?

There's not really a high demand right now; contract work is the wave of the future. Otherwise, the need for individuals on my level will be part of upper administrative levels as the "old guard" in large companies weed themselves out due to demand for new technology, streamlining because of labor issues and focus more advanced culinary expertise brings itself to the forefront.

In the next 10 years, I believe that more companies will hire corporate chefs, either on a consultant basis or full-time. Those that cannot afford latter will go the consulting route. The need for culinary consultants will increase steadily as labor resources deplete and demand increases for more effective solutions that require food quality.

 

EDUCATION INFORMATION & ADVICE

Tell us about your culinary education. What did you like and dislike about it?

I came up through the back door, as they say. First, I went to get experience, then hotel school, then teaching in a culinary school. I had curriculum development experience, so this offset my young age at the time. I would not recommend this path.

For those who already know that they want to break into culinary consulting, should they go to culinary school and why?

Yes. First, go to a well-known culinary school, then get a four-year degree. Soon, both Johnson & Wales University and the Culinary Institute of America will have advanced Internet databases developed by some of the people mentioned earlier. Also, attend advanced culinary workshops for cook-chill, sous vide, etc., which are not currently being offered at major schools in the USA.

Do you know of any schools that offer coursework, certificates, or a degree of some kind in culinary consulting? If not, what's the best educational path to pursue?

No, because the areas are wide open. Experience and reputation are the key.

Would it also be important also to pursue a degree in business, for example, an MBA?

Yes. Exposure to a diverse education is best. My mentor, the former Chef Louis Szathmary, had a Ph. D. in Psychology and was a noted author with several well-known journals and newspapers.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the five most respected and prestigious culinary schools in the world that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools?

Is there a major difference in the industry between graduating from a prestigious culinary school and graduating from a college with a culinary program?

Yes. Colleges generally have less hands-on, which makes all the difference.

 

INDUSTRY TRENDS

What are some trends that you see in the field of culinary arts that might help prospective students?

Trend towards advanced cooking systems, pasteurization and higher quality ingredients components. "The less prep labor, the better".

What do you think of consumer trends toward organic produce and away from genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)? Do you think that these trends will continue?

You will see a parallel trend in both areas. The food technologists of the world will continue to modify flavors to lower costs. But consumers will demand integrity of ingredients on all level, which will be chef driven for sure.

Have you seen a general trend toward plant-based diet, or is meat as popular as ever and growing stronger?

Again, the trend will lead toward more vegetables, meat alternatives and combination of meat and plant-based foods in the same product, once the general public catches on to the health benefits of soy and the amount of calories in a single portion of beef or pork. Look for breakthroughs in prepared fish for the home as well, once FDA develops a safe standard for retail.

How has advancing technology and the Internet affected the culinary profession?

More culinary resources are available on the Internet than ever before. It's an awareness that just now is becoming more apparent. Schools will be a part of this as well, but up to now the movement has been slow. Faculty resistance is part of the problem, but this changing as well.

 

CLOSING REMARKS

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed as a chef?

Learn the "help yourself" model:

  • H is for humor
  • E is for esteem
  • L is for listening
  • P is for passion 
If you have any questions for Mr. Graham related to culinary consulting and/or this interview, please contact him directly at ChrisGrah@aol.com.

Top of Page

Related Articles