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Minneapolis ACF Continues to Fuel the Industry Fire

During a continuing education class at THAT Cooking School in Lilydale, chef Toufik Halimi breaks down a whole lamb alongside ACF chef Gary Hjellming. Hjellming, now the chapter’s president, is launching a professional series this year.

“What Ray Duffy said 50 years ago still rings true today.”

Keith Huffman was referring to the words of the founding president of the Midwest Chef’s Society, which later became the American Culinary Federation Minneapolis Chefs Chapter that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. 

“Our first and foremost aim as an organized group is to upgrade the culinary industry,” wrote Duffy in 1967. “… A secondary aim is to help each other solve the many and complex problems that we are facing each day with rising food cost, plus the acute labor shortage. If this requires a contribution of skilled knowledge, material, or our own personal time, we stand firm in this, and will help each other without question.”

Chef and longtime ACF member Keith Huffman and his helper go to work preparing Salisbury steaks for a Kids Café dinner.

And perhaps the most important goal, wrote Duffy, “would be to establish a training program which will be accepted by our youth, thus aiding ourselves and the whole culinary field.

“We feel the shortage of competent personnel is a direct reflection on the complacency of our predecessors. It is our contention that in order to better the caliber of good restaurants and eating establishments, we as its leaders must take a long-range view of the possible development of our national talents in the culinary arts.”

Huffman, a longtime ACF chef member, and Gary Hjellming, the chapter’s new president, said similar issues are challenging the foodservice industry today and the ACF is working to position itself as a resource both for education and career connections.  

With its more than 160 professional and student members, along with 60 supporting vendors, the chapter has long focused on philanthropic efforts “because we believe in giving back and doing good for people,” explained Hjellming. But in order to also stay relevant, Hjellming knows the group needs to raise its public profile, boost membership and provide opportunities for chefs to learn and advance their skills. 

“There’s two separate culinary communities,” said Hjellming, the pastry chef at Kaskaid Hospitality who’s also held executive chef and chef instructor positions over his 20-plus-year career. “The ACF and what I call the downtown chefs. And we’re always trying to blend the two.”

Hjellming hopes to accomplish that by inviting the chefs from some of the top independent restaurants in town to speak at chapter meetings and take part in an initiative he’s particularly excited to spearhead as president: professional development classes.

Jeremiah Lanes (center) receives his second straight Student Chef of the Year award from the ACF Minneapolis Chefs Chapter.

“For me, that’s the initiative I want to see happen: education,” said Hjellming. “We’ve done classes before but not with any regularity. This year we’re starting a professional series and the plan is to do classes quarterly.”

Chef Auggie Austreng will lead the first one, a pork fabrication class at THAT Cooking School, on April 2. Pastry is the next focus, with plans to bring in Mitsu Nozaki, the corporate pastry chef at Gibsons Restaurant Group in Chicago. 

Hjellming himself has used the ACF as a platform to continue his education and evolve as a chef, and he hopes others will take advantage of having such an accomplished chapter—it was the National Chapter of the Year in 2004 and received the ACF Chapter Achievement Award in 2014—at their fingertips.

“A lot of chefs over the years have taken time to teach me stuff and I’m a knowledge seeker, I soak that stuff up,” said Hjellming. “And I’ve got about 10 years left to work and now it’s about passing that along.”

Competitions, too, help increase the chapter’s visibility, said Huffman, and remind those in the industry and the general public that the ACF is actively involved throughout the Twin Cities. Huffman is already planning for a third annual local foods cooking competition at the St. Paul Farmers Market this fall, where chefs are challenged to prepare four portions of a finished entrée featuring sustainable and local foods, including at least one ingredient found at the market. Chefs can earn medals under the standards set by the national ACF office in Florida for Category KG—Green, Sustainable and Local Food Cooking, and they also engage with market shoppers who stop to ask questions and chat with the competing chefs.

“It’s about getting in front of the public more, letting people know we’re still around, we haven’t gone anywhere,” said Huffman.

Tim McCarty finishes his entrée plates during the ACF’s local food cooking competition at the St. Paul Farmers Market.

“The mission is still the same for the chapter as a whole, and I think the community involvement piece will always be part of our chapter,” continued Huffman, who’s served in a variety of roles since 1993, including competition chairman and coordinator of the chapter’s guest chef volunteers for Kids Café, a nutrition and culinary program at the nonprofit Perspectives in St. Louis Park. “That’s the big thing that sets us apart from a lot of chapters. That’s part of the reason we’ve lasted as long as we have. We have the members and the supporting vendors. They believe in what we’re doing.”

Supporting the next generation of culinary professionals is a focus as well, and the chapter awarded more than $13,000 in scholarships last year. Jeremiah Lanes, a student at Hennepin Tech, has been on the receiving end of that scholarship money and was twice chosen as the chapter’s Student Chef of the Year. Lanes said he’s taken advantage of almost every opportunity he could to network and learn through the ACF, which has “really enhanced my understanding of the education I’ve been getting.” 

“Over the last two years, they have shown me so many different facets of the industry, I’ve been in awe,” said Lanes, who added the depth of experience and knowledge is astounding. “Good or bad, it’s a fantastic source of information and it’s constantly adding fuel to the fire. They have helped me find jobs, continue to push my education, been a resource for encouragement and critique. I do not think I would be as excited about getting an associate’s degree as I am without the ACF. They want students to succeed and help keep the industry flush with passionate, educated workers who will be the future.”

As other culinary schools have closed locally, the ACF needs to play a role in educating students, Hjellming agreed, possibly through apprenticeships. The national ACF office offers an accredited apprenticeship program that can be implemented through a variety establishments, from independent restaurants to larger operations such as a casino or corporate foodservice. 

As he looks ahead in his two-year term as chapter president, Hjellming said perhaps the biggest challenge chefs have is getting out of their
comfort zone.

“Get involved,” he advised. “There’s plenty of us around who will help guide you. Come to a meeting; see what we’re all about. The ACF gives you a platform to get involved.” 

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