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Institutional Dining: Three Cooks Discuss the Pros

“At the essence of every chef, there is a cook,” says Jay Paul Johnson, founder of Cooks of Hope and chef at Taher’s State Capitol building cafeteria. Johnson found his way into institutional dining after a career in hotels and resorts when the recession hit. But an urge for a healthier-than-restaurants-could-provide working environment became the crux of his career shift. 

As a chef in recovery, Johnson finds corporate dining an excellent fit for maintaining a healthy lifestyle—a lifestyle he’s so passionate about that he’s founded an organization that offers culinary training to other cooks in recovery. He emphasizes cooking, rather than “cheffing,” because it brings humility back to the endeavor. 

“One of my worst fears was working in a cafeteria,” he says, as one who counted himself among the many career culinarians who may have had an initial suspicion that corporate or institutional dining was beneath them. But now, he’s a veritable evangelist for the life, and days that start with some structured light exercise, as well as discounts for the gym—rather than late night shutting down the bar—are just a couple of the reasons why. 

And, he adds, since he’s cooking for a guest’s everyday eating needs, rather than the rich indulgence of restaurant dining, the clean working environment extends into his creations, too. 

Emily Paul who is currently the development director of The Good Acre, went to culinary school with the idea of using her skills to see how institutions can successfully feed people.

Emily Paul is currently the development director of The Good Acre, a St. Paul nonprofit that connects farmers to food makers. But before that, she worked in a Washington, D.C. soup kitchen that provided more than 90,000 meals annually to people who were food insecure. She went to culinary school not with an aspiration to work in, or to own a restaurant, but to explore “how food feeds people.” And, she says, institutional dining is an ideal place to do it. 

“It’s not the cutthroat ‘clean up your station at 2 a.m.’ environment,” she says. But she did watch as volunteers showed up at 6 a.m. before heading to their own corporate jobs, and from this she says, “There was value in giving back and knowing that this could be the only meal someone was getting that day.” 

The question of quality, creativity and integrity invariably creeps into the conversation when corporate or institutional settings come to mind. Will a cook really be able to cook? Can a chef chef? 

Johnson says the best chefs he’s ever worked with include his time at Eurest Compass Group and Taher, both in terms of skill as well as versatility. In corporate dining, a chef can exercise all of his culinary muscles, rather than being tethered to a brigade system, and a path to management can be hastened with that versatility. He says Taher’s menus are always innovative and on trend, with farm to table as an emphasis. 

“‘Make it nice’ is as important for someone who pays 40 dollars or 40 cents,” adds Paul, and having integrity and respect for making something beautiful should not—and for her soup kitchen did not—halt at the restaurant threshold. 

But not all career trajectories into institutional settings are easy, and Linh Ho, who recently left a 15-year restaurant career to work as a “lunch lady” in the Minneapolis Public School system, says that despite inspiring parts of the work, she initially saw it as a sacrifice. 

She’s envious when she sees peers getting accolades and James Beard nominations, and does sometimes feel that her ambitions have been compromised with the decision she made as a means to spend more time with her family. That said, she was surprised at how many familiar faces she was seeing—other restaurant chefs like herself who are finding the school system a satisfying place to work thanks to real kitchens in most Minneapolis schools, as well as making a real impact on how kids eat. 

Ho says she’s surprised herself with plans to keep the job for a lot longer than the transitional gig she thought it would be, in spite of challenges like adjusting to the 8 a.m. start time, and not being able to flavor food liberally with salt and butter thanks to strict dietary guidelines. 

Linh Ho recently left a 15-year restaurant career to work as a “lunch lady” in the Minneapolis Public School system.

“I tell kids they can bring their own salt if they want to—I just can’t give it to them!” she says.

And, there are some surprising similarities that scratch the itch of line cooking. 

“I felt like I was closing the door on what I love and who I was, I worked hard for so many years to prove myself and I felt like I was throwing it out the window. I didn’t think cooking in this environment would satisfy the things I love about restaurants, but I was wrong. I still have the rush. I have three lunch periods, so three turns. I fire the food for each period, and serve the kids.  I have a general idea of how much food to make, but there still are times I have to make stuff on the fly if I’m about to run out. There are students with dietary needs that I get to make special things for. I am the only cook (with some help) and feed about 220 kids a day. I think that’s pretty damn cool.” 

With summers off, she’s considering a food truck, or throwing in on the line at high-caliber restaurants during the busy summer hiring season. 

An unexpected challenge has been adjusting to the “normal” work schedule, like having weekends and holidays off. 

“In dragging my kid around, I definitely don’t want to go to the Minnesota Zoo—or Costco—on a Sunday!” she says.

The restaurant lifestyle that can settle into your bones after a full career of doing it can be difficult to shake off, after all. 

“But my social life is great again, and I have friends again,” she says. 

The urge to exist as both a successful food career person, as well as a devoted family person at the same time can be a no-man’s land for many. While Ho says she could balance both family and a restaurant life, she currently chooses not to. 

“It’s not worth it,” she says. 

While she sometimes longs for the restaurant life, the most rewarding job she’s ever had was cooking for two households of developmentally disabled adults, in an institutional setting as well. “Cooking is always a passion thing,” she says. 

Teasing it out of any kitchen at all may be the genuine key to success. 

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