062 – Todd Grieger, Culinard
Teaching Work. Defining Success. What does success mean in today’s culinary world? How do you define it for yourself against industry expectations? Meet Chef Todd Grieger of Culinard, The Culinary Institute of Virginia College in Richmond, someone who knows the Charlottesville food scene quite well. Especially since he’s worked in most of our restaurants over the past 20 years including Downtown Grille, Blue Light, Maya, C&O, Mas, Glass Haus, and Red Pump Kitchen. When Jeff Dion of Discover the East told me he knew Todd I immediately asked for his contact info. I’d loved his food at Red Pump and missed him when he fell off my radar.
It was while at Red Pump that Todd came to some realizations. Namely, when you work your whole life to get to this point and it just doesn’t work out, what then? Feeling a bit burned out, he took a teaching position at Culinard. In addition, cooks a few nights at Oakhart Social and chips in to help wife Jaclyn at BBQ Exchange Events & Catering. All the while deciding next steps. Taking time out to reflect and reassess what exactly it means to be a successful chef beyond what the television shows tell you it should be.
How is teaching different from working the line? What skills do you have to call on? What special challenges and triumphs are involved and how difficult is it to change hats? How do you teach a student and motivate a line cook who isn’t being paid? Many of his students come to class embarking on a second career. How can he tell which students will succeed? The best way is WORK ETHIC. Show up on time. Wash dishes if you see they’re dirty. Work clean. Label things. The basics. Talent helps, but you won’t succeed without the basics. You have to keep the long view when you start out and be willing to do all the jobs, even the unattractive ones.
“I took the job at the school because I wanted to positively affect people coming forward in their careers….by being taught things I felt I didn’t do well early in my career…things I had to drill into myself to become quote, unquote, professional.”
How does he teach his students about flavors and stretching an ingredient to its limits, increasing the skills of their palate while at the same time teaching them about keeping to a kitchen’s bottom line? It’s important for chefs starting out to know it won’t be like television. You will work hard, every day, often within someone else’s parameters. Like Todd says, “You have to learn to crawl before you can walk.” How do you please your boss, your customer, and yourself each day every day? Not always easy, but when it happens it’s golden. Not all graduates will end up owning restaurants, but there are many paths to success including cooking in hospitals, schools, or for corporations like Aramark. That’s the reality folks.
How has the food scene changed? We go down this rabbit hole, discussing all the factors including customer expectations and how you combine them with your personal vision for your restaurant. Charlottesville chefs are putting out some world class food, but many customers just don’t get it. How do you reconcile these disparate facts ensuring your restaurant stays successful? The entire culture of the kitchen has changed as well and culinary schools are a big reason. Why is that?
Todd’s current obsession? Pizza! He cooked great ones during his tenure at Red Pump. Could his own place be in the future? Eons ago he started at The Brick Oven in Charlottesville. Maybe he’ll come full circle and pour his immense talents into wood-fired dough? Lord, let’s hope so. Wherever he ends up I’m grateful for this fascinating conversation with a deep-thinking chef whose attention to detail presents itself in his food. I would put him on our Mount Rushmore of chefs without a second thought. It’s why I was so excited to hear he was still around, still working the line in his own way. Which to me is the greatest success there is.
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Scotty Nichols Cancer Fund – My best friend has cancer. Can you help? No amount is too small. Thank you.
- James Beard Award 2017 Semifinalists – Ian Boden, Diane Flynt, and Vivian Howard all made the cut. And all three have been on this very podcast! Congratulations guys!
- Soup There It Is – A benefit for WTJU, our radio station celebrating 60 years! I’ll be a judge. There will be vinyl.
- For Grace – What does it take to earn three Michelin stars? Blood, sweat, and many many tears. Terrific documentary.
- Chew the Fat – Back in 2011, Todd and I were on Chef Craig Hartman’s podcast, Chew the Fat. Back when podcasting was just a glimmer of an idea for me. Talking with Chef Grieger in 2017 felt like life coming full circle.
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