This professor of the culinary arts prepares future chefs for the real world by emphasizing teamwork—and the in-class community—over individual egos.
Department Chair of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management, York County Community College
MBA in Hospitality Management, AS in Patisserie and Baking, BA in Culinary Management
Watch enough reality-style cooking shows on television, and you quickly get the impression that those who work in the restaurant world do nothing but yell, bang pots, and boss each other around.
The truth is, while those outsized egos may make for interesting viewing, they do not make for an efficient kitchen, according to Krista Marvel, MBA, pastry chef instructor (and department chair) at York County Community College (YCCC) in Wells, Maine. They also do not support the spirit of mutual respect and effort that YCCC intends to foster.
“We’re about more than creating skilled workers or giving you a degree or certification,” says Marvel. “We really want to be about a sense of creating a community—with us, with the classroom, with the community at large. That’s fundamentally putting ‘community’ in ‘community college.’”
After spending more than 15 years in the culinary and hospitality industry, Marvel knew that the cliché of the boisterous, bossy chef was something she needed to address when she started teaching. Like a perfectly prepared yeast dough, she has risen to the occasion.
Challenge: Misconceptions about the kitchen dynamics
Modern-day cooking competitions on the Food Network, Netflix, and other TV outlets often fuel people’s perception that the culinary world might be only one step away from military life, with autocratic bosses constantly barking orders.
While Marvel feels that portrayal does professional chefs a disservice, she says that these shows do get one thing right: They highlight the need for soldier-like precision and accountability that she says began in French kitchens run by ex-military personnel.
“We commonly refer to introductory culinary class as ‘boot camp,’” says Marvel. “I do expect respect, and if I say, across the room, ‘Drop it!’ then you drop it. It’s a safety thing. I need to make sure that you follow directions without stopping and going, ‘Why?’”
Hot surfaces, sharp tools, and close quarters can combine to create tense moments in professional kitchens, and those moments demand a clear hierarchy and structure to keep teams functioning like a well-oiled machine—not as a group of ego-driven individuals trying to carve out a fiefdom over the prep table, pastry board, or grill.
This was the balance that Marvel knew she needed to achieve: creating a sense of mutual respect and cooperation within an autocracy. “It’s two sides of the same coin,” says Marvel. “You have to have them both in order to be successful in this industry.”
Innovation: Tempering autocracy with community
Marvel begins developing a theme of community and collaboration as soon as students decide to take part in her culinary courses. This begins with her showing each of them how much they matter—as individuals.
“We’re a small department, so we really get to do a lot of one-on-one with the students,” says Marvel. “So when advising time comes around, I will meet with each and every student and say, ‘Here’s your schedule; how is your childcare situation, how is your work situation?’”
Marvel notes that the diversity inherent in the community college population can also be used to everyone’s advantage. “As they share and bring their different dreams and goals into the equation, it definitely makes the community far richer than if we were just a class of students straight out of high school, or just retrainees looking for a second career, or just retirees, or what have you.” So along with highlighting the importance of the individual in the success of the kitchen, she builds her course so that students develop a greater awareness of the larger community—and their place in it.
“Maybe the best way I can describe it is kind of like a competitive team sport,” says Marvel. “Everybody has got to be a strong player individually, but you also need to be strong together, as a group, and that’s where the real power is.”
“When there’s an issue, we’re all in it together,” she says. “When there are dishes to be done, it’s not, ‘It’s not my mess, it’s your mess.’ There’s no such thing. It’s our mess. We all come in together, and we all leave together as a group.”
“We are training people to become skilled employees in [the culinary] industry who can eventually take on leadership roles. That being said, it is [also] our goal to really help people find their place within the larger community and become a contributing member [of it].”— Krista Marvel, MBA
Course: CUL 241 European Pastry
Frequency: Three hours and 35 minutes, twice a week
Class size: 14
Course description: This class will focus on the advanced art of European pastry. Students will examine the production of cakes, tortes, pastries, and individual desserts, using classic pastry techniques developed in European countries including France, Vienna, and Italy. There will be an exploration of classic desserts with a strong focus on plating, garnishing, and presentation, as well as the opportunity to use the techniques and preparations to develop unique pastries and specialty desserts.
See resources shared by Krista Marvel, MBASee materials
Lesson: Are you a culinary team player?
To create an interdependent, mutually supportive, and dynamic kitchen community in her European pastry class, Marvel follows a specific rubric throughout the semester that primarily focuses on how well her students participate and support one another. While some of these may seem unique to a kitchen setting, Marvel notes that many can be adapted easily to any discipline—say, nursing, management, science, and so on—that requires a strong attention to personal presentation, accuracy, and discipline.
Here are the key questions she uses to evaluate students, along with her reasoning for each.
Was the student prepared and participating?
Marvel evaluates students on this basic aspect of coursework, which applies to the lectures that lead off classes and the demonstration (and then imitation) of cooking techniques in the “lab.”
“Preparation, to me, means: Do they have their knife kit? Do they have all they need in order to complete the task?” says Marvel. “Are they uniformed? Are they clean, tidy, and ready? Are they mentally prepared: Do they have everything ready to go, with their paper out, their pens out, and ready to take notes, and ready to do a demo?”
Student preparation keeps the class running efficiently, says Marvel, so that every person has the chance to participate and learn the proper techniques without having to wait for one or two unprepared students to catch up.
Is the work clean and orderly?
Once the instructor demonstrations and the student imitations kick off—a sort of “monkey see, monkey do” process, says Marvel—she makes sure that her students use proper technique and that they observe basic safety rules and routines.
“I’ll make sure that their tables are clean, that their hair is up under their hats, and that they’re safe,” says Marvel. “Nothing will make me go from ‘sweet and calm and focused on social skills’ to ‘screaming chef’ faster than someone leaving a knife in the wash water.”
Though that might sound harsh, Marvel insists that such precision feeds her students’ sense of mutual responsibility—and that they need to be thinking about everyone in the kitchen, not just themselves. So, for instance, they are wise to remind each other to stick to the rules, which can not only prevent a student from nicking their finger with a submerged knife but can also help them avoid seeing Marvel’s reality-TV persona.
“We look for all those things not only to make sure they are working in a clean and orderly fashion but that they’re not putting anybody else at risk,” says Marvel. “Many times, when students come to us, they aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking about how they work in a clean space and how they keep things orderly, but they aren’t thinking about the kitchen as a whole.”
Is the student professional when relating to others?
Here, Marvel focuses on each student’s ability to give and take, as well as to express consideration for others.
She tells them, “You will work with other people for long days—sometimes 12 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week, in a hot kitchen when you’re tired and cranky and things are being pumped out fast. So having [interpersonal] skills is vital. You can’t be going head-to-head with everybody all the time. You have to learn to work together.”
For this part of the assessment, Marvel says, she asks herself, “Would the actions and words of this student today be conducive to a smoothly running business? Can the student effectively get their job done without angering or alienating others? Do their actions also allow others to complete their own tasks?”
For example, when grading for professionalism, Marvel expects students to share the existing supplies and adjust their production schedules until new shipments arrive, if necessary—“as they would in a working kitchen,” she adds. “I once had a student hide six pounds of butter in his backpack so that he would have enough to complete his daily tasks, but he left nothing for the rest of the class. Needless to say, he received a 0 in professionalism for that day.”
Can the student provide and receive feedback appropriately?
Marvel notes that in the rough-and-tumble restaurant world, customers’ taste buds are all that stand between a well-oiled kitchen and a positive—or scathing—review in print or online.
“You are in school,” Marvel says of the message she imparts to her budding chefs. “We are teaching you hard skills as well as soft skills, and [all of] those are the skills that are going to enable [you] to get and keep a job and move up in this industry.”
She says that evaluating students’ platings (how attractively they present their dishes) provides an opportunity to shape each student’s attitude toward receiving a critique. It is also a chance for students to learn to critique each other’s work in a collegial and diplomatic way.
“Some of the professionalism that comes in is how you give criticism—or even praise—in a constructive manner when you’re in front of everyone else,” she says. “Peer review is one thing when it’s writing on a piece of paper, but it’s something else when it’s verbal in front of the entire class.”
For example, she insists they provide specifics, rather than simply giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
“I grade students on the quality of feedback they provide to others by asking, ‘Can the feedback be used by their classmate?’” Marvel says. “If they merely express an observation or personal preference, their classmate can only do so much with that (example, ‘I thought your pate au choux was too flat’). But if they can provide detailed feedback (such as, ‘I noticed that the pate au choux had trouble rising. I think maybe you didn’t cook the dough long enough.’), they are offering a potential solution/explanation and also showing me that they are learning to think critically and find solutions to common problems.”
Sometimes Marvel has found it helpful to walk students through the critiquing process step-by-step. “Last semester, a student sampled a piece of their classmates’ Dobos torte during the presentation portion of our class and said that they didn’t like it. I responded with, ‘Can you be more specific? What do you dislike about it?’ The student answered that they disliked the texture but didn’t know what it was that was causing their negative reaction. So, as a class, we took apart the cake and all sampled individual components, attempting to isolate the offending item. I was able to use the time to further explain to students what constitutes a correctly made Dobos torte—filling and topping and common mistakes they should be looking for. We finally concluded as a class that the cake and all components were properly made, and that the one student disliked the crunchy sugar topping, which is a matter of personal preference. Through that, the students learned to better analyze individual components of the pastry and then found better ways to articulate their feedback.”
How a student receives feedback also contributes to their grade. “Occasionally I will see a student become angry or defensive when they receive any feedback, and they have to be reminded that the culinary field is a service industry. If they want to become a chef, they need to be able to put aside personal feelings and ego and evaluate the feedback honestly…. If they don’t use the feedback, they should be able to explain to me why they chose not to act on it.”
“Sometimes I find that part of the class is more valuable for the students,” Marvel adds. “Many times, learning to analyze and constructively critique their project and the projects of their classmates’ is more important to me as an instructor than having them produce a product correctly, but without understanding how they did so…. Interestingly, I find that once a student learns how to provide better and more detailed feedback to their classmates, their own technical baking skills improve.”
Marvel acknowledges that she loves to brag about her students, and she shares success stories about several who have taken the community theme to heart.
“One student established our Culinary Arts Club as a way to form a community within the student body, as well [as] fostering team-building skills,” she says. “The club raises money for both the on-campus and the local food pantries, bakes and donates bread for a statewide hunger relief organization (last Thanksgiving we donated 144 dozen rolls), and is involved in various other local fundraising events. She has since graduated … but her work has been taken on by other students.”
Another graduate has opened her own bakery. “She has a ‘buy one, donate one’ policy for all of her bread items. So for every loaf of bread she sells, she donates a loaf to her town’s food pantry each week.”
In their course reviews, students are enthusiastic about what they’ve learned in Marvel’s class. Here are some of their verbatim comments:
“Chef Marvel is an extraordinary person and she really cares about each of us. She wants us to succeed in her class and she has taught us that we need to work hard and be a team player if we want to succeed in this field.”
“Her courses have impacted my life so much and have taught me about the importance of community in and out of the classroom. I can’t thank her enough for her dedication to all of us.”
“One thing I learned while at YCCC is the importance of listening, both while working in a kitchen and in everyday life. Sometimes things can happen in the kitchen with little or no control. Listening to one another goes a long way. When you get tired or frustrated, just remember that we are all trying to live and learn.”