When one thinks of culinary innovation, it is often exciting new dishes and creative restaurant concepts that come to mind. But I believe that culinary innovation is about far more than that; it is also about having the bravery and creativity to approach daily operational challenges in new ways. In this industry, being able to react to data in the right way, make sound business decisions, and manage teams effectively are some of the most important skills to develop, and success in these areas of the business is often tied to how creatively someone approaches these challenges.
This is why I feel it is so important that The Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) intrapreneurship concentration focuses on letting students experiment with these skills in a real, but safe, environment.
Our three-semester educational program walks students through all the steps of launching a new restaurant, from the idea phase through daily operations, and emphasizes the real-life application of important business lessons.
When our students begin the program, they are broken into groups. In this phase, they are challenged to come up with creative restaurant concepts and to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. From these presentations, one concept is selected to become a new student-dining option in the CIA’s Innovation Kitchen, which is on campus and operates for a full semester with students, faculty, and staff as customers.
The beauty of this program is that students learn that innovation is about more than a creative concept. After students spend a semester coming up with restaurant ideas, they learn to refocus that creativity on practical operational concerns for the remaining two semesters of the program.
Like professionals launching a new restaurant, our students must learn to adapt their ideas to their physical space and to the tools available to them. They must determine how to set up the line and how to manage food costs. The students decide how to not only serve french fries, for example, but also how to serve the best fries possible within the budget.
They must learn how to manage a team of peers and how to collaborate. Students must determine how to best work together to capitalize on individual strengths beyond the kitchen for marketing, budgeting, and more. They learn how to receive feedback from customers and how to find the solutions to act on it. Students keep innovating beyond the restaurant’s launch to create new dishes and sustain customer interest throughout the semester.
They learn all of this and more because, just like in real life, operating a restaurant is about having the ability to come up with creative solutions to the very real problems that come with running a business every day. Professional chefs must grow to be flexible and to adapt to new challenges that can make or break restaurants. The chefs who are open to finding new solutions to these challenges that arise in restaurants each day are the ones who succeed and lead their teams to success.
Culinary innovation is not just creative menus, exciting dishes, and forward-thinking restaurant concepts; it is the bravery to make new, bold decisions that are good for a restaurant, its customers, and the business.