Podcast Episode 101

How Chefs Can Prioritize Mental Health and Well-Being

Wonda Grobbelaar | 66 Minutes | February 6, 2024

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Wonda Grobbelaar, an expert in soft skills, leadership quality assurance, and management training.

As a PhD candidate, Wonda shares her ground-breaking research on how chefs can navigate stress, offers tips on hospitality leadership, and discusses the future of workplace psychology. She advocates for quality cultures in higher education, guides culinarians in burnout prevention, and explores Industry 4.0’s impact on culinary jobs.

Listen as Wonda talks about prioritizing mental health in the kitchen, identifying your personality type to help manage stress, and how robotics can support the hospitality industry.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m thrilled to introduce our guest, Wonda Grobbelaar, a chef and an expert in soft skills, leadership, quality assurance, and management training. Wonda is also a Ph.D. candidate researching how to navigate stress in the kitchen.,

As the head of quality assurance at the Culinary Arts Center of Azerbaijan in Baku, Wonda brings a wealth of experience in creating lean cultures – a topic we’ll be delving into today.

Currently pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration, Wonda’s research focuses on the intersection of workplace psychology and robotics.

In addition to this, Wonda has authored several articles and studies covering topics such as creating quality cultures in higher education, guiding culinarians in burnout prevention, and exploring Industry 4.0 for future jobs in the culinary sector.

Her unwavering commitment to driving positive change and helping chefs navigate kitchen dynamics while maintaining their well-being is truly inspiring.

Join us today as we explore the realms of leadership, technology, and the future of workplace psychology with the remarkable Wonda Grobbelaar.

And there she is. Good evening! I have to say, Good evening! Thank you so much for joining us.

Wonda Grobbelaar: Thank you for this opportunity afforded to me. I’m really thankful for this. To share my experience with more people, especially more chefs around the world, so thank you.

Getting to Baku

Kirk Bachmann: Beautiful. Absolutely beautifully said. I hinted a little bit at the intro: you’re several hours ahead of me here in Boulder, Colorado, where it’s 9:15 a.m., and Noelle, our producer, who is in San Diego. I’m super, super appreciative of your late-into-the-evening time that you’re dedicating to us.

And to kick things off, right off the bat, out of curiosity – because this is really all about you – what brought you to Baku? Absolutely beautiful part of the world. I think I read somewhere once that the entire country is below sea level. I don’t know how that works, but what brought you to that part of the world?

Wonda Grobbelaar: It’s a long and a short story. Many, many years ago I was living in South Africa. I was born in South Africa. I always had a passion to leave South Africa because I’m curious. I need to know what’s happening in the world. I enjoy dealing with different cultures, different people, and I wanted to know more. At that stage, I was not really qualified in something. My passion was also to be a chef, so I thought if I maybe pursued this career, I know that it will take me out of the country. It will create more opportunities.

The way how I exit was actually, I ate at the FHA cup in Singapore, and a wedding cake and to the dessert table. I made Singapore Airlines [fly] almost 200 kg of my equipment to Singapore. I entered the competition. I managed to win a bronze medal in the competition, which opened doors for me. From there, it started to open doors. I was ready to get a passport to leave South Africa. Because I was not very [old] at that stage, I was back in my twenties, so I needed to find a way to leave. That was my passport out of the country.

Kirk Bachmann: And a good plan.

Wonda Grobbelaar: From there, I was living in the UAE for almost 10 years when I started an academic career. I was always interested. I have a few passions in life. Definitely chef is one of my passions, but I’m also interested in academics, research to improve life for people. I’m always curious. I want to know more. What’s happening? I managed to find a pathway where I could combine everything together. I used that, started my MBA, and then I started my Ph.D.

About two years ago, last year sometime, we came to Baku on holiday. I fell in love with the country because it was different from the UAE for a change, for many options. I will explain when we talk about the culinary scene in this country. Also, like you said, it is a very beautiful city. It reminds you of Europe. My heart is always for Europe because my background is Dutch. It reminded me of Europe.

I got an opportunity from the university as a lecturer, eventually quality assurance, and I decided to come to this country and explore. Like I said, I’m always curious. I want to learn about different cultures. And here I am. And Mum, here I am in Baku!

A Gourmet Rusty Nail?

Kirk Bachmann: I love it! You’ve said the word “curious” several times. It’s ironic, or even serendipitous for us, as an educational institution of higher education, it’s been a theme this year: to stay curious. Or a cliche, if you will, because so much is changing around us. We’ll talk about that a little bit. Even the simplest notion of how do we celebrate AI and leverage it in a very positive way. There are always going to be some that immediately panic. Students are going to submit work that has been helped by technology, but if we do it in the right way and we stay curious, the results can be very beneficial and positive for everyone.

Before we dive into that – and I’d love to talk a little bit about your journey from pastry chef to academics – but can you talk a little bit about the culinary scene in Baku, where you are now?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Okay. The culinary scene. I’m working currently for CASA of Azerbaijan, as you know.

I first joined the university for the one-year contract here. I didn’t know about CASA because Baku was very unfamiliar. Azerbaijan, I didn’t know about. Even today, if you speak to people, you tell them you live in Azerbaijan, they think it’s part of Turkey. They’ll ask you, “where is it?” They don’t know where Azerbaijan is. So I didn’t know there was a culinary school there. I knew about individual people, but I didn’t know about the school.

When I joined the school, he was telling me the story that when he joined many years ago in this country, which I similarly experienced, he realized that although it is very good cuisine in this country, interesting cuisine, there is a lack of professional skills in this country. Because, remember, in this country, the young people get training from their mothers, their grandmothers. It’s tradition coming through managers. There were not really the professional skills. There was not a school to help them with this. That was his vision, and he started this culinary school.

What’s very interesting about this country is we have more than 4200 villagers. Very recently, I was talking to a government official because sometimes I also help the government with quality assurance in higher education. He was telling me that he was connecting in a moment all the traditional recipes from families in these villages. One particular recipe mentioned to you was really interesting. There’s a recipe where they cook food on top of meat, but they used a nail, a rusted nail. They throw that into the food to improve the color of the food. This is tradition of this village. If you think about iron oxide and what’s happening in your body, but this is the tradition. It’s actually fascinating to understand all the traditions, and it is completely different.

Like my husband, he loves fresh milk. We come from countries where fresh milk was freely available. It’s much more difficult to get it here. You cannot really go just to the supermarket and buy a bottle of milk. Everything is processed. Salted butter, a problem. Coming from Dubai, where you have everything all year round because we get it from all around the world, now we’re bound to seasons, which is a good thing on the one side because you learn to be creative. But if you’re spoiled and you can get everything any time, it makes it different.

I think also, the students here learn differently. Remember, they’re still the old school. They are up-and-coming now in this country. We’re talking about the ex-Soviet country and everything associated with that. It’s up-and-coming. They’re very set in their ways. They’re not so curious. I think people like Mr. Kelvin Chong opening the school is helping the Azerbaijani students together with everyone to improve this area.

But it’s fascinating, the culture, if you think [about] all these recipes but this is basically the scene in Azerbaijan.

Food Traditions and an Ancient Cookbook

Kirk Bachmann: I think maybe I’ll try the rusty nail. I don’t know that I will consume it, but I’d love to see if it imparts some color to the final sauce. Fascinating.

We’re going to talk a lot about some of the work that you do, but a big part of our audience, Wonda, is our students. You touched on it just a little bit. I’d love for you to set the stage a little bit more. Take us all the way back to growing up in South Africa. Of course, you graduated from culinary school and became a pastry chef. Again, you talked a little bit about what enticed you. Was cooking a big part of your family growing up? Was there a tradition in your family’s kitchen? And then the question I always like to ask is, how is that tradition – if there was tradition – how does that stay with you and influence the cuisine that you create or have created today?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Thank you for the question. My mom told me, when I was eight years old, I insisted I wanted a chef’s hat and a cookbook.

Kirk Bachmann: See! There you go!

Wonda Grobbelaar: Actually, today, just a cookbook. It’s more than 47 years old.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my goodness!

Wonda Grobbelaar: It’s wrapped in plastic because it’s sort of falling apart.

Kirk Bachmann: Falling apart, yeah. Is that you? Is that you on the cover?

Wonda Grobbelaar: No. But it’s still with me, and it travels everywhere with me. That’s where I started.

I was also into business. Like I said, I’m curious. I have a lot of interests. For a very long time, I didn’t follow it. It also might be because, due to finances, I couldn’t afford to go to a proper culinary school. I didn’t really study. I started to work almost immediately. At that time, you could work immediately.

Later in my life, I decided I wanted to follow a culinary career, and I enrolled myself into evening classes. I was working a very long time for the company. They were very tolerant with me, and they allowed me to go to evening classes, but Fridays I was working as an intern in a hotel. That allowed me not to come to work on a Friday so I could complete my internship for my courses. Then they knew that I would leave because my passion was that. Like I told you, I left the country, and I changed more into academics, but it really started when I was eight years old.

For traditional foods, South Africa is not a style of food, for example, and spices as Indian food. I learned to love Indian food in Dubai, especially Middle Eastern food, and I really miss sometimes spices because there is also a lack of nice spices in this country. It’s not colorful. We like sugar, a lot of sugar with a lot of foods: sugar with meat, we do a bobotie. Maybe you’re familiar with that, which is like a custard-based sweetmeat.

It’s not so creative [as] many other cultures. I’ve learned, with all my travels through the world, but as a tradition, my grandmother had a German background. My father and, obviously the rest of the family, was Dutch. I grew up with the Dutch tradition and stroopwafels, everything like that. My grandmother was always making the Kartoffeln, appetite editions so that was a fun tradition. That was the background.

I think I’ve really developed my culinary background and my love for spices when I moved overseas. When I moved abroad, it changed everything. If you remember, South Africa is very on the bottom of the world. Once you get to the Middle East, you start to learn about all the different cultures and the different food. That really opened up for me the different cultures and cuisines.

Improving All the Time

Kirk Bachmann: And strokes your curiosity. I love that.

Moving forward, then, it’s quite clear why you had this desire to become a chef. My next question is twofold. It’s a little tougher. To understand quality management and control, quality assurance, I think I probably have a general idea of what that means. Two parts. What does that mean to you in your field of work? And what’s involved in an MBA – one of the highest levels of academic achievement – in quality management, quality assurance? I think listeners are going to be fascinated about another career path once you tell us exactly what it is.

Wonda Grobbelaar: For any students listening today, there’s many ways that you can pursue your passion for culinary. You don’t have to be cooking in a kitchen all the time. One of these is, like you mentioned, the total quality management. Total quality management, to sum it up in one word very quickly, is continuous improvement. Continuous improvement in kitchens, in the way we teach, in the way we do everything around us, the hospitality industry especially, the culinary industry. It means checking the whole time and basically improving the whole time.

When I decided on my topic for my MBA, I specifically looked at hazards, the food safety part. I was investigating all the bakeries in the UAE and [finding] out, what is the criteria? How do you get quality? Are they following it? Which is different in this country, for example. UAE is mandatory, and here in this country it is up-and-coming. It was really my passion.

I found the combination between my passion and also quality because quality is also important for me. I believe if we don’t have quality in anything that we do, [there’s] almost not value in it. Because even if it is something small that we do, we should always do it with the highest quality. If it’s teaching, if you’re producing an item, if you’re observing food safety, the quality is really important every step of the way.

This is a different area but the same because currently this is part of my daily job, quality assurance, continuous improvement in many ways.

Kirk Bachmann: As I listen to your story and I think about how you’ve pursued this career in measuring and continuous improvement, I’d love for you to speak just a little bit. It’s obvious that it’s important to you. You have a job, then you come home. Does this continuous improvement impact your home life as well? Are you driving your husband crazy because you’re looking for continuous improvement in the home as well?

But in a serious way, how does it impact you in areas outside of work?

Wonda Grobbelaar: I think not so much at home. I think it’s maybe the hours, not the working hours. As I’m coming to do my doctoral degree, I don’t really have time to continuously improve inside my home environment.

However, I think where you can definitely see it is when I go outside to eat. I’m very particular where I eat. I will not eat at the place if I don’t think the food safety is there. If they don’t follow the food safety, everything about food, I’m very particular about that. I think that is because my knowledge about food safety, creating safe foods, the environment, it’s really standing out for me. Maybe for other people, when I go with a group of friends, they will not even notice it, but I will pick up the wrong board in the kitchen, the chopping board, the glass cleaner they use for food, and I know that it adds up. I’m a very difficult eater in that sense. I don’t eat everywhere. I will not eat street food unless I’m really sure that they follow food safety rules.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s fair and that’s honest. I don’t know that you’re the only person that feels [that way]. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips. We can use technology to read reviews, not only on restaurants, but hotels and other businesses. You really have to manage quality so that the perception to the consumer who is going to buy your product is excellent. It’s just the world we live in.

Wonda Grobbelaar: Yes. I agree on that. Also, I think it becomes a part of your life; you cannot separate it. Even if I tell you I don’t walk around in my home and say, “Can we improve this, can we improve this?” But it becomes a part of your life. If it’s not followed, it creates stress in your life because it’s bothering you. It’s not correct. It’s not improving. I think for all of us, for any chef in the background, this is what you follow, especially in some places, it becomes part of your life. You cannot help it, even when somebody invites you for dinner, I check very carefully how the food is prepared.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s okay to be unapologetic for that. It’s a very important point. I’d have to honestly admit that I have some of those tendencies as well. However, I sometimes overlook those tendencies. Sometimes what I know I wish I didn’t know. If I come over to a friend’s house and I see a roast on the counter unrefrigerated, and I come back four or five hours later to see if I can help, and that roast is still there, I’m probably not going to have the roast that night.

Wonda Grobbelaar: I’ve done it before. I would just say, “Unfortunately, I don’t eat it.” I will just try to eat something else, but it is a problem. I don’t know if it’s a curse or a blessing, I’m not sure. It is a problem.

Reaching and Teaching in Azerbaijan

Kirk Bachmann: It’s a balance. You mentioned the word stress, and we’ll get to that in just a moment. I’m curious: I’ve always thought, particularly if one of my instructors decides that they would like to pursue additional education – and myself included. I do recall when I was studying for my Master’s degree in education, I felt like a good student, but I also felt like a great employee. I felt like, while I was learning, I was a really good instructor. I was sharing what I was learning with enthusiasm and excitement. As I shared that with my team or students indirectly. I’m curious, as the head of quality assurance in your current role, and studying for your Ph.D, do you find that there’s a nice balance there? Are you an even better manager because you’re learning alongside?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Yes. I think I can agree on that. I think because part of my job includes sometimes as a guest lecturer, I do sometimes teach at university. I was a full-time lecturer. Sometimes I do supervision for students. As you progress with your own studies, actually the thing that I did manage was, because I’m doing burnout and stress, the more I’m doing burnout and stress, the more I see myself in this whole thing. I can tell you exactly what stage I have it.

I will see other employees or maybe my colleagues when they reach certain stages. I can see when stress is getting to them, which level at which we should stop, which we should do something. I think it gives you a far better background in how to manage people in the sense of [that] I understand people. If somebody’s difficult, I understand that it’s not coming from…. It’s not me. It might be that the person is going through a lot of things. Maybe it’s the work pressure, a lot of things happening in their lives. I definitely think it makes me more tolerant to handle people and to always try to understand people. Why do you react like this?

When I teach from time to time, I really feel that I can tell stories. I believe when you’re teachers, you tell stories, instead of just reading through a presentation. If you tell stories to your students and they understand it is real life, they remember. But if you just read through a presentation, they don’t really remember anything. With this experience and my current studies, I’m really able to tell them stories or examples through all cases with leadership and management. When I stand in front of a class, when I try to supervise students from all over the world because I literally have from all over the world up to Master’s level, sometimes doctoral degree, it makes a difference. Definitely. Because you learn as you go.

Kirk Bachmann: Do you find that including the students – I love the story part. I fully, 100 percent agree. So you become an educator. You’re also a storyteller. Do you find that it’s valuable to include the students? Almost to flip the classroom? In other words, have a student share their experience, whether it’s about dropping a rusty nail into a stock or some other tradition, do you find that helps the overall learning in the classroom?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Yes. Definitely. I really believe in outcome-based learning and student-centered learning. The student must be part of the class. It’s the student’s class, and you just need to guide them to gain the knowledge. Definitely against when the teacher is doing the only work and just now answering the question. What I need to say, in this country for example, they still follow very traditional learning methods.

The problem is, when you teach in Azerbaijan, I don’t speak Azerbaijan; I speak a little Azerbaijan. I can help myself in the market. I can help myself in a taxi. But when I teach, I always have a translator. Some students don’t understand English. That is still fine, but if you want to fight with somebody, by the time it’s translated, you’ve forgotten the story of what you’re fighting about. This is the challenge here, but even with this challenge, I really believe that through the stories, I think they can see my passion when I tell it. The translator is normally very good in our culinary institute, so they already know the story.

Many of the staff members are expats as well, so they speak English. Yes. The student must be center. Gone are the days where the teacher is important and the student is just listening and you’re just listening, and you doing all the work. The students need to be involved. This is how they live.

The Science of Stress

Kirk Bachmann: I agree. Thank you for that.

Let’s talk a little bit about, not just stress management, but prioritizing stress management. I love that. It’s a very super important and relevant topic, especially for professionals in our industry. I think it’s a great conversation beyond our industry. You wrote an article called, “Running on Empty,” which I saw on LinkedIn. What I love is that particular article was really straightforward. “This is how stress works.” I never thought about stress. Quite honestly, Wonda, I never thought about stress in stages. So for our listeners, if you could, if it’s not stressful, to walk us through the stages. Not only the stages of stress, at a high level, but how different factors can affect us on an individual level. That’s what’s really important to me. A second part of that question: how does emotional intelligence come into stress management?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Thank you for the question. We’ll first explain in very simple terms, the stress. What is stress? The different labels of stress. Then I would like to explain to you what I normally learn to explain emotional intelligence to students for anybody to understand.

If we think about stress, we have good stress, and we have harmful stress. We need good stress. Think about young culinary students going to competition; they need stress to push them to higher levels. If you’re trying to obtain a degree or you want really to get good marks somewhere, or you want to achieve an award to work, you need some stress to push you. Otherwise, you will not move forward. You need that good stress.

The problem is when stress becomes harmful. Harmful stress could be divided into two different sections. We have acute stress, which happens, for example, if you’re in a car accident. Maybe something happened at work, you hurt yourself at work. It’s a very sudden stress event. The effects can last from one to three days to about four weeks, but it’s a once-off event. A stressful event is not normally happening in your life, and then suddenly it’s there. Different stuff happens to people.

But then we also have the chronic stress, which could happen through daily hassles, for example. You’re sitting every day in traffic driving to work. You get to work. Your suppliers are not delivering. Every day it’s the same problem. Today I have to fight with people [about] my products for the kitchen. Maybe you sent out emails; you don’t get back responses. People stop following your instructions. All of that is daily hassles that continue and contribute to chronic stress.

Plus, now and then you have these acute stress factors happening. It doesn’t have to be severe like a car accident, but it could be maybe if something happened at work, not on a regular basis, but something that’s sort of a shock. It causes shock on your body.

When we have a stressed response, our brain is actually fascinating, and we could also have another complete discussion about the brain, how it works, and how it’s handling stress. If you think inside your brain, there’s a [hippocampus], which is secreting the primary stress hormone, [cortisol]. That moves into your body, and it starts causing a lot of harm inside your body. If it’s only a once-off event, it will not happen because it’s not continuous; it will recover and go back to normal.

The problem is when we have acute stress and chronic stress, but we never recover from the stress. As soon as the one is finished, the next one is there. Then there’s the morning traffic, then there’s the boss, then there’s the working conditions. We end up with accumulative stress. We don’t really recover from this. Eventually, this will lead to burnout. This is where I can tell you if my colleague is reaching a certain stage, there are certain points that you can see. You can observe to see this person is moving to a burnout stage. This is when somebody needs to intervene or maybe have a discussion. I will speak to just know better.

This is basically the stress. Also remember, none of us is completely stress-free. Maybe you had not a good childhood. Maybe your upbringing was really difficult. Maybe you have other family problems. Maybe you come out of, in many countries, especially men come out of war zones. They were fighting when they were younger in wars. The stress is not dealt with after all those years. You come already with the stress to work in a kitchen. Now you have the daily stressors, everything is accumulative. Then eventually, it leads to burnout because, as we know, kitchens are not an easy environment for [anybody]. It’s a difficult environment.

Take Care of Yourself

Kirk Bachmann: I’m thinking about proactive thinking. Not necessarily, Wonda, just for my students. I’m thinking about myself. I’m thinking about my family, my children. Why is it essential for students to proactively think about this, maybe not in the exact detail that you just brought up, but how to prioritize stress? I wrote down this idea of relieving. If you’re cognizant of the fact that you’re experiencing some chronic stress, how important is it for our students to think proactively to get out of that cycle, particularly as it could impact their career trajectory? If stress is changing their lives, impacting their performance, what they’re measured on, what hints or clues or suggestions do you have for students to manage this?

I’ll be perfectly honest, it probably gets categorized under the topic of mental health, but stress management is really prevalent for individuals going to school, or not going to school. It impacts everything; their timeliness, their submitting of their work, their enjoyment, their capability to learn – because their minds are on something else. Again, loaded question there. I almost forgot what the question was! Why is it important for students to proactively think about it, and what can they do to proactively think about it and control it?

Wonda Grobbelaar: I thought about this question. Once again, I can give you many options on this. I think there’s one thing that’s really important if you think about a future career. I think if there’s one thing that we can teach students, maybe even from a school level, not necessarily only a culinary institute or in universities. We need to teach them emotional intelligence. The reason why emotional intelligence is very important: if you don’t have emotional intelligence, which many HR directors see as more important than IQ, you will not be able to communicate properly. You will not be able to motivate your team or make sound decisions. Because everything will be based on emotions. I think if there’s one thing we should especially make sure they understand, it is emotional intelligence.

There are many other things that we can add to it, but if I want to manage it, if you find that maybe the environment is stressful, or maybe even at the school level it’s a stressful environment, I think the most important is to know yourself. Understand your background. Think about who are you. Stress can also be influenced by personality. Different personalities handle stress differently. You need to know what is your personality.

We think about the Big Five personalities, but also, myself, [I’m] a Type A personality. I’m always busy. I will go on holiday and it will start cleaning the place where I stay because this is my personality. You need to understand: who are you? This is point number one.

The second one is we need to concentrate on our health. It’s very easy to say. I’ve just interviewed a few chefs for my final study. Most of them have problems with their health by not eating properly, skipping meals. It’s almost like it’s not important. Once a chef told me, “It’s almost like you have a motor vehicle. You expect it to go, but you don’t put petrol in it. You don’t put oil in it. And then you’re very surprised when it stops working.” This is how we sometimes treat our bodies. We need to think about what we eat. I understand, coming from the background, that sometimes there’s no time to eat. I know for myself, it’s literally like this. But at least when we eat something, we need to think about the nutrition. What are we putting in our mouths? What are we swallowing down?

I’m also doing some brain research studies on what is healthy for your brain, what can reduce stress? One thing that I was recently doing a study on, for example, dark chocolate. Dark chocolate, if you have a little bit of dark chocolate, it helps in the formation of dopamine, which is a natural stress reducer in your body. It will help you to reduce stress. There’s many other examples. For example, if you have in the morning when you wake up a glass of water before you drink coffee, tea, anything, your brain is hydrated after the night’s rest. It needs some liquid, and the only liquid that can reach immediately is water. Pure, clean water. Not purified water, just normal, good water.

I used to tell students, for example, that a simple thing you can do in the kitchen or even at home; take an orange, a citrus fruit, and enjoy eating it. Smell it. Smell the orange. Break it open and listen to the sounds. When you put it in your mouth, taste the bitter, the sweet, whatever the result is. Listen when you eat it, the crunch. Only that enjoyment of eating that orange will help you reduce your stress levels. It’s very simple. You can do it any place for a few seconds. Look [at] what you eat and listen. Use all your senses. It will help you to reduce stress.

Also, I think what you can do for yourself or maybe in culinary schools, we need to improve the cognitive abilities of students. What does this mean? It means that students need to learn how to solve complex problems, how to critically think about stuff, how to be creative about stuff. What I used to do when I was teaching culinary a long time ago, I used to tell my students when they were looking for [missing ingredients] was to think of something else. You need to teach them how to think, how to solve problems, not to only say, “I don’t know.” They were never allowed to tell my class, “I don’t know.” They need to come up with solutions. We need to teach them to use the cognitive ability.

Obviously, there are more things, like time management, which is very important. I think if you’re working in the kitchen, they’re going to work in the kitchen, there are going to be managers. Obviously, management and leadership skills – we should really teach them that because I think for a long time it was not brought in in culinary schools.

But also the sense of belonging. There are many people around the world [who]shifts. They are very far away from their homes, from their countries. They work all around the world. They’re very lonely. Their only family is the kitchen family, and it’s very important that the organization tries to include and give the sense of belonging to them.

There are many other ways that we can do it: through meditation, through different ways. I think a few simple things like this can really help you. You need to care for yourself. Don’t be your worst enemy. Think what you are doing. If you didn’t have a break for eight hours, you just keep working, maybe just take a quick walk. Take a few minute’s break. Power naps! I believe in power naps. If I have to work at night, I sleep on the couch for ten minutes, I feel like new when I wake up. You need to care for yourself. It’s really important.

Kirk Bachmann: Did you take a nap before we talked?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Yes, I did.

Kirk Bachmann: There is so much. I want to summarize a little bit. I was going to ask about some signs that indicate that we’ve entered that zone, but I think you sort of answered that. I’m going to go into a culture question here in a minute, but I want to make sure that I’ve got these five – I think you had five – points that are really poignant.

Know who you are.

Health. I love the, not only eating well, but enjoying the way you eat. I love that.

Critical thinking is critical, pun intended. I’ll use a pragmatic example. For our online students, when they prepare a dish or a technique that we’ve asked them to, and they upload photos, the photos are certainly incredibly informative, and they help our instructors gauge whether or not students are comprehending the technique. But what gives us the most comfort and insight into whether or not learning is taking place is their cognitive narrative. If they can talk about what they are doing, it demonstrates critical thinking, and we have the ability to assess them in a very positive way. I love that.

Time management. We could all do better with that.

The fifth bullet was really interesting to me, leadership/skill/a sense of belonging. That’s another podcast in itself right there. I think you said something about being away from home, and the kitchen becomes your home, particularly for ground students who may travel from the East Coast or from abroad to come to school with us here at Escoffier. I might even move that to the top. Wonda, that is really important.

With that as a backdrop, in the work that you’ve done, you’ve also talked about how leaders and managers today can play – how you and I can play – a significant role in creating a culture. We can talk all we want, but how do we create a culture that prioritizes mental health? I’d love for you to speak a little bit about what soft skills can we prioritize? What are some simple steps that managers, instructors, can take to cultivate and prioritize mental health? And then, the toughest part – this is a question I didn’t tell you I was going to ask – but I’m fascinated by the conversations around generations. Traditionalists. Baby Boomers. Gen X. Millennials. Alpha. Gen Z, so on and so forth. Everything that you share with us, do you believe that it changes from generation to generation, the way that we’re able to cope with stress? The way that we will listen to advice on how to prioritize stress. I have my own thoughts on that with children that drop into almost all of those buckets. Massive question there. I think more than anything, if we can talk about how to develop that culture that prioritizes mental health, and then maybe how it differs from generation to generation.

Recognizing Differences

Wonda Grobbelaar: Thank you for the two questions. I will explain to you just now the difference of what I’ve experienced in particular in this country and how it’s fitting into your question. What I want to explain to you is that if you talk about culture in a kitchen and creating it, I’ve mentioned to you before emotional intelligence. What I do in trainings for restaurant staff or kitchen staff when we talk about trying to improve the culture, the stress management, the mental health, I think the following example is the simplest for everybody to understand.

If you think about a beggar, a person walking in the street looking for food, you will look out to a dustbin. You will open the dustbin. You will find maybe a box of food, maybe somebody threw [it] away. You will look at the box, you will pick the food that’s still edible, the things that are still [of] nutritional value. The one that is not any longer valuable, not possible to eat, you will throw away.

It’s the same with emotional intelligence. We cannot help that people maybe had a very bad conversation with us, don’t speak in the proper way, are insensitive, no empathy. Maybe they didn’t have the training. Maybe their background is very difficult, but we can choose how to react to people like this. The same with the beggar. You pick out the words that this person is saying that might help you to improve, or might be beneficial for you. While you’re taking the waste, throw it away. Take it for what is coming. You only use the words if maybe the person mentioned you never listen, and maybe that was valuable. Maybe you need to improve your listening skills. But why are you listening to anything else which is really not related to you, but rather based on this person’s background, or whatever the reason was why they acted like this?

This is the same in kitchens. We should teach staff because in kitchens in the hospitality industry, emotions can run very high for different reasons. Maybe lack of training. They may be trained as managers, but never learn to be leaders. Maybe they’ve never had any training related to that, especially if you look at all the culinary schools. I now integrated a little bit more, but many schools are only teaching skills, but they never teach chefs how to be a leader, how to motivate your team.

I think also a very important aspect is cultural difference. We might look the same. If I cut you open, we would look exactly the same, but we come from different backgrounds. To answer your questions about generations, I want to slightly shift to the background, not about age only, but also about the culture. Where I’m currently staying has a Soviet background. They come with this mindset and the background where many of them [were] taught when they were young enough to think. They taught in schools, “You cannot think. You should not think. You should copy and paste. You should study this and write this in the exam.” If you ask me about the differences, not only in the generations. Definitely you’ll find the old school, if you think about Escoffier and all the early great chefs. They had a very military style. Today, some chefs are more deliberate. They’re more open. They have more experience in management. But you should never forget the background of the person, because if they come from this environment, their mindset is very rigid. They follow this. It doesn’t matter the age because their parents were following it.

I was asking last year in the university, if we go digital, if I put everything online, would it be fine with you? The students told me, “Yes, but we still want the paper printouts because our thought is belief that you should have background. We don’t trust the computer.” You understand the mindset. Yes, definitely the age, the different groups, they’re improving slightly, but maybe they’re dropping something else. Maybe the skill set. I think maybe the difference will be [that] the oldest chefs are more particular about skill set, and the younger chefs are more related to technology. Technology starts to take the role, which we’re going to discuss a little bit later.

But I think maybe a skill set is not any longer the most important. It might be that the younger chefs thought a little more down on this, but definitely we need to think about culture. Also culture, as you know, many kitchens around the world have many cultures inside. You will think not all countries, but I’ve seen all over the world while I was traveling. You can easily find five, six, seven, eight, nine, different nationalities in one kitchen. If you as a manager are not trained as the head of the kitchen or as executive chef, if you’ve never been trained to handle cultural differences, how are you going to motivate your team? You don’t understand collective culture. You don’t understand individualistic culture. You are going to struggle. Some are going to listen to you and some are not going to listen to you. I really believe that culture with emotional intelligence is one of the most important understandings that we need to have to be able to lead the team successfully.

If you have this, you will also be able to manage the mental health because all of this is related. If you think about it, it’s coming back to mental health, creating more stress, and maybe followed by anxiety and depression.

Lean Culture

Kirk Bachmann: So interesting. As you were speaking, I was again thinking of a pragmatic example. My parents, immigrants. Same way. Math was so important to them. It was all about memorization. As children, my sister and I didn’t ask questions. We just memorized what they asked us to memorize. To this day, with my four children, it’s been interesting. When I challenge them on nine times nine and eight times eight, and seven times eight, they pose questions back: “Why do you care what eight times eight is?” It’s a difficult response. I want them, in a weird sort of way, to memorize the way I memorized and have never forgotten. They need more clarity. Young people today need to understand what the significance of their answer is.

I always use the example, Wonda – it’s kind of a cliche – that when you look at a group of middle school students in the classroom, and the teacher asks a question, oftentimes all the hands go up, especially the boys. They may or not know the answer. They probably don’t know the answer. But self-esteem does not come into play. They just want to be noticed. But for adult learners, like we have here in college, boy, self-esteem really comes into play, doesn’t it? They may know the answer, or they may think they know the answer, but they don’t have the confidence to give the answer. Does that cause stress? Metaphorically, does that cause stress as well?

I kind of want to roll that into what you’re studying. We alluded at the top of the show that you’re studying creating lean cultures in the back of the house operations. Can we start right there and define what a lean culture is or is supposed to be?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Thank you for the question. Because of my total quality management background, I started to be interested in Lean Six Sigma, which is basically, in a very short version explained, creating lean, going leaner. Shaving off everything that could cause additional cost, wasting time, extra motion. Anything that you can improve by making it lean and narrower, less time.

I started to be fascinated because Lean Six Sigma was originally implemented in manufacturing. If you think many, many years ago, back to autos, cars, Ford actually, they started in their factory to produce black motor vehicles. Only black. They were streamlining their colors to only one. [inaudible [00:50:10] The opposite, there were many people in between them, many other people, but then I was interested. By the time I started with my Ph.D., not so many people used Lean Six Sigma in kitchens. I now start with a Marriott hotel group. They were following the Lean Six Sigma principles, but there were many people saying it was more for manufacturing.

If you think about it, Lean Six Sigma in kitchens is very relevant. In kitchens we use food to produce, and in manufacturing, we use metal. Correct? It’s only the ingredient that is different that we use. So the principles of Lean Six Sigma can be applied in kitchens, meaning less waste.

One that is really outstanding for me is maybe the skills that we sometimes miss [in] people because we don’t take care to find out what staff can really do. We don’t pay attention to their CVs. Sometimes we’re hiring a person from outside to maybe demonstrate sugar art work, for example, but we have a person inside that’s already qualified to do it that is maybe very good at that. Even that waste of talent, skills that we’re not aware of, is also part of Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma.

But mostly it’s based on product waste, motion waste, to have a store room on that side, but we’re only working on this side. Going as lean as possible.

I will tell you a story about many years ago. I was working in a food production company. We were supplying food outlets with daily sandwiches, salads, products like this. I was also the continuous quality manager at that time. I noticed one day as I was standing in the vegetable and fruit area where they received it that we received vacuum-packed lettuce packages, mixed lettuce, that they open, they break the seal, and they put it in a GN container, and then the next day, they will use it. But the produce of this packet, because it was specially packed – vacuum-sealed – was much higher than if you just buy the lettuce and you rinse it, because we did have a rinsing station. To cut this long story short, the end result was in about three months, a saving of thirty-thousand dollars by only changing buying the product, not the vacuum-packed product, making the mix ourselves, and [serving] it as part of the salad. Instead of using the vacuum-packed lettuce which doesn’t have any purpose because they opened it as soon as it arrived on the premises.

This is what Lean is about: to look at opportunities, not only in cost saving, but less waste. Maybe we have a very long process for something. We can cut out a few steps. It saves time. It’s less time for maybe the person creating. It can be a cost saving. We need to think all the time how we can go leaner, less time. This is what is happening in the kitchen, but this is the example I thought would give you a very good idea of how we can think about going leaner.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s absolutely fascinating. I’m curious. One question on that, Wonda, before we go into Industry 4.0. Do you find, in your experience with Lean Six Sigma, that it’s an individual approach to this sort of philosophy, or a team approach, or both?

Wonda Grobbelaar: At first it’s a team approach, but you must have management support. If you only have the lower level, management must buy the idea, understand the process of going lean, implementing lean principles, and then you can follow it through as a team effort. I always tell people, if we implement it, you will be surprised what you find from cleaners. They normally have the most information. Those are the people that you should get involved in programs like this. They will tell you exactly where your waste is, or where it’s taking a long time to do anything. They know everything.

Industry 4.0, AI, and Robotics

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I read that part of your research study includes how robotics will affect the mental health of chefs in food production facilities. This is overall part of this concept of Industry 4.0. This is possibly a whole other podcast, again. At a high level, could you talk a little bit about Industry 4.0? Are we in that now? Are we in Industry 4.0 today?

Wonda Grobbelaar: My opinion is yes and no. I will tell you why. Because Industry 4.0 is for a number of years already in the industry, different industries. Where we are implementing the Internet of Things, AI, robotics, the latest technology, to improve manufacturing. Most people have the fear of, “It will take my job. I will use my job. Everything will be automated, and it will change.”

If you look at your pen, they’re already moved to Industry 5.0. Instead, [of thinking] that robotics will take our jobs, we ought to see technology, automation, as helping us. It becomes a help as our assistant. We work together as a team to create the product. This is the shift. Some countries are still in 4.0, but definitely it is changing. The more people are experiencing robotics.

The food industry, up to recently, was not so familiar with robotics, but it’s rapidly changing. If you look at the figures of robotics, you will see that there will be a very high increase, especially after Covid. As you know, there was a lot of staff shortage. Many people left the industry. Robotics went up, not because they are losing their jobs, but people started to realize that we could implement and use it in an effective way.

What I really believe is that it will take the job away. If you think about the chef maybe working in an environment where there is a lot of fried chicken, a lot of dangerous work the whole time deep-frying the chicken, it will remove that dangerous job. It will give the chef the opportunity to create because creativity – we can program robots on human profiles. We can teach them how to think based on our profiles, but they will never have that human element which we can’t explain to someone. We program a robot, but you know you can find sometimes a taste. You can create something that you cannot explain. We ought to use the talent to be more creative, to produce things like that. We remove the repetitive, dangerous jobs. This is the way I think it’s going to move forward.

What I’m interested in this study is to see, as we say that chefs are already stressed based on many things – working conditions, sometimes poor salary, bad management – but is robotics going to improve the mental health, making it less stressful for chefs, than just a normal kitchen without any robotics. This is currently what I’m investigating and collecting data.

Kirk Bachmann: Wonda, since we’re on the topic of robotics, I’d be remiss if I didn’t segue into AI and Chat GPT. I’m not questioning whether we should use it or not. I’m interested in your perspective on how to leverage it to the best of our ability.

Wonda Grobbelaar: I think what you rightly said in the beginning is we should utilize everything. Correct? We should not avoid it because it’s a new development. If you think about when we got the mobile phones, when the computer was implemented, everybody said it would not work. Look where we are today.

My view on Chat GPT or maybe any AI facility created is the following. I’ve done several tests, little but part of studies of different scenarios. I really believe that we need to teach the students how to use it in the correct way. What is the meaning of this? It means that students will use it because, like me, they are also curious. They learn from their friends. They see it on social media, and definitely they will use it. But if we teach them to use it the right way, as a guide, and then add your creativity, your perspective to it, we can use it in a positive way. Instead of telling them, “You cannot use it,” we need to teach them in the right way.

I’ve done recently a study on Christmas menus. I was explaining to the students at our school. I said, “If you’re going to create a Christmas dinner or a lunch menu for different nationalities, you need to sit down and think about the nationality. What is important? Or you can use Chat GPT. What is the lunch menu for South Africans? What is the lunch menu for Canadians? What is the lunch menu for German people? You get an idea what is popular for Christmas, and then the creativity will come by your creation of the recipe. You need to come with the taste, the flavor, the recipe, to make it special, but it will save time. Instead of doing research – what do South Africans eat? What do Germans have for lunch for Christmas? – it will tell you that. But you need to build in the creativity. Do the research on the flavors. How are you going to build your personality in it? I think as a time-saving tool, it is very helpful in that sense.

Also, what I’ve done is, because many universities sometimes complain that students use it, it’s very simple to find out how they use it if you ask Chat GPT, “Did you create a document?” it will tell you. “Yes, I’ve created the document,” or, “No, I didn’t create the document.” I really believe we should utilize it, but teach the students to use it as a calculator – in a positive way. But they should also know how to do it byy themselves.

What Students Need to Know

Kirk Bachmann: I was hoping you’d say that. We’ve been chatting for so long. I just realized – time does fly when you’re having fun, and it’s getting late into the evening. If you could indulge me, I have one really important final question. Before I get there, I was hoping you could share from your perspective, your experience, your life experiences, any words of wisdom of how to better or continue to better prepare culinary students, those interested in our craft, to enter this craft in this ever-changing world that we’re in? Which includes stress management and technology at the highest level, and financial challenges, and so on and so forth. Any words of wisdom of how a student can best prepare themselves for this industry?

Wonda Grobbelaar: in a recent study I was doing for this government, I was telling them that we teach the students the skills with a little bit of background of management and maybe how to apply for job applications. A little bit of background in that. But we’re not really preparing them for entrepreneurship. We’re teaching them the skill. Many of them are maybe going to open their own restaurants, or may try to attempt to open their own restaurants, but they’re never taught how to read a basic financial statement, how to hire the correct candidate for the position. What is the legalization in your country referring to opening a business? What documents are required? How do you make a loan at a bank if you don’t have the money? Those are skills, I think, at the very entry level that I think sometimes are lacking. They are very good in the skillcraft, but then they open a business and then they fail because they don’t have the background of this important business management skills.

The second thing is preparing for technology. Definitely, we should stay with the classic skills because this is why we are chefs, correct? This is why they come to culinary school. Like I’ve mentioned before, once they know the skills to do it by hand, there is technology that can help you to save time, to manage your time better, that can help you in kitchens. But if you don’t understand the classic method, it’s more difficult to identify problems with technology. If you have a rice cooker, for example, doing a few thousand KG at one time, if you don’t understand the basics, the identification of problems. You don’t understand AI. I guess what I’m saying is the teaching of classic skills is very important, but at the same time, we need to expose students to the latest technology. If they’re going to travel, if they’re going to work in different countries in the world, every country is different. Take for instance the UAE: Their technology is completely different in this country. What if I sent my student out and he’s going to work in that country, and he doesn’t understand technology. He’s never seen any AI technology in kitchens; he doesn’t understand it. Even if it’s not always possible to physically let them use it in your environment, you must make them aware of what is happening in the world, which is changing every day. As we speak, technology is changing.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely, it is.

Wonda Grobbelaar: We need to stay ahead of what’s happening and inform students.

Also, I believe in sometimes simulations where they can experience new environments, even business simulations, entrepreneurial simulation, or maybe in a kitchen environment that is completely different so they can experience a little bit of the real environment in this world. I think this is important to prepare them for the future.

Wonda Grobbelaar’s Ultimate Dish – Brain Food

Kirk Bachmann: Really well said. Thank you for that.

So Wonda, the name of our podcast, of our chat, is The Ultimate Dish. Oftentimes the toughest question that we ask, and that is, what is the ultimate dish, in your mind? Could be pastry if it needs to be.

Wonda Grobbelaar: Could be pastry if it needs to be. I think the ultimate dish – this is a difficult question!

Kirk Bachmann: Right!? You’re my Ph.D. candidate!

Wonda Grobbelaar: I love many different foods. I really think, for myself, if I think food related, I do like a lot of seafood, but I think something chocolate related, maybe. To explain to you, my answer is, when I eat, I’m fortunately always keeping in mind, “Is it helpful for my brain? Will it benefit my brain? Will it contribute to brain function?” Especially if you Ph.D.

It is a really difficult question because I eat according to my brain at this stage.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a good answer, though. That’s your answer. For you, the ultimate dish, the food you put in your body has to have some sort of reaction. For you, it’s thinking. Perhaps it is chocolate, or a glass of port before you go to bed at night, right?

Wonda Grobbelaar: Exactly.

Kirk Bachmann: Wonda, thank you so much. We’ve taken way too much of your time. We so appreciate your knowledge, and I’m sure that there is a part two out there somewhere because there is so much left to talk about. Congratulations on all of the success, and I hope you have a beautiful holiday season.

Wonda Grobbelaar: Okay. Thank you. The same to you as well. I hope you have a wonderful season. I’ll hopefully see you again next year sometime.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Thank you again.

Wonda Grobbelaar: Okay. Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.


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