Podcast Episode 18

‘Burning is Learning’ – Gene Fritz Pushes Culinary Students to Make Mistakes and Grow

Gene Fritz | 44 Minutes | October 12, 2021

In this episode, we speak with Gene Fritz, a culinary educator, curriculum design consultant, and executive chef.

A voice in culinary education for over thirty years, Gene had been a culinary instructor at Colorado State University and Washington State University, as well as the Director of Culinary Operations at Johnson & Wales University.

His vast experience includes working in fine-dining restaurants, cooking in the U.S. Army, and winning and judging numerous culinary competitions.

In order to pursue his passion for mentoring young culinarians, Gene began serving as a culinary arts and hospitality management teacher at Battle Ground High School in Washington.

Listen as we chat with Gene about his wide-spanning career as a teacher and a chef, creating atmospheres for culinarians to explore and excel, and the future of culinary education.

Watch the podcast episode:

Video thumbnail play
Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone. My name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode we’re speaking with Gene Fritz, a culinary educator, curriculum design consultant and executive chef. Gene has been a passionate and engaged voice in culinary education for more than 30 years. He has been a culinary instructor in Colorado State University, Washington State University, and he was the director of culinary operation at Johnson & Wales University. His vast experience also includes working in fine dining restaurants, cooking in the U.S. Army, and winning and judging numerous culinary competitions.

More recently Gene has recently transitioned his career back to the classroom, and has enjoyed serving as a high school culinary arts and hospitality management teacher focusing on developing life skills and professional career paths for young culinarians.

Join us today as we chat with Gene about his wide-spanning career as a teacher and a chef, designing curriculums, vocational schools, and the future of culinary education.

Gene-er! Welcome buddy!

Gene Fritz: Woooh!

Kirk Bachmann: From Battleground High School in the great state of Washington! Thank you so much for joining, buddy. How are you!

Gene Fritz: Good. I’m doing awesome. You can see behind me. I’ve got a screen of the lobby of our school, Battleground High School.

Kirk Bachmann: Go Tigers!

Gene Fritz: Go Tigers! The students show up tomorrow. We scheduled this right at the beginning of the school year. I’m excited. We’ll get this thing launched and some of my students will be able to launch it in week one or week two of the class. I’m excited about sharing this opportunity and about getting back to school.

Basic Training

Kirk Bachmann: I’m exhausted! I’m still exhausted introducing you. What haven’t you done in our industry?

First and foremost, a big, big thank you. So much going on in the world today. Thank you for your service many moons ago. Greatly appreciate it, my friend.

Gene Fritz: Thanks to the people who are serving now. Grateful for them being on the wall for us to do things like this. Thanks, Kirk. Appreciate that.

Kirk Bachmann: You bet. Let’s talk about that for a minute. You cooked in the army. How did that come about? Was cooking a passion of yours before you joined the military?

Gene Fritz: 94 Bravo! Shout out! That’s what it was back then in the army. I remember sitting down to talk with my dad. He said, “You know, you’ve got Burger King on one hand, as a career trajectory, or you’ve got the military.” I loved my Burger King days. I started off working in the industry when I was in high school. That’s one of the reasons I so much enjoy being back at a high school. But the military and the G.I. Bill in particular were instrumental, and then using that G.I. Bill to go to the Culinary Institute of America down the road after I got out was critical.

Knowing that I wanted to cook, knowing that I wanted to build some basic skills. Granted, my time in Desert Shield and Desert Storm had varying levels of food preparations. Every once in a while we’d get A’s and do fresh food for holidays. A lot of the time, it was MRE’s and little Chef Boyardee packet things. We adapted. It was a life-changing experience. I always encourage students who think, “Hey, I don’t have a pathway to education. How can I afford that?” The G.I. Bill is a great way to do that. It’s a great way to build a skill set that’s sustainable. That’s what I did.

Kirk Bachmann: Great experiences or examples of experiences that served you well then in the industry once you were cooking in the actual restaurant industry?

Gene Fritz: Probably more wrong experiences than right, but sometimes we learn from our mistakes.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said.

Gene Fritz: I remember the sergeant major coming in and giving me a battalion coin for my pot roast. He ate dinner and just came back to the kitchen and said, “Who made the pot roast?” And I got this coin. I think back then, you were cooking for 300-400 people every meal. It was garrisons, large quantity production. It’s a whole different scale. You’re not being very creative, but I remember times trying to flex my muscles. I remember rolling out pie dough in a mobile kitchen trailer with two feet of snow outside in [Wildflecken [00:04:41] Germany. There were times when it was appreciated to be creative.

But I think food, just like in life in general, in the military food is so important because it’s morale. When you have a hot meal, it takes you back to home. It’s comforting. It’s sustenance that the soldiers need. Those are the hallmarks, the underpinnings that I had as an experience. It made me appreciate cooking for other people. Even though I knew I wanted to go on to culinary school and get in [to the military] and get out, food is transforming. I even learned that in the army.

Kirk Bachmann: It brings back the familiar to many people. It doesn’t have to be fancy. But if it’s good, that’s a plus, and if it triggers some memories, that’s also a plus.

Gene Fritz: Absolutely.

Home in the Northwest

Kirk Bachmann: Great. You’re in Battleground High School. You’ve traveled all around the world with the military and with work, culinary school on the east coast. Is Washington home, or was that home growing up?

Gene Fritz: Yeah. I was born in Miami.

Kirk Bachmann: I guess I didn’t know that.

Gene Fritz: Yeah, born in Miami. My dad loved the Pacific Northwest and wanted to get out where it was green, and so we came out when I was young. I consider myself to be a Washingtonian. Grew up in Bellevue, Washington, went to WSU – Go Cougs!

Kirk Bachmann: Whoa, whoa! I wasn’t ready for that. Go Cougs?! You’ve got an Oregon Duck here!

Gene Fritz: I love our rivalry with the Ducks and the Cougs.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s been going on for years. I love it. I love it.

Gene Fritz: I came back after CIA and went to school here because this is where my roots were, where my family is. My dad just this summer relocated in retirement to Vancouver. I’m in the other Vancouver. I’m in the Vancouver, Washington just north of Portland and love it here. This summer has been rocking with the heat, so I feel like I’m in California with blue skies, but we’re in the great Pacific Northwest with the great landscape. Mount Hood in the backdrop, Columbia River. Working with food here is something else.

Local Bounty and Sustainable Menus

Kirk Bachmann: It’s the best. As you know, my oldest daughter and her husband Sam are building a house not far down the road from you in that beautiful part of the country. Just talk about food in the Northwest. You mentioned it a couple of times. You’ve got the coast. You’ve got the arid area toward the east just like in Oregon. Is it a bounty? Is it all as it is advertised?

Gene Fritz: Going out and foraging for the mushrooms. Watching people like Brian Williams go out and catch a fish…

Kirk Bachmann: Lots of fish.

Gene Fritz: I just had a buddy who was in Alaska, and he brought halibut back. It was some of the best halibut that I’ve had. Knowing that we’ve got the salmon. We have the run on the Columbia. We have the Native American influence here. I always love going back and working with indigenous ingredients like huckleberries, things that are still predominant here, maybe hard to access but still available.

Going out and foraging those and cooking with what is the bounty here. I love going to the local farmer’s market, going to Pike Place market. If you’ve been to Seattle, you’ve been to Pike Place. Walking through and seeing them throw the salmon, seeing the dungeness crab and the abundance of produce that’s grown year-round here is something to be proud of. Absolutely.

Kirk Bachmann: As I listen to you, I think back on the years. I spent a piece of my career and college up in the beautiful Northwest. As I hear you talking, I think about Fernando Divina, Greg Higgins, Lief Benson from Timberline. Those folks were doing cool things with local foods 30 years ago.

Gene Fritz: Cory Schreiber. The icons. When sustainability was new – it’s not new – but it was new to us. Our generation of chefs – “Wait a minute. Working with local, seasonal, regional farmers. What? Minimizing the carbon footprint?” All that seemed new when I came out of the industry and came into culinary education. It wasn’t. It was just going back to the basics again, but you’re right. They were pioneers in the Pacific Northwest.

Kirk Bachmann: I don’t know if I ever told you this story. I went to college, University of Oregon, with Bruce Kerry. And Bruce Kerry – you probably recognize the name – big restaurateur in the Portland area. One of his first restaurants when he relocated from San Francisco was called Zephyro. It was up on 21st or 23rd. I’ll never forget – I was working on the Benson Hotel for Xavier Bowser back then. 40 years. Swiss chef, just did it a certain way. The Benson was a Weston hotel back. I’ll never forget there was all this buzz; what’s this restaurant, Zephyro, all about? The chef’s like, “Let’s go.”

So the director of restaurants, the executive chef and myself as the manager of the London Grill, we go, and it blew our minds. The lettuces and the vegetables were so fresh. I think Xavier stormed out of the there so he could get back to the hotel and call all of his vendors and start screaming at them. He wanted that produce that Bruce was starting to bring to the city of Portland. I think that was probably ‘98, ‘99. He had a beautiful ten-year run there. The rest is history with Bruce. I love reminiscing. I love thinking about the Northwest.

Let’s get back to you. What a career, right? Military, college. Teacher consultant, chef, so on and so forth. I ask this question for the students that will be listening who are trying to figure it out for themselves. Do I become an entrepreneur, do I go to Europe? What do I do with this passion I have? Did you know, Gene, exactly what you wanted to do with your entry into the industry? Did you know that path? Was teaching always going to be a piece of it?

The Influence of Mentors

Gene Fritz: No. I thought it would be, “Hey, I’m on the verge of retirement, so now I go and teach.” I do, and then eventually I teach. And granted, I did. I was out in the industry for a long time. Worked for a couple certified master chefs. But I’d say what was my hallmark influence – we all should seek out a mentor. Even at the high school level, I try to get students connected with local industry professionals who can serve not only to coach them and guide them in developing their skills, but to be that career coach and mentor.

I worked at a YMCA camp in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington. Love going out there. I had gotten fired from Burger King. I got let go after three years. I got into a little skirmish…

Kirk Bachmann: No judging. No judging.

Gene Fritz: I know it was right. They made the right decision. My brother was working up [at the YMCA camp] so I went up and started cooking. He hooked me up. I drove up to San Juan and started cooking. This chef who had been a Marriott guy his whole career landed in retirement at this YMCA camp in the San Juans as a way to transition to full retirement. He requested a catalog, a culinary school catalog and handed it to me. That was the beginning of, “Wait. Culinary school? Wait. What?” I knew that I loved it. Even the flame broiler, I loved it. I loved the ignition of that Maillard reaction taking place.

Kirk Bachmann: Was this before the military?

Gene Fritz: Yeah. High school. Food is food. Quick service, full service, fine dining. There are so many pathways, and I was diversifying a little bit. But the chef said, “Hey, you’ve really got to go on to culinary school.” He gave me this catalog. Chef, I looked and read this catalog from front to back at least a thousand times. When I was in the army, all I would do was dreaming. I would sit in the barracks and I’d look at the catalog, and I’d read the course description. Not even knowing how to pronounce [garnay manger?[00:13:33] What is that? I had no idea what the vernacular was, but I wanted it. I knew that I wanted to be in this industry just from those two career trajectories in high school.

I had the mentor that influenced me to take the plunge. I knew how I was going to fund it with the G.I. Bill. Then I worked for a couple certified master chefs. Ron DeSantis, Dana Kellway. There are only 50 or 60 CMC’s in the nation. I had the privilege of working after my time in CIA with Ron DeSantis. He molded me. The discipline. The care, the craft. But then he showed me how to teach that to others. I didn’t think at that point. The switch didn’t come on that I was going to get into education. But Chef DeSantis left a mark on me that was whole. It was preparing me and I didn’t know it at the time.

He was a chef, mentor, educator extraordinaire and still is. Even some discipline. He had some marine background. I’m army. We had some run-ins when we had pride of this culinarian came in conflict with him. He let me know where the boundaries were. Then that influence of a teacher was imprinted on me.

I went to WSU thinking I was going to get in and get out. Did my bachelor’s in two years, my master’s in one year. While I was doing my master’s, the director there, Terry Umbright, said, “Hey, do you want to teach?” I was like, “Hold on. That’s supposed to happen in like 30 years.”

Flipping the Switch to Serving Students

It took some time. You struggle in the classroom with “Are you going to be the chef, or are you going to be that nurturing educator.” And for the first couple years, my evals were horrible, Kirk, my student feedback. I was broken because I was this tyrant sort of chef. Push, push, push. I need the food in the window. We were running a student-operated restaurant. It was all about results, getting them ready for industry. Then I noticed, “Wait. I’m supposed to serve them. Just like I do in the industry.”

Kirk Bachmann: Mentor. Mentor.

Gene Fritz: Nurture them. Mentor them. Coach. Lean in and find out what those barriers are to their success and help them overcome those barriers. You influenced me in that regard, too, once we were together with the kitchen academy transformation into the Cordon Bleu in Seattle and opening that whole gig up. You made me notice that, hey, it’s about caring for the student. It’s about every one of them being counted. When one’s not there, what are we going to do to help them engage and receive the best education possible.

I got into education not knowing that I was going to stay, but this is right. Another career path. If you get some good footing in the industry and build some experience, get some mentors, get some education, then it’s like maybe I will go teach. I would encourage students to consider it as a long-term trajectory. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Love that I’ve been in academia as long as I have.

Kirk Bachmann: A great career. I love the comments about serving your students. A very wise man said to me not very long ago – we were talking more about business. He said that one of the keys to being successful in business is liking your customers. In many ways, your students are your customers. It really helps if you like them. Just meet them halfway. Meet them in the middle.

Gene Fritz: Even today, in Covid, in this time. This is the time that we have to care for them because there are so many challenges on the outside right now.

Kirk Bachmann: Totally agree. Love that. Love to chat about Chef Ron DeSantis. Ironically enough, you can’t even make this up. Ron and his wonderful wife, Sylvia, were here visiting me at the school last Wednesday. We’re in Boulder. We’re about two and a half hours from the mountains from where my family has a small hotel. Ron just spent the last five days with my sister and her family up in the mountains. He sent all these videos. They hiked everywhere. They just flew back to Connecticut last night.

I love the conversation about education and how it’s connected to mentoring young culinarians. It can be all of the above – would you consider yourself an educator first, a chef first? I know you do a ton of work in the consulting space? Or a business person first? Or are you on the podium all at the same time?

On Wearing Many Hats

Gene Fritz: I can’t be all. I can’t choose the letter D, it’s got to be A, B, or C. I’d say I pivot. It’s A in this moment. It’s B in this moment, and it’s C in this moment. I would say the educator mentor type. I owe it to these young students to be nurturing and to be caring and to be bringing them on. My personal cheffing during the summers keeps me relevant.

I made the mistake. I always tell students close-toed shoes, slip-resist and everything. But I’m personal cheffing on the Willamette River. It’s 92. It’s a quarter-of-a-million-dollar outdoor cooking area, wood-fired oven, 36-inch grill…

Kirk Bachmann: Please tell me you’re not in flip-flops!

Gene Fritz: And that’s it. But I’m like, “Man, everybody’s in flip-flops!” I’m being leisurely with everybody else. And to quickly reinforce the lesson that I teach in the classroom why we don’t wear flip-flops in the kitchen, just some hot water on my foot. Not a big deal. My 13-year-old son often goes with me and cooks with me. He’s not going to be in this business necessarily, but he loves hanging out with me and cooking. And he says, “Don’t you teach your students not to wear flip-flops in the kitchen.” “Yeah, I do buddy.”

Kirk Bachmann: The lesson that day was karma.

Gene Fritz: A little bit of all of them. I think at different times, it calls for different aptitude or different measure of where I’m coming from, my lens. I do hope that I’m constantly patient enough to be that teacher. It’s probably the center of the wheel, and then I work from there.

Bringing Educational Experience to Design

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a great response. Let’s stay with the business piece just for a bit. I love the connection of your love for education and the building of culinary schools. Not a lot of people get to do something that cool, building a culinary school, and you’ve done it a couple of times now. Talk a little bit about what you’ve learned, what you might even do differently today having gone through that a couple of times.

Gene Fritz: You’re going to remember this one. Do you remember when I called you from Seattle and I said, “Hey, Chef, they didn’t put any…

Kirk Bachmann: No floor drains!

Gene Fritz: floor drains in the building. The person said, “Oh, yeah there are.” I was like, “I’m on the ground here in Seattle and there are no floor drains.” There were only a couple of floor sinks.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m looking at the blueprint and I could see it.

Gene Fritz: They’re not there. I would say that the hallmark of what I’ve learned in consulting. I’ve had a number of community colleges that I’ve worked with, and it’s always been a privilege. I find that often we have consultants come into these projects that don’t understand how to teach. That can be a challenge because they don’t understand the student learning experience. They don’t understand the flow. They don’t understand the importance of a clear line of sight for good communication. They don’t understand the distribution of equipment. How if you ask all the students – 20 students in the kitchen – to be one one deep fat fryer, that competency is not going to get done in this class period.

Design, that whole form to function, I try to bring in the educator hat and say, “Hey, this is how students learn. Let’s think about it from a pedagogy perspective. How do they learn? How does the teacher leverage technology and teach. How do we effectively design the layout in a way that is going to ensure that the students have the best quality of learning experience.

I have found most of the time, if I walk into a space that was already [designed] – even the opening with you – it was already cookie-cutter and done. You think, “These are the things I would have changed.” Try to learn from those, too. Getting in on the front end of design. With [Truckee Meadows [00:23:07] Community College in Nevada, I worked with them. We brought all the industry people in and spent an evening listening. Not talking. Not telling them what we knew. Local industry. There is this nuance. There is stuff that is going on in Portland and Vancouver that is different than what is going on in Denver and Boulder. You’ve got to listen to your industry people, too, doing that needs assessment on the front end and saying, “What do you need?” At least on the front end of design, listening to those local industry professionals is key.

But always having the student in mind through the process is so important.

Kirk Bachmann: It was always an exciting, exhilarating process – designing kitchens particularly for new culinary students – but the marketing piece, the showpiece part is always part of it as well. It’s got to be that beautiful space that gets people excited about being there. To combine that and balance that with being super-practical, appropriate and industry relevant is no easy task.

While we’re on that subject – let’s go into the weeds a little bit – even tougher is developing curriculum. You told me once you kind of back into it. It’s important to know what the outcomes are and build your pedagogy around that. Walk us through the fun part of developing curriculum.

Expert Consultants Utilize Expert Faculty

Gene Fritz: I think the underpinning of that is being collaborative. If you’ve got a faculty already on the ground, it’s about having a conversation with them. When I was working at the Art Institute in Portland, having Cory Schreiber and Eric Wynkoop on the team with me. Two just awesome food-loving chefs, educators. Educated, anthropological perspective of food all the time. I love working with faculty.

I think when you think about curriculum, I even think about doing work with Glenn Mack back when he was at Brightwater. I think about how we tap the assets that we have on the ground. One of the things is a great facility. The other thing is a great faculty. Being able to have that conversation, how do you hire the right faculty if it’s a new open? And grow people for such a position. If it’s not an existing program. If it’s an existing program, how do you capitalize on that asset.

I would say faculty input into the curriculum is super important. It’s lending itself to a listening ear. It’s not just saying, “I’m coming in as a consultant.”

We’ve seen so many consultants that come in and know it all. We’ve all lived in a world where that’s what consultants are hired to do, to know it all, but I think consultants are also facilitators and listeners. They collate that in a way and package it. In this way you shape a curriculum. You look at the Cory Schreiber’s back in the day of Wildwood Restaurant, and you say We have got to play up sustainability in our student-operated restaurant. Love putting Chef Schreiber in the restaurant because you knew that passion play was going to transform the student learning experience.

I think that’s another part of designing curriculum is leveraging that asset.

Kirk Bachmann: So many great thoughts there. I love the comments about faculty. You’re making no enemies by supporting your faculty.

By the way, Wynkoop, Eric, was my first assistant when I was teaching in Portland way back in the day. Who ever would have known that Erick would move on to become a Fulbright Scholar. He’s also a Duck, by the way. Don’t ever forget that.

Gene Fritz: I know.

Kirk Bachmann: He was more involved with international language when he was in college, and then he just fell in love with food. He’s still doing that.

You know, one think I just wanted to point out. You mentioned the word collaboration which I think is so important. I was reading an article the other day by someone in Tim Brown’s organization, all about design thinking. I thought it was so brilliant because they were talking about their coworkers, their colleagues, and they referred to them as collaborators rather than employees or even team members. They are collaborators. I thought it as brilliant. Really, really good.

Students Need to Get “Burned”

Let’s speed up a little bit. You’ve taught at several universities, been in operations with another large university. Now you’re teaching at the high school level. Can you speak a little bit to the difference that you see anyway between your typical college student and your high school student. Now a college student in a culinary program has in many ways made that decision. This is my path, I’m going to pay attention. In high school it may not be as easy, right?

Gene Fritz: Yeah. Agreed. The message that I’d have for both audiences, high school and college student and even high school teacher would be getting them connected with the industry as soon as possible is number one.

Kirk Bachmann: Good advice.

Gene Fritz: Let’s see if they can stage somewhere. Let’s see if they can get employment. Right now there’s no lack of opportunities for employment post-Covid. Everybody has either a bonus option after three or six months. There is so much of that rolling out. No lack of opportunity. Many of the restaurants around us still are not open full throttle, six days a week. They are still only open five days just because they are struggling getting workforce. I think that’s number one. Getting them connected and trying to get them out there.

It takes a little bit of crazy to work in this busy. I would hate for students to get through high school, “I’m going to change direction,” is one thing. Getting through college and then changing direction? I want to student to come into education saying, “I know.” Like me, I knew. I’m spending the G.I. Bill on culinary school. No question. No doubt about it. That’s what I’m doing. Because I got burned a little bit and I cleaned a grease trap. I knew the ins and outs and I knew I still loved it. I loved the instant gratification of providing great food for people and getting that feedback and, man, the adrenaline of somebody giving me feedback about a plate of food. Even in my days at Sizzler. I worked in high school in Sizzler. It was my first a la carte situation, but it was cool. Working with lobster and steak. I think getting into the industry is important for all. The sooner the better. To reinforce the idea that you want it. Don’t let the Food Network be your sole decision maker.

For the high school students, it’s exploratory. “I don’t know if I like this. I’m building life skills. I know I’m going to cook everyday. This is giving me those skills.” That’s phenomenal. Great way to approach it. But then to keep an open mind that I love serving people. I always say, whether you want to be in the kitchen, front of the house, hotel, in the lodging space, travel tourism, the one thing we have in common is we love serving people. If you love making something right for somebody else or going that extra mile to do that service recovery if something didn’t go right. What are you going to do about it. I think if you have that wiring and you discover that, then you know this might be the space for me.

And the living wage thing? You get in, you get some experience, and you’re going to find your way to living wage very quickly in this industry. You’re going to find your way into management. You’re going to find your way into a career path that you can get into the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. You’re not the $15 an hour forever. That’s a way to get in and know. I always say that burning is learning. You’ve got to get in, get burned a little bit, and know that “I like it. I dig certain people. I love preparing great food,” if culinary is what you are choosing. At that point, then it’s about where do I want to go to school. I’m looking. Who is my mentor? I’m looking. American Culinary Federation certification am I looking at. Certified culinarian number one. I’m going to go after that.

I’d say that’s prudent for both high school and college. And then you’ve got the one that I think about. In the period of time last year when I was teaching online as an adjunct at Escoffier, I think about the career changer. Then you’ve got that student. And it’s a different story for them. I always was so invigorated by the student who was changing careers and noticed that I wished I had done this my whole life.

Kirk Bachmann: Passion comes through.

Gene Fritz: It did. In their projects, their capstone projects in different classes I would teach with Escoffier faculty, seeing those career changers – they would put their all into it because that was all they had. They had nothing to lose. I would encourage the high school student and the college student to engage. Stay at the table. Do those competencies and give it your best.

Thoughts on Competitions

Kirk Bachmann: You mentioned pathways. Before we get too far, I wanted to get back to that. Groups like ProStart, Skills USA, FCCLA. Are these also super, super important in your environment?

Gene Fritz: Yeah. I think they enrich the experience for the student. Granted, having judged at nationals for ProStart for twelve years. Back in the days of Bill Nolan. ProStart has taken on different feel, and the curriculum has been revised. Skills USA having led competitions, both of those competitions are just about students understanding competencies and building confidence. The challenge with the competitions, even ACF sanctioned competitions, is that very few students really get to participate. I think that schools, high school and post-secondary, we want to create an opportunity where students can excel. I think that all those competitive pathways are ways.

For me, I formulated my food philosophy around my days competing. I remember the day that I finally got a gold medal from [Franz Paparoll [00:34:16] or [inaudible [00:34:18] and different chefs coming through the Pacific Northwest and judging. I’d be competing in Portland and Spokane, I’d just go wherever I could to compete during this phase while I was at WSU. It solidified in me what I believed about food. That was the first time that I really understood why I do what I do with food. That was where I finally said, “Maybe you can call me, Chef. Maybe now, because I feel like I understand more now than I ever have before.” I didn’t like that title coming too early.

You’ve got to understand that science and the sourcing and the relationship of how that connects, those flavors go together coming to the plate and tying in to the guest experience. I think all those are important, and I think we want to give students those opportunities here, now and today. For sure.

Covid Consequences, Good and Bad

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. And I love the humility, by the way. You’ve earned the Chef title, buddy. By the way. You’ll get a kick out of this. I talked to Bill Nolan yesterday. So many great memories.

Let’s talk just a little bit about Covid and what went on in terms of teaching. How did you find yourself having to pivot at Battleground to continue to really impact students?

Gene Fritz: Covid has changed everything. One thing I’m a believer in with school is having a good rigorous curriculum that is already housed in the learning management system, whether it be Moodle or whatever. I had everything tooled out in Google Classroom, so when Covid hit, the pivot was quick. Whereas I had a lot of colleagues that were like, “What? You want me to move my content online? I’ve been teaching for 20 or 30 years. I hand them the paper, and they do the paper, and I code the paper.”

I think it forced us to adapt on the technological side. It leveled the playing field. It forced a Chromebook into every hand in K through 12, whereas the year before last, I always had to worry about when does this group get their Chromebooks? Oh, next year. It leveled the playing field in terms of technology and access to content.

It was tough teaching from home. I do demos. I built out the YouTube page. You’ve seen a little bit of that, of me doing that. It was fun. You’ve got to bring the enthusiasm. You’ve got to bring it in stereo.

Kirk Bachmann: You do.

Gene Fritz: Because you lose them in the medium. Bring in that enthusiasm. I even have my kids in the videos. My own kids would be my students and one of them would be trying to go to sleep, and my other kid would be asking questions. My three children would be my students.

I think trying to stay engaged, maintaining relationships with parents. Trying to find the student that’s not at the table again. How do we get them to stay in the learning experience?

Kirk Bachmann: I don’t want to lose sight of the family piece. The pandemic and so much engagement on Zoom really welcomed the family. The pets, the cat that crawls across your shoulder. People are so accepting of that. It’s almost the norm now. “Oh, sorry, my dog’s barking. He wants to go out.” “Well, let’s stop the meeting for a minute and let your dog out. It’s okay. It’s totally okay.”

I don’t want to lose sight of the importance of being able to pivot. You mentioned having an LMS ready to go. That helped you a little bit when you spend some time helping us at Escoffier. You felt really comfortable in that online environment.

Gene Fritz: I will say that one of the things I learned when I was with you – and it was just in a part-time capacity during Covid, when Covid took off. I think it was the fall before I came in, then Covid hit. I think more than anything, I became more empathetic to the learner and trying to understand where they’re at. Everybody’s world was upside down.

I think I changed how I assess at the high school level online. I changed it entirely based on what I did at Escoffier because I learned how to capture – without tasting the food – every element of what they did. I have what I call a SLAT: Student Learning Assessment Template. That’s where they upload their pictures and their reflection. It’s just a Google Slide deck. They get individually into Google Classroom and they upload the pictures. I’m not changing that methodology. We’re going back live tomorrow in school – Battleground, you’re back! – and we’re going back live, and I’m still staying with that.

They will be doing it as a team now, team-based learning (TBL) but at the same time, still producing evidence of what they did and what they learned. If students can articulate to me as a teacher what they learned, e.g. when I burned this, I learned that I walked away to the restroom. The heat was too high. I lost touch with the heat regulation. I didn’t do the communication with my classmate. They walked away. It burned. You being able to articulate to me why it burned is way more important than that it burned. I could really care less as long as there are no significant fires happening. The evidence of learning is what I care about as a teacher. I think I saw at Escoffier a way to assess and have the students reflect more critically and articulate that. I took that back and said, “How am I going to have these students do the same thing?”

I think it’s been richer. When I see Student Learning Assessment Templates that they go over, they do videos, and they have their family at the table and their dog…

Kirk Bachmann: It’s beautiful.

Gene Fritz: I’m like, Oh yeah, sign me up! When the student shares their learning with their community, their family, their guardians, whatever the situation is, that’s super exciting.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s a beautiful thing. I love the cognitive experience that we put in front of our students. It’s like learn the language of food. The narrative is important. It’s very, very important. I love that explanation.

We could go on forever, Gene-er, we can. We’re getting to the end of our time. You know that the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So before we say goodbye, what is the Ultimate Dish?

Gene Fritz’s Ultimate Dish

Gene Fritz: So I gave this some thought. I would say the Ultimate Dish, for me, is very situational. It’s very in the moment. It ebbs and it flows. I would say, if I was to do anything that I loved to do about cooking, it’s about going to the local market and designing the ultimate dish from – as you said at the beginning – the bounty. I think about these little Kimberly eastern Oregon strawberries, when they start popping up in the early part of the season, and I know that I can grill some angel food cake, and I know just a little bit of strawberry sorbet and do a little trio. It’s so simple. The strawberries are just like candy.

Or doing a panzanella, grilled bread salad with…

Kirk Bachmann: You love your bread salad. You love it.

Gene Fritz: Tomatoes that are right here. They are like sugar when they’re in season. So I think it’s situational and it’s about who I’m with. I think about a meal with Glenn Mack and Camico [00:42:07] over a few months back. We just had some halibut [wachitong? [00:42:12] getting a little international flavor profile in there with the vinaigrette, and just searing that off and just to doneness in a cast iron pan.

I told you, I got a new cook-top coming. I’ve got this new induction burner coming that’s getting installed on Thursday at home. I’m looking forward to taking simple food. You heard the Andre Soltner of the day, or the Jacques Pepin, it’s just about repetition and it’s about good ingredients and a little bit of application of heat and seasoning and serving it.

I will say this. We’re going into fall. I love me a braised short rib – using some pinot from Oregon – with some polenta, a little bit of truffle oil on that. If was to choose a dish that’s hearty and warm and cozy that’s going to be needed in about two months from now, I’d probably be there. Grass-fed beef, thick short ribs. That would be where I’m living in a couple months.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re bringing me to the Northwest, buddy. I absolutely love it. No doubt that you were going to have a beautiful response like that.

Gene, thank you so much for spending some time. We’ll have you back. We’ll talk more in another season. Good luck with Battleground opening up tomorrow.

Go Tigers! Thanks Gene. Be good, man.

Gene Fritz: Thanks. Take care.

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. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

Recent Podcasts