Podcast Episode 37

Great Educators Make Great Chefs: Escoffier’s VP of Academic Affairs

Kathleen Vossenberg | 36 Minutes | April 5, 2022

In today’s episode we’re speaking with Kathleen Vossenberg who is the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

Kathleen joined Escoffier a little over a year ago as the Director of Program Development and was recently promoted to her current leadership position – a role in which she is already delivering tremendous value to our students and the greater culinary community.

Kathleen has worked with institutions like Illinois Institute of Art and Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando.

Listen today as we chat with Kathleen about her leadership role in culinary academia, what’s next for Escoffier students, and the impact of global events on the culinary world.

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Notes & Transcript

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 Kathleen Vossenberg, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Kathleen joined us a little over a year ago as the director of program development, and was recently promoted to her current position, a leadership role that she is suited for and already delivering tremendous value to our students and the greater culinary community. Kathleen has worked with institutions like Illinois Institute of Art and Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando.

Join us today as we chat with Kathleen about her leadership role in culinary academia, what’s next for Escoffier students, and the impact of global events on the culinary world.

There she is! Good morning, Chef! How are you?

Kathleen Vossenberg: Fantastic! Good morning. Welcome to Augusta, Georgia, and my little world.

Kirk Bachmann: Virtually. People will discover very quickly that we’ve met, right?

Kathleen Vossenberg: There’s no secrets there, no.

Kirk Bachmann: No secrets. Super, super comfortable. You have to tell me the truth. Augusta, Georgia. It’s 11:30. Is it 90 degrees? Just tell me the truth.

Kathleen Vossenberg: Not yet.

Kirk Bachmann: Not yet, but it’s heading…

Kathleen Vossenberg: It’s actually a little cool today. We’ve had some days in the 80s already.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, no! The 80s!

Kathleen Vossenberg: It’s a blustery 56 right now. But the grass is growing. The perennial flowers are starting to come up. We’re getting ready. A month out from Master’s week.

Kirk Bachmann: I knew it. I knew you’re first sentence would give the Master’s a plug. I just knew it.

Kathleen Vossenberg: All things golf, in Augusta.

Kirk Bachmann: So that’s a month out. It’s in April.

Kathleen Vossenberg: First full week of April.

Kirk Bachmann: Does Augusta ever get a bad, late-season – well, I’m not going to say snowfall – but cold spell?

Kathleen Vossenberg: Oh, sure. It has happened. I’ve been privileged enough to have stepped foot on Augusta National’s grounds a few times since living here. They don’t tell me all the secrets, but I’m sure there are some heated flower beds and so forth to get those azaleas to bloom right at the exact time so it looks beautiful on live television.

Kirk Bachmann: Never even thought of that. Oh my gosh! I’m looking over there on the coat rack there, the Master’s hat that you sent me last year. I’ll always know when it’s going on.

Let’s talk about you. It’s very clear from your background that you’ve always had a passion for teaching, mentoring, leadership in the academic world, but you also have an amazing love for cooking. That’s super, super important. Your husband, Peter, is a chef as well. In addition to the degrees, Bachelor’s degree in accounting! A business and a Master’s degree in educational leadership. You also have this degree in culinary arts. And there’s wine. That’s also a passion for you.

Kathleen Vossenberg: It is.

From Business School to Culinary School

Kirk Bachmann: So talk to me about the early days. I want to know everything. How does an accountant living in downtown Chicago, cranking out the spreadsheets on a daily basis, walking past a culinary school every day on the way to work, become a chef? Even become interested in educating yourself in the culinary arts?

Kathleen Vossenberg: It’s really kind of a wild story, and in a lot of ways similar to some of our students who are career changers. I worked in restaurants from when I was young. When I was in high school, my very first paid job ever was working at a little diner in Chicago for $2 an hour cash under the table because I was too young to even have a work permit.

Kirk Bachmann: Our secret.

Kathleen Vossenberg: I worked in a little local grocery story with a fabulous deli. I would make donuts on Sunday mornings for the crowds coming out of church that was down the block from the grocery store. There was lots of that influence early on, as well as the fact that I’m first-generation American. My mother’s family is from Ireland, and my aunt and uncle owned a bed and breakfast in Ireland. That was my childhood experience and first foray into looking at food service and hospitality, with seeing that experience.

But then when I graduated from high school and I went to college, I pursued this business degree. Probably a lot of influence from my father in that. My dad is a retired fireman. To my dad, any job where you could sit behind a desk and wear nice, fancy clothes to work, that was making it in his mind. That influence probably led me to the business degree.

But all through college, I worked in little local restaurants, either as a server or a cook, or helping out. Along the way, I also began teaching. I was a tutor in college. Even though I was a business major, I was approached by my English professor to be his teaching assistant. That was my first foray into education. It’s always been in the back of my head.

Then I did go out and actually work for accounting firms and did taxes and audits and all of that stuff, and it just really didn’t get me up in the morning.

Kirk Bachmann: So you’re auditing and doing the things accountants do…

Kathleen Vossenberg: And then pulling weekend shifts as an on-call server at the same time.

Kirk Bachmann: Okay.

Kathleen Vossenberg: So it’s always been there. I was finding myself working too much, and figuring out, “How do I get some me time?” At the same time, a culinary school was opening in Chicago, and I would walk past that campus and watch it being built from the ground up. I’d think, “You know what? I’m going to go do this.” Really, that was the intention of getting a degree in it. I’d already cooked. I’d already worked in restaurants. I thought, “Why do I need this degree? I’m just going to go and take some classes for fun.”

I enrolled in the program, and one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was at the end of the program. I absolutely loved it. I worked during the day. I went to school at night. I would bring all of the food that I cooked in school. My baking class was a favorite for coworkers, because I would bring it all the to the office and I would feed all of my coworkers with my homework.

Kirk Bachmann: How did Dad feel about the switch? You just went to school, you hadn’t quit your job yet, as an accountant.

Kathleen Vossenberg: I hadn’t. It didn’t go well.

Kirk Bachmann: Saw that coming!

Kathleen Vossenberg: My dad’s mind: “Why did I pay all this money to send you to college when this is what you want to do?” But honestly, it’s been a fantastic career of blending the two. Every restaurant I’ve ever worked in, I’m the one who is handling purchasing. I’m looking at the books and helping with call-in purveyors and all kinds of stuff like that. It just always blended together and made sense.

Then when I had the opportunity to jump into education full time, it was like, “Wow! Now I’ve really found where I’m supposed to be.”

The Impact of Leadership

Kirk Bachmann: Your calling. Full circle. Where does the trajectory towards leadership come in then? Was it motivated by your work in the culinary industry?

Kathleen Vossenberg: I had been teaching at Le Cordon Bleu for several years. I absolutely loved it. I actually had the opportunity to jump into a lead instructor position. There was one open, and I was approached to apply for it and I said No at first, because I really wanted to be with the students. I wanted to be elbow-to-elbow in the dish pit with people on campus and really doing it day-in and day-out.

But then, as that school grew tremendously, I really saw an opportunity to be even more impactful. I looked at my time of working in the industry as when you’re working and you see people come in and they’ve got this glum look on their face. You know that by the end of the evening, your food is going to make a difference in their life, right? They’re going to have a smile on their face. They’re going to be much more relaxed. They’re going to have a good time because of the meal that you cooked them. Working in restaurants, I could have that impact on 40 or 50 people a night in the dining room.

Then when I moved into education, the mindset became, “I can have an impact on so many more people because every one of my students that goes out there is having an impact on the people in their dining rooms every night.” Then when I moved into a leadership position, the thought became, “I can have an impact on all of these faculty that then have an impact on all of these students.” It just grows from there. It’s like that old shampoo commercial: “And they told two friends. And they told two friends.” And so on and so on.

Then that’s really how I’ve looked at it all along. The trajectory of leadership just makes my reach that much more impactful. If I had to look at it now, it’s tens of thousands of students that I’ve had an impact on their education in some way.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. It’s so much more than just being elbow-to-elbow. It’s expressing empathy – because everyone comes to us from different walks of life. We don’t know what day they’re having, what sort of night they had. To be that mentor, that guide, that inspiration in the classroom, it’s definitely fulfilling. it’s a good journey.

The Ticket to the Future

Kathleen Vossenberg: I’ve had conversations with students all along. I can’t change where you’re from or who your family is or what you’ve been through. But what I can do is show you how these skills can be your ticket. They can be your ticket to the future. Not just another dead end job that you’re going to be living paycheck to paycheck. A real career choice and something that can lead you on a path for yourself and for your family. Every time that happens, every time one of our students graduates and goes out in the world and makes a name for themselves and sets themselves on a career path, that is providing stability and growth for them as well as their family. That makes more stable communities, and it just goes on and on.

Kirk Bachmann: And it validates the work that you do and how you feel every single day. It seems as though your talents, your skill sets have converged – that’s what I’m hearing – into what I think is an ideal position. You get to make an impact from a very high level. In your new role with Escoffier as the Vice President of Academic Affairs, what is it, Chef – tough question – that you hope to bring to the team, and how are you anticipating that making an impact on your students? It’s got to cascade through many, many layers. How does the message not get diluted?

Kathleen Vossenberg: Bottom line, it is about the student experience. It is about making that experience in the classroom the absolute best, most engaging that it can possibly be. That does a lot for the students’ ability to continue. It goes towards their ability to make it when times get tough, to dig deep down inside of themselves and say, “This is really what I want, and I’m going to do everything in my power to get there.” And to keep coming back for more. That persistence from day to day, from week to week, from class to class. Before you know it, it’s graduation time. That’s really the why.

How we get there is by empowering the faculty and all of the layers within the organization, by empowering people to do their best work. Giving them the tools necessary, whether that is training them on the world of education in total, understanding our operating environment from a compliance perspective and accreditation, all of the tips and techniques and tricks that I’ve learned along the way of how to be a great educator. It’s not about doing one thing to be a great educator. It’s about doing a million little things, doing them right, and doing them consistently so you produce a great student.

The 3 E’s: Engage, Educate, Eat

Kirk Bachmann: Some of those things are simple. I love your philosophy. It’s all over your LinkedIn. You approach everything from a concept of engage, educate, and eat.

Kathleen Vossenberg: That’s it!

Kirk Bachmann: Super simple words, but incredibly powerful. Walk me through that journey.

Kathleen Vossenberg: I’ll be honest. I came up with that as a catchy LinkedIn title myself, because I didn’t want my profile just to be associated with a position or an employer. I think that it’s about creating a network and a mindset for who you are as a contributor to the greater industry. I thought about what that means. What do I actually deliver?

Engagement is top priority for me. I don’t ever want to do anything halfway. It is all about making sure that everybody’s all in in everything that they do. If you have engaged students, if you have engaged faculty, if you have engaged leadership, then you’re going to be on fire. You’re going to do everything in unbelievable ways that can’t be touched by people who are just approaching it from a mediocre standpoint. So engagement is key.

Education is about doing a million little things right and doing them consistently. You have to be relentless when you’re an educator. You can’t ever take no for an answer. You have to just keep going no matter what the challenges are in front of you, who the individual students are that you’re dealing with, what other outside influences are happening. You just have to keep plowing along. Education is really about all of those little things.

Then the last piece of it is eating.

Kirk Bachmann: My favorite part.

Kathleen Vossenberg: Everything that we do comes back to the food. It’s amazing to me the difference between someone who has a culinary education and someone who came up in the industry just learning how to be a cook on the job. I think that cooks are very good at what they do in their environment, but people who have a culinary education understand the why behind it. They understand the technique and how to apply that technique across various foods. When you talk about grilling a chicken breast, it’s not about the chicken breast; it’s about understanding grilling. If you understand grilling, you can grill that chicken breast, you can grill a steak, you can grill some vegetables. Maybe a piece of fish if you’re really good at it without it falling apart on the grill. Those are the true tests. Can you apply this technique across various platforms, across various ingredients? That’s what I hope every culinary graduate comes across with.

Staying Responsive to the Industry

Kirk Bachmann: I like the why. Critical thinking comes in. You mentioned the concept of grilling a certain type of fish on the grill without disaster happening. That takes practice and that critical thinking approach.

Chef, part of your role at Escoffier includes developing new curriculum and new educational initiatives. Innovation. Always looking forward. What’s the best way to approach a task like that? What are some of the key decisions that you have to make or collaborate with others when you select, for example, one program over another to launch?

Kathleen Vossenberg: It’s a lot. I’m not going to claim that I do it alone. There are a ton of people involved. When I first came to Escoffier, that’s what I was hired to do, was to be the Director of Program Development. While there is a very academic focus to it, it takes a village, literally, to get it all done. Everything from working with our marketing team to see what’s going to be most desirable in the marketplace, to our compliance team to what we are and aren’t allowed to do within the scope of our business.

Really, what we look at is what’s happening in the industry. It’s about staying in touch with the needs and desires of our operators so that we are delivering students that have a skill set that speak to the needs of our industry. There’s a million things that people want to see, so we’ve got to be able to deliver on that. I’m really happy to be able to work for an organization like Escoffier because we can do those things much quicker and react to the industry in a much more timely manner than a lot of other institutions that have even more layers than we do.

Taking Advantage of Options and Resources

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Going back to your dad, I’m sure that he is proud, would be proud, to see how you took your education and took it to a place that you wanted to be. In that same respect, what are some of the ways that you, in particular, encourage students to take advantage of their academic journey? They’ve got a lot coming at them. We’ll talk about the world here in a minute, but what is the direction you take with students to encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities they have?

Kathleen Vossenberg: I think it is about taking advantage of everything that the school has to offer. There are so many resources available to students. My hope is that people exhaust every single possibility of who and what is there to help there. Everything from their instructors, from the immediate standpoint, to one-on-one time with those instructors, larger classroom time with those instructors. Specific tutors that are designed to be there to help them navigate various portions of the curriculum.

Our student services team. Our coaches are amazing people with a wealth of resources and understanding that can help students through really, really tough times that a lot of them will go through while they’re in school, just like any other adult.

Our career services team. Wow. What an amazing group of people that work with the students from that “cradle to grave” approach. From the very beginning of their journey, we’re already starting to talk to them about where they fit in this world and what types of jobs are going to be best suited to them and where their interests lie. If you have dreams and aspirations of being a line cook in a fancy downtown restaurant, and those jobs work primarily dinner shifts and you’re not done with work until one or two in the morning, but yet you’ve got a baby at home, how are you going to manage that? Do you have someone to help you care for the baby? Maybe not. Maybe you need to switch directions and go work in a different segment of this industry while that child is young. Maybe when the child is older, maybe then you switch back into that different type of career path.

That’s the thing that I love about this industry. There are so many options. Everybody has their place, and yet it all still revolves around food. Whether that is that downtown restaurant or it’s more of an institutional dining setting, or a theme park or some other hospitality resort-type situation, there is a place for everybody and we’re going to help people find it.

I hope people take advantage of all of that while they’re students so we can produce the best cheerleaders possible for our school. That’s really what it comes down to. If they have a great experience, they will shout it from the rooftops.

Finding the Good

Kirk Bachmann: And for the industry. Well said, Kathleen. I appreciate that.

Unless you don’t look at social media or anything at all, we’re living in difficult times at times. Globally, which we’ve all been dealing with, the effects of the pandemic. Some have academic hardships. Now there’s a war. In many ways, it’s one thing after another. I certainly don’t want to get political, but these world events still have to be taken into consideration when we think about education. So I’m just curious: are there things that you think about – academic strategy, the student experience, other initiatives – for Escoffier in the face of our global climate? Obviously, coming through the pandemic was a real success for our company the way we navigated that and instituted certain protocols and really putting the safety of our students at the forefront of the industry. Have any high level thoughts about how to approach this from an academic perspective?

Kathleen Vossenberg: I would say that I am 100 percent an optimist. I am a glass-is-half-full kind of person. I saw a Facebook post maybe a year or so ago talking about the pandemic and how people were really dealing with a lot and feeling that pressure of everything that was happening in the world. They compared it to many years ago with the Vietnam War and all sorts of societal things going on, the fight for equal rights, and all of these things that felt heavy and hard and almost tragic. At the same time, we put a man on the moon. There’s always good. There’s always something good happening in the world, and I choose to look to those things. If you look for the people who are helping, even in the most tragic of situations. My dad’s a retired firefighter. There are always people that will be there to help. That’s my mindset and where I come from.

But from an educational standpoint, I think that we need to 1) be very sensitive to our students and what they’re dealing with. Most of Escoffier students are working adults. They have families and they have other responsibilities besides school. That is something to always be cognizant of, how we use that to inform what we’re doing or look to the future.

I think more than anything, the pandemic has underscored the validity of online learning. Escoffier is very much forging that path in terms of online vocational education, which a lot of people didn’t think could be done. There’s a decade’s worth of work in this company saying, “Yes, it can be done, and it can be done very, very well, and very, very successfully.” I look to that for the future.

There’s an old saying that if you don’t change, you become extinct. I hope that the old-school thought process of our industry with “You must do it this way because that’s the way I learned it,” I see that changing, and I hope it continues to chance, because the future is upon us. This is here to stay.

The Importance of Partnership and Collaboration

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. I love that optimism and, more than anything, the student-centric approach. Really beautiful.

A number of chefs and guests that we’ve had on the podcast have talked about the importance of partnership and collaborations, specifically in the kitchen, getting your team on board with the mission and the vision of the organization – or even your vision – so that it can be executed successfully. That’s true across most industries, I imagine. I envision it’s the same for you as your work is so dependent upon the buy-in of many. Many stakeholders. Partnerships from your peers. You mentioned earlier different departments, chef instructors who are face-to-face with our students every single day, and so many more.

In the famous words of Dale Carnegie, what’s your approach to influence people or win people over? You’ve got an electric personality. That’s the Irish in you. What’s the strategy behind getting people to see your vision?

Kathleen Vossenberg: That’s a great question. I think it really goes back to the tenets of adult education in that adults need to know why. You cannot just ask an adult to do something or give them an order and have them fall in line and do it. That may work for a short period of time, but it won’t work from a long-term perspective in terms of building a team and building a collaborative environment. For me, I need to be able to speak to people about the why behind what we’re doing, and how that will impact not just what I want, but how it will impact what they want and what their challenges are, so we can collaborate and find solutions that work best for everybody.

There’s no perfect world. There’s no utopia, but we can get as close to that as possible by working together. When people are up front and honest and transparent about needs and wants and operating conditions and challenges that they’re facing, then we can lay it all out on the table and we can figure out what’s going to be the best path forward for the collective good. If I keep all that inside and I don’t share those things with people at all levels of the organization – above me, below me and sideways – then we don’t get anywhere. It’s pretty easy, but it just takes having adult conversations.

Kirk Bachmann: You mention cradle-to-grave earlier. Is there a specific recipe around how to create opportunities, or at least point to opportunities for students to take advantage to enhance their education and make it from that acceptance letter to the commencement stage?

Kathleen Vossenberg: I think it comes back to communication. If we get great ideas at high levels, but they’re never communicated downwards or they’re not communicated appropriately and people don’t know about them, then we’re just spinning our wheels. It’s about communicating appropriately and making sure that we’re crafting opportunities that address the breadth of our student body, and not just those people who want to be the line cooks working until 1 a.m., because that’s only one small portion of our industry.

When I went to culinary school, there was a big focus on fine dining restaurants and that was the ultimate goal. You’re going to go work at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago back in the day. While that is fantastic for those that want that, it’s still a very small portion of our industry. It operates on a much different level than other segments within the industry do.

Kirk Bachmann: And it doesn’t accommodate certain lifestyles for people. You mention having a child at home and that sort of thing.

How important, Chef, is mentoring, the broad topic of mentoring, both receiving and giving?

Mentors to the Next Level

Kathleen Vossenberg: I think it’s incredibly important. I’ve had some fantastic experiences in my life with people that I’ve looked up to within my industry and outside of it that helped push me along and get me to see that there’s another level that I can get to. There’s another means for me to grow and evolve and become much more beneficial to the industry as a whole. Because of that, I think that I have really tried to open myself up to other people that have worked with me and for me in the past to be able to provide that level of mentorship to them. I have former students that have gone through all different gamuts of this industry. One of my very first students at Le Cordon Bleu in Orlando become a research and development chef for Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow.

Kathleen Vossenberg: It doesn’t get much better than that. Fantastic story, and I’m still in touch with him. He’s off doing something else now. What an amazing opportunity! I’ve had students that all of a sudden you see their name in print. They’re the best new chef under 30 named by Food and Wine Magazine. You’re like, “Wow! I taught that person when they were just a student.”

Kirk Bachmann: It’s rewarding.

Kathleen Vossenberg: It is. And then I’ve had students who have followed me along the path in education. They’ve gone out and they’ve worked in the industry and earned their chops, and they came back and now they’re instructors and they’re tutors, and they’re other things. I’ve had people say to me, “This is because of you. You were such a fantastic influence as an instructor in my schooling, that this is what I want to do. This is how I want to impact people.”

It comes full circle, and all of that feels really, really good. I think it’s important that people seek that out. If there is nobody that you’re looking to to push yourself to the next level, then I think you’re missing out from a career standpoint. You’ll just become stagnant eventually, and that’s not rewarding for anybody.

Golf and Bad Gift-Giving

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That’s a great story. Before I take you to the wrap-up question. You’re in Augusta, Georgia. Are you a golfer? Do you get out there?

Kathleen Vossenberg: I’m not.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re not!

Kathleen Vossenberg: You want to hear a really funny story? I joke with my husband that he’s notoriously bad at gift-giving. One of my favorite stories is that he bought me a putter. He used to work at a golf resort when we lived in Florida. He came home for my birthday so excited.

Kirk Bachmann: With the putter!

Kathleen Vossenberg: I’m left-handed, so he bought me this left-handed putter. He was so excited to give me this gift. And I said, “Well, I don’t golf.” I was also seven months pregnant at the time, with our second baby. I said, “Not only do I not golf, but how am I going to even learn how to golf with two young children in the house.” So no, I do not golf.

Kirk Bachmann: That was a nice thought, right? Where is that putter today?

Kathleen Vossenberg: I think I gave it to Goodwill.

Chef Kathleen’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Ouch! Ouch!

Chef, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish, so I always have to ask, what is, in your world, the ultimate dish?

Kathleen Vossenberg: Wow. I will tell you that you use the word ultimate dish. I call it my death row meal, so if I ever get the opportunity to make that final decision of what the last meal I’m going to eat. For me, it is Thanksgiving dinner.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, nice!

Kathleen Vossenberg: The reason why is that when I was in college getting my business degree, the cafeteria food was not the best. I would dream about coming home for Thanksgiving dinner and cooking with my mom, just making that meal for our family. Inevitably, we made more food than we needed so there were lots of leftovers. It was about the process of cooking as much as it was the meal. It was learning all of my mom’s tips and tricks, and the special pot that the five pounds of mashed potatoes went in for the mere six of us that would be having dinner together. It was about all those traditions. Really, what that comes down to is family. It’s about the story that we tell ourselves and our children and the memories and those memories that are created around food are some of the best memories that anybody can have. For me, that’s what Thanksgiving is all about. It’s about family. That’s my ultimate dish.

Kirk Bachmann: No one’s every shared that before. I love that. I love how it connects to family.

Kathleen Vossenberg: And now I’m crying thinking of my mom.

Kirk Bachmann: I absolutely love the emotion. That’s perfect. Absolutely beautiful.

Chef, thanks for spending some time with us today. You have passion, you have intention, you’re a storyteller. You have a gift. Thank you so much. I am so honored to work with you every day.

Kathleen Vossenberg: Same here. Back at you, buddy!

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. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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