Podcast episode 6

The Gift of Giving Back from a Leading Culinary Educator

With Dina Altieri | 38 minutes | July 13, 2021

In this episode we’re speaking with Dina Altieri, the Director of Culinary Enterprises at UMOM New Day Centers in Phoenix, Arizona – a non-profit organization that helps fight homelessness in underserved communities.

With over thirty years of leading kitchens, educating, and training young culinarians, Dina is one of the foremost leaders in culinary education today. Some of her many accolades include winning National Chef Educator of the Year in 2011 and receiving the Cutting Edge Award in 2015 from the American Culinary Foundation.

Listen as we chat with Dina about the value of being a culinary educator, mentorship, softball, serving underprivileged communities, and the importance of always being open to learning.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hello everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode we are speaking with my friend Chef Dina Altieri, Director of Culinary Enterprises at UMOM New Day Centers, a non-profit organization in Arizona, which helps impoverished local communities and those in need of direction and guidance.

Dina has spent over 30 years leading kitchens and she has extensive experience as a chef, educator, and career coach – having trained countless aspiring culinarians for the workforce. She was named national Chef Educator of the Year in 2011 and also received the Cutting Edge Award in 2015, from the American Culinary Federation. Join us today as we chat with Dina about culinary education, mentorship, and her learnings after decades of serving others.

Dina, welcome, thank you so much for chatting with me this morning. So great to see you. How are you? You look great.

Dina Altieri: Good to see you chef, thank you. Normally I’m like one shade from being sunburned out here in Phoenix.

Kirk Bachmann: So it’s, what, 8:42…probably 80 degrees, right?

Dina Altieri: Oh yeah. Everybody is out in the neighborhood now blowing their leaves and sweeping their sidewalks and stuff because in a couple hours it’ll be prohibitively hot.

Kirk Bachmann: I thought leaves just disintegrate in the sun.

Dina Altieri: No you’ve got to get a blower. You’ve got to blow them out.

Kirk Bachmann: (laughter) I’ve got to say – I’ve known you for a long time. I think we met originally in LA when you were with the Cordon Bleu. You worked at NECI on the East Coast, you worked at the Kendall College in Chicago, and so much more. You’ve coached students, and knowledge bowls, and other competitions. We’ll talk about that a little bit more, but the common denominator, and I’m going to make you blush, for the Dina I know…is giving back. You’re always giving back. Press releases I see, articles I read, chatting with you. You’ve done some work with Escoffier, which is so appreciated, giving back. It’s touching.

The obvious question – what is it about giving back, through education in many ways, that gives you so much joy? Do you know what motivates you about that?

Dina Altieri: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that motivation is my own motivation too. There’s a similarity in that. I’m a lifelong learner. I love the idea that every day I’m doing a new project or coaching a new student, or working with a new member of the staff, that they have the opportunity to grow. And so that’s the motivator, right? Every day, we have the opportunity to be a little bit better than we were the day before. And there’s nothing more in my career that’s motivated me than people who just want to do a little bit more, want to be a little better.

That’s probably what’s motivated me to coach the Knowledge Bowl team all those years. It’s not about winning the shiny trophy and the medallion, although that’s awesome. ACF does such a great job with creating that really comfortable, competitive, professional arena. But at the end of the day, those students that come on that journey with me, they start smart and they finish brilliant. I’m to watch them do the work that they’re doing in the industry, knowing that competition really was fodder for their success. So that’s been the motivator – growth, and people being willing to change. Those are the big ones for me.

Working with American Culinary Federation

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, I love the ‘start smart’ and I’ve followed the work that you’ve done with the American Culinary Federation. And for our listeners, it’s the largest organization of professional chefs in the United States, right. Lots of education, lots of training, lots of networking. This connection with culinarians, with students, Dina, it’s a two-way street too, right? Are you learning from those that you’re mentoring as well? Are there any takeaways?

Dina Altieri: Absolutely. You mentioned in the intro, in 2011, being named the National Chef Educator of the Year, was probably just one of the most important moments in my life. I can remember my mom and dad were in the crowd when I actually did my live demo in front of the chef panel. I had that moment where obviously, as a competitor, you’re nervous. You’re hoping this is your best run and you’ve practiced it so many times. And I had this moment up there where I realized that I had kind of come into my own. In the sense of “I’ve done my best and so it’s going to be okay, whatever happens.” Because the competitors that were up against me that time were so good. Each of those gentlemen were just phenomenal.

So A, to have the opportunity to be in front of them as their peer competing is an honor. B, to be judged and critiqued and given feedback by chefs you admire is insanely important. And we tell students that all the time: “It’s okay if you’re a B student, you still should go to the tutor. Because the tutor can make you an A student.” You never stop wanting to move forward. For me, I get a lot out of being a teacher. As you mentioned, you and I’ve known each other pretty much for the duration of me being in education, and I came to it when it was the Southern California School of Culinary Arts in 1997. And I just got hooked. Somebody believed in me and thought that I had something important to share. And I never got up in front of the room like I’m the expert. I kind of got up in front of the room, as “I’m learning with you. I happen to know a little bit more about these few things so let’s go on this journey together.” That’s just been my mantra.

It’s nice to be an expert in some stuff. But I mean, are any of us really experts in an industry that’s constantly evolving? That’s been my motivation, learning as much as I can. And the students have been…without them, I wouldn’t be learning as much as I have.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that response. They all say that while you’re learning, you’re the best teacher you can possibly be.

Dina Altieri: Absolutely.

Shifting to Education

Kirk Bachmann: We’ll back up again, just a second there. Obviously, you educated yourself first. You went into the industry. What was it that triggered that desire within you to go all in the education route, while still honing your craft? Because to your point, the industry is changing, trends are changing, food changes. Plant-based is all the buzz today, so we’re educating ourselves again. But what was it that was so attractive to you on the education side that sort of pulled you away from the stoves, if you will?

Dina Altieri: Yeah, I think it’s the academic elements of it. At the time I was executive chef of a really great catering company in Los Angeles, right on the Miracle Mile, doing mostly on-premise wedding catering for a company called More Than A Mouthful with a couple of awesome CIA graduates that were interested in hiring a chef that was also a CIA grad. I’m a grad from 1991. Being in that arena, and obviously cooking and managing and creating menus and working with clients and creating these massive events was fantastic. But what I started to realize is that there was almost like something missing. It’d be cool to do something that was more academic.

So I met Chef Robert Danhi in culinary school basically. He and I both kind of ended up in the South Bay. I was living in Redondo Beach at the time and he was at the culinary school. He’s the one who tapped me and said, “I need a teacher to teach like Tuesday nights. It’s a class called Hot Foods Production.” And I was like, “Yeah, I think I could do that.” What I realized is that I still have my original lesson plans, where I was drawing the primals of lamb because I had to get up in front of the room. And again, assume that everyone’s looking at me, I gotta know what I’m talking about. All those lessons were handwritten at the time. And just to use your word, what that sparked in me or triggered in me was, “Wait a minute, I can cook. I can help people be better.” That was your first question. Why do you do this? And then third, “Oh, my gosh, I can totally geek out on this.” And I’m looking through Larousse Gastronomique, and I’m pulling stuff from Harold McGee. For me, it was the perfect match to my skill set and my desire to be better.

So every lesson got better. Every time I did the demo, it got better, faster, tighter, cleaner. There was always a challenge to it. I must have…you can relate to this as an educator: how many times have you shown somebody how to make up beurre blanc or how to do a basic eight-cut chicken or chicken supreme. Every time I did it, it never got old. That’s how I knew I was in the right place. Like, “let me show you how to go get the wishbone,” I would get excited about it. And students would always be like, “Chef, you’re so fired up.” And I’m like, “Yeah, and I’ve been doing this for 22 years.” It’s like my first julienne, you know what I mean? I’m so excited to talk about it. That’s how I know I’m in the right place. It’s just never gotten old.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s your passion. Like my kids say “it’s your jam.” Right? (laughter) Pun intended. I love that. While you were speaking there, I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my god, there’s so many crossroads.” Speaking of Crossroads, great LA restaurant of our friend, Tal Ronnen. But you mentioned Robert, he’ll be our guest next week.

Dina Altieri: Oh fantastic!

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, he’s an amazing person. The networking is insane, right?

Dina Altieri: Yes.

Kirk Bachmann: When we chatted last we were talking about “what are the common denominators with chefs?” You love music, you love motorcycles, or you love both, right?

Dina Altieri: Right.

Life Lessons from Softball

Kirk Bachmann: We were laughing because I think I was at my son’s baseball game and then all of a sudden, we start talking about your softball career. For me, this whole chef world, and we’ll come back to the ACF again in a minute, is this world of networking. Friends that… I don’t remember when I met Robert, for example, right? Years ago, probably at an ACF conference, he was probably doing a demo on Southeast Asian cuisine. And it’s like you rush up to the front like, “Hey, I need to know you.”

Dina Altieri: Absolutely.

Kirk Bachmann: And I love that. Remind our listeners about your softball career.

Dina Altieri: Oh, my gosh…(laughter)

Kirk Bachmann: I gotta go there. I gotta go there. (laughter)

Dina Altieri: It’s so funny, yeah.

Kirk Bachmann: What position?

Dina Altieri: Second base and shortstop. Yeah, definitely an infielder. My father when I was a kid, taught me how to take a hop off the edge of the dirt and the grass. So I grew up playing softball. That’s actually a really great quick story: I remember being seven and I was… let’s not call it shy, I don’t think I was shy.

Kirk Bachmann: That would be hard to believe. (laughter)

Dina Altieri: Very hard to believe. But I didn’t want to join a team. I was nervous. Probably fear of failure. Sure I know how to catch, I know how to play with my big brother, I know how to play with the kids in the neighborhood, my dad says I’m good, whatever. But my parents were like, “No, no, no, you have to go try out for the team.” And so again, through the encouragement of a mentor, call them parents, I tried out for the little league. The first team I was on was The Pelicans.

Kirk Bachmann: Nice, nice.

Dina Altieri: It was awesome. So from tee ball all the way through high school, I played pretty competitively. I played on a summer league girls fast pitch and that’s where my friends were, right Chef? Your friends are on the ball field, you grow up with them.

Kirk Bachmann: So good.

Dina Altieri: I loved every bit of it. It really helped me grow and helped me learn how to perform on a team. I learned I was pretty humbled at certain layers of my playing in the sense that sometimes I wasn’t good enough to be a starter – if it was that All-Star team on the summer league. I made the team at 13 years old, but I wasn’t good enough to be a starting shortstop or second baseman. I remember the coaches talking to us, my family, and saying, “You know, what do you think?” And my dad still tells this story, because I was totally cool with it. I wasn’t like, “Well, I don’t want to be on the team if I can’t play.” My first thought there was, “Wow, I get to learn. I get to learn from these other players that have been doing it a lot longer than me.”

Kirk Bachmann: And be with your friends and stay with your friends.

Dina Altieri: Yeah, it’s probably one of the first stories that I can remember of being in that lifelong learning process and not really having a ton of expectation. Other than, “Maybe I’ll learn something cool and then soon, when I’m good enough, I’ll be able to play.” But I took that mentality with me into the kitchen, because that’s very similar, right? You want to be the sous chef, you think you’re good enough? You kind of got something to prove, a little bit. You need to put some time in and sharpen your knives and put your head down and get to it and someone will notice you. And if they don’t, maybe that’s not the right kitchen. I just feel like that story, that mentality, has stayed with me for forever.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that, just a beautiful analogy. And it did stay with you. High five to Dad for keeping you focused.

Dina Altieri: Totally.

Kirk Bachmann: So did he allow you to be on the All-Stars, even though you weren’t starting?

Dina Altieri: Oh, yeah.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, there you go.

Dina Altieri: Yeah, it was it was a summer team called the Bethel Rebels, we were from Bethel, Connecticut. We traveled all over the region and like I said, I think my parents looked to me and said, “Okay, Dina, this is what the coaches are saying. Are you cool with that?” And I was totally cool with that. The opportunity to learn from those older players meant everything to me. I wasn’t a starting player, but I never once had any kind of negative feeling about that. Next year I was a starter and the years after that.

Kirk Bachmann: You were the starter and the million dollar contract and all of that. (laughter) I wanted to come back to these common denominators. Are you riding a Harley now? Is that right?

Dina Altieri: No, no, I ride a Yamaha Virago 750.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh so small machine, right? (laughter)

Dina Altieri: Yeah, so I did learn on a little Harley Sportster 883. And it’s so funny that you mentioned Chef Danhi is coming on next week because he rides a motorcycle.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, of course.

Dina Altieri: This is the story I used to tell my students at Kendall college. I had like this… it is what it is, but I call it my midlife crisis. I said, “Oh my god, I had a midlife crisis when I was in my early forties, and I decided that I needed to buy two things that used both my arms and my legs and required coordination, and were quite noisy. They both were Yamaha’s. One was a Yamaha stage custom drum kit.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, nice, nice. And the other had two wheels. (laughter)

Dina Altieri: The other was a motorcycle, yeah. (laughter) So it was kind of cool to be again talking to the students about, “You never stop learning.” And I was really bad on the drums for a while, and probably, you’d still consider me mediocre at best. Then I still ride the motorcycle. To learn something new was totally cool. And the students who used to razz me because I used to go to drum lessons, a couple nights a week, and I’d have to like quickly leave class on those nights to go make it to my drum lesson. The students would just razz me about that. I’m like, “What? I go to class and the drum teacher gives me homework. And if I don’t do it, he yells at me.”

Kirk Bachmann: It’s a great lesson too. Our students have lives too and I’ve always appreciated that. Just like we have to rush off, they have to rush off. I’ve got a BMW 650 GS, it’s a little bit more enduro. I’m at a point in my life where I’m going to stay off the highway, out of respect for all the other drivers. But I just love how many chefs love the music and the need for speed – is what we’re going to call it. Let’s jump a little bit into the American Culinary Federation. It’s just been such a big part of your life.

Dina Altieri: It really has, yeah.

Winning Awards & Competition

Kirk Bachmann: So just a few years ago, you received the Cutting Edge Award. Can you talk a little bit about that? What does accolade mean in the industry? What does it mean to you? And then we’ll talk a little bit more about the ACF.

Dina Altieri: I think I touched on it earlier. At least through my lens, we never jump into the competition arena, or the coaching arena, or the professional credential-ing arena with anything other than the mindset of trying to be better. When you’re given an award, like the Cutting Edge Award, you’re like, “Wow, I’m being acknowledged for maybe just doing things that are a little bit different.” I think at that time, it was likely due to the influence that I had those years coaching Knowledge Bowl. I just got such a charge out of Knowledge Bowl, every bit of it. It was so hard for me to sit in that audience and not scream and shout and cheer. And every once in a while, they’d shush me. Because I would just be so fired up like, “Oh my god, my students just hit the buzzer after two words were spoken by the MC, like a couple of keyword clues.”

Kirk Bachmann: They just knew it.

Dina Altieri: And how are you not proud of that? But again, that room, you had to keep it quiet, because it was more like a quiz bowl kind of competition. But yeah, I think that Cutting Edge Award was largely due to the year spent coaching the teams and being, I hope, a role model to other coaches – just to be professional. Again, it’s so competitive and no one wants to lose. But at the end of the day, is anybody really losing? We’re all here just learning a ton and showing our students what it means to be competitive for the right reasons and taking people to the next level.

I think also worthy of mention, with the American Culinary Federation, is I’ve been a voice there in the equity, diversity, and inclusion conversation. How do we make kitchens a bit more equitable? How do we give voices to people who are maybe females in the industry who have felt like they haven’t been given an opportunity? Or anyone and everyone, when you think about marginalized communities in our industry and who’s kind of given the chance and who isn’t. I’ve been a voice in that arena. And I’m super excited that ACF is always reaching out to me like, “Hey Dina, do you want to be a part of this?” And I don’t say no, because I really feel like it’s important for me to create an environment that’s better for everybody who’s coming up after me. And I’ve been with the ACF for 25 years this year.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it and there are a lot of acronyms behind your name. So becoming a culinary educator through the criteria of the ACF, wasn’t one of my original questions but you just reminded me, what did that mean to you? I still participate a lot with the ACF so I review many of the applications that come in and watch the videos. And boy…it’s unbelievably rewarding for me to see culinarians who step outside of the kitchen and want to become culinary educators. Talk about that feeling, just a little bit.

Teaching Both Hard Skills & Soft Skills

Dina Altieri: What I’ll use to sort of frame my answer, Chef, is that I think the ACF does a really great job of creating those stepping stones of credentialing and certification for culinarians. From the newest CFC credential that they’ll give to a high school grad, or someone who’s maybe not on the college pathway, that to me is huge. Because what we’re doing is we’re increasing access to our industry through certification and credentialing. That might be a non-traditional pathway.

So first and foremost, I back certification, because I think that there’s a clear pathway for so many different people. Whether you’re a cook, a pastry cook, or to your question, an educator. You have an avenue where you can exercise your skill set and be rewarded or badged or credentialed for that skill set. I have two educator credentials. One is the CEC from ACF. It means a lot to me because in order to be an educator, you have to be a great chef. The biggest part of your job as an educator is to model great professional behavior in the sense of like your mentoring.

We’ve all known chefs, they stand in front of a cutting board, and they’re super good at what they’re doing. Maybe they’re showing some fabrication, maybe they’re showing some plating, whatever it is at the demo. There’s people who do that really well and then there’s the educator who gets that other piece of it, that isn’t so much just the hard skill of fabrication, but the soft skills of, “Okay, now how do we teach our students resilience, and grit and hustle, and perseverance and not fearing failure” and all that other stuff that is critical to a more long term success in the industry. I think that’s what I’m after.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that response and what I was thinking about as I listened, was that really, really great educators, who somehow, some way… some are so brilliant at weaving a needs analysis into the conversation. In other words, let’s start with what you know, or what you’re familiar with. Then all of a sudden you can see the student become somewhat relaxed and familiar. “Oh, I can have this conversation.”

Dina Altieri: Absolutely.

Kirk Bachmann: So much of what you’re speaking of, I can’t help but be reminded of our namesake Auguste Escoffier, who 100 years ago, was speaking of pathways and modeling great behavior, to use your words, and providing access to the industry in a very, very respectful way. Yeah imagine that, 100 years ago…

Dina Altieri: And, for him… just the fact that somebody had the brain and the emotional intelligence to codify all of those things, knowing that it would make it easier for all of us. So when we say “sauce chasseur,” we’re all talking about the same thing. That standardization piece is really cool. And that’s the only reason why we can communicate globally about food.

Fighting Homelessness with UMOM

Kirk Bachmann: The language of the kitchen, which I adore. Let’s get passionate, and maybe even emotional. You do some amazing work in your local area there. I’d love for you to just share what your mission is, what your organization, what UMOM’s mission is, in terms of creating opportunities for perhaps some less fortunate folks. And perhaps people who have come upon difficult times or challenges in their life. I know it’s really meaningful work for you. So share a little bit of that with our listeners.

Dina Altieri: Sure. Right now I’m working for a non-profit, it’s called UMOM. And what we do is we essentially serve the homeless in our community. Everyone’s driven down the street and seen a family or an individual who’s experiencing homelessness, and you kind of have that feeling where you’re like, “Man, I don’t know what I can do about that.” Well I’m lucky, because I get to do something about it.

Every day that I’m at work, my team and I have the opportunity to feed several hundred individuals that are experiencing homelessness that live in a residential homeless shelter with us. So we’re feeding kids, their moms and dads, and single women that are experiencing homelessness in Maricopa County. Technically, the shelters are in Phoenix. I’m the director there, I run a food service operation that has three buckets. One is a residential dining facility where we, as I mentioned, feed breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year. We’re feeding the residents there so that we can nourish them and rebuild them and restore their hope through food, which is again such an honor. We also operate a little social enterprise, which is called Helpings Cafe. It’s right on Van Buren Street, basically at 33rd and Van Buren and that’s what we call a social enterprise. It runs as a small business connected to our non-profit. We do catering and cafe service there, so it’s open to the public. Then the third bucket is, in that cafe and in that residential dining kitchen, we run a little food service training program. So that’s the education piece.

We have a couple instructor partners and a chef instructor who manages the program alongside me and we run it. It’s called Homegrown. It’s the coolest thing ever. Because what it is, it’s a free program. It’s six weeks. It’s like a little mini boot camp for clients that are experiencing homelessness within our UMOM programs to come and learn from us. How cool is that, right Chef? We have a little cafe and catering operation and our clients, our folks that we serve, are now in there with us cooking and making coffee because we have a whole barista program there as well. Basically what happens is once we do the soft skills training, and the hard skills training, and all the job readiness stuff, we get these individuals jobs. So the mission, obviously, of our agency is to break the cycle of homelessness. But our team in food service gets to utilize the skills that we have in food and beverage to actually deliver education to clients that want to learn from us in that space.

Kirk Bachmann: I just love it and I can hear the passion in your voice. So for some of your clients, obviously, the goal is kind of…it feels like an end-to-end solution. You get them trained, “skilled up” if you will, and then you help them with the job piece. Do some of your clients find a journey or a pathway to more education or to the ACF perhaps?

Dina Altieri: That’s like the dream – that you ignite some passion in someone and they decide that they want to go back to school. So I’ll answer it this way. We do have some individuals that come through our Homegrown training program that are teenagers. Pretty much about 90% of them, I can convince them to go back and complete their high school education and get their GED. Which then obviously leads them into a much better avenue. Secondly, because our cafe is a Starbucks store, we have a dotted line to Starbucks employment for the graduates of our program. What Starbucks does that’s really cool is they have a really robust tuition reimbursement program. So potentially a graduate from our program, who gets employed with Starbucks, can then get a full ride for a Bachelor Degree through ASU online.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow!

Dina Altieri: That’s a big deal.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, that’s wonderful.

Dina Altieri: Then the other way that I would answer that is a shout out to a really great agency in Chicago that I was working at before relocating here to Phoenix. And that agency is called the Center on Halsted and it is an agency that serves the LGBTQ community.

One thing that I’m very, very proud of, before packing up the car and moving west, was we were able to pilot that ACF/CFC certification there. I had students that were in a nine-week program with our program there at Center on Halsted that one was called Silver Fork. The students that graduated from Silver Fork at nine weeks, were eligible to test for that CFC credential. I had three of them go through the coaching with me and the pilot, and they all sailed through that credentialing and got their certs. So they were the first candidates who were completers of a CFC credential from the ACF that were non-high school pathway folks. They were coming out of a community-based culinary program run by a nonprofit so we kind of made a little history in that moment. There was not a dry eye in the room when those guys passed. It was so cool.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it.

Dina Altieri: Yeah, it was so cool. So you know three individuals that were not heading for college and were likely without a mentor, maybe not even gonna find food service. They were able to not only complete our program, but emerge with that CFC credential from ACF.

Cultivating a Healthy Kitchen Culture

Kirk Bachmann: Amazing story and on behalf of all of us in the industry, thank you for that work. It’s super meaningful. And I know it means a lot to you to give back in that way. You mentioned Chicago, I got to go back to Chicago, born and raised. You’ve done the food scene in LA, you’ve done the food scene on the East Coast. Very different. Any thoughts? You’ve been out of Chicago for three years now? Maybe four?

Dina Altieri: It’ll be four years, yeah.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow, that goes fast. What do you think about the food scene in Chicago? It’s a lot different than it was 20 years ago, right?

Dina Altieri: It’s a lot different. But boy it is the one thing that my spouse and I talk about all the time that we miss the most. Obviously, the pulse of Chicago… it is such a cool city. I mean I was born in the Bronx and moved out in New York City when I was just a kid. I don’t have lived experience living in New York as as an adult. So being in Chicago was like, the coolest thing, the trains and the buses and the hustle and the bustle, and even just a great food town. And it will come back strong for sure.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Well said. No doubt, I feel the same way. Speaking of which, what are your thoughts on the future of the industry? Kind of tie the diversity piece into that and the benefits, and just the excitement that awaits the next generation that’s heading that way.

Dina Altieri: Everybody’s talking about what next. And I think for me, the big thing that resonates is making better kitchens for that next generation or the generation right now, that really does want to continue working in kitchens, because we all just love it so much. We love that we can kind of be ourselves. The kitchen is home to so many different personalities, and such a diverse group of people that what a shame that we’re struggling the way we are right now. But I know we’re going to rebound. I think one of the keys that I’m focusing on right now, with my community here, is I think every employer needs to learn how to become like a second chance employer. We all need to understand the empathy and the compassion that is required of us as managers in order to cultivate a really healthy kitchen team.

When I look at the pictures behind you, Chef, you’ve got some good ones there on the wall. I mean, let’s face it, we can’t really move forward if we continue to create kitchen spaces, front-of-house spaces that are so volatile, and kind of angry and almost competitive in a way that’s just not really great for people. Dare I say, maybe soften it a little bit, try to be a little bit more empathetic as managers try to create set schedules for your employees, pay them well… there’s just a lot we can do to move it forward so people want to be a part of the kitchen environment again. It’s not doom and gloom, I think it’s just a cool opportunity for us to reset and refocus and do what we can to make it better than the kitchens that we came up in.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s been exciting to watch the reset and I go back to Escoffier again. It’s the way he envisioned it, many, many moons ago. Treat your people well and the rest falls into place. We’re running out of time a little bit, I will ask you to come back again at another time. Because there’s so much, there’s so much that we didn’t even get to yet. I’m so proud of you and so happy for the unbelievable success and the work that you’re doing in Arizona. So it’s the time of our podcast where I asked you, Dina, what is the ultimate dish? In your opinion (laughter).

Food Brings Memories of Loved Ones

Dina Altieri: I love it. I love it. The ultimate dish… I guess for me, the big answer would be anything that I’m sharing with my family. Especially something that has a resounding food flavor memory for me. I wish I could go back and sit at the table in my grandmother’s house in Jersey, and eat her stuffed artichokes again.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it.

Dina Altieri: That would just be really a significant experience for me. I still love it when I visit my mom and dad and mom’s making like eggplant parmesan. That to me, because it conjures up a food memory that is so powerful. Now is the eggplant parm awesome? It’s delicious. Right?

Kirk Bachmann: Be careful. (laughter)

Dina Altieri: It’s delicious, it’s the memory of it. It’s that it means so much. I can remember we were a team from NECI. We were traveling down to cook at the James Beard house years ago. We actually had lunch at Le Bernardin. That’s one of the fancy ultimate dish answers I can give you. It’s funny, I don’t normally navigate to remembering the dessert course but this one was unforgettable. This one was a goat milk pannacotta with a little passion fruit gelee on the top of it. And there was just something about that tart, sweet balance and juxtaposed textures of that dish that made it probably one of the most memorable.

But for me, ultimate dishes are the ones that conjure up really powerful flavor memories, and often make me almost a little sad. Like a little bittersweet. Like, “I wish Grandma were here to enjoy this with us again.” Or whatever. But food is so powerful. And I think that’s why it’s stayed with me for all these years in my career. Because it gives me so much more than just wow, that’s a delicious, “whatever fill in the blank” taco or pozole. Or you know, again, eggplant parm. But food has got magical, magical powers.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I absolutely love it. And a brilliant response. My favorite line was “food is powerful.” It absolutely is. With that, Chef Dina, my friend, thank you so much for being with us. I will ask you back.

Dina Altieri: Thank you Chef.

Kirk Bachmann: I want to talk James Beard next time. I want to talk Le Bernardin. I’ve been there and experienced the same kind of feelings. That level of cuisine is… I’m feeling ya.

Dina Altieri: We were moved. Obviously, the experiences you’ve had Chef, you’ve just been to restaurants that have just been… you’re at the table and you’re just like, “Wow, what is happening? It’s so delicious.” Dan Barber’s food and obviously Chef Thomas Keller, and what they’re able to do with food. And it’s high cuisine, it’s at that level. But for me, I mean, the most magical meals have been the ones that have been, I’m not gonna say basic in a negative way, I’m just gonna say the stuff is seasonal, the stuff is appropriate to the moment and it’s my family around me. And we’re talking about the loved ones that aren’t with us anymore as we enjoy this traditional thing. And food has that power. It really does. Food is love and it always will be to me. So I’m right where I need to be.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m glad, so glad that you’re there. And everyone you mentioned – Thomas Keller, Eric Riper, Dan Barber, all mentors, all giving back in the best ways they can.

Dina Altieri: Yeah. We had the opportunity here to dabble a little bit with World Central Kitchen with Chef Andrés He has a little outpost here in Phoenix called Frontline Foods and they approached me and we leveraged a local really great taco restaurant called Tacos Chiwas and they did a donation for us and we had Frontline Foods there and we came together. Somebody was like, “Oh, Frontline Foods is a part of World Central Kitchen.” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m a part of the José Andrés movement.” How cool is that? Like you mentioned, network is critical. I think as long as we’re in the right place, doing the right thing, and doing what we love and sharing our knowledge with others. For me, I have the opportunity to help somebody break the cycle of homelessness for themselves and their children. There’s been no greater gift than that for me in my career.

Kirk Bachmann: So well said Dina. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dina Altieri: Thanks Chef.

Kirk Bachmann: I’ll be really excited to bring you back again.

Dina Altieri: Awesome. Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: You bet. Thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit us at 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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