Industry Spotlight: Jason Peel, Chef Instructor, Culinary Arts Program, Kapi‘olani Community College

This may not be a popular thing to say, but Hawai‘i’s restaurant market is saturated.

The amount of restaurants popping up, I think it’s just too much, honestly. There’s a lot of great chefs and cooks here in Hawai‘i, but you can’t do it all yourself, you need a good supporting staff. With this many restaurants, some great, some bad and all those in-between, everybody’s having trouble, as far as attracting and keeping workers. The work force has a different mentality now, they think they have power over the business.

Back when I was younger, you went to work early, left late, (usually not paid), and did whatever you had to do to get better. Take notes, always listening to see if you could learn something new, then practice at home. In addition to working your station, you’d learn somebody else’s station, take that over and move on, hoping one day, after years of training, to take the chefs position.

Now people want instant gratification and an instant title. And businesses are making these new titles and positions, paying higher rates, etc., just to keep their staff from leaving.

When I think about the title “chef,” I think French, old-school, classically trained, actually making a menu and running the line.

I’ve worked more than 20 years in the industry, from the bottom to the highest positions, and I still have so much to learn.

Now people come in for a year, watch videos on YouTube and call themselves a chef.

Among the real chefs out there, I think there’s a lot of good guys out there, trying really hard, like at Senia. They buy everything top-quality and make everything from scratch. Chris, Anthony, Mimi and Patrick, they’re such a talented team, they’re constantly striving for excellence. I sent a young chef there once, thinking it would be a great learning experience, another stone to his foundation of becoming a chef. He worked one day and left. No one wants to pay their dues anymore. No one wants to work for less money and more knowledge. If you truly want to become a chef then learn to be one.  The industry isn’t about money, it’s about passion. If you have passion the money will come.

From the college standpoint, I think we are going through a transition as far as how we can get the students better-prepared for the industry, as opposed to just teaching them competencies. We are trying to give the young culinarian an easier transition into the industry, give them a real taste of what’s to come, so they can make the right choices when they look for a job. To be industry-ready, I think there has to be a bit more repetition. Everything is learned in practice, hands on. I’m hoping that we can produce students that are work-horses, ready for any challenge, eager to learn more. And when they build that strong foundation, they can turn to their creativity and grow in the industry into the next generation of chefs.

To help get them ready, KCC offers an internship program in which students work at great hotels like the Sheraton, Hilton and many others. Also when we get the restaurant built at the Culinary Institute of the Pacific, that can be another great spot for students to gain real-life, hands-on working experience. Gaining experience as an intern was easier before, since it was for free. You went to work and learned, no strings attached. Now with all the liability, some places don’t do internships anymore which is sad because you might be able to find some great new eager talent, ready to be molded into whatever you’re looking for.

The community colleges also provide culinary students great hands-on experiences every year at the Hawai‘i Food and Wine Festival. It’s tough due to the amount of events crammed into one week on Oahu (also held on Maui and Big Island), but it’s great exposure for the students, meeting and working with top chefs from all around the world.  Hopefully these experiences will make the next generation of cooks and chefs value this great industry as many have before.

There are so many chefs, restaurants, farmers and ranchers struggling, and so many workers just doing it for the money. Hopefully we will start to appreciate again, the values of hard work, dedication and loyalty. This industry is about passion, it’s sharing your soul in food. We are all in this together.

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