Food Tank recently spoke with Erik Murnighan, President of the International Culinary Center (ICC). For over 30 years, ICC has trained culinary students through advanced programs at campuses in New York City and Campbell, California.
Food Tank (FT): How did you become involved with ICC? What sets ICC apart from other culinary education programs?
Erik Murnighan (EM): I'm a proud 2001 graduate of ICC's Professional Culinary program. I’ve been a chef in Vermont and a Food and Beverage Director in Santa Fe. My passion for food and education brought me back to the school as an administrator. ICC is fast-paced, intensive and student-focused. It's a school for serious cooks and culinary entrepreneurs, with great energy. We invest in student achievement and positive outcomes. Our deans are rock stars in the food world and guide our curriculum. Our alumni substantiate our success through their successes every day; there are many examples, including David Chang, Dan Barber, Daisy Martinez, Bobby Flay, Wylie Dufresne and Christina Tosi in the United States. We're international; students from more than 80 countries come to our Soho and Silicon Valley campuses, and ICC is integral to the creation of the USA Pavilion at the food-themed World's Fair (EXPO), in Milan from May-October of this year.
FT: How is ICC building a more just and sustainable food system outside of the kitchen?
EM: ICC teaches the principles of responsible cooking. Developing the chefs of tomorrow provides a platform for us to shape their sensibilities, so they become leaders in fostering sustainable food systems in the future. The content we have developed for Milan EXPO, American Food 2.0, furthers these principles and discussions not just to future chefs, but also to a global audience.
FT: What is the ICC doing to support beginning local farmers?
EM: ICC alumni are connected to their local farmers across the country. Alumni chefs from Tory Miller in Madison, Wisconsin, to Lars Williams in Copenhagen, Denmark, source directly from farmers for the foods they serve at their acclaimed restaurants. ICC instills these values in students, particularly those in the Culinary Arts and Farm-To-Table program. Students have an opportunity to visit local farms during their studies. In New York, the program concludes with a week at graduate Dan Barber's Blue Hill Farm at Stone Barns; in California, the program also explores and visits commercial and industrial organic farming operations.
FT: How are up-and-coming chefs working to prevent food waste in new restaurant models?
EM: ICC has always focused on total utilization. Inspired by alum Dan Barber’s wastED concept, we are featuring “waste not, want more” in our family meal curriculum. Using potential waste from the entire school, students prepare beautiful, delicious, and nutritious dishes for staff, faculty, and students. Andre Soltner, one of our deans, teaches students to use their finger to scrape all of the white out of an egg when cracked. The extra little bit of egg is usually wasted since it sticks to the shell, but it can make every dozen eggs a bakers’ dozen.
FT: Throughout your career, how has culinary education changed? How can culinary students today contribute in new ways to building a better food system?
EM: Culinary education has changed a lot, but many of the basic principles are the same. We still teach the fundamental techniques necessary to perform in a kitchen at a high level. But we teach those techniques in the context of sustainability, seasonality, and responsibility much more now than when I was a student 15 years ago. Chefs have always been creative. They’ve are masters of technique, execution, and operation. But chefs have not always been looked to as experts beyond the walls of their kitchens. Now, more than ever, chefs are considered thought leaders and are seen as having a responsibility to society to forge the path toward sustainability, health, and equality as it relates to the food that the world produces, consumes, and wastes. I’m happy to say that people now look to chefs and ask for their opinions on subjects from urban farming to clean drinking water, sustainable fishing to food rescue. Chefs have become celebrities, and many have leveraged their celebrity towards creating a voice for the industry that can affect positive change. That progress is refreshing, and it has only just begun. It’s our responsibility as educators to teach the leaders of tomorrow the proper techniques to make great food. But it’s also our responsibility, and our privilege, to teach them in the context of those principles.
FT: What are some of the biggest challenges culinary students are facing today?
EM: Culinary students face many of the same challenges as college and university students. Getting started in this or any industry requires paying some dues at low entry-level pay. That’s the hard part. For people who are switching careers, there's also a fear of starting over. But the opportunity to continue to learn in the workplace is infinite. We have a 90 percent graduation rate; it's amazing to see our students grow in skills and gain confidence in just a few months. Culinary education allows many students to earn a living doing what they truly love to do, despite the hard work required by the restaurant industry. But hard work pays off and, as we say at ICC, "hard work tastes good.”