Tim Ryan has been president of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) since 2001. He’s got the typical degrees that go with being a college president—EdD, MBA—but he’s also a CIA grad (class of ’77) and boasts an impressive culinary résumé that includes a turn as executive chef at La Normande in his hometown of Pittsburgh, as well as the titles Certified Master Chef and Culinary Olympic Champion.
Ryan’s strong business sense and creativity have combined to make a leader who, today, recognizes the enormous potential the CIA has in harnessing the unprecedented popularity of the U.S. foodservice industry. Here, Ryan talks with QSR editor Sam Oches about the direction of the CIA and how the institute is preparing its students for the future of the restaurant space.
How has the evolution of the food industry in the last decade affected the direction of the school?
That’s a good question. Sometimes when you’re involved from the inside, it’s hard to take a step back and say, “Geez, has it really evolved in the past 10 years?” In some ways it hasn’t, and in many ways it has. The ways that it hasn’t is we’ve always been focused on excellence, we’ve always been focused on professionalism, we’ve always been focused on leadership. Those are three of our five core values, the other two being ethics and respect for diversity. But for a college that’s focused on excellence and leadership and professionalism, those things remain the same.
I think what’s changed now is that we’re just applying them to all different parts of the industry, and that’s for the betterment of the industry. It used to be at one time that CIA graduates went into high-end restaurants and they applied those ideas of excellence and leadership and professionalism there. Now they’re starting Chipotle and applying those kinds of core values there, and as a result revolutionizing the industry. Those are the things that remain constant.
The things that have changed are the ways that we’re encouraging our students to pursue other opportunities. We’re broadening their educational horizons. A bachelor’s student at the CIA is not just learning how to be a really good cook and to be a professional, but getting a liberal arts [education]. That’s something that chefs typically didn’t get. Of course, exposure to liberal arts opens up so many other horizons and insights. [They’re also getting] much more business rigor, much more business discipline. It’s still happening today, but often times chefs haven’t been as sophisticated as business people as they could have been, and we want to make sure that that doesn’t happen to CIA graduates.
It’s a dynamic industry. Another thing that we’re very much about is innovation and how we can make things better, how we can change things, how we can be more creative; that’s part of the CIA culture. When you apply that beyond the high-end part of the restaurant business, to fast food or quick serve or fast casual or whatever, good things happen. I think that’s what we’re seeing.
What are you seeing from what the students want out of the CIA? Have you seen that change in the last 10 years as younger generations are exposed to food TV and to brands like Chipotle?
I can sum up my entire MBA in two words; this is what I learned the answer is to every question: It depends. Can I make one blanket statement that covers all CIA students? No, I really can’t. So it depends on the students. But one of the things that we do see in the students that reflects how the industry has changed is there are so many more opportunities. And they come here very open minded. They’re passionate about food, they want to be in the food world, and then they get exposed to even more things here.
Some want to be Thomas Keller, and they stick with that. But other people come here who have a passion for food and then say, “Well, wait a second, I used to think I wanted to be Thomas Keller, and now maybe I want to be Steve Ells. Why isn’t that a course for me?” or “I want to get into technology related to the food business” or whatever. So there are just so many other opportunities in the food world now than there ever was before. This is really the golden era in many ways.
Do you think there’s a perception problem about what a chef really is?
The perception of a chef from the outside has completely changed now that people are kind of faking that they are chefs and pretending that they’re chefs. It’s very desirable. It’s a cool profession now. Anthony Bourdain and I were students here about the same time; I think he was a year later than me. It wasn’t like that back then. That was all starting to happen. Our generation was really the first help to make that happen, I think.
But the industry is pretty cool now; everybody wants to be chefs. So we’re just looking at how we advance the profession and make sure that chefs are able to appropriately capitalize on the opportunities that they have, to do good things, to take care of their families, all those kinds of things. And that really requires education.
We are the leading institution in our field. We’ve helped to advance the profession, and that’s an important part of who we are and what we do. So what do we need to do in the future? We look at how other professions have advanced, and in cases where there are singular institutions that have been as influential as the CIA; what did they do? The ways that other professions have advanced is by more education. It used to be that chefs kind of worked on the job, and that can still happen; they can be a chef some day and have their own restaurant and may be very successful. But the normal course is that they go to school now. The CIA started associate’s degrees, and that was like, “Wow, really? Seriously? To be a chef, you’ve got to go get an associate’s degree?” Then we started bachelor’s degrees. Bachelor’s degrees aren’t the norm yet—truthfully I thought that would happen more quickly—but they will become the norm.
The restaurant industry is also a very trend-focused industry and quickly changing. How, as an organization, can the CIA stay on top of the trends happening, but also look at incoming trends?
The major trends that have been driving things haven’t changed that much. So that’s a good thing to keep in mind. There’s a continual press for better. So with McDonald’s, are people not happy with hamburgers? No, they want hamburgers more than ever. But McDonald’s is saying, “Are our hamburgers good enough?” By the way, I’m not worried about McDonald’s at all. It’s one of the great America corporations and an absolute behemoth. I chuckle at the premature reports of its demise. It’s not going to happen. If they poke that bear long enough, the rest of the people selling hamburgers and fries better be very, very careful. McDonald’s will prevail.
But people are interested in better hamburgers, fresher hamburgers, hand-cut french fries—some of the things McDonald’s started out with and became too big to manage. A focus on quality, knowledge about where it comes from, how it was raised; these things have been coming our way since the ’60s, and it hasn’t changed. An interest in global foods has been happening since the end of the second World War, we’re just becoming more sophisticated about it, exposed to more of it. There’s a marketing adage that says over time, all markets fragment. Where it used to be after the second World War, we were interested in Italian food and that was red sauce and meatballs and those kinds of things, and then we started to take a look at what they used to say was Northern Italian food and Southern Italian food, and now it’s fragmented down to where people are opening up Roman pizzerias or trattorias. It continues to fragment.
The CIA has done a really good job becoming part of the conversation going on around sustainability and health. What role do you see the CIA having in those areas?
That’s one of the ways we look at ourselves moving the profession forward. If you take a look at Menus of Change, the whole idea of Menus of Change was, first of all, we see these nutritional concerns, and they’ve been around for a long time. And there are some folks who want to assign blame to the industry. If that’s the case—and it is in some quarters—how do we get out in front of that? How are we proactive where we need to be proactive? What can we do within reason to change?
The key is, rather than be regulated—from this point forward you can’t serve bacon, or you have to label your menus, or sodas can only come in certain sizes, or whatever the issues that folks will dream up to legislate us—how can we make the healthiest food possible that is so delicious that people will want it? That’s one of the ideas behind Menus of Change. As we examined that over the course of the years, we saw that all those issues of health were inextricably linked to the issues of sustainability, that when you start to address one, you inevitably address the other. With Menus of Change, the big idea there is, What’s the business opportunity? In a capitalistic society, if we can point the way to making money and help people eat better in a more sustainable way, those reforms will happen, those changes will happen. People will still want to have burgers and fries and all those kinds of things, but the day that we make something that’s healthy and sustainable that’s better than a hamburger is the day somebody is going to make a lot of money.
It’s an interesting thing for the CIA to be involved with. I would think a lot of schools would focus more on, we educate, we research, but we’re not going to put ourselves in the business of it. What is the benefit of the CIA doing that?
Our students are all going to go into business. They’re all going to be in the food business. That’s a huge opportunity. I tell students in our baking and pastry program all the time, “Come up with a really healthy-for-you, crunchy snack that’s better than a potato chip, and you’re going to make a lot of money. That’s all you need to do—one thing. There are plenty of examples of people who have made bunches of money on one product. It’s really thinking about our students and where the opportunities are for them.
The CIA has implemented a lot of new programs, from using a 3D printer to growing micro greens on roofs to putting a brewery in the student commons. What do these things symbolize in terms of the direction the CIA wants to go?
It’s the cutting edge of the food industry. 3D printing is really at the bleeding edge right now, but we want to be there. There’s a lot of opportunity, and the folks that are manufacturing 3D printers recognize that if they get the CIA involved, it will help to advance their technology, because we’ll be able to make contributions in how this is going to get used in the food world.
If we take a look at micro-brewing, there’s been a whole revolution there in recent years that has dramatically improved the beer we’re consuming and the choices our customers have. Beer is a natural food product—it’s about flavor. It was kind of commoditized there for a while and the flavor profiles were similar, and that was thought to be the American palate. That model has been blown up. Since it has to do with flavor and food, we know a lot about those things, and our students want to get into that business.
How would you define the American palate today?
It depends. But, in general, I think America could easily lay claim to being the most adventurous eaters in the world. And that’s just another reason, along with the opportunity, that everyone wants to come here. We’re not bound by all these traditions and the way things have been done for generation after generation. I would say we’re adventurous and increasingly interested in spicy food. There’s no question about that.
With the programs and paths available to students now, how much is the diversity going on in foodservice reflected in the diversity offered at the school?
In a bunch of ways, they’re exposed to so much in the programs, but over time all markets fragment. We will continue to become increasingly specialized.
In my lifetime, I remember when there were general practitioner doctors. And they still theoretically exist, but if you take a look at the way that discipline has increasingly specialized—or the same is true with law, or dentistry, or all kinds of disciplines—that will eventually happen and is happening in the food world, and we’re a part of that. As knowledge expands, you need to specialize. That’s the way we look at the curriculum here.
What do you think of the fast-casual movement more chefs are embracing? Will it take hold in a big way?
Well, let me ask you a question. Who would you consider a pioneer in fast casual?
Chipotle and Steve Ells.
There you go. Where’d he go to school?
That’s what we think about it. He’s a great poster boy for us, but if you think about the CIA, what we stand for, and what those long-term sustainable trends are, one of them is speed—I want better stuff; I want big, bold flavors; I want it now. That’s what Steve packaged in Chipotle. We also talk about global flavors. He was able to elevate Mexican from what people normally thought it was and he’s also focused on a nutritional profile, introducing whole wheat into his tortillas and doing much more sustainable products.
All that’s going to continue. More and more chefs are going to want to get into that space, and it’s hard to make declarative, definitive statements, but fast casual is probably a lot more of where the future of the restaurant industry is heading than anything else. That doesn’t mean the demise of fine dining or anything like that—there’s always going to be a place for fine dining—but there’s so much opportunity in fast casual, and there’s so much potential money that it’s just going to attract people. This is America; we’re capitalists. The old model for chefs used to be that you have a Michelin three-star restaurant and then you can do less-important restaurants. That’s been blown up. Young chefs here no longer think, “Boy, I need to have that high-end restaurant to establish my premium brand and then work my way down until I do the mass market kinds of things.” They’re going right for that.
The potential is huge. And we want to prepare our graduates for that.
How do you think the fast-casual movement fits into CIA students’ process of discovering new opportunities in the restaurant industry?
They’re already there; they already know that. They want to get their training, so they may still go get their training from Jean Georges Vongerichten first, but they know that there’s such huge opportunities in fast casual.
I think I coined the phrase years ago, but it has been used many times sense, and the phrase is “food democracy.” That is a long-term trend where you can get really great food at all kinds of price points anywhere, any time. Part of the fast-casual movement is the whole food-truck thing, pioneered by Roy Choi, who’s a CIA grad. Our graduates are already there and pioneering these things and looking for these opportunities, and I think CIA grads will continue to be prepared to do those kinds of things.
Do you see any generational shifts where some of the students who grew up with Chipotle and fast casual have a different perspective on the industry?
I think they’re more aware of the opportunities. Unlike Steve Ells and Roy Choi, who didn’t have role models to follow, certainly our students are aware of those kinds of folks. Probably everybody on campus is aware that [Shake Shack owner] Danny Meyer just did an IPO for $1.6 billion. Those things do not go unnoticed. It brings together that profit motive with the primary reason our students are here right now, and that’s the love of food and the love of this industry. Most aren’t really thinking first about money. They want to be really good about what they do; they want to be excited about what they do.
Back to your original question: Do I see some generational differences? Maybe. But none that I could really put my finger on. I think the students we have at CIA, if I were to compare them to my generation of CIA students, are far superior. And it worked out pretty well for us. They’re more worldly, they’re better educated, they’re exposed to more things, they’re graduating into the industry at a golden time with more oppotunities than ever before.
What’s not to like?
What’s not to like? If anything, I’m envious of them.
You’d mentioned being able to see some of the trends coming from a long way off. Can you pin down when you saw this foodie movement and fast-casual movement—this industry fragmentation—start to happen?
We’ve been talking about looking at these things for literally decades. If you take a look at our Worlds of Flavor conference as one example, it’s exploring all of these global food trends, bringing people from all over, and this is our 18th year doing this. There were many years leading up to that where we were thinking about it and talking about it and so on. So we’ve been thinking about these things and doing them for decades.
Are there any specific things that the CIA can do to harness the power that this represents?
Through conferences, through our publications, through all the things we do, but mostly through our graduates; that’s how we do it. If you want to take a look at advancing the foodie world, well, take a look at Anthony Bourdain, who’s done more to advance the foodie enthusiasm for global flavors. I’m hard pressed to think of who’s a bigger personality than him. If you want to talk about high-end modernist cuisine, think Grant Achatz; who’s been more inventive than him in the U.S.? Take a look at what Steve Ells has done at Chipotle, or even the R&D chefs at a lot of these big companies, including McDonald’s. They’re CIA grads, and they’re internal change agents.
Our graduates are the ones out there doing it. We’re trying to put them into position to make those changes and to be innovators and leaders.
What do you make of the slowdown at companies like McDonald’s? What does it say about our nation and the state of food?
Times change and you have to keep on changing. The CIA today is not the same CIA it was when I was a student. When I was a student, it was the best there was in the world, but if we would have stayed there, we would no longer be the best. And that’s difficult for some people who want to cling to the past. At any organization, you have folks—sometimes your own customers or your own employees, your fans, your shareholders—who want to cling to the past. And usually that’s a recipe for disaster.
McDonald’s started at a time, the 1940s, when the world was quite different. They were innovative, they were progressive, they were growing like crazy. And now there’s so much more competition, so they have to keep pace. I wouldn’t bet against them.
In regard to jobs in the quick-service space, what do you think needs to be done to overcome this idea of the burger flipper?
Take a look at Danny Meyer’s stock offering. That’s a pretty successful burger flipper right there.
I’m on the board of the National Restaurant Association, and I think they have rightly focused on the phrase “the industry of opportunity,” because it is. Our business is chock-full with people who started as dishwashers and now are highly successful executives or entrepreneurs, from Thomas Keller to Danny Meyer. I wouldn’t equate myself to be as successful as them, but I started washing dishes, a poor kid from Pittsburgh. And that worked out pretty well for me. This is a great industry with tremendous opportunity, and anybody who looks down their nose at it is ignorant of the opportunity that we represent.
What are your thoughts on the restaurant as a power for societal change?
It makes sense, because restaurants first of all are little mini economic engines—they employ people, they have all kinds of purveyors, there are cleaners, there are people who haul away the garbage—so it gets all those things started. They attract attention and publicity, which can attract other businesses to the area. But they’re also gathering places. That’s one of the things we do. That’s where the community congregates. That’s where people make plans about businesses and how to change a neighborhood.
We’ve talked about some of the younger generations of chefs. What do you make of the young consumer? What do you think the real potential is in this young consumer, particularly Millennials?
I’m not sure. If I had that figured out, I’d be worth a lot of money. Part of being young—this is a statement of the obvious—is trying to find your way and discover things. So I’m hesitant to say definitively, “They like Chipotle and therefore they’ll always like Chipotle.” I grew up eating McDonald’s; it was a new and cool thing. Then you discover other things. The Millennial generation is going through that process of discovery and also making money and having families. Just like the Boomers, they’re not stuck in one place in one time with one set of choices. They’re going to evolve, too, and the industry is going to have to evolve with them.
I got a chance to go to the career fair today, where I was interested to see so many different kinds of foodservice companies promoting their opportunities. How do you see demand for the CIA student evolving? Has that always been there?
That’s a good question. I can tell you this form personal experience: There has always been a demand for CIA graduates. In my entire life, I never worried about if I was going to get a job and whether it was going to be a job that I wanted and liked. I never worried about that. Certainly the CIA was a big part of that.
I will say that, today, the competition for young talent is even greater. One of the reasons why is because the industry has changed. Now, if you’re a famous chef, you don’t just have one restaurant. When I was a CIA student and graduate, the best chefs in the world and the best chefs in the country had one restaurant. Now you have a portfolio—you have nine, 10, 12 restaurants—and so your HR needs and the talents that you need to put into that pipeline are so much greater.
One of the things we’re really seeing now is it used to be that a lot of the top graduates—and this is true for any university, by the way—want to go to New York. I’m an alumni of not only the CIA but a couple other universities, and when they have their alumni gatherings in New York City, it’s always the biggest one, because that’s where the money was, the action was, the excitement was, and so on. Now, New York is still the greatest restaurant city in the world as far as I’m concerned, but man, there are a lot of things happening in Portland, or Seattle, or Austin, or 20 other cities that don’t have some of the costs and frustrations associated with it. So now New Yorkers are in many cases scrambling to recruit people because they have to overcome that barrier. That’s an interesting change that we’ve seen in the past five or six years.
What do you make of the fact that there’s a whole lot of white space out there in the country to fill, and a whole bunch of people who are ready for a better food experience? How can CIA grads leave their mark in those places?
I think that’s going to happen. As we’ve talked about, fast casual is that next big wave of the industry. Our students definitely see that.
We launched what we call the Food Business School that’s focused on promoting entrepreneurs. Though many of our graduates become entrepreneurs, this will be an even greater focus on helping them come up with a concept and getting it launched. It’s through that effort that we really hope to make an even bigger impact than we have now. Like you said, there’s a lot of white space out there.
How do you get students to that next step?
We can only do so much, obviously. They’re here for a finite period of time, from the day they start. I talk to all the students on their first day here, and one of the things that I really stress is that they have to make most of their time here. It’s going to go by very quickly. They really have to maximize that, which is lost on a lot of traditional college students.
The CIA is a more intense experience from start to finish. We let them know they have great relationships with the faculty, and with the administration, too. They reach back out to us when they’re looking to raise money, when they have a concept, when they need help. They come back here and they’re part of what I would argue is the nation’s, maybe the world’s, greatest network—our alumni network—and that means a lot.
I talked to Roy Choi recently about his Loco’l project. He says what he’s doing is sort of this next natural wave for quick service. What do you see that next wave looking like?
Delicious. Healthy. Nobody’s ever done (though people have been tinkering around with it) something that is vegetable based, or more vegetable based. But I do think someone will do that. Jose Andres is kind of tinkering around with that at Beefsteak a little bit.
There’s no one single answer—our industry is too immense—but there’s also room for just the opposite: the most unhealthy foods you can ever imagine, whatever that might be. People are going to want that, too, if they’re delicious and good. But I think that idea that over time all markets fragment, and the idea of specialization—that’s how professions evolve. That may be how restaurants evolve, too. What’s the criticism of McDonald’s? This is what the pundits say: “Well, geez, the menu is too big now, they got into everything.” But that’s part of the natural evolution of a concept. They’re a publicly traded company; they’ve been around a long time, and they need to keep those same store sales moving up. That’s the way they’ve tried to do it. But I think it’s much more likely in the future that people are going to focus on narrower niches.
It seems this niche idea is one that customers are increasingly accepting of, and maybe restaurateurs are increasingly willing to go that route.
I have no idea if [New York City’s] The Meatball Shop is popular or not, but is the time right for that particular thing? I think that’s likely to happen. I think we’ll see a lot more Asian concepts, there’s no question about that. Steve Ells has got his [Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen], and they do a great job with that. But I think that has still been unexplored in the fast-casual and the mass-market worlds. There hasn’t been anybody with a gigantic success.
Americans are much more adventurous; they want bigger, bolder flavors, and they love the Asian profile. I know a bunch of different players who are trying to do that, like with Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. I think the whole banh mi kind of thing, or dumplings, or summer rolls—that could explode any time soon. Then there’s ramen. Ivan Ramen’s Slurp Shop is meant to scale up. He’s a CIA graduate, by the way. He opened up Slurp Shop down in [New York’s] Gotham Hall, and he intends to scale that up. So I think you’re going to see a lot in Asian cuisine.
I think you’ll continue to see new Mexican things. Take a look at the CIA strategy: Where did we build campuses? One in San Antonio and one in Singapore. That’s Latino and Asian. That’s where we think the world is headed; that’s why we did that. And that’s the story there. So I think those things will be huge. And then there’s this whole vegetarian, natural movement. I think that’s another wave.
That comes back to Roy Choi. With the Loco’l concept he’s developing with Daniel Patterson, his idea is to do $4, $5 menu items that are healthy and delicious, and to open in the same strips as McDonald’s and Wendy’s. How much is that idea of cheap, healthy, convenient, tasty food feasible at this point?
It is feasible. And you have so many high-end chefs who want to go there. I think there will be a period of innovation in the fast-casual space, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what sticks; we’ll see who gets shaken out or drowned in the wave. It’s going to be interesting.
One of the other things that we’re also looking at is, what’s beyond that for chefs? The ultimate thing—and we want to put our graduates in position for this—is if you brew a bunch of beer and sell it from one distribution point, that’s a lot easier than opening up one restaurant at a time. If you make one jar of something, one bottle of something, one bag of something, and distribute it throughout the nation, that’s a lot easier than pounding out restaurants. So I think there’s this huge opportunity for chefs. You don’t even need restaurants. You disrupt the supply chain some other way and improve the efficiencies. We’ll help our graduates think about that, as well.
What do you see as the CIA’s role in the future of the restaurant industry? How do you see the CIA being able to disrupt even further than it already has?
It’s by preparing those graduates and going back to those core fundamentals. Excellence will prevail, leadership will prevail, professionalism will prevail, innovation will prevail, and it will help you to be in the right place at the right time, depending on what the opportunities are then. That’s what we’re really trying to do with our graduates.
With technology, why do we have a partnership with MIT? Why are we doing 3D printing? A potential disruptive force also for the restaurant industry is robots. The cost of robots has come down significantly, so the convergence of robotics and other forms of technology—how will that potentially reform restaurants of the future? Plenty of people say, “Well, you know, you’re always going to want to have hospitality and people,” and I believe that’s true. But who knows what robotics or mechanization are going to do to the back of the house or supply chain or other aspects of the restaurant? We have to be prepared for all those kinds of things. We want to make sure it’s the CIA graduates who are programming what the robots do or figuring out what they’re going to execute and all those kinds of things. That’s not far fetched.