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.