Monday, May 3, 2010

Chatting with FENI's 2010 Postsecondary Educator of the Year Rolando Robledo

Editors' note: A portion of the following interview was featured in the "Meet FENI's Educators of the Year" article (pages 12 and 13) that appeared in the FENI wrap-up section of the Summer 2010 issue of Chef Educator Today.

Chef Rolando Robledo, assistant professor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., is the 2010 Foodservice Educators Network International (FENI) Postsecondary Educator of the Year. Here, he talks with CET about some of his accomplishments at JWU in his six years as an educator there.

(l to r) FENI executive director Daniel von Rabenau presents chef Rolando Robledo with a plaque during the FENI Summit in February*

CET: Talk a little about your efforts to integrate sustainability into JWU through the Green Collaborative.
Robledo: I was one of the founders of the Green Collaborative, a student organization we started about three years ago. I got together with a few other instructors to help start it. I thought of it because I had students coming up to me with complaints about the food industry and also about the university. So my idea was to give students a platform through which they could take action. So if they want, for example better recycling at the university, more local food in the dining hall, if they want better light bulbs in the dormitories, water conservation measures in kitchens and culinary labs, through Green Collaborative they can gather a larger voice.

CET: How have you implemented new technologies into your curriculum? Why is it so important to you?
Robledo: I believe that all of our culinary students are very hands on, and a lot of times they get funneled through the educational system--elementary school through high school--and find themselves attracted to more tactile areas. And a lot of them just have that wiring that they're not comfortable sitting at a desk. I know that a lot of our students see things more visually. So if I can enhance the delivery of the education through visual means to support the curriculum, it will only facilitate the learning. So I have many layers I do. A lot of it is video, photos and sketches. I might show a video or sketch something to get the idea in their heads. Then I'll demonstrate it myself, so it's not the first time they're seeing it--they have something to base it on. So they're able to absorb it easier. Then after I demonstrate it, whether it's the next day or after, I might show another video or sketch of the same idea to cement it in their brains. And from there, it's their turn to demonstrate it themselves. So it's a very sophisticated layering of preview, demonstrate, review and then almost like a practical exam. I enrich the education with technology. I'm making it easier and more accessible to them. It's a supplement to textbook. I also use online materials, sometimes as simple as YouTube. As much as I can engage with the students I do because I find they can get more excited because they're already wired. It's as much about the education as just getting their interest.

CET: Another use of technology I heard about was that you created a Facebook page for your mentees. How does that work?
Robledo: I've sent a lot of students out into the industry, and I always tell my students, "One of the most important things you can do is develop a network." I thought a good idea would be if for example, I had a student I mentored five years ago, and I thought, "Well maybe if he's a chef and he's looking for a good cook, what if I developed a network of all of my own mentees that they can tap into themselves through Facebook?" So I invite all of them to the same group, and if they want to talk to each other and put out a job request or maybe if they're looking for a job themselves, they can ask that group first. It's sort of a contrived network. And students take advantage of it.

CET: Why do you think it's so important for people in foodservice to have mentors?
Robledo: I think it's phenomenal--super important. I didn't really have mentors per se, and that's why I'm really adamant about doing it because I didn't have one, and I feel like it would have been very different for me. I did have people that I aspired to be like in the industry, so they motivated me, but I wasn't under their wing. I was very successful in my career, but I had to figure things out on my own. Trying to navigate this industry was tremendously difficult. Every step along the way, all those decisions were made by me, which is commendable in some ways, but I look at it as it shouldn't have been that way. So I try to advise them, groom them and prepare them so when they get to the industry they're able to jump over those hurdles a little easier and they can find success.

CET: What are some of the ways you stay up to date with the foodservice industry?
Robledo: I try to stay involved in different events. I've done volunteer events. I also do stages here and there. This past fall, I staged at Alinea, just to get my hands dirty. I also went to San Francisco recently where we did a whole tour of different coffee roasters for [my vegetarian fast-food concept] Clover and also because I'm interested in it anyway. I really try to stay current. About two years ago, I did an event with chef Chris Cosentino in New York City. It was a big deal for Chris, and it was the first time I worked in New York City since I left New York City. I've been to New York many times since then, but working in the city brought back a lot of those feelings and kind of made me miss it. I realized I wanted to get back in the kitchen. It's been about two years that I've been cooking again.

CET: How did it feel to be named FENI Postsecondary Educator of the Year?
Robledo: Amazing--I was honored and humbled by the experience. I felt recognized, which is really important for me. A lot of what I do, and a lot of what I'm passionate about, is outside of the classroom. I do some things with my philosophy of teaching as well, but a lot of my advising time is outside my personal time. So sometimes I don't get recognized for that at school, but it's super important to me so I do it on my own, and it's really what satisfies me. I definitely have several students at any given time who come after class, and I'll run them through skills like knife skills. I'll push them to a level so that I can feel comfortable when I send them to a restaurant that they're going to do well. A lot of it is grooming them and preparing them on how to think, how to act and how to be professional. This year I fooled around with a molecular gastronomy club. I had a group of students come in a classroom setting. We would do a lecture about a technique, have four or five students demonstrate it themselves and then everyone in the class would go away from there with an understanding of that concept. Honestly, I do a lot of it for me. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it because I want to help. It makes me feel good, like I'm giving back. The best person that could ever tell how hard I work is the maintenance guy who closes up the building because he's there all the time, and I'm often the only one who's still there.

*Photo courtesy of Eric Futran

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