John Richards, Miami Culinary Institute director, talks turkey

Chef John Richards
George Martinez

The Miami Culinary Institute at Miami Dade College celebrated the opening of its 34,000-square-foot green building April 14. The school, which accepted its first students in January, will try to change culinary education by training students to meet industry needs.

It also has a strong focus on sustainability and has enlisted a chef's council — Norman Van Aken, Michael Schwartz, Michelle Bernstein, Cindy Hutson, Douglas Rodriguez, Allen Susser, Rudi Sodamin, and Philippe Ruiz — to give input on its curriculum. It will soon offer classes for enthusiasts and launch its own restaurant.

John Richards, the school's director, is a professional musician who owned and ran entertainment and dining venues in Los Angeles and Louisville, Kentucky. "As an entrepreneur, I was trying to understand why I was having so much trouble with culinary graduates," he says.

He began teaching at the university level in 2004. His job as founding director of the institute presented an opportunity to build a school with a "different approach to culinary education." New Times recently spoke with Richards at his downtown Miami office.

New Times: What makes this school different from other culinary schools?

John Richards: Many things. Number one, in South Florida this is the first world-class public option south of Orlando. We cost less than half the private schools in this area, and I think we're offering a fresh, new approach. We're going to focus on putting out cooks. We're not saying come to our school and graduate to be a chef, because it just doesn't happen that way. You have to become a great cook, and great cooks might become great chefs.

My only mission is to deliver quality. I don't have to worry about a bottom line; I don't have to worry about grinding out as many graduates as possible. My concern is that we take the perfect number of graduates and we create the best cooks in the world by giving them superior cooking skills and superior business skills. We don't start our program when the truck backs up to the back door and drops off cases of stuff that we cook. We start at the farm, at the producer, in the ground. We follow and make decisions about what do we buy, how far do we import, what is the impact on our environment by importing from Mexico rather than buying from Homestead. We then work with products from all over the world, and we work with those products in an innovative way. When we're through with that product, it doesn't end there in the garbage can. It leaves our back door as compost and goes into our organic gardens, which our students tend.

Our students will leave here asking very smart questions of their future employers. There's no book on sustainability in culinary education, but we intend to be one of the pioneers in creating sustainable culinary practices.

Why is the focus on sustainability important?

It's a cornerstone of the program. The school started making this statement by building this facility, which is going to be the first gold LEED-certified culinary school in the country. That's a hard thing to do. Our food business wastes more food and energy than almost any industry out there, and to make a shift in that requires a bold statement. We have built a world-class, cutting-edge facility that emanates all the things that I said, in its energy consumption, in the materials that were chosen for it, the way that the building was constructed, the construction waste, the rainwater, the groundwater.

What is the role of the chef's council?

Their mission with us is to be available to work with me when I have curriculum or technique questions. Some are going to teach with us, actually get into the classrooms and make a statement by investing their time and energy into our students' future. Some of them, what I've asked them is: When you're downtown, put on an apron, walk into any kitchen, stand next to some students, and cook with them for a while and talk to them about the business. Tell them what it's really like, but don't sugarcoat it. It's not all Food Network. And then ultimately to employ our graduates and continually communicate with me as to how our graduates are doing. Did they get the right skills to come work in your kitchen?

Did they have any input into the curriculum?

No, not yet. We started with pretty much a standard State of Florida-accredited culinary program that we are adapting to our core mission of sustainability, superior cooking skills, and innovation. We in this building have the technology; we have a studio where we can link up with multiple countries. I have 12 culinary school partners around the world, and we can hook up with a classroom of chefs and students in France or Peru and link in by satellite to a farmer in Argentina and have a global conversation about culinary trends. Grass-fed beef, corn-fed beef, import-export — all these things about any single topic within our culinary curriculum. All these partners have agreed to exchange. They'll be sending me chefs to teach here, I'll be sending them our chefs to teach there, and we'll exchange students as well starting next summer.

How many students are in the program?

We have 44 students in our first class. We started because we had such high demand we went ahead and opened up. I have two full-time instructors, and I'll have nine adjunct instructors in August, so we'll have a total of 11 to start. The capacity of our school will be 400 students, and when we get there, we will audition students like New World School of the Arts does. They will audition 1,500 students for 200 openings, and that's what we will do.

Tell us about the program for enthusiasts.

It's very, very exciting. The student portion of the program is one-third of what we do. The enthusiast program is another third. We have developed an amazing array of programming, of cooking classes of all levels, wine education and awareness classes, gardening and wellness. For one of our first cooking classes, we have Norman Van Aken teaching for three Tuesdays in a row. People who sign up will come into our theater, spend an hour in there talking about his philosophy, and they will move up together into a kitchen where they will cook together for two hours. They will end in the restaurant, where they will dine together and talk about their evening.

Another series is with Canyon Ranch. Their focus is on food and wine and the wellness side of culinary. We have probably 20 courses developed, all prices ranging from, I won't say inexpensive, but modest to very advanced. If you're going to spend four hours a night with Norman Van Aken, it'll be money well invested.

What was the idea behind having a food truck for the school?

It was so important to me that my students have an opportunity, while they're going to school, to work. So we've created experiences in our café downstairs, which will be student-run, in our catering operations, and in the food truck. Any student who wants to work, we will provide them a job.

The Alphabite food truck is the first; my intention is to have five by December and eight by next April. It's also a marketing vehicle. Besides doing the campuses, we'll do rallies and big sporting events. Most of our students may never have the opportunity to have a couple million dollars to open a big restaurant, but maybe they can get $50,000 and buy a food truck.

When will the school's restaurant open?

We haven't announced the starting date. The café and food truck are launching this week, and I'd say midsummer we're starting on the restaurant, and it should be running by fall.

Is that student-run?

No, that's professionally run. We are making a statement by putting what we know will be a new favorite destination-dining spot in downtown. The concept is going to be fresh. Each month, one of our chef's council members will be featured in the menu. I think Allen Susser is starting off the lineup, and Michael Schwartz is second.

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