Q&A with Rick Smilow

Rick Smilow

President & CEO, The Institute of Culinary Education

What was it like winning the prestigious 2015 Award of Excellence for “Culinary School of the Year” from the International Association of Culinary Professionals?

It’s certainly very gratifying, timed as it is on the eve of our move to Brookfield Place. It’s also very sweet because it’s also my 20th anniversary and the school’s 40th anniversary. It’s very nice to be recognized for doing good things in our space even before we moved, because our new facility is really going to be spectacular. You do get a sense, when you step back, wow, a vocational culinary school in here? It’s quite unusual, and a win-win for Brookfield.

It is an amazing combination – a really special school with some really interesting dining going on in that same space, with all that synergy and energy.

We moved to our brand-new, expanded 74,000 sq. ft. home at Brookfield Place, overlooking the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan (225 Liberty Street) this month. Le District is going to have French items, and it’s going to be educational for the students. It’s a beautiful destination all year with the Winter Garden Theater and Hudson Eats. There are a lot of nice spaces to be in and the students and staff will like that.

What does it take, from an educational standpoint, to create a school like this? How have you been able to do this?

I’ll tell you what it takes. A lot of hard work! You have to focus. There’s a lot of growing with the field. It’s been helpful because I have a consumer marketing background. There’s a lot of black eyes in culinary education and they would be the first to admit they weren’t focused. They worked from different offices, had different programs. With the Wall Street mandate to grow quickly, none of that has been the reality.

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Tell me about the team you’ve built.

That’s been a tremendous factor in the journey of being an entrepreneur, having a great team. One of the key things – it’s a hard thing and some people get it quicker than others – but you have to get the sun, the moon, the stars to align in terms of hiring great people. It’s probably challenging for every entrepreneur but that has taken time. And then there’s the people you need and the people who are available which, as you grow, also changes. It’s a lot of moving parts and the moving parts move even when you have them settled down!

Do you think you would have made this move if you weren’t forced to?

The whole idea of having to move the school? Three years ago, I didn’t know for sure we’d need to. But there’s a silver lining. It forced me to make a very huge, expensive investment but I’m very optimistic that it will be a good one. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been forced to, but when you are, then you figure, let’s make the best of it.

Some people have to move the business and say, well, I’m not going to make a 20-year bet but sometimes you have to. It’s been amazing how, a lot of times over the last 20 years, we’ve had to make changes.

Expanding within the building, now this to Brookfield Place. Let’s face it, this is a place/space business. Without the place, there’s no business, and when you fill up your space to grow, and need more, it’s a difficult thing to navigate in a big city like New York – a city that’s grown and gets more expensive and then the areas that are available aren’t always where you want to be. Some places we looked at in the 70s, West End Ave., that’s pretty far from the action.

Recognition of the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) is growing. One of your instructors also won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Yes, our Culinary Arts Chef Instructor Chris Gesualdi was named 2015 “Culinary Educator of the Year.” During Chef Chris’ 10 year tenure at ICE, he has made a lasting impact on thousands of students through his commitment to excellence in the kitchen. Chef Chris has worked at some of New York City’s best restaurants, including Le Bernardin, Tonic and Montrachet (where he received 3 stars in the New York Times and a James Beard Award nomination for his work as Executive Chef). This guy just loves to teach. I wanted him to go accept the award, but instead of doing that, he said he’d rather be teaching.

He’ll develop a class on hydrocolloids as professional development. He’ll go to other kitchens, where other instructor chefs are, and take the meat scraps to make salumi. We’re using more recyclable, inexpensive plastic items instead of disposable paper for staff tastings, because of him. What a role model.

By happenstance, before Thomas Keller went to French Laundry, he was chef at Raquelle and Rafael. He wasn’t famous then but Chris was his right-hand man and he wanted Chris to come out to California with him. It’s a nice win. To have my school win for any two things, especially these two, that’s pretty cool.