ACF Chef Keio Gayden inspires culinary instructors and students in and out of the classroom


By Kenya McCullum

Despite developing a love for cooking as a young child, and despite her mother’s playful predictions about her future career path, ACF Chef Keio Gayden admits that she didn’t want to become a chef. In fact, she ran away from the idea, and instead took a job at a spice company. Then one day, she saw a commercial for a new culinary school opening in Birmingham, Alabama, and just couldn’t run from becoming a chef anymore. She went out on a limb and applied to Culinard at Virginia College, and once she began her formal culinary studies, found that her mother’s predictions had been quite accurate.

After completing her degree, Chef Gayden worked as a recruiter for Le Cordon Bleu, where she once again found herself receiving a career suggestion she initially tried to avoid — to bring her knowledge and enthusiasm into the classroom to teach culinary classes at Miller Grove High School in DeKalb County, Georgia. For almost two decades, she inspired students in the school’s ACF-certified program, and whether or not they ultimately wanted to pursue a culinary career, she gave them valuable skills they could use for the rest of their lives.

Today, Chef Gayden is now the CTAE Instructional Coordinator at the DeKalb County School District, where she oversees the culinary programs and works closely with about two dozen instructors. We caught up with Chef Gayden to find out how she’s used her teaching experience and culinary passion to inspire teachers the same way she did her students.

Q: What do you do in your current position?

A: I work more directly with teachers, so I provide support for them, like ensuring labs are up to date. I also provide support in the classroom. I may say, “Hey, I’m not trying to change the way you do things, but try it this way and see if it works better for you and the kids.” And when I get a phone call the next day saying, “Oh my God, that was the perfect idea. That was great,” I know I’m using my skill sets to help teachers.

Q: How do you keep teachers motivated?

A: I love a good activity. I love icebreakers. I love to give them treats. I had a meeting with teachers and I gave them T-shirts. Then when I went out to some of the schools a few days later, they were wearing their shirts and were so excited. I like giving them gifts. Having served in the role as a teacher for over 16 years, I know they like to feel appreciated. Yes, we could say thank you, but sometimes it’s the small things that kind of give our teachers that extra boost they need.

Q: What are some of those small things?

A: If someone’s having a bad day, they can call and I’ll stop what I’m doing and go to the school just to take them for a tea or a lemonade. I’ll sit there and say, ‘Hey, take a break. I’ll watch your students and finish whatever activity you’re doing, and you can go and work on what you feel like you’re lacking right now.’ It’s just those small things. It’s showing people that you genuinely do care by taking that extra moment. I had a couple of teachers who were stressed from personal things going on, so I just took the time to text to say, ‘Hey, just checking on you to make sure you’re having a good day.’ This role allows me to support teachers and hopefully get them the resources and the tools they need to be successful in their class, and to make sure their labs are up and operating and the kids are happy.

Q: Do you organize any professional development activities for the teachers?

A: I love to do creative professional development with our teachers. It’s times where we take them away from the classroom and allow them to learn, and that is done through different businesses. We work with Byron Hospitality Group, which does a phenomenal job coordinating various culinary teacher professional development. It’s just taking them outside the classroom and exposing them to different avenues and different possibilities of things they can do with their students, and teachers love that. We also work with ACF Chef Daryl Shular, CMC,  and we’re doing a partnership with him for our students, but he also does a lot of training for our teachers.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in your current role?

A: I want to see more ACF-industry certified secondary programs. I hope to increase awareness, not just for the students, but for the teachers as well, about the growth and the future of the culinary industry. And not just culinary, all food service and everything that it encompasses—whether it is food and beverage or the scientific side of it. And of course, I would like to increase teacher morale so our programs can continue to grow and continue to expose students to the future of the culinary industry.