By John Bartimole
After 10 years of running a successful restaurant in Gallup, New Mexico and selling it, Chef Robert Witte, CEC, CCA, AAC, stepped away from that business and into the world of teaching — and has never looked back.
Chef Witte brings his passion and enthusiasm for the culinary arts into his classroom — and that once led to a command performance before the college’s Dean of Instruction.
“A student complained and had told him that I made Chef (Gordon) Ramsay look like Mother Teresa,” he says with a laugh. “I may be loud, but I’m not obnoxious!”
Still, Chef Witte remains strict about rules in the classroom.
“I always ask students on the first day of class, ‘Who here has a cellphone?’” he says. “Well, everyone’s hand goes up. Then I say, ‘OK, now, you can put them in your lockers, because in this room, we communicate with our mouths, not through cellphones.’”
When asked what he favors most about teaching, Chef Witte says, “Everything about teaching is the best. Working with the Navajo people is incredibly fulfilling. I just don’t pass my students, but I want them to pass. We follow the competencies identified by the ACF, and then, we use the networking of the ACF to help them find jobs.”
Chef Witte’s classroom sessions run four hours a day, four days a week. Fridays are reserved for practical, hands-on experience. The students complete a mystery box-style final exam during the second semester of their second year.
“In the box are ingredients for an appetizer, a soup, salad, entrée, starch, vegetable and dessert,” Chef Witte says. “We also give them oil and seasonings. They have to create something to serve six people. On the day of the competition, we throw in another protein just to challenge them and make them think on their feet.”
Chef Witte says that his best teaching high comes “when everything goes smoothly. I get that when I see their eyes light up and it shows that they understand and know how to do something, such as fabricating a chicken.”
He especially enjoys the particular culinary delights of the Navajo people — his students demonstrated a traditional fry bread recipe at the 2023 ACF Convention in New Orleans—and he continues to champion indigenous chefs and foods.
A member of the ACF since 1988, Chef Witte jokes that he will “die with a spatula in my hand. Retire? My wife reminds me I have no hobbies and if I retired, I would be around 24/7. So, no retirement plans for me!”
Check out Chef Witte’s recipe for New Mexico “Caviar,” which he uses as “great chip dip, fish garnish or cool side dish on meat plates!”