Highlights from the first-ever ACF virtual convention

ACF’s Virtual Convention Highlights COVID-19’s Impact on the Culinary Industry and a Post-Pandemic Future

By Kenya McCullum

ACF held its online convention, “Around the World in 80 Plates,” on August 3-5, allowing chef members and other industry professionals to broaden their knowledge, connect with peers and earn continuing education credits. With COVID-19’s impact on the industry top of mind, the event included sessions addressing what people can do, not only do weather the storm, but also to thrive in a post-pandemic world. 

In the “State of the Culinary Industry” session, four CMC chefs shared their insights on how the pandemic has affected business, and what the industry can do to recover. Moderated by James Corwell, executive chef and Innovations officer at Ocean Hugger Foods, the panel included commentary from Joseph Leonardi, director of culinary operations at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts; Chef Shawn Loving, department chair of Schoolcraft College’s Culinary Arts Program, and Russell Scott, corporate chef and vice president of culinary for The Middleby Corporation—who had a lively discussion touching on how COVID-19 will affect jobs, education and technology.

One of the areas touched on in the session was the increased importance of safety, and how—as businesses reopen—leaders need to develop strategies that will protect the health of employees and customers alike. Chef Leonardi pointed out that at The Country Club, the organization is extremely cautious in order to ensure that safety is not compromised.

“We’re not in a position where we want to—even if we’re given the green light—do events for, let’s say, 50 people; we’re in a position where we don’t want to do that,” Leonardi said. “We want to make sure that first and foremost our employees are safe and that our membership is safe—that’s the role that my club is taking and we feel strongly about that right now.” 

Also, the panelists explored how the pandemic can be used as an opportunity for chefs to explore job options they may not have considered in the past. For example, Chef Loving said he has observed more demand for personal chefs to work in the offices of private companies. Similarly, Chef Scott pointed out that he’s seen an increase in manufacturing jobs, which not only allows culinary professionals to use their fundamental skills, but also provides a level of work-life balance that other positions do not. These jobs also offer new ways to serve the needs of the industry, as organizations are going to lean more and more on technology in a post-COVID-19 world.

“You’re operating with smaller staff, so we need technology,” he said. “That’s going to be the bridge to effectively meeting budgets, and producing the same amounts or similar qualities and quantities of food.”

In order to prepare students for these new jobs that will require proficiency in both classic skills and new innovations, Chef Loving says that Schoolcraft College has been updating its curriculum accordingly. 

“One of our missions in the education sector right now is not to walk away from it, but to embrace this change,” he said.

 Although the culinary field will face many changes and challenges until the pandemic is resolved, the panelists agreed that members of the field have always been resilient and will find a way to move forward successfully. 

“We all have to eat, that’s the one given in this world and I think that in itself generally provides a lot of opportunity—albeit it’s changing and it’s morphing,” said Chef Corwell. “We just need to adjust with the times.” 

Supply Chain Safety 

The conference also took a look at how the beef industry has adjusted to the times in a session called “Navigating the Beef Supply Chain and the New Foodservice Environment.” The discussion, which was led by Russell Woodward, senior manager of product marketing at the Texas Beef Council, explored how COVID-19 has affected beef production operations with Davey Griffin, professor and extension meat specialist at Texas A&M University as well as the foodservice operator side with Chef Kelly Cook, director of dining services for Presbyterian Village North in Dallas.

One of the topics the panel looked at was how COVID-19 has changed the way meat packing plants operate, including adjustments to how the line works in order to promote social distancing.

“If you look at a plant today versus just a few months ago, there’s a tremendous amount of Plexiglas and stations in between each of the workers,” said Griffin. “They actually spread them out along the lines as those cuts are coming down now, so there’s a little gap in between them.”

The coronavirus has also changed the way foodservice operators do their jobs—particularly when outbreaks caused plants to shut down. Chef Cook said that since his vendors were not necessarily able to get the cuts of beef he wanted because of reduced production, he had to become innovative and plan his menus regularly around what was available at any given time.  

“We became very good at using the items that came off the truck,” he said. “We have 650 residents basically sequestered in their apartments and they’re not getting much interaction, so the meal became a very big part of their day. We couldn’t let up on the quality and the consistency of what we were trying to do. We really tried to keep it fresh and keep a lot of themes and nuance to it, and so beef is a great product for that.”