The secret to creating a successful student culinary team

The students at Utah Valley University’s (UVU) Culinary Arts program keep winning.


This is the fourth year in a row that a student from UVU has won the title of Student Chef of the Year for the Western Region, two of whom went on to win the national title in 2016 and 2017. First-year culinary student and 2019 gold medal winner Emma Rae El-Farra will compete in the national competition during the ACF National Convention in August. The school’s Knowledge Bowl team also snagged first place in the Western region this April and will be competing on the national stage in Orlando against the rest of the country’s regional champions.


The man behind these students is the chair of the UVU culinary arts program and 2018 ACF Chef of the Year, Todd Leonard, CEC. Leonard is clearly a great leader and a talented chef, but he refuses to take much credit for the success of his protégés. He and his faculty believe that competitions are a fantastic learning tool that can provide student chefs with all of the skills they need to become strong chefs and Utah Valley specifically teaches competition in their curriculum.

What is it about this program in particular that seems to be leading culinary students on a path littered with gold medals? Are the teachers or students better than any others?

29869505298_e92fbb6f3e_kAccording to Leonard, it’s actually very simple: “We have taken advantage of the ACF partnership and benefits that the ACF offers.” Benefits like ACF-sanctioned competitions, conferences, opportunities for networking with other chefs, and the ability to learn new things from the National Culinary Review and Sizzle.

“If you want to write a recipe for UVU’s success, we have decided as a school that we are for the ACF, our formula is to take advantage of those things and do them well,” he says. “We train hard, we work hard, and it pays off.”

The school’s leadership is heavily involved with the culinary team and the faculty works hard both to train the students and to seek grants and donations to help fund their activities. Competing can get very expensive, but Leonard thinks it’s all worth it to give his students the experience and to build a strong reputation for the school. Their local ACF chapter, ACF Utah Beehive Chefs Association is active and supportive as well, welcoming younger members and providing a strong support system for the student chefs.40201353393_8d8305df7e_k

ACF competitions provide a platform for students to practice and enhance their skills in an exciting and engaging way, and gives them an opportunity to channel their passion into a real challenge. Utah Valley University’s culinary program follows what Leonard describes as the “ACF pathway,” which includes registering his students as ACF members and giving them the chance to gain certifications, signing them up for competitions, sending them to conferences, utilizing opportunities for networking with other chefs, and encouraging them to read the National Culinary Review. Additionally, the school sends students on study abroad trips and internships to expand their horizons and give them new ways to learn global cuisine.

All in all, there is no big secret to their winning streak. Creating top-tier student chefs requires a significant amount of passion and dedication from everyone involved, and an awful lot of hard work. The tools for success, however, are already at anyone’s disposal — if you know how to use them.

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