Located in Montpelier, the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) is a small culinary school in rural Vermont working to develop the next generation of chefs. Widely recognized for its innovative immersion style of education comprising small classes, hands-on learning, and personal attention, since 1980 NECI has grown from seven students to an accomplished group of over 5,000 alumni.
You enjoyed a hugely successful and well-decorated career in the restaurant industry. What were your goals when moving to NECI? As Operation Executive Chef I work with Chef Instructors on menu, budget and operation’s results – listening to their needs and collaborating with our Dean of Education, Chef Lyndon Virkler, to assure our students and faculty have the right tools to perform at their best.
While as managing Director of Corporate development, I reach out to culinary professionals in the field to evaluate how we can bring the NECI experience to them. Chef Peg, Chef Lyndon and I develop programs a la carte for hotels, resorts and culinary groups where professionals benefit from the NECI curriculum directly within their kitchen. We bring NECI on site, into their kitchens. Another aspect of corporate development consists of partnering with equipment manufacturers. We want our students to work with the best equipment possible and have relationships with vendors from the get-go. Working with these manufacturers helps us to create that opportunity for them.
Finally, my favorite is collaborating with Phillip Stevens and our loyal alumni from all over the country. I make it my mission to visit alumni during my travels at their restaurants, bakeries, manufacturers, resorts, breweries, etc If you are an alum and you are reading this, call me – I’ll come visit you! NECI is family. NECI is for life.
What is a typical day like for you at the school? Like all chefs, I only work half time. Usually 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Otherwise, I drive around in my 2CV Citroen wondering what I’m going to cook that night.
How many restaurants are there on campus? What is the concept behind each one? Every one of NECI’s food operations is open to the public. We welcome local people and travelers into our classrooms and seek their opinions. Dewey Cafe is our student café, where the students cook for themselves, faculty, and administration in batch and half batch, institutional style. The mission of Cafe Dewey is to find equilibrium of cost/deliciousness.
The Meat Fabrication laboratory is our butcher shop. The professional lab is VT-state approved and inspected where students learn the butchering of meat, poultry and seafood in addition to sausage making, smoking, curing and brining. Meat Fab also supplies products to our other operations including Main, La Brioche and Cafe Dewey.
NECI on Main is our restaurant and bar where many classes are taught: lunch and dinner a la carte, plating dessert, food science, global cuisines, international flavors, flavor development. Students and instructors from all educational programs (FBBM, Baking & Pastry Arts and Culinary Arts) work together to run NECI on Main. La Brioche is our bakery, pastry and café where students learn how to make bread, viennoiserie, cakes, tarts, chocolates, wedding cakes, bread dough sculpture and more. We also operate as a sandwich shop with homemade soups, and daily specials.
What are you most proud of accomplishing at NECI? I am very happy and proud to bring transparency and an open door policy to NECI. My philosophy as a chef is to please people by feeding them delicious foods. I have the same approach in administration where I listen and propose solutions to make NECI a place where students, faculty and team members feel respected and valued.
Do you have anything new and exciting in the works for 2016? If I wake up one morning not asking myself “What if we”, or “What can I do for NECI today” I will retire. I always have exciting new ideas working! One of the most exciting prospects is our work with outside properties and training. We are really hoping to be able to bring our educational methods to kitchens all over the country and help them to achieve their very best. There is a shortage of cooks in the industry and good help is hard to find. At the same time, it’s hard to leave your job and go to school. We want to help solve both of those challenges by offering our business-to-business training.
Chef Margaret (Peg) Checchi, M. Ed. Department Chair, Online Education
What led to your role as Department Chair at NECI? I worked for NECI in the kitchens as a chef instructor for years, moving from kitchen to kitchen, building my skills and strengths as a teacher. My husband had just been offered a position in Chicago and it was at this point that NECI was considering their first foray into online education. Since I knew the programs inside out it seemed a natural fit. After a while I decided to put myself back into school so I had a more solid foundation and I earned my Master’s in Education, Learning & Technology, which gave me the ability to really craft the type of program we wanted to have here at NECI.
You’re helping foster the next generation of chefs and culinary talent. What is the school’s educational approach?
We work with students as individuals first and try to learn how they learn best. We are small enough that we can really get to know our students’ strengths and weakness, usually within a day or two in the kitchen. Once we’ve assessed that, we can then work with individual students to support them in achieving their personal goals. We do our best to spend as much time in active learning as we can, whether in the kitchen, the bakeshop or the dining room – as much as we can make it happen, our education happens in live settings! In many cases, a student is working with real, paying guests, too, so that makes it come alive even more for them.
We are also a standards based school, so we don’t have a letter grading system. You can either meet the standard, fall below the standard or exceed the standards as set for any one class. We have been standards based for years now and it seems like a “new” trend in education as a whole. I like to think that we were way ahead of the curve on that one!
What programs are offered? Has the school won any accolades?
We have won accolades, but more importantly, our STUDENTS have! James Beard awards galore, best young chefs, best new restaurants, best regional – some years it seems as though we have someone in every category! Here are just a few of our award winners:
Barry Maiden, Best Chef: Northeast 2015
Daniel Ahern, James beard Book Award: Healthy Focus
Sam Benson, Trophee Passion (2nd place 2015)
Sean Quinn, Chopped! Champion 2013
Steve Corey, Owner of 555, 2011 Chef of the year (Maine Restaurant association)
Matt McClure (’02) – Best Chef: South (third time)
Rob McDaniel (’04) – Best Chef: South (third time)
David Shannon (’88) – Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic
The Silver Medalist at Bocuse d’Or was mentored by our own Gavin Kaysen
We offer several programs at different levels: Culinary Arts, Food & Beverage Business Management and Baking & Pastry. We also offer an associate’s or bachelor’s degree for all three, as well as shorter (26 week) certificate in professional cooking or baking & pastry.
We also have an online BA program for all three programs whereby folks who have industry experience and the appropriate amount of college (associate degree or 60 credits) can jump into the online BA program and finish out their education online with us. We aren’t teaching people to sauté chicken online – that would be crazy! But we are refining their skills (with labs, discussions and other assessments) that will allow them to push through to the next level. Many properties want management team members to have their BA degree, so this is a great option for professionals who have some school and experience to get credit for their learning and finish things off.
Where have NECI graduates gone on to work? Any prominent alumni? We have alumni all over the world, from New Zealand, and Singapore, across the United States and Europe. Our illustrious alumni includes the Food Channel’s Alton Brown; St. Regis Hotel and Starwood Luxury Collection Manager—Matthew Gabree; Owner, Porterhouse Steakhouse in Hong Kong—James Fortier; ; Allechante Pastry Chef—Carmen Allen; Owner, Spoon and Stable—Gavin Kaysen.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your career at NECI? That one is easy! The students. It sounds cliché, but the truth is that I have relationships with students that I taught in the kitchen 15-18 years ago. They’ll ask me questions, I’ll ooh and aww over their new babies, I see them and eat in their restaurants whenever I am traveling. I adore the students who come to NECI and who have made it the school that it is.