In an interview with Beyondish, Chef Brian West described a restaurant industry “in dire straits.” His latest venture, the West Point Culinary School, offers a solution: for happy customers, the industry must invest in its chefs.
West’s nine-month culinary school in San Antonio, Texas, isn’t like the others. Culinary schools, West explained, typically ask future chefs to pay expensive tuition to work for free in an environment that’s notorious for bullying. But at West Point Culinary School, participants pay a deposit that’s refunded when they graduate. They develop an almost familial relationship with veteran chefs. And the school–perhaps the first of its kind–pays future chefs for their work. “I don’t think anyone else is doing the format that I’m doing, because it doesn’t make sense on paper,” West told Beyondish.
However, he sees his investment as a tide that lifts all boats. His new culinary school is one that simultaneously benefits future chefs and his business, a brand that includes restaurant consulting, the homey West Point venue, and “Food Enthusiast Classes.” The inaugural class is about four weeks into the program, with participants receiving wonky lectures and demos at the West Point venue. Topics, says West, range from “heat transfer” to “the difference between the Maillard reaction and caramelization.”
“So, these are kind of the ‘aha’ moments, and why is it important? Because it’ll help you make connections later in life as you start putting it all together,” West said.
In the next phase, participants have an opportunity to put theory into practice. West will pay them to assist with his catering business and at the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, where West operates The Directors Club, a popup restaurant. These opportunities give aspiring chefs access to an industry that is often “inaccessible” because of its pay.
“You’re looking maybe, if you’re lucky, [at] 12 to 15 dollars an hour, and if you work really hard for about five to six years, you might get up to about 50 grand,” West said. “The employers know we love this work…so they kind of use that against you to lower your pay because they know you’re enjoying the work.”
As participants prepare to face the restaurant industry’s challenges, West has promised them “lifetime support.” Along with the veteran chefs working in the program, West will help participants launch food trucks, start catering companies, and achieve the other goals that brought them to culinary school. They even have the chance to work for West, whose brand is united by his tendency to notice what’s missing from the restaurant industry. When West taught at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), he noticed that Texas, his home state, was underrepresented in the curriculum–even at CIA’s San Antonio campus.
“There’s one course called the Cuisines of America, and as we passed through it, we spent absolutely no time in Texas,” West said. He responded by creating the Texas Culinary Manifesto in 2016. A copy shared with Beyondish has an old typewriter font and is printed on what looks like faded parchment paper with occasional yellow and brown blots. The manifesto plays on the state’s history of fighting to become an independent Republic and describes the infighting among Texas chefs. West wrote that the so-called “taco wars” and “chili wars” leave Texas chefs divided, and this division makes other states overlook its rich, diverse cuisine.
“I believe that the time has come for Texans to lay down their arms (or skillets) against each other,” the manifesto reads. “It’s time the six food Republics of Texas banded together to proclaim in one voice: God Bless Texas Food!”
West turned the six culinary regions into Taste of the Republic, an annual event at Fiesta, a festival celebrating San Antonio’s “diverse heritage.” In a call for chefs to take pride in the diverse foods of Texas, West’s manifesto and event are an introduction to staples from the wines and jams of East Texas to the red chili-infused dishes of the West.
A chef’s pride in his or her craft, West said, is a necessary feature at any restaurant. He sees the West Point Culinary School “as a legacy piece for the restaurant industry,” and his unique approach–paying future chefs to cultivate their skills in a positive environment–allows them to focus, not on big personalities in the kitchen, but on serving customers.
“This is not the chef business,” West told Beyondish. “If you don’t like and love people and respect people, it’s going to be very, very hard for your food to really transcend into something much bigger–into hospitality.”
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