Next-Gen Leaders: Eric Ernest

Executive Chef, USC Hospitality
University of Southern California, Los Angeles
Educational Background: Degree in culinary management; studied cuisine in Europe and North Africa; completed CEIP (Culinary Engagement and Innovation Program) at the Culinary Institute of America; preparing to pursue MBA
Years in foodservice: 23
Age: 40

Eric-Ernest USCEric ErnestFE&S: Tell us about your industry experience.

EE: When I was 17, I got a job as a fry cook at a restaurant in Hartford, Wis., I fell in love with food and ultimately with leadership. The chef-leader in that kitchen was every stereotype of a chef back then, and more — the good, the bad and the wildly ugly. But I was drawn to the idea of leading teams in that high-pressure type of environment and doing it differently.
I spent 15 years-plus in independent restaurants and as a corporate chef and director of culinary for top fine dining and hotel groups. I never wanted to leave the kitchen, but I saw a need for better decision making. I wanted to be an integral part of organizations not only from the culinary end but from the planning and development side.

FE&S: What led you to the campus dining segment?

EE: My resume crossed the desk of the leadership team here at USC, and we decided to talk. Within a few minutes of interacting with them I knew I wanted to work here and told them so. I immediately saw that hospitality and auxiliaries leadership here was top-notch and wanted to be a part of it.

I loved fine dining, and it was fun feeding the well-to-do crowd in Beverly Hills, but I felt that I could contribute much more to the greater good in campus dining. We feed 40,000 to 50,000 young adults on a daily basis, sometimes 3 to 4 times a day — people who will become decision makers in the next several years.

FE&S: What surprised you most as you entered the C&U segment?

EE: That there was a real opportunity to modernize the food, an opportunity to address the global, social, economic and sustainability issues around food and communicate those solutions through food and through campus chefs. I saw an opportunity to do up-market, modern, restaurant-quality food in a campus setting and to operate like a hospitality company.
Obviously, food isn't the university's mission — it's education. But what backs that up and what sways people's decisions to attend a university sometimes are the amenities or the auxiliary services. There's a huge opportunity for us to support life on campus and do our part to make it pretty freakin' awesome. I believe that we do that on a daily basis.

FE&S: What was the biggest adjustment you had to make?

EE: It was probably the academic calendar. In the outside world, you have the traditional holidays and peak times. We have some of that too, but our Mother's Day equivalent might be commencement and it might be a week long. Our New Year's Eve equivalent could be the close of fall semester. Working to the academic calendar is a marathon, not a sprint, and I'm continuing to learn strategies for pacing and planning.

FE&S: What's the best career advice you have been given?

EE: Our president had a quote around the time that I started here, and I've actually had it made into posters: "A university should be nothing short of the great crucible in which our freedom to think, and therefore our ability to change the world, is forged."

For me, that's very, very powerful. I'm looking through the lenses of culinary and the guest experience, because that's what I can control, but it's just as motivational for other disciplines throughout campus.

Other more direct pieces of advice that I've been given include "learn how to listen to understand, not to respond," and to apply the culinary mise en place philosophy to aspects of life outside of the kitchen as well. Doing so has helped me to be organized, focused and dependable.

FE&S: What's an important lesson you've learned about working in this segment?

EE: We were taught as chefs, especially in the brigade system, that everything has to be in your control and that the chef is this all-knowing, all-being entity and people fear you and understand your concepts even though you're barely communicating them. But that's just not reality, and that's not how you're going to lead 1,000 union employees in 50 venues and event spaces spread across two campuses.

Obviously, the positional leadership has to be intact, but from there you have to have the personal relationships and you have to be an inspirational leader. You have to find strategies at an endemic level to communicate through vision or a war cry and put together some techniques that are upstream enough to be effective downstream and get people to really care.

FE&S: What are your predictions for future campus dining trends?

EE: I expect gardens and green spaces to continue to grow, because they connect chefs and guests with products and create a symbiotic relationship. I think we'll see a lot of strategies to make things more customizable and mobile, and strategies to use technology more for ordering and payment.

Eventually, I expect to see more robotics and automation. It could be as simple as being able to just push a button to get perfectly foamed milk at retail. If you're doing 500 lattes a day, how much energy, resources and time are spent just on foaming milk? I think we'll start to see salad prep, burger flipping, burrito wrapping, etcetera, being impacted by robotics. If we could only get robotics to do clean-up that would be real progress!

On the culinary side, we'll see greater adoption of Menus of Change principles toward healthy and sustainable and more chef-driven, authentic global cuisines presented in customizable, fast-casual formats.

FE&S: Describe the biggest challenge your department faces.

EE: The biggest challenge for us is space. As an urban campus, we're pretty much land-locked. And, like everyone else, we struggle with rising food and labor costs. We've worked very hard to stabilize our labor pool and have succeeded by providing a lot of training programs, building a pipeline of talent and always trying to make USC Hospitality an environment in which chefs can thrive.

FE&S: What are you most proud of?

EE: I launched a USC Hospitality Teaching Garden and a culinary management development program that includes competitions and ACF certification. We also host an annual chef conference, which is pretty cool for chef networking, training and development. We have chefs who come in from all over the country to help with that.

We've also built a multimedia lending library that's completely digital, so our chefs have access to about 15 gigs of cookbooks, training materials, etcetera, on a shared drive. Our department also launched a mentorship program and a chef's council, which is a monthly meeting that facilitates interaction between chefs and provides additional professional development.

FE&S: Give us a taste of some recent USC Hospitality menu introductions.

EE: We have a plant-based cooking station in our residential dining format and an amazing spa water program. If you go into any of the residential venues you'll see large tables with waters that are infused with beautiful fruits, herbs and vegetables.
We were the first to do a flexitarian station about three years ago, which help to set the trend nationwide. We've opened another juice bar, and we're getting ready to open a kombucha bar that will also feature Bulletproof coffee (coffee blended with grass-fed butter and triglyceride oil).

FE&S: Complete this sentence as it relates to your campus dining program: "I really wish we could ...

EE: ... open a Michelin-star restaurant on campus. That's a dream of mine. Another dream is to create a Culinary Olympic team from the chefs on campus to compete on an international level. I'm already working on making that a reality.

FE&S: What keeps you in this industry?

EE: Things are always changing. Every day, you have to give people reasons to want to be with you and come back and spend money with you, and give you their time and energy. I get to do that through food. I stay on the USC campus because it's such a unique environment that enables us to do all of that almost at an accelerated rate.

 

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