Mentoring our next generation of chefs

Karen Doyle has been Head Teacher at Le Cordon Bleu, based at the Northern Sydney Institute of TAFE, since 2009. Educating our next generation of chefs is a challenging task, and when Karen was named Teacher of the Year at the Institute’s 2016 Excellence Awards, it was a well-deserved public acknowledgement of her achievements. At time of writing, she is also a finalist for the title of VET Teacher/

Trainer of the Year in the Central & Northern Region Training Awards.

Le Cordon Bleu has more than 1000 students, from Certificate Three to Advanced Diplomas along with two Bachelor of Business programs. “You see the students come in as that raw product at the start of their education. They go from a pure beginner to an accomplished craftsperson by the time they leave,” Karen observes.
“I encourage them to participate in competitions – we train, we do a lot of extra-curricular work. It’s all about generating passion and excitement and seeing them develop, which is helping to ensure the future of our industry.

“It’s a very satisfying job – its hard work, but well worth it at the end of the day.”

While Karen still teaches in the kitchen, her main focus is to ensure that the Institute is following the latest culinary trends and delivering premium quality courses. Her current role is the latest step in a varied foodservice career that has taken her from her birthplace of Ireland all the way to Australia.

“It wasn’t anything I had planned to do,” Karen recalls of her entrée into the industry. “I was doing a summer job while waiting to go to uni, working as a commis chef for a family friend who owned a hotel in Kildare, just outside Dublin. They put me up for a culinary scholarship and I ended up going into it.

“I did have an interest in cooking while young – both my parents come from farms and I grew up around my grandmothers making butter and bread and so on, which gave me a passion for fresh produce. So that’s why I took on the job initially – to see if it was something I wanted to do. But it was a case of the industry finding me, rather than the other way around.”

Karen first came to Australia aged 27 – she was working as a head chef back home at the time, and had decided to take a year off and go travelling to experience different cultures and foods. “I travelled through Asia and the states then worked my way around Australia. I decided to come back six months later and officially moved here in 1998, and have lived in Sydney since 2000.”

Karen says that Australian culinary styles have changed considerably in the past 18 years – “I came here with my French qualifications and have since done Asian, bakery and so on just to keep up with the trends. It’s gone from fine dining through nouvelle cuisine and back to the ‘paddock to plate’ style which is popular at the moment. People want to know where their food is coming from and how it’s sourced – they are becoming more produce-focused, so there’s this increasing emphasis on agricultural sustainability, making sure the resources are going to be there into the future.” At the same time, Karen emphasises that the ‘molecular gastronomy’ style pioneered by Heston Blumenthal (he prefers the simpler term ‘kitchen science’) is here to stay – “that’s becoming part of the norm, using chemicals to enhance what we do – we all use this principle at restaurants now and it’s going to be around longterm.”

In addition to her current work with TAFE, Karen is also the President of the NSW and ACT regions of the Australian Culinary Federation, a position she took on out of a desire to help build membership numbers. “I particularly want to encourage more young people to participate in competitions,” she emphasises. “We have to start with the young chefs and we’ve just set up our Young Chef’s Forum in NSW, the aim of which is to mentor young apprentices.” Karen also holds the complementary position of Ambassador for Women in WACS (World Association of Chefs’ Societies) – “that’s about bringing forward young females into the industry, showing the opportunities that exist out there and helping them to network. A big part of both these organisations, the ACF and WACS, is built around networking – representing chefs, cooks and culinary students, helping them to get themselves out there.

“Last year our key focus was the Fine Foods trade show in Sydney, this year it’s on developing the professional skills and knowledge of our members. We are doing at least one, if not two workshops every month. This is not only about fostering opportunities but also building camaraderie between foodservice professionals. We’ve organised a sugar masterclass, a chocolate masterclass, a couple of industry visits to suppliers, working in conjunction with our sponsors. As we speak, we’re planning a truffle tour to Bowral which will include lunch afterwards at the Centennial Vineyard – those are the type of events we’re promoting this year for NSW, and the ACT committee is running a similar program down there.

“NSW and ACT & Regions is one of  biggest regions for the ACF and it’s important we have a full program of events to help move the association forward. WACS is the international body that the ACF belongs to, so once you’re a member of the ACF you’re automatically part of WACS as well.

“Cassandra Austin is the board representative for Women in WACS Pacific Rim and my role is to liaise directly with her to organise events. One of our female members recently ran a Women in Leadership forum in Bega for International Women’s Day and we’re doing similar projects right now within NSW. I am currently facilitating a mentoring program at the moment – we’re looking at taking a person from a remote area and giving them a work opportunity in a restaurant for two to three weeks, so they can gain experience in fine dining cuisine.”

The main focus of Women in WACS, however, is not so much about local programs and more to do with supporting underprivileged women in underprivileged countries. In Australia, Karen says that women are much more respected in the industry now across the board. “Female chefs are holding strong roles and are seen as valued members of the team.” This is not so much the case elsewhere in the Pacific Rim, hence WACS’ focus on encouraging and educating. “It’s all about encouraging women to be active within the framework of the organisation, to promote their careers and share that with others.”

Karen is also a member of the bidding committee for the 2020 WACS congress to come to Australia.

Looking back at her own career, Karen sees it as an interesting journey – and one that is of course not over yet. “I love what I do at the moment. I’m teaching, which I’m passionate about; I’m still very connected to my students, and that gives me opportunities to do a lot of networking with them and help promote them. Winning the teaching award made me realise it’s all been worthwhile.”