Chef Discusses His Culinary Career with Students

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Executive Chef Jeff McClure is passionate about food and loves the high demanding pace, but told students when you get stressed, never let anyone see you sweat.

McClure, vice president and executive culinary chef at AVI Foodsystems in Warren, was a guest speaker for Mahoning County Educational Service Center’s Virtual Exploration Tour 2020. McClure shared his insights with students in grade seven to 12 during the morning session.

The week-long virtual event, which concluded Friday, replaced the in-person bus tour that the MCESC had originally planned to take students to multiple businesses and worksites for a hands-on career learning experience. Career counselors made the change after schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

McClure began his career when he was 15 as a line cook at a restaurant. He later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, considered to be one of the best cooking schools in the world. At the age of 21 he was asked to become part owner and chef at a new restaurant called Windows on the Bay on Lake Champlain in New York on the border with Canada.  He has worked around the country and traveled the globe. 

“All of a sudden, fundamentals in college and then you get hit with the real operational world, managing 63 people, HR, personalities, communication, budgets, food costs, labor costs, and, oh, yeah, making all our customers happy and making great food,” McClure said.

At a young age, he had to learn on the fly how to bring out the best in people and how to get the most out of them. “At the end of the day, food is love, food is family, foods about creating an experience and driving that passion for everyone else around food and you create a very good team,” he said.

He and his partner sold the restaurant after 10 years and he went to Virginia and ran a 140-seat restaurant and a bistro restaurant on the water. After years of working in the restaurant industry and never having time to spend with his children, he moved into contract food service.

While McClure has learned a lot by working with people and learning the business as an executive, he encouraged students to focus on perfecting their soft skills.

“I use the 51-49 rule, which means 51% of what you do as a chef involves communication and 49% is technical skill,” McClure said. “It’s important that you are able to connect with people.”

He said he doesn’t just cook dishes he likes, but focuses on trends, because you are cooking for what others want to eat. 

“You have to cook cool food that people like and what customers want to eat. You always need to challenge the status quo,” he said. “You have to lead with innovation and change. You always have to challenge the status quo. When you go into your career and grow and you want to be a fantastic leader, challenge the status quo. It means a lot and people will recognize that.”

Chef Jeff McClure, vice president and executive culinary chef at AVI Foodsystems

Besides his culinary degree he also earned a business degree, which helped him as he moved into positions that required him to know budgeting, supply and distribution and personnel. He was a partner in two different restaurants prior to coming to AVI.

He told students not to think they will come out of culinary school and expect to be the top chef. “It may happen, but most times you have to earn your stripes,” he said. “Learn, listen and learn.”

He told students chefs can earn anywhere between $25,000 to $50,000 a year, but most likely around $40,000. While the work is satisfying, he adds, it’s demanding. 

“It’s not a 40-hour work week. You work a lot of holidays and big events, but the positives outweigh any negatives. The pride you feel when you create something, you can’t put a price tag on that,” he said. 

During the video conference, McClure made a Mediterranean hummus dish with lamb. He challenged the students to make it for their parents this weekend. 

He was asked if he has to cook family holiday dinners, or gets to take the day off. He chuckled, saying he does the cooking. He enjoys being able to have family around in the kitchen helping out.

“I always see people make Thanksgiving so hard and stressful. I love having family around and everyone is in the kitchen. Food is love.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.