Laying the Groundwork

Culinary school wasn’t an option for Gilbert Alcasid.

Alcasid, 35, had been a mechanic who decided to switch careers. He was working as a cook in the banquet and conference center at the MGM Grand, but moving up would be a slow process without a culinary background. And then his boss told him about a new training opportunity.

"He told me if I want to step up to another level — be a chef one day — I should get into the program," he said.

Alcasid’s only question: "What do I have to do to get in?"

Kind of a lot, as it turned out. Just becoming one of the five people accepted into the initial class of the 18-to-24-month Culinary Development Apprenticeship Program at the MGM Grand would require the writing of five essays, plus interviews and practical exams. That’s because this would be a formal, structured program with state and federal accreditation.

Steve Peterson, MGM Grand executive chef and the father of the program, says it’s the first of its kind in the city; "we’re pretty proud of that."

John Johnson, apprenticeship coordinator and MGM Grand chef garde manger, said a representative of the state department of education told him it was probably the most difficult apprenticeship program she’d seen.

"This is not something people are going to fly through and get a piece of paper," Johnson said.

Peterson said he created it after recognizing the diversity of the restaurants at the resort. As a young culinarian early in his career, he said, he had found it difficult to find good chefs to work for. And so he pondered, "Wouldn’t this be a great breeding ground for young chefs for the future?"

He partnered with the Culinary Union. Peterson and a committee of chefs drew up the curriculum and presented it to the union, where joint committees reviewed each aspect.

Initially, Peterson said, recruiting was done internally, among the "housekeepers, stewards — anyone who really wanted to commit to a culinary profession," and more than 100 people applied. Next time, he said, recruiting will be expanded to include students at high schools and technical schools. Peterson said sessions will overlap; he hopes to recruit by the first quarter of next year and have 10 more recruits by mid-summer.

And Peterson readily acknowledges that the initiative wasn’t completely altruistic.

"The Las Vegas food and beverage market has changed eminently over the past six or seven years, with celebrity chefs and boutique restaurants, diversity in restaurants," he said. "I’d like to think that MGM-Mirage is on the forefront as a company when it comes to food and beverage. We recognize that there’s a tremendous benefit to us to begin to train internally with some of the great venues that we have, build a bench of people that we can transfer all over the company, as well as attract individuals to our property."

The position was a natural for Johnson, since he initially was going to school to become a teacher and then fell in love with cooking. This would be an opportunity to share his love of knowledge as well as his love of cooking, and to pass on that knowledge.

Each of the resort’s room chefs was involved in developing the curriculum. Johnson said the apprentices move through the various food-service operations at MGM Grand, ranging from the employee dining room and buffet on up to Joel Robuchon. The spend six to eight weeks in each, depending on the complexity of the individual kitchen.

Each chef does a weekly evaluation of the apprentice under his or her wing and confers with Johnson.

"At the end of the six or eight weeks, we do a practical and a written (test) together," he said. "They have to pass it with an 85 or better to move on."

A few apprentices, Johnson said, have struggled at times; "this is not an easy business."

But, he said, "there’s been a lot of support from all the chefs. They’re volunteering to go above and beyond to help out when one of the students had needed some extra tutoring."

Each apprentice also has two mentors, a chef mentor and a line-level mentor.

"Any time during the day, they can reach out to this person," he said. And the resort’s new culinary library has more than 1,000 publications and DVDs. Thanks to the combined support, Johnson said, "no one’s come to me and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ That’s really exciting."

Matt Seeber, executive chef of Craftsteak at MGM Grand, also lauded the safety net that’s built into the program. For beginning culinarians, he said, work "can be very frustrating, because this is such a huge environment." The mentors and room chefs enable the apprentices "to pull somebody aside and go, ‘Hey, I need help with this.’ Our goal is to have everybody in the program see it through to its completion."

While Seeber conceded that, like nearly all chefs, he tends to be a little busy, "it doesn’t take a lot of my time. And the time I do spend with the mentee or protege is an invaluable time that they get to spend in the hotel to see what goes on and this huge operation on many different levels. It’s not like we just stick them in the kitchen for six months."

And at the same time, Seeber said, "after you’ve been in an environment for a while, people get older, they get jaded. It’s no big deal. These kids, they’re bouncing off the walls. To get that buzz growing is big."

Alcasid, who has been in the program since March, already has seen its benefits.

"It gives me a chance to hone my skills," he said, "learn new things, new techniques. I get to work with a lot of good, good cooks and good chefs out there. It has expanded my knowledge in the culinary arts a lot quicker because I get to work with different chefs. I get to absorb all the good things that they showed me."

Seeber sees the benefits, too.

"Vegas is growing," he said. "We need to be thinking about where we will be in 10 years. We don’t want to be scraping for people to move here and get people to work here.

"It starts with us. We need to lay the groundwork."

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0474.

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