Chef Daryl Shular is the world’s first African American and minority chef to earn the prestigious title of certified master chef, the distinction administered by the American Culinary Federation and currently held by fewer than a hundred people.Shular has also won 12 gold medals in local and national cooking competitions, including the Culinary Olympics, and he’s been inducted into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. He also founded the Shular Institute, an educational program based in Georgia that provides grants and scholarships as well as real-world training, exposure, and career options in the culinary industry. In this Voices in Food story, the Southern-born chef shares how he plans to assist in the creation of future certified master chefs.
I grew up in a blue-collar household in central Florida. My mom worked at the assembly line of a citrus factory. She processed fruit into jars all day long. I remember one day when I was a kid, she came home wearing white aprons and hair nets, and while I was cleaning orange pulp off her shoes, I thought, “I don’t ever want to wear the same uniform every day.” But look at me now!
We couldn’t afford to eat out at restaurants. Being a single mom with a seventh-grade education, my mom could only afford modest meals. But we all helped in the kitchen. And when we had a little bit extra, we shared our food with neighbors and church. That’s where I got my love for hospitality and giving back.
My culinary journey started in high school. I was a basketball player and was hoping to become a career athlete. But when I took my first extracurricular class in cooking, I fell in love. I later enrolled at the Art Institute of America in Atlanta. It was at my commencement ceremony that I heard Chef Darryl Evans speak. He talked about him making it to the United States Culinary Olympic Team in 1992. He looked like me — African American, male — and even had my first name, Daryl, so I thought, “If he can do it, I can too!” He became my idol.
Not only did I make it to the ACF U.S. Culinary Olympic Team, but in 2014 I became the first African American and minority person to become a certified master chef. Many people told me that I couldn’t do it, that the test is not designed for people of color. My mom said that I was being hard-headed. But I was determined to prove them wrong.
I want students to learn business, science and practical knowledge they can use in all sorts of food-related jobs. I want to demystify all the things cooks are not privy to — like how to negotiate contracts, wait tables, strategize logistics and communicate under pressure.
It is true that a lot of the food service industry is biased. Even though we minorities are dominant in the industry, we are not always put in the spotlight. It also doesn’t help that the epitome of culinary achievement is measured by classical European cooking standards. When you are cooking ethnic cuisine, people pigeonhole you to keep cooking ethnic or soul. That’s one of the problems in our industry.
The biggest problem is how cooking is taught at schools. I equate culinary arts with sports. Besides passion, you need to practice your skills and techniques, be competitive with those who are older and stronger, and have a lot of self-discipline. Cooking is just one of the skills you need coming out of culinary school. Students also need to learn budgeting, time management, leadership, etc.
When I was a corporate executive chef and director of education for North America at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, I saw a huge divide between what students were learning and what the industry was expecting of them. The businesses wanted to hire graduates who were ready on day one. So I had the vision to create the Shular Institute in 2020, and teamed up with my partner Sean Rush to break the paradigm of how culinary education has traditionally been delivered. The platform is unique because the students are in a real-world environment in front of actual guests, and they come to know what it feels like to have skin in the game.
Institutional culinary schools today have about a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. They will teach you how to hold a knife and cut an onion all day long for almost 10 weeks. The program advances as you go along but still hovers around teaching core cooking principals. You cook a nice dish, take a picture, please the instructor and get a good grade. In my mind, that’s outdated and boring. I want students to learn business, science and practical knowledge they can use in all sorts of food-related jobs. I want to demystify all the things cooks are not privy to — like how to negotiate contracts, wait tables, strategize logistics and communicate under pressure. People are looking at the culinary arts from a business standpoint, not just to be a good chef.
I believe there needs to be a new wave of culinary education in the country, because students want to acquire the skills to start their careers right away without having to acquire a lot of debt. Traditional schools charge $35 to $100K for a culinary degree. With that kind of debt, are you ever going to be able to pursue your career fully, or just work to pay back your loans? I want to help people break through that invisible ceiling they have, which may be because of circumstances or socioeconomic backgrounds. I want everyone to have access to education that can help them advance. Currently, tuition at the Shular Institute is below $15K and we work with corporations to get scholarships. But our goal is to eventually be 100% tuition-free.
I could have gone on and continued to open more restaurants, but I wanted to leave a legacy. I love giving and I love mentoring. I can relate to many people in the food service industry and want to show them that I rose above my background and got to this point, so they can, too. It is my responsibility to advance historically excluded populations and funnel more diverse candidates in the industry.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.
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