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This article appeared in the May 7, 2019, issue of the student newsletter.
It's easy to see the pride on Jean-Claude Plihon's face when he talks about Audrey Priest.
"I'm very proud of her. I think she's an example for the rest of the apprentices," said Jean-Claude, executive chef at the Grand Hyatt DFW. "She's just really strong and a true example of what the apprenticeship can bring you. The apprenticeship program at El Centro, I'm a big advocate of that."
It's fitting Audrey serves as an example because she's something of a pioneer for the El Centro Chef Apprenticeship Training Program.
"So it's basically full-time work, full-time school for three years. On top of that, you have to do volunteer work," Audrey said. "You have to do recipes every semester. And then my chef was always very big on doing extra stuff — staying a little overtime to practice classical cuts and practicing for competitions."
Before he became director of El Centro's Food and Hospitality Institute, Steve DeShazo was Audrey's chef for Byron Nelson High School's culinary program. (Byron Nelson is in Trophy Club, Texas, part of Northwest ISD.) Around the time Audrey graduated from Byron Nelson in 2015, Jean-Claude wanted to start an apprenticeship program. Jean-Claude and Steve previously worked together, so he was looking at Byron Nelson students.
The El Centro Chef Apprenticeship Training Program is an on-the-job training program that requires 6,000 hands-on hours over three years. Audrey finished her apprenticeship last May under the tutelage of Jean-Claude at the Grand Hyatt DFW.
Audrey started the apprenticeship soon after she graduated from high school.
"She was finishing high school at Byron Nelson and was recommended by Steve DeShazo," Jean-Claude said. "We had an opening for an apprentice, and that's when she started with us. Really, she's been our first apprentice. She started this program and has been very successful."
In addition to their work in the kitchen, apprentices are required to complete an Associate of Applied Science degree in either Culinary Arts or Bakery/Pastry at El Centro. Audrey chose Culinary Arts. Typically, you take three classes per semester. Audrey went the extra mile.
"I was taking five, six classes a semester because I wanted my last year to be focused just on the apprenticeship — it has a lot of requirements. We had a dinner we had to plan, final paperwork and tests we had to do for it," she said. "So I took the regular associate degree plan, but then there were extra classes I had to take."
Extra classes included one dedicated to the apprenticeship program, in which apprentices regularly meet with the coordinator to talk about how work is going.
"So I would take my core classes. I would take extra culinary classes at El Centro and then do full-time work. It would get stressful because I was worried about passing my courses and living up to my chef's expectations. As an apprentice, he expected a little bit more from me, and I wanted to live up to that," she said.
"So there were a couple of times my mom would come in and see me almost in tears because I was like, 'I don't think I can do this.'"
Not only did Audrey persevere, but she also never let it affect her work.
"I think her determination is her biggest strength. Her commitment," Jean-Claude said. "She gets along with everybody. Always positive. I've never seen Audrey having a bad day. Always very pleasant. I think that's going to be a very important thing for her in the future as a leader. People feed off that — being positive or being negative."
During her apprenticeship, Audrey competed in a few cooking competitions. In her first year, she won a gold medal. The second year, she won a silver medal.
It represented a stark contrast for someone who lacked confidence in herself when she began the program.
"When I first started, I was always questioning myself. If something went wrong, I wouldn't just trust myself and make the decision and think, 'OK, I can fix it this way.' It was, 'Oh, I need to go ask someone,'" she said. "But I've noticed recently that when there are issues, I can make a quick decision. And then I have co-workers who ask me for advice because they know I can make those decisions."
The nature of the apprenticeship program essentially forced Audrey to get past those confidence issues.
"You have to get used to talking to people and being in charge, and that's not something that people are always used to doing, but it's kind of what you have to do," she said. "You have to have so many hours in supervisory work, and to do that you have to be able to speak out and talk."
Audrey has continued to work for Hyatt since she completed the apprenticeship. But her work over the last almost four years earned her another opportunity: the Corporate Management Training program.
CMT is a year-long leadership program that requires you to work in six-week rotations throughout the hotel: catering, housekeeping, sales, etc. She'll be expected to lead, as opposed to merely learning like she did when she was an apprentice.
Jean-Claude recommended her for the program.
"When I look at Audrey and who she was when she came here, she's more confident. She can work in every station. And it was a big thing, the confidence," Jean-Claude said. "I've seen that also when I attend meetings. And I saw her taking those leadership roles, speaking in public and organizing things with the students. So, I saw the leadership traits with Audrey, which is phenomenal."
For the initial interview, Audrey had to record herself answering a set of questions. She did well enough to get a second interview, which was supposed to be a general informational phone call.
Instead, Audrey was offered the job on that call.
"I didn't expect it at all. I started crying," she said, laughing. "Because I really wanted it. I had confidence. I was like, 'I think I'm good enough to do it.' But when she started talking about how I was a rock star applicant, and she wasn't expecting to offer this, but she didn't want to waste this opportunity, it just really made me feel good. I was like, 'Oh my goodness, she really likes me!'"
Despite it being a year-long program, Audrey's time there might get cut short of a year because of how much she's already learned in the kitchen since she began her apprenticeship.
Generally, you move to a different city to complete the CMT program. Audrey, who has lived in Texas her entire life, had the opportunity to move to New York, Utah, Hawaii or Washington. However, she will stay at the Grand Hyatt DFW to complete the program there.
"I'm very big on responsibility and integrity. I've said I'm going to be here this long, so I have to stay here," she said. "There's a college section of the program I was in during high school, and I'm an officer with them, so I have to be there for them as well. I can't be a Texas officer and be in Florida."
There's also the matter of Audrey attending the University of North Texas to earn a bachelor's degree in applied arts.
"It's kind of a generic degree, but my entire associate in Culinary Arts (transfers), so I have a little bit more range and I can take some business classes. I can take some hospitality classes," she said.
She's kept a very similar schedule to the one she had during her apprenticeship. Last fall, she took four classes at UNT, a couple of courses at El Centro and worked at the Hyatt. She's kept that routine with the hope of finishing her degree this fall.
"The hope with the CMT program is once I'm done with it, I can get transferred to another hotel somewhere else in the state and get more experience," Audrey said. "And at that point, I just want to kind of be done with the first part of my education, and I can start focusing on my career."
Audrey might eventually get her master's degree after she completes her undergrad work. But the goal after she completes the CMT program is to become a sous-chef, which is essentially second-in-command in the kitchen behind the executive chef.
She's already completed all her certification to become a sous-chef. Despite that, Audrey thinks she needs more time in the kitchen.
"Food is something where you just have to learn to be able to taste the difference in things," she said, "what goes together and what doesn't. You can't learn that in a book. That's years of experience, and that's where I think I'm not qualified yet."
Jean-Claude wants Audrey to travel after she completes the CMT program. He also thinks she can continue climbing past sous-chef if she chooses.
"Sky's the limit. She can be a general manager if she wants to or work in corporate or something like that," he said. "As you evolve in your profession, things change. But I think her first role is to be an exec chef. Then she can branch out."
Audrey shares Jean-Claude's sentiment. Why be complacent when you have more to offer your industry?
"I want to be able to get to the point that I can confidently say to myself that I can work in an executive chef position. But I don't want to stop there," she said. "Maybe to the point where I could be a GM or own a place. I want to venture out of the kitchen eventually. Because, again, all of it interests me, and I don't want to confine myself to one piece because I know I'm good at that piece. And that's where you get complacent."