His life revolves around being in a kitchen setting

August 15, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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A kitchen, said Robb White, is “my favorite place on planet earth.”

Thirty-one years ago, White went to work as a dishwasher in his uncle’s restaurant in Burlington, Wis. He was 14, too young to be working legally, so his uncle paid him in cheeseburgers and cherry Cokes, and sometimes White was allowed to try his hand at cooking.

That kitchen “was the one place that I felt really comfortable in,” he said. He quickly mastered his job and found he loved the pressure and the pace of working in a commercial food service setting.

“I have never had a job in my entire life outside of a kitchen,” said White, dean of culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of Michigan in downtown Muskegon, part of Baker College.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say his career has always revolved around a kitchen, because he also has been a culinary educator and at one time was a corporate staff member organizing kitchen staffs and setting up new facilities.

When he finished high school in Burlington, White applied for admission to Lake Buena Vista Culinary Apprenticeship Program in Florida. Only 50 apprentices were admitted each year, and White’s application was sent a little too late. A track star in high school, he ended up going to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside on an athletic scholarship.

“I was just biding my time, waiting to get into culinary school.”

Halfway through his second year, he was accepted at Lake Buena Vista, so he headed south.

White is enthusiastic when talking about how much he enjoys working in a commercial kitchen setting. “I love it even more now than I did when I was going to culinary school. I think it’s the greatest place in the world. It’s like Disneyland for an adult, a kitchen is,” he said.

Actually, the Lake Buena Vista program really was at Walt Disney World in Florida. It was a three-year program that involved working in the theme park’s food service division while attending classes.

White graduated from the apprenticeship program in 1989. By then, he had decided that Florida was too hot and too crowded to suit him. He had been working almost continuously since his freshman year in high school, so he decided to take some time off. He sold everything, bought a mountain bike and a tent, and looked at a map of the U.S. with the thought: “What’s the farthest I can get away from Florida?”

Robb White

Company/Organization: The Culinary Institute of Michigan
Position: Dean of Culinary Arts
Age: 45
Birthplace: Burlington, Wis.
Residence: Grand Haven
Family: Wife, Kris Bettisworth
Business/Community Involvement: American Culinary Federation; chapter president of the ACF West Michigan Lakeshore Chefs Association; National Ice Carving Association; Food Service Educators Network International.
Biggest Career Break: Being hired as a corporate executive chef by Marriott, his first job after graduating from culinary school.

It was Seattle. White started pedaling toward the northwest, camping “anywhere I could pitch a tent and not get caught.” Six months later, he found himself in Seattle, looking for a chef’s job.

One day, he spotted a newspaper ad for a corporate executive chef at Marriott. “Being as arrogant and cocky as I was,” he said with a laugh, “I figured … what the heck, and applied. Five interviews later, I got the job.”

White said he was “kind of a hatchet man” at Marriott. The hotel chain would buy a hotel and send White there to terminate the food service staff, then decide who to hire back under the new management. He would train the new chef and help get the restaurant going, then move on to the next acquisition.

From Seattle, he was assigned to new Marriott properties in Nevada, Idaho, Washington and Montana — where he really enjoyed living. Then the company bought hotels in the Pittsburgh area and told White he would be going there. “I really didn’t want to relocate to Pittsburgh from Montana,” he said, “so I resigned from Marriott.”

But White said he appreciated Marriott for all he learned there. “How to do it the corporate way — that was a great education. I had no idea what I was doing when I was hired, and they were very patient with me,” he said.

White moved back to Spokane and became executive chef at the Spokane Country Club, a job he held for about five years. Next he moved back to Montana, where he was hired by Charles Schwab of the discount brokerage firm to set up the kitchen at his private country club near Hamilton, called Stock Farm Club.

“That was a good gig,” said White, describing Schwab as “a super nice guy.”

“I designed the kitchen, designed the menu, designed the dining room, opened up the club for him,” said White.

Then White’s mother, back in Wisconsin, became ill. His siblings had families and lived far from Wisconsin, so White decided to move nearer to his mother. A headhunter friend of his found a job opening for an executive chef at Spring Lake Country Club. White landed the job and spent a couple of years there, where he became acquainted with Warren Husid, an accomplished chef who was the first director of Baker College’s culinary arts program in Muskegon.

“Out of the blue one day,” White said, Husid asked him to teach a class or two each quarter, which he did. A few months later, Husid was killed riding his motorcycle. White told Baker College he was willing to fill in for Husid until they found a replacement. The school accepted his offer, and a couple of months later, asked him if he was interested in applying for the position.

White said he felt his academic credentials weren’t sufficient, but he was urged to apply. Baker selected him for the job, starting in 2002. He since has earned higher academic credentials.

When he began as department chair, there were about 56 students enrolled in Baker’s culinary arts program, according to White, but enrollment grew and soon the program was short of classroom space. “We knew this program was going to continue to grow big time,” said White. So Baker decided to build its own culinary school with its own brand in downtown Muskegon.

The Culinary Institute of Michigan opened Sept. 28, 2009, with a little more than 300 students. Today, almost 650 students attend classes at the $11 million facility, which is one of the anchors of a revitalized downtown Muskegon. The school’s enrollment will hit 800 soon, according to White, who became interim dean in 2009 and then dean in 2010. He said the faculty at CIM is “an outstanding group. These are probably the best people I’ve ever had the honor to work with. They are awesome.”

White said the Food Network is part of the reason so many young people now want to become chefs, but he added that it is a double-edged sword. “Everybody thinks if they go to culinary school, they’re going to come out and be the next Bobby Flay,” said White, referring to the celebrity chef who has hosted several Food Network programs.

“While it has opened up eyes to what we do in this crazy industry, sometimes it sets very unrealistic expectations for the people that go into it,” said White. “It’s a very hard program — any culinary school, not just ours. Any culinary school is a very tough gig to get through, but I can’t graduate them fast enough in this market, because there is one thing that people will not stop spending money on, and that is their entertainment — going out to eat.”

The work entails long hours. White said many chefs often work 60 hours a week. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual income of chefs and head cooks was $38,770 in May 2008, with the middle 50 percent earning between $29,050 and $51,540. The highest 10 percent earned more than $66,680.

“When the rest of the world is out having fun, we’re working,” said White. “You don’t do it for the money; you do it because you love it.”

White earned his Certified Executive Chef designation from the American Culinary Federation in 1998 and his Certified Culinary Administrator in 2008. He was inducted into the American Academy of Chefs in 2010.

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