Q&A with Kevin Ryan, Executive Director of the International Corporate Chefs Association

Q&A with Kevin Ryan, Executive Director of the International Corporate Chefs Association

Food & Drink

Q&A with Kevin Ryan, Executive Director of the International Corporate Chefs Association

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Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan

Title: Executive Director of the International Corporate Chefs Association

Age: 53

Headquarters Location: Winter Park, FL

Newest Ventures: Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools Initiative has provided us with a great mission to help the next generation make healthier choices.  This will help our restaurants gain acceptance from consumers for creative, healthy menu offerings.

Hometown: Brownsville, PA

Education: Robert Morris University, Coraopolis, PA

First Restaurant Job: La Casa Domia, Coraopolis, PA

Restaurant Light Bulb Moment: Working for the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team tryouts in 1986 spawned my new company that specializes in association management specifically for the culinary industry. It helped me to combine my avocation and my vocation and made the past 20 years move at lightning speed.

Heroes: Bill Fisher, who was the president & chief executive of the National Restaurant Association when I worked for the NRA-ACF Foundation and the U.S. Culinary Olympic Team. He was one of the most impressive business people I had worked with – a true professional and that relationship helped mold my career in association management.

Dishes Cooked at Home: I cook mostly Northern Italian dishes that I learned from my Grandmother and they are always paired with wine influenced by my Grandfather, both born in Northern Italy.

Interesting Cooking Moment: During the U.S. Culinary Team’s IKAHOGA, Olympic Competition in Berlin, the team asked me to cook their meal one night and they loved it!

Most Exotic Dish Eaten: Mopane Worms in South Africa or the myriad of Sea Slug dishes during a nine-day culinary tour of China.

Pick Your Final Meal: Pizza, but not any pizza, one of my creations using perfectly paired ingredients not normally found on flat dough.

First Dish Prepared as a Child: A grilled peanut butter sandwich.

Favorite TV, Movie, Music: This is tough since I began my career as a musician and worked in rock radio for years. My fondest memories are from Spring Break from 1979 – 1984 when we created a music series that led MTV to begin broadcasting live from Daytona. The acts included then unheard of artist including REM, Fixx, Flock of Seagulls, Berlin, etc.

Favorite Part of the Job: I love talking with chefs every day – we talk trends, new ideas and industry insights. I have similar conversations daily with our sponsors who are the largest food companies or commodity boards in the nation. Traveling to research a new city for our ICCA Summit – priceless!

Guilty Pleasure: Expensive wines, mostly domestic and fine dining restaurants

Best Stress Management: Playing basketball or bike riding with my wife Susan

Career Highlights: Beginning with working for the U.S. Culinary Team, seeing my advice become a driver for other people, creating ICCA with some of the most incredible people who also happen to be the nation’s most creative chefs and our next culinary event.

Best Advice Ever Received: “Work your plan — plan your work.”

Best Advice Ever Given To Others: “Follow your passion. If you can align your avocation with your vocation — life is absolutely successful.”

Favorite Book: This is difficult, my current reading passion is for pirate history so, “Under the Black Flag” is great; but historically my library is very diverse. Now I am on a history bent and I read everything I can about the city where my next event will take place. This year’s event was in Charleston and John Taylor’s  “Hoppin’ John’s Low County Cooking” blended history with cooking. Let’s not start on cook books, my wife says I have way too many.

Hobbies: Basketball, bicycle riding, golf, cooking and wine tasting

What made you decide to start the International Corporate Chefs Association? 
Over the years I met numerous corporate chefs from chains and every time I introduced one to another, I was amazed they didn’t know each other. That prompted the idea and it was the best decision I have ever made.

What is the biggest advantage for your members when they join ICCA? 
The intimate environment helps to make the networking alone enough of a benefit and the educational programs we create make it perhaps one of the most creative industry activities for the top menu makers.

What are the organization’s goals?
To help our members learn more of the diverse skill sets necessary to be the highest ranking culinarian at one of the nation’s top 200 chains.

What have been the biggest changes you have witnessed in foodservice during your career?
Perhaps it is change! When we started the ICCA it took 18 – 24 months for a new item to make it to the menu, today the average is less than six months. Customers are becoming better educated and take chances with bolder flavors and chains are now adding new menu items at a record pace. It is exciting to see our industry mature and evolve especially during the past two tough years.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Finding dates and times that work for every one of our members. Our member’s schedules are full and they are constantly flexing and I hate it when someone wants to attend our event, but can’t clear the dates.

What changes have your members made to drive business during the “Great Recession”? 
I don’t know if I would call this recession GREAT, but I think this long-term recession has challenged our members beyond creativity on the menu. They have worked hard to lower the costs of food, labor and supply chain management while being effected by legislation and the changing dining patterns and loyalties of long-term customers.

In addition to ICCA you are also the founder and president of MARKETING A LA CARTE. What kinds of things in the industry does your company do?
We are mostly an association management firm specifically for chefs’ associations, but we also have helped operators, food manufacturers and growers create new products and menu ideas. One thing I love to do is to conduct ideation sessions. We have used chefs from every walk of life in our sessions including celebrity chefs and you would be amazed how well it can work with the right facilitator/moderator.

Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
I am a sponge for learning and constantly challenge myself through industry activities, frequent dining in new restaurants and reading sometimes too much every day.

What are your members and clients saying about the health of the restaurant industry moving forward?
I would say right now everyone is cautiously optimistic. The year 2010 was not as good as most of us had hoped it would be, but the good news is most of our member companies are in good financial shape and prepared for the future.

Have you noticed any differences between the young culinary students of today and the ones coming into the industry twenty years ago? 
I think the biggest change is they are looking at a much more varied career path today – it is not just a goal to own your fine dining restaurant.  Many graduates now appreciate the corporate jobs at chains or within food companies. 

What do you think is the biggest misperception that the public has about chefs today? 
I still love the reaction that comes when I explain that Dan Coudreaut, Director of Culinary Innovation with McDonald’s is a product of Four Seasons Hotels and a CIA grad. Most people are shocked at the level of expertise driving the menus at the nation’s largest chains.

What has amazed you most about the culinary world during the last 10 years? 
I love the fact that creative chefs are taking the risk, both within chains and on the independent restaurant level. Even during this tough economy, chefs are opening new and unique restaurants in smaller cities around the nation. There are chefs who have spawned entire culinary trees of successful restaurants as they have helped their protégés begin their own career as a chef-owner. I truly admire that! On the chain level, the talent pool has risen tremendously and the role the chef plays has expanded greatly in the past 10 years. When we started the ICCA most members said they had to write their own job description once they were hired, today the role of the chef in chains has become respected both by their own senior management and by the media.

What areas of the country do you think are underrated when it comes to culinary talent and restaurants?
Cities like Portland, Seattle, Charleston and even Austin have produced amazing restaurants and the restaurant patrons in those cities are supporting their efforts. I also still believe that San Francisco is the most diverse culinary city in the nation. Where else can you choose, not just Indian Cuisine, but South Indian specifically. I love their authentic ethnic restaurants that cover pretty much the entire globe.

What is your favorite restaurant in the United States? In Orlando?
This is way too tough to answer. I actually look at it through different eyes saying what restaurants do I frequent almost every time I visit the city they are in – that would be Frontera Grill in Chicago, Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, and Restaurant Daniel in New York. In Orlando I would say Disney’s Victoria and Albert for fine dining and the Ravenous Pig in Winter Park as my favorite new Gastro Pub.

What makes you want to try a new restaurant?
Something unique, normally on their menu, but sometimes their theme or a service feature can capture my attention. A recent visit to Poppy in Seattle fits the criteria with a menu featuring a multitude of local ingredients and fresh herbs within a fixed-price menu called a Thali.  You choose either four- or seven-courses including dessert and they are all delivered on one tray at one time. The food is incredibly balanced and it offers variety without a three hour marathon.

What ethnic cuisine do you think will be the next big thing?
Southeast Asian seems to fit everything we are looking for today, healthier options with bold flavors.

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