Talking with Gary Prell of the Professional Culinary Institute

Talking with Gary Prell of the Professional Culinary Institute

Food & Drink

Talking with Gary Prell of the Professional Culinary Institute


Gary PrellGary Prell’s path to heading up the Professional Culinary Institute is an interesting journey that began in 1982. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America Prell co-founded Bon Appetit Catering in San Francisco and served as executive chef. He later relocated to Denver for Centerplate as the opening executive chef for the Colorado Convention Center and Denver Performing Arts Complex. In 1993 Prell moved on and became dean for the School of Culinary Arts for the Arts Institutes in Denver. After growing the student body to more than 500 students in just over two years he accepted a new role with the parent company, Education Management Corporation. As director of Culinary Arts he facilitated the replication of the successful educational model in 12 other major metropolitan markets.

In 2001 Prell returned to Centerplate as the general manager for the Colorado Convention Center and Denver Performing Arts Complex. In 2006 he was named vice president and added oversight for operations of the Washington D.C. and Orlando Convention Centers.

Title: President and chief executive – Professional Culinary Institute

Age: 51

Newest Ventures: In addition to the day-to-day activities at the Professional Culinary Institute, we are consulting on the renovation project of the municipal auditorium in San Antonio, TX, which is being converted to the Tobin Center For Performing Arts

Hometown: Aspen, CO

Education: AOS — Culinary Institute of America, MBA — Colorado State University

First Restaurant Job: Busboy at Casa Carlos

Restaurant Light Bulb moment: Watching Graham Kerr and Julia Child on TV as a kid

Heroes: Chef — Roland Henin; Businessman – Bert Cutino; Educator – Ferdinand Metz; Celebrity – Joe Montana

What do you cook at home: Sonora style Mexican food (Chili Colorado and Chili Verde)

Most exotic dish eaten: Fried shrimp heads in Bangkok

Pick your final meal: Foie Gras, cheese, Alaskan King Crab, Colorado lamb chops, more cheese

First dish prepared as a child: Tamales

Favorite TV, movie, music: Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Classic Rock

Favorite part of the job: Student success

Guilty pleasure: Buying art and rare Champagne

Best stress management: Cooking and yard work

Career highlights: Being hugged by Chef Paul Bocuse

Best Advice Ever Received: “You can never have too many friends”

Best Advice Ever Given: “Being wrong can sometimes get better results than being right”

Favorite book: Shogun

Hobbies: Wine collecting, traveling, skiing, water sports, camping

Personal: Married to Debra for 31 years; one son, Graham, 18 years old


You have had a very interesting career path. What was the motivation each time you decided to make a change in jobs?  Outside of title, position and economics, the main driver for me was taking on new challenges and opportunities to push myself into new and different directions. My new role at the Professional Culinary Institute led me to the Bay Area of Northern California. Residing and working in one of America’s cultural food capitals is both motivational and inspiring.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your career? Me. Learning to listen and being patient have been a decades long lesson. I am still learning and refining these skills.

Since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1982 what do you think have been the biggest changes in the foodservice industry? The biggest change has been the cultural development of the palates of typical Americans. Food consumers are much more sophisticated today than they were 25 years ago. Their knowledge of ingredients, their respect for flavor and presentation combined with the demand for good serviced has reshaped the foodservice industry. The media has also contributed to significant change in the industry, especially for chefs. Years ago being a chef was considered more of a blue-collar career path, where today it is considered a professional role.

You have a lot of experience in onsite foodservice? What do you enjoy most about that side of the business? I enjoy the constant change and unique challenges. No day is ever the same in the catering business. There is different food, different clients, different guests, different experiences, and different outcomes. The only constant is change.

How was your transition into academia and how did that come about? I never thought about my roles in culinary education as being in academia. To me it was still foodservice. It was simply a shift from me crafting ingredients into recipes and menus to me teaching others to do so.  It was, and still is, about respect for food, practicing the basic and fundamental techniques of cooking, and demonstrating positive behaviors and attitudes. My transition into the education field came about as an industry consultant. I was chosen to develop culinary curricula that featured measurable education outcomes that were current and relevant to potential employers. Specifically, to ensure that students who completed the curriculum could demonstrate the outcomes and behaviors that would make them desirable to the industry as entry-level employees. My roots in industry was the primary reason I was chosen over other professionals in “academia.”

Currently you are the president and chief executive of the Professional Culinary Institute. What is the primary focus of the institute and how did it start?  The Professional Culinary Institute was started as a culinary training program designed by chefs for chefs. Its focus has been, and still is, to deliver to its students, a high quality, short-term culinary education that provides students with the outcomes to enter the foodservice industry and grow a successful career. This is accomplished at the Professional Culinary Institute through an apprenticeship style of education that features a 100% hands on application taught by some of the industry’s most talented culinarians.

What are you goals for 2011 and 2012? My short-term goals at the Professional Culinary Institute are to develop and provide more opportunities for foodservice students to study and work abroad, to further develop student skills through the discipline of culinary competitions, and for the Professional Culinary Institute to be recognized as the leader in education by providing the highest quality talent to the industry.

You have cooked for three presidents, the Queen of England and the Pope. Have you ever been intimidated by any of them? Absolutely. I was scared to death. I must say though, that the intimidating emotions were all my own doing. All of these leaders were nothing but friendly, respectful, and courteous to me. Nevertheless, I was nervous and scared each time.

What do you think the restaurant industry needs to do to attract the best and the brightest employees? I think the foodservice industry needs to do a better job telling its exciting and compelling story to the future workforce before they graduate from high school. A long-term strategy that includes  marketing and publicizing the positive elements of the foodservice industry to young people will help us to successfully compete against other industries to attract the best and the brightest to our workforce. The celebrity chefs featured on television and other forms of media have helped tremendously over the past several years to elevate the general public’s perceptions of foodservice as a career choice. More though needs to be accomplished to communicate that foodservice careers offer creative, rewarding and challenging opportunities.

What do you think are the job prospects for graduates of culinary schools during these challenging times? I think they are excellent. Although there are shifts in the types of food and establishments people tend to gravitate to in economic down cycles as opposed to boom times, nothing will change the fact that 300+ million Americans share three things in common every day — breakfast, lunch and dinner. Food production cannot be outsourced or off-shored. As the population of America grows the labor shortage in the foodservice industry continues to compound, which will only increase the demand for culinary school graduates who possess the right skills and behaviors.

You oversaw the execution of the largest sit-down banquet in history with a meal that fed 17,440 people. What was that experience like? It was certainly one of my most memorable career highlights. I was fortunate to work with 2200 skilled professionals to plan and execute this event. The sheer magnitude of the food production was mind boggling. Even simple tasks like placing linens on the tables becomes a matter of logistics when you are dealing with 1750 tables of 10. The dining room was so large that one could literally not see the other side of the room from the dining room floor. The basics of catering and quality food and service do not change with larger guest counts. I suppose my biggest advantage was that I had never executed an event like this before, and therefore was not burdened with any rules of what would and would not work. It was a matter of creating a good plan, communicating the plan, executing on the plan, and making adjustments to the plan when needed.

What food trends have you noticed coming to life during the last 18 months? Without a doubt, the shift toward growing and raising better food ingredients with respect for the environment is the most prevalent foodservice movement I have see in my lifetime I do not see this as a trend as much as a modified cultural norm. Mass production will still be needed to feed our population, however, local craftsmen and artisans will continue to develop techniques that allow for larger and larger quantities to be produced without sacrificing flavor and quality and will do so by minimizing impact to our environment.

You are involved in many charitable events and several hospitality groups. How do you decide which organizations to support? I am quite passionate about giving back to the industry, the profession, and the communities that have allowed me to be happy and successful. I generally contribute the most amount of my time to charities and organizations that are connected or generally related to foodservice or foodservice education. My involvement in these organizations has contributed significantly to my career. I have become more comfortable as a public speaker, a more effective leader, a stronger collaborator, and have made hundreds of friends in the process.

What is the best thing about your job? Seeing the look on the students’ faces when they succeed.


More TFC