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Interview with Chef Gavin Humes and Liya Swift about CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts

The basis of culinary education is the relationship between master and apprentice. CASA trains apprentices by the actual hands-on six-month in-industry training program where the chefs lead them.

Thursday, January 23, 2020
Chef Gavin Humes and Liya Swift, Associate Director of Media Management

Chef Gavin Humes and Liya Swift, Associate Director of Media Management


by Beren Dere

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The biggest problem of the ever-growing industries is finding a sufficient number of experienced and qualified employees. This is where vocational education institutions come into play. They train experts in their branches for these industries. As the doors of new hotels and restaurants are opened one after another, the importance of culinary arts schools is rapidly increasing. However, culinary apprentices who have only received theoretical training no longer meet the needs of restaurants. Aware of this dilemma, RRFC, a 30 year veteran of industry immersed education, founded CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts (CASA). Rather than sit in a classroom, CASA students are placed in real, professional kitchens and train with a chef while receiving curriculum-backed lessons, quizzes, and tests. Aspiring culinary professionals get their culinary arts education in real kitchens, where real chefs and their team train them in a hands-on manner. Chef Gavin Humes is one chef, currently mentoring tomorrow’s culinary professionals at Scratch Restaurant Group restaurants, located in the Los Angeles area. Liya Swift is the Associate Director of Media Management for RRFC and CASA Schools. I recently talked to both of them to learn more about the chef training programs and philosophy of CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts.

Before talking about The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts (CASA), could you tell us about your background and experiences in the industry?

Chef Gavin Humes: I've been in the industry for quite a while now, almost exclusively in the kitchen. I actually came to cooking a bit later than some, having attended undergraduate and graduate school before deciding to make a career change. I went to undergrad, where I fell in love with communication. I did that for a while, and then I had an opportunity to go to grad school on a scholarship… I took that opportunity, and I said, what the heck, nobody's ever gotten in trouble for having too much education. So I went and got my graduate degree in communications. Technically the degree would be in rhetoric and social change. I ended up stopping that program before I finished the thesis. So I did all the coursework, and then I didn't finish the thesis because I started my own company, doing nonprofit fundraising.

The thing about nonprofit fundraising is it's very seasonal. So it's very busy in the spring and fall, very slow in the summer and winter. So after a few years, my then-girlfriend, now wife, told me that I basically have to get out of the house, because during that slow time I didn't have much to do. It was really, really, really slow. I was kind of just sitting around, not doing a lot. And since I liked cooking, I decided to go to work in a kitchen. So I emailed all the chefs that I respected in L.A., I said, "I don't know anything, I know I don't know anything, but I'll work hard, I'll work for free. Just teach me," and I picked one, and I went to work there. After about three or four months, they gave me a paid job as a dishwasher. The rest is history…

I worked my way up to Executive Chef of some of the best restaurants in Los Angeles, before eventually ending up where I am now, effectively running six world-class restaurants in Southern California for Scratch.

How does it feel to help students build their careers and futures?

Chef Gavin Humes: Our experience with CASA is fairly new, so I can't speak to the futures of the people I've worked within this program, but I've interacted with cooks of varying skill levels over the years, and it's always satisfying to see them move on to successful careers in other restaurants. It's the only way the industry continues to grow, and I'm pleased to do my part.

Liya Swift: Helping people who are willing to do the work and go the distance into making their goals their reality is the best thing I've done with my life. I cannot describe just how happy and fulfilling it is to help others help themselves. People who aren't passionate about the field, driven and willing to work hard should not, I repeat, should not enroll in any of our programs. But if getting in, learning, and being super proactive and hardworking sounds right up their alley, we want them to apply. If they don't get in one year but are serious, they should apply again. Basically, don't give up.

Chef Gavin Humes - Hands-on education
Chef Gavin Humes - Hands-on education

The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts does not work like most of the culinary schools we know. What are you doing differently?

Chef Gavin Humes: The main difference is that CASA is more focused on hands-on education, and less about classroom work.

Liya Swift: We place our students inside of professional restaurant kitchens to train in the culinary arts within a professional establishment, not a brick and mortar school. Students receive curriculum-backed lessons and actual hands-on time training within a working kitchen. We believe this is a better, more holistic way to provide real-world training in the culinary arts, and our program is only six to nine months long.

How did you come up with the idea of training new chef apprentices directly in a professional environment? What inspired you?

Liya Swift: We did not invent the apprenticeship model of education. It's been around for hundreds of years. Training new chef apprentices within a professional environment just makes sense since it does away with the "disconnect" that's so common when individuals try to go from theory or a textbook understanding to actual application. What we do is similar to the classic apprenticeship model of the culinary "stage" practiced in Europe for ages, which continues up to the present day. CASA Schools is a program area of Recording Radio Film Connection & CASA Schools (RRFC). We've been bringing externship / apprenticeship training to students in various arts-oriented fields for more than three decades. CASA is our newest addition to our program offerings and we’re very excited about how well it’s going.

CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts - Hands-on education
CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts - Hands-on education

What are the advantages of your training technique?

Chef Gavin Humes: Honestly, there's only so much you can learn about cooking in a book. As a former academic, I love books, but the way you learn cooking is to do it. And to be taught by somebody, or a team of people who can help you learn how to do it, why you're doing it, and how to get better at it is invaluable.

Liya Swift: We believe seeing and being able to learn specific skills inside of a working restaurant environment is just a better way of learning the actual hands-on, day-to-day work that goes into being a culinary professional. Professional chefs are always exploring and learning more, and they don't do that by stopping and enrolling in a culinary course somewhere, they build their knowledge by talking to fellow chefs, by researching various cuisines, connecting with farmers, purveyors, and other food people. In other words, learning is a lifelong endeavor for any chef.

Why is it important to create well-educated, well-heeled chefs for the restaurant industry?

Chef Gavin Humes: The short answer – because we need to hire them. The restaurant industry is booming, but it's booming despite the lack of qualified candidates to fill all the jobs. That's a risky bubble to be riding. It's important that we encourage, inspire, and train chefs to be able to join us in making food that we are proud of.

Liya Swift: Having well-educated chefs in the restaurant industry is of vital importance. From understanding proper food handling, preparation, and sanitation, to having a thriving culinary scene and bringing dollars into the local economy, a chef's knowledge, creativity, and their ability to lead have huge trickle-down or, I prefer to say "trickle through" ramifications.

What is the admission procedure for students who want to participate in The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts? What skills do they need to have?

Liya Swift: In order for us to accept any student they must first be accepted with their CASA mentor, i.e. the professional chef who will be managing their one-on-one lessons and in-industry training. Students need to be able to read, speak, and write in English and meet any other entrance requirements which can vary by state, so check out website www.casaschools.com to learn more or reach out to us at casa@rrfedu.com

CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts - Hands-on education
CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts - Hands-on education

Do you offer job placement assistance for your graduates?

Liya Swift: We have an excellent Career Services Department and offer job placement assistance for 12 months after graduation. That being said, students and graduates should make getting hired their top priority and shake hands with as many working professionals as possible. Getting your face known by the right people is a tremendous advantage.

How can restaurants partner with The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts to train or hire talented and educated culinary professionals?

Liya Swift: Reach out to us anytime at casa@rrfedu.com

What do you think about the power of social media? How can our readers follow The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts?

Liya Swift: Uh, we love social! Find us on Facebook @CASAschools

And Scratch Bar Kitchen is on Instagram as @scratchbarkitchen

How can our readers attend The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts programs?

Liya Swift: Just apply online www.casaschools.com/apply and a CASA rep will get back to you asap.

What is next for you?

Liya Swift: We're currently offering the CASA Gourmet Chef Curriculum in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York City, and San Francisco. We will be expanding our program offerings and externship locations in coming months. There's lots of exciting stuff going on. It's a great time for some hungry, passionate foodies to get in and get going with us!

Thank you Chef Gavin and Liya for your time.

For more information, please click here to visit the website of CASA, The Chef Apprentice School of the Arts