Robert Brassard is turning Shawnee Mission students into chefsStory by JILL WENDHOLT SILVA | Photos by TAMMY LJUNGBLAD
The Kansas City Star
Bleary-eyed and yawning, the culinary students unzip their hoodies and slip into stiff white chef coats embroidered with the school’s logo and their name in script.
As the chatter, flirting and rowdiness ratchet up, a burly, 51-year-old man with salt-and-pepper spiked hair and rectangular designer glasses rolls his eyes to dramatic effect. The students may have rolled out of bed just in time to make an 8 a.m. class, but Robert Brassard — known simply as “Bob” to his students — is already working on “chef time.”
Nearly always the first teacher to arrive and the last to leave the Shawnee Mission School District’s Broadmoor Technical Center in Overland Park, Brassard is already two hours into his school day and ready to roll. Or knead, to be precise.
Today’s lesson: baguettes, boules and soft rolls.
“What’s the most important thing about baking?” Brassard asks his first-year students in a distinctive East Coast accent left over from a childhood spent in a rural Connecticut farming community.
His students offer up silent stares.
“Time! Can we ever make up time that we lose?”
“No,” several of the students mumble in unison.
“Every minute we waste we can’t get back because that bread has to proof, and you can’t speed it up,” he lectures.
Brassard hates to waste time, and his own rise as an educator has been nothing short of meteoric. Barely a decade ago, he was struggling to balance the demands of life as a single dad with work as a corporate executive chef at John Knox Village when he dared to imagine his dream job — to whip the next generation of chefs into shape.
Trained in the ’70s at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., Brassard headed back to the classroom at Johnson County Community College to get a degree in food and beverage management.
While at JCCC, Brassard ran the Kansas City Community Kitchen Culinary Cornerstones, a training program for economically disadvantaged adults who were referred through a patchwork of social service agencies. The program was a success. Brassard won a national award. But he couldn’t shake the feeling he had arrived too late to really make a difference.
Then out of the blue Brassard got a call from a Shawnee Mission administrator. He’d been recommended for the job as head of the district’s culinary arts program.
“All chefs are teachers,” he says with a shrug. “Eighty percent of their time is giving instruction or critiquing. Every time you put out a new menu you have to retrain your staff.”
Brassard’s culinary class is no glorified home ec class with sharp knives. A slick promotional brochure produced by the district sums up his no-nonsense, results-oriented teaching approach.
Since Brassard’s arrival in August 2001, the district’s program has been recognized as one of the top high school culinary programs in the country. By 2008, he had been named outstanding culinary educator of the year by the Foodservice Educators Network International.
Broadmoor culinary grads have earned academic scholarships totaling more than $1 million to accredited culinary institutions, including the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales University and the Art Institutes.
Many of the graduates have been accepted to stage (that’s fancy French kitchen lingo for “to work for free”) at the country’s premier restaurants, including Thomas Keller’s perfection-driven French Laundry and Bouchon in Napa Valley and Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, considered America’s pantheon of space-agey molecular cuisine.
From the beginning, the Broadmoor Bistro served meals from a classroom. Now students train in the 100-seat Broadmoor Bistro, a 3,000-square-foot, student-run restaurant that officially opened for business in the 2008-2009 school year. The sleek, contemporary dining space is a showcase for students to serve four-course gourmet dinners for $25 a person every Wednesday night during the school year.
The meals are cooked in a 1,800-square-foot open kitchen. Furnished with commercial-grade equipment, including 10 Vulcan gas ranges, two wood-fired broilers and a stone hearth wood-fired pizza oven, the bistro kitchen rivals some restaurants and professional cooking schools. There is also an 1,300-square-foot pastry classroom and a 1,100 demonstration classroom.
But the $1.6 million state-of-the-art facility was still not enough.
Brassard envisioned a mentoring program that would expose his students to chefs, techniques and gourmet foods they might never encounter on their own.
So when the culinary program received a $75,000 gift from Kansas Sen. David Wysong and his wife, Kathy, Brassard had already spent two years working to form a partnership with the James Beard Foundation, the New York City-based culinary organization that honors a pioneer of American cuisine and promotes culinary education.
Last spring Susan Ungaro, president of the foundation, flew to Kansas City to seal the deal — the foundation’s first and only partnership with a high school culinary program.
As a result, Broadmoor students have the opportunity to work side-by-side with visiting James Beard chefs from around the country. In addition to attending classroom lectures, the students prepare a four-course gourmet dinner of the chef’s signature dishes. The $50 dinners, which are scheduled monthly during the school year, are open to the public, and proceeds raise money for culinary scholarships.
Brassard is always on the lookout for new opportunities he can use to train his students.
Last weekend, he accompanied seniors Daniel Beal and Ivy Young as they helped cook at the James Beard Foundation Awards, an annual culinary Academy Awards that honors the nation’s top chefs. The star-studded event was at Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Center and hosted by Emeril Lagasse.
“Usually we invite students who are in their fourth year at a culinary institution, but because we know what a great job he does with his kids, we’ve invited them to cook,” says Diane Harris Brown, the foundation’s director of educational and community programming. “Hopefully, it will be a life-changing experience for them.”
The learning curve
Back in the pastry classroom, a sullen-looking boy with a mane of perfectly feathered chestnut-brown hair sits on a stool, his shoulders hunched over.
“Hey, where’s your hat?” Brassard asks. “I know your hair is pretty and shiny, but we’re not here for that!”
The teen coolly scans the kitchen and makes a grab for a nearby paper toque.
“That’s the tall hat!” Brassard booms. “That’s mine. Go to talk to your bro across the way and see if you can borrow a hat.”
In Brassard’s classroom there are no superstars. There are those who do and those who do not. When the teen comes back empty-handed, he must sit on the sidelines while Brassard ricochets like a pinball around the classroom.
“Hey, Bob!” a brunette teen with Irish shamrocks painted on her fingernails calls out nonchalantly.
She’s pulling and pushing a lump of dough, but something doesn’t feel right.
“Look,” he says, standing behind her and moving her forearms. “Toward you, away. Toward you, away. Do that for about three minutes.”
“Hey, Bob!” a blond teen with bubblegum-pink fingernails calls out, a bewildered look on her face.
She’s not sure the mountain of flour she dumped onto the electronic scale matches the digital readout.
“OK. Let’s do it the old-fashioned way,” he tells her. “Let’s make the scales of justice balance.”
“Hey, Bob!” a tall blond boy with chiseled features calls out, then holds up his hands, sticky bits of dough webbed between his fingers.
“Add a little more flour,” Brassard agrees with a quick nod.
“I try to talk to every kid every day,” he says after class and out of earshot of his students. “The hardest thing is to start the involvement. Once they’ve got a little focus and they’re ready to go, there are usually results.”
A patient man with a dry sense of humor, Brassard also has a reputation for being brutally honest — a quality he readily admits does not endear him to every student.
“Some people think you have to be a friend to be a teacher, but he is not their friend,” says Julie Crain, principal of the Broadmoor Technical Center. “Bob mentors them. He teaches them. He communicates with them and helps them along. And he goes that extra mile.”
Jonathon Dallen, a 2002 graduate, admits he was initially suspicious of the new, hard-driving teacher who showed up to class that first year. Dallen wanted to know why Brassard was always on his case. Brassard says he pushed because Dallen had a spark that he thought could be channeled through culinary competition.
“I know it’s not all about competition,” Brassard says, “but it shows them they all have the same opportunities. They all have a lottery ticket to do something for themselves. Too often they simply choose not to.
“I said, ‘Hey, there’s this scholarship opportunity.’ They all chuckled at me and said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I told Jon, ‘If this is something you want to do, you need to fill it out. If you need help with it, I’ll help you.’ ”
With a little prodding and lots of after-school cooking practice, Dallen won a $55,000 scholarship to the Art Institutes’ Atlanta campus.
“I had to coerce him. And then his life is changed, just like that,” Brassard says, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
At just 25 years old, Dallen opened Taste, a progressive-American bistro and bar in downtown Overland Park. Working a stone’s throw from his old classroom, Dallen keeps in close touch with his mentor.
“Bob takes time out of his day and out of his life for his students,” Dallen says. “When he finds someone who wants to work, he takes them under his wings.”
Brandon Brumback initially walked into Brassard’s classroom with only a vague idea of what a career in culinary arts might entail.
“I had always been interested in food but had never even thought of a career in it,” the 2007 grad recalls. “I went to the Broadmoor Bistro when I was a sophomore and all these kids who were my peers were doing amazing things. It was really cool.”
Since graduation, Brumback, 21, has broadened his experience by staging at some of the country’s premier restaurants. Now he’s heading back to Kansas City to work for James Beard Award-winning local chef Celina Tio, who is developing a new restaurant. For the last three months, Brumback has worked in the kitchens of Bouchon and the French Laundry.
“It was definitely a great experience, and I learned tons,” he says. “It’s another world when you’re at a restaurant of that high a caliber. There are very few mistakes allowed. It’s as close to perfect as you can get. It can get pretty ugly in the kitchen, but I can’t even begin to explain to you how much I’ve learned. I honed every skill Bob ever taught me.”
Still, the first couple of weeks adjusting to the demands for speed, accuracy and consistency were not only physically demanding but also ego-bruising.
“I called Bob,” Brumback says. “He told me to buckle down and, similar to a sports coach, told me to start practicing. To get there 15 minutes early and start prepping. To be ready, I went in 30 minutes early and stayed 30 minutes late so I wouldn’t get yelled at.”
By contrast, Kaitlin Hogue never saw herself headed for the ultra-intense world of fine dining depicted in shows like “Iron Chef,” “Top Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen.” Instead, she found a comfortable niche working in catering and banquets.
“He knew I couldn’t do fine dining, but he knew I could do mass production. I’m more of a big picture person, and I think Bob has the ability to see the strengths in every student,” says Hogue, a 2002 grad.
Never much interested in school, Hogue went straight into industry work after graduation but has since returned to school to pursue a teaching degree. She works as Brassard’s teaching assistant and hopes to one day follow in his footsteps to become a culinary educator.
“I’m a firm believer in that whole fate thing,” Brassard says. “When someone is in my class, they’re there for a reason. I’m not sure why they’re there, but I try to help them figure it out.”
Working on chef time
Nurturing young talent rarely fits neatly into a school day — or even the school year.
Whenever one of his students competes in a cooking competition with scholarship money on the line, Brassard travels with them, whether the competition is in Atlanta, Denver or Charlotte.
Every summer Brassard takes a handful of students to Lenox, Mass., to work at a sports camp for boys, where they learn to churn out 500 meals a day for pay.
When he gets a catering gig, he takes students along for the experience. In the process, they’ve prepared food for rock bands including Metallica, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, U2 and Eric Clapton.
One summer he invited 11 students to tag along with him and his wife on a trip to Italy.
Chefs typically work nights, weekends and holidays, so when Brassard told his new wife, Sarah Wallbaum, that he wanted to teach, she supported him.
“Bob is such an amazing, free-thinking person, but he struggled his first year because he had never had any formal training,” says Wallbaum, who married Brassard in 1999, right as he was making his career switch.
Recently, though, the tables turned, and Wallbaum went back to school for training as a doula, a career that requires odd hours that aren’t always conducive to family time.
“I don’t place a lot of demands on him, but Bob is on-call for cooking,” she says. “And sometimes that’s what I need most when I come home from a long birth.”
Besides, she says, it’s clear teaching is his calling, not just his job.
“He really meets students where they are. He finds out what motivates them. It’s a gift,” she says.
Karsen Brassard, now 20, recalls that his dad’s move to the classroom didn’t necessarily free him up to be home more, but it did tap into a passion.
“As he became a teacher, you could see it in his eyes that he had found something he wanted to do,” he says.
By the time Karsen reached high school age, he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps but insisted he be treated like any other student. That’s when Karsen started calling his dad “Bob” — a habit that continues to this day.
Karsen graduated in 2007 after spending a year at the Art Institutes in Charlotte, N.C. He lives at home and juggles several restaurant jobs. He’s so busy he rarely sees his dad, except on Sundays, when they sometimes find time to cook together.
“When we cook dinner at home, he’s always teaching,” Karsen says. “That’s the relationship. We’re a lot alike. We think alike. We want each other to succeed. Because of him, I want to be a culinary educator. I envy who he is. I want to be who he is.”
Sealing the deal
As students sun themselves on a beach somewhere as part of the spring break ritual, Brassard sheds his customary chef coat for jeans and a polo shirt and heads downtown for lunch.
Brassard wants to eat at Extra Virgin because he hasn’t had a chance to taste the food — and because he wants to support James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Smith, one of his advisory board mentors.
“I love to go out and eat, but I’m a teacher,” he says as we soak up the sun on the terrace and enjoy an array of tapas that include beef cheeks, duck confit crostini and mussels.
Over the years, Brassard has pushed his students to excel. And when they succeed, he pushes them into the limelight.
“When I’m out in the (Broadmoor Bistro) dining room, I feel so overwhelmed with guilt because I don’t want to take all the credit for it,” he says. “It’s not just me. The district provides the facility and the purveyors really make it happen.”
Brassard recalls receiving an important piece of advice as a first-year teacher that has helped him lay the groundwork for his program. A teacher told him to dream big.
“I’ll always ask for something,” he says. “The worst they can tell me is ‘no.’ ”
He’s not shy about asking purveyors to donate food at cost so his students can practice for competition. Or top chefs to sit on his advisory board. He asks restaurateurs to let his students work in their kitchens. He convinces chefs to set up scholarship funds.
“He knows how to pitch a deal,” says Broadmoor Technical Center’s Crain. “He’s verbally extraordinary in that he can present his ideas to help somebody to see his vision.”
On a Tuesday night in late March, the “Hey, Bob!” chorus has gone silent.
Brassard hangs back, arms crossed, watching. He’s letting visiting James Beard chef Joe Hafner, executive chef at Gracie’s in Providence, R.I., run the Broadmoor Bistro.
“He’d make an excellent teacher because he circles (the kitchen) and he is calm,” Brassard says.
Hafner, a bubbly, soft-spoken chef who is clearly enjoying his work with the students, is like a kid as he marvels at the tiny nasturtium leaves.
The lily-pad-shaped leaves are grown by students in other Broadmoor programs, and Hafner is using them to garnish one of his signature canapés: oven-dried “overnight” tomatoes with a drizzle of first-pressed Manfredi olive oil and lemon juice and served on a silver spoon.
“We don’t typically see nasturtiums this early in Providence,” Hafner says.
Hafner insists the student waiters dressed in gray long sleeve shirts and black aprons who line up to take the spoons to guests practice saying NAH-stur-shum, the name of the flower with peppery flavored leaves.
“The nasturtiums were grown here by the school,” he says. “You know it is amazing that you’re growing something local and sustainable here. You should point that out when you serve it.”
Another one of Brassard’s big ideas. He hopes to get other vocational students to grow produce and herbs for the culinary students to use, thus replicating the farmer/chef experience of top restaurants.
“I don’t think they know how well-equipped the kitchen is,” Hafner says. “I’m blown away. They’re very skilled for high school students, and in this setting, they already know what they want to do so they’re seven or eight years ahead of the pack.”
As students in the class of 2009 prepare to head out into the real world, it’s time for Brassard to fade into the background.
“I always tell them, this is your restaurant. You need to go and taste it,” he says. “If the food isn’t good, I tell them it’s not a reflection on me; it’s a reflection on you. It’s about giving them back ownership and responsibility.”
•Joe West: Bluestem, Delaware Café, now at Alex at the Wynn in Las Vegas
•Brad Kilgore: Alinea Restaurant, now assistant pastry chef at Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group in Chicago
•Brandon Brumback: Per Se, French Laundry, Fat Duck and wd-50, recently returned to Kansas City
•Kelly Wooldridge: Wine sales manager in Denver
•Jonathon Dallen: Chef/owner of Taste in downtown Overland Park
•Broadmoor grads with culinary scholarships at Johnson & Wales University campuses: Christine Pham, Spencer Frye, Joe DeMarco, Franki Triano, Ben Shapiro, Andy Kirsch, Grace Brulatour. At New England Culinary Institute: Matt Buechele.
To learn more about Broadmoor Bistro, go to www.broadmoorbistro.org
•Canapes: Mini croque madames, “overnight” tomatoes with Manfredi olive oil, cold-poached oysters with white balsamic mignonette with crisp dried chorizo
•Housemade potato gnocchi with foraged mushrooms and Mandernone provolone
•Bacon-seared sea scallops with Provencal ratatouille with tiny greens salad
•Intermezzo: Frozen cherry lemonade with candied lemon
•Veal Two Ways: Crisp veal sweetbreads and bacon with sage and Blis sherry-maple vinegar
•Passion fruit dacquoise, almond crispies and raspberries
The Wysong Family/James Beard Chef Lecture series included visits from Mindy Segal of HotChocolate Restaurant and Dessert Bar in Chicago; David Felton of Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, N.J.; Gary Mennie of Taurus Restaurant in Atlanta; Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s and Krog’s Bar in Atlanta; and Kent Rathbun of Abacus and Jasper’s in Dallas.