Part of The Bridge’s Higher Education Series
Interview with Richard Flies, acting president, and Jean Louis Gerin, chief operating officer
by Nat Frothingham and Carla Occaso
Frothingham: What distinguishes you from among the six higher learning institutions in Washington County, including YesterMorrow, Goddard College, Norwich University, Community College of Vermont and the Vermont College of Fine Arts?
Flies: We are focused on hospitality and have been since the beginning. Most of these schools offer multiple degrees. We have three degrees: Baking and pastry, culinary arts and hospitality/business management. The second thing is that there is nothing else like this in Vermont. It is not an easy place to run a college as you are probably finding out from these other schools. We have a small population. A school in a city would be able to attract a lot more students.
Gerin: I am just here two-and-a-half years, but I am a NECI customer since they opened. I opened my restaurant in Connecticut in 1983, and always had NECI students in my kitchen. What makes NECI unique is the model. Six months on campus and six months in a kitchen anywhere in the world and then back here for six months. We can’t face the demand for NECI graduates. It is incredible the amount of job offers that our students get. Although it is 35 years old, the school is still incredibly modern. There is still not one school — not only in Vermont, but in New England — that has this model. Six months, six months; six months. It is unique.
Frothingham: I need you to break that down for me. What six months where?
Gerin: OK. The students are six months with us in Montpelier. And they go on an internship anywhere in the world.
Occaso: What is an example? What is one popular place they go?
Gerin: Students are targeting the upper crust of the luxury side of the hospitality industry. They are looking at the Four Seasons, the Ritz, at two- or three-star Michelin, five-star New York Times and Los Angeles Times. They go to New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis, Florida.
Frothingham: Then what? By then they know it all?
Gerin: They come back to campus. At this point they think they know it all, which makes our lives easier because when they come back they are curious. The first six months on campus, we tell them “how” does it work. How does a steak cook? How does a potato cook? And then they go on internship and they come back and they say, “But, why? Why does it cook like that and not the other way? Why do we want to do a steak on a barbecue and not in a pot of water?” It is exciting for us to have them back here.
Frothingham: What do they do the last six months.
Flies: The last six months is usually a job offer. Even though we call it an internship, 90 percent of the interns that go on to that last internship are being tried out to stay there.
Frothingham: Are they still paying tuition?
Flies: Yes. Any time they are off-campus on internship, they are still on our roles taking classes. They are still a student here while they are in other states working. They get paid.
Frothingham: How rigorous is it?
Flies: We graduate about 63 percent of those who start here. It is on par with other colleges. It is a commitment. If a student misses a class, they have to make it up. You either do it, or you have to repeat it. You have to keep repeating it until the chef says, “that is the right technique.” Some students can’t take that. You can’t go out drinking every night and be in the kitchen the next day and pass a standard.
Gerin: Eighty percent of what our students are producing goes to the public. So they are responsible to somebody. If I make a sauce for you, it is not a test. You are going to eat it. Students are like, “This is real.”
Flies: That is the thing about NECI, we are live. We don’t do laboratory cooking. Everything we cook goes out to
someone. We pass out health inspections at the highest levels. Our chef faculty have to pass a sanitation with at least a 90 to be in our senior core faculty where 70 is acceptable to the state.
Frothingham: What about the debt after high school? Is it a problem, or do we need to put it into perspective?
Flies: It is a problem and we do need to put it in perspective. Students average about $26,000 in debt that they’ve got to carry forward. One of the things that helps put in perspective to me is our payback ratio. We have a very low default rate, between 9 and 11 percent. I attribute that to the work ethic that NECI provides.
Frothingham: I would think just a small slice of your students come from Vermont.
Flies: 80 percent come from out-of-state and 20 percent from Vermont.
Occaso (to Gerin): Where are you from?
Gerin: The Alps. From the French side.
Occaso: What brought you here?
Gerin: I was working for Guy Savoy (a restaurant group based in France). We decided to open a branch in America.
Frothingham: You fell in love with New England and Vermont. Tell me about that.
Gerin: I fell in love with the opportunity. In America you have the right to be successful and the right to work as much as you want. The opportunities I had in America would never happen in France. America is an amazing country if you really want to work.
Frothingham (to Flies): What about you? What brought you here?
Flies: I graduated from University of Wisconsin. I opened (my career) at Spaulding High School and started teaching there. I was then principal of Randolph Vocational School, and then I went to the Essex Technical Center, Vermont Technical College and then here. This is my 50th year in central Vermont education.
Frothingham: What are your challenges?
Flies: We are dealing with financial challenges, the number of students available to go to school. Some parents are still not over the recession, not wanting to pay the kinds of money that they have to pay. With an owner that is not well, what is the transition plan? What is the succession plan?
Frothingham (to Gerin): Do you see students who, like you, are not afraid of work and opportunity?
Gerin: Yes. We see that a lot of young people are very talented and eager to succeed. They get the magic of our profession on the Internet and on television, but when they want to be serious, they come to an institution like us to get the fundamentals, because the theatrical part of food is just trends, and show people realize that a trend is a trend, but the foundation will be the same.
Occaso: Being a TV chef and being a superstar is a trend, as you say, why do you think cooking has become so popular?
Gerin: First of all, it is very creative and very artistic. It touches people. Any kind of artist wants to touch people and food is an art that is going to make people feel good, or feel bad, but it is really touching people. The act of cooking is an act of love and people get that. Cooking is really a gift .
Flies: The food evolution in Vermont really has been driven by NECI and the hundreds of students who stay and open restaurants.