A conversation with Director and Chef Les Eckert. (Pictured above at Lakeview Hill Farm, Leelanau County.)
We invited Chef Les Eckert, director of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute since June 2019, to give us a sense for how the institute is evolving and how the next steps add momentum to the local food economy and improve the health of our communities. (Hint: great things ahead!)
Back in 2019, Chef Eckert and Paula Martin, along with Munson Healthcare, closed out the Farms, Food and Health, Culinary Medicine conference. The conference was Chef Eckert’s first big introduction to Groundwork’s culinary medicine program, and now she’s working closely with us as we plan to open a teaching kitchen adjacent to our new offices in the Commongrounds Cooperative. Eckert is also involved with the NoBo Market space there.
Paula Martin: Chef, I’d like to start with something big picture to frame what’s coming next. Help us see how culinary arts fits into the bigger picture of our culture.
Les Eckert: Sure, well, at GLCI, we are passionate about the culinary arts as it is so connected to having healthy and sustainable food systems. If you don’t know what to do with whole, fresh, locally grown food, that food won’t get into your body and provide the nutrition you need for a good and healthy life.
Tomatoes at Z&N Farm, Manistee County.
Martin: Please share a bit of your own cheffing story.
Eckert: I am a Florida native and did my culinary training there. I owned a dessert catering company there and worked in high-end restaurants. Then I moved into teaching, at Tampa, where I taught artisan bread. Eventually I moved to North Carolina to direct the culinary school at The Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham. In 2013 I won the Culinary Educator of the Year award, which is an American Culinary Federation national title award. Then, in June 2019 I accepted the director position here at NMC-GLCI.
Martin: What has surprised you most about our food and culinary culture here in northern Michigan?
Eckert: For me it’s been the relationship between the farmer and the chef. Farm to table was not a big thing in my chef circles when I was a young chef in Florida in the early ’90s. Moving to Durham, I was exposed to the farms and the farmers, and how we get the food on the table. My move to Durham was when my eyes started opening a lot as a chef regarding sourcing local food and its benefits. I was really able to see where our connections are with farms and getting local food to the table. Here in northwest Lower Michigan, I like how broad our outreach is in all of the counties. I like the fact that we work across multiple counties to solve this food access dilemma that we are seeing in our area. That is what has surprised me the most, we are working together as a very large regional area rather than working in a silo to fix the issue only in our area.
Martin: What can we expect in the next chapters of the culinary institute?
Eckert: We are changing our vision and branding in the community. We want to be viewed as a culinary educational hub for all—those who are entering into the profession, those who are already a part of it, or food enthusiasts. For instance, you can register for one of our masterclasses that run two to five days. These hands-on intensive workshops are for all audiences, professionals or enthusiasts. We will design private education training for companies that need skill enhancement for their teams. We are also working on developing revenue-generating projects beyond our masterclasses—for example, hosting more private catering events and creating a GLCI Marketplace.
From a sustainability standpoint, we currently recycle and compost yet would like to minimize our output so to speak. We’d like to achieve as close to zero waste in the compost bins as possible while teaching students how to do that. To do this we are weaving that environmental stewardship piece into all of our courses. We are also integrating “plant-slant” plate and menu options into all of our kitchen lab, lecture lesson plans, and restaurant events. The plant-slant concept encourages plant-based meal planning while providing room on the plate and menu for use of sustainable locally sourced land and water proteins. Weaving environmental stewardship and plant-slant concepts and practices into all courses enables every student in every program the chance to learn and put to practical use this very important information.
So no matter where you are at, pastry or culinary, we will teach principles of “healthy kitchen, healthy lives.”