Zakari Benkhadra: "Management, well-being, social networks ... culinary arts training must be 2.0"

Interview with Zakari Benkhadra
27 May 2019
zakari benkhadra
Growing up, Zakari Benkhadra experimented with family recipes; today he is at the helm of Institut Culinaire de France. Ambitious, demanding and sometimes quite talkative but always passionate, he is surrounded by the greatest chefs and has learnt from their experiences. Today, by accepting the position as the Managing Director of Institut Culinaire de France (ICF), Zakari Benkhadra has realized his dream. The Interview.

Where does your dedication to the culinary arts come from?

I stumbled into it when I was 14 years old. I baked strawberry pies, baked cakes using fruit from the family garden. We were lucky to have some really good fruit! Over time and due to life's demands, I ended up setting pastry aside and focusing on my studies. Then I started my career in the hospitality industry and this rekindled my love for the culinary arts. It's like riding a bicycle: once mastered, you never forget how to do it!

Speaking of which, you have a rather uncommon career path...

Indeed! My whole career has been influenced by the people I have met. I first worked in advertising and then I joined Compagnie Générale d'Hôtellerie et de Services [CGHS] to run the food services division in Centre des Nouvelles Industries et Technologies [CNIT] and develop the catering section. One thing led to another. In 2000, I joined Unibail to participate in the creation and development of Paris Expo. After four years, we parted ways. I had a strong desire to create, build and progress. I dislike routine! I then founded CBEX - Convention, Business and Exhibition, which allowed me to work with prestigious clients such as EADS, L'Oréal and Sofitel. Those were three years of intense challenges! After all these adventures, I was approached by Alain Ducasse to rejuvenate his School : Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Pâtisserie [ENSP].

Was it at this point you switched to education?

Yes, this is was. I knew Alain Ducasse since 1996, when he became culinary advisor to the CGHS, succeeding Joël Robuchon. We always maintained a very good relationship. I studied the ENSP files, devised a strategy, a business plan, budgeting, ... marketing and commercial strategies, following which Alain Ducasse was seduced and convinced by my vision and my strategy and we made a long and beautiful journey together. Alain Ducasse is a daring man, he had great ambitions for this school. We changed it from top to bottom! At that time, it was impossible to believe that I would be at the helm of yet another great adventure, creating and launching Institut Culinaire de France!

Our will is to become a major national and international player in culinary arts education.

You have had the opportunity to cross paths with many chefs. What did you learn from them?

I learnt about technique, discipline, management and human nature. In this line of work, we get to know what really ignites inner passion, their convictions, what has shaped them and what makes them lead and succeed. There is also the managerial aspect to it: how do they manage their teams. Lastly, development is one of the most interesting points, in my opinion: the way they sell what they produce. There is a wealth of techniques; high standards, great attention to detail, rigour, organisation, methodology — but also and particularly, an uncompromising quest for quality, a deep understanding of the reasons to use one product over another. All of this unfolding, in a rather chaotic yet very close-knit environment.

You are also the founder of the Salon de la Pâtisserie, ran flagship culinary schools ... After all these adventures, why did you agree to become the Director of Institut Culinaire de France?

It was born from the merging of two ideas. On the one hand, it became obvious to me that, in France, the training landscape was slow and lacking "major players". On the other hand, Galileo Global Education group had an ambition to develop culinary arts schools and become a major player at national and global level.  As they say: there's a lid for every pot, and sometimes it just falls into place. We had the same ambitions and through our collaboration, we are all making dreams come true.

Do you think there is a real craze for the culinary arts?

Yes, particularly thanks to all the TV shows... Currently, we also know that in France alone, there are more than 20,000 vacancies in cuisine, pastry, chocolate and baking! In China, there might be more than a million! In the United States, about 450,000! There is a lot of potential growth and it is up to us to put forward training programs that are modern as well as suitable, challenging and rewarding.

Today, what we teach must meet consumer expectations: to eat well and healthy, to indulge their sweet tooth in much healthier ways.

How does Institut Culinaire de France stand out from other schools? What are its strengths?

First and foremost, its principal focus is on quality. We are people-oriented, that is to say, very welcoming; we provide the means that will make school life easier for students and also for professionals ... Quality is built upon organization and structure. Obviously, quality is also about the chefs we recruit, about our educational methods, facilities, utensils and ingredients.  Here, nothing is left to chance. The icing on the cake: we have a strong will to train the chefs of tomorrow better than they are being trained today. Technical skills are taught intensively so that they are mastered, but that is not our sole focus.

What do you mean?

We have devised cutting-edge training programs, fitting the current job market. In Institut Culinaire de France, students are taught how to use social networks, how to manage them and stand out. We teach them to consider culinary design, the nutritional balance of every recipe.  Health and well-being are also discussed. Nowadays, people do want to indulge themselves — but responsibly. If a pastry shop wants to make the signature pastry religieuse, they will still make them the traditional way. No one will stop and think whether religieuse might be a bit too fatty, maybe lacking in dietary fibres, etc. But maybe we could add ingredients to make them more balanced, so that when we consume, we feel both pleasure and a sense of well-being. Today, what we teach must meet consumer expectations: to eat well and healthy, for consumers to indulge their sweet tooth in healthier ways. This is an important new perspective and we adopt it in our teaching.

A chef must also be able to negotiate with his/her banker, to talk to a communication agency, to share their photos online: they must be good at sales as well as at management.

One last question, could you describe the pastry Chef of tomorrow?

They must be 2.0. A chef must be able to negotiate with their banker, to talk to a communication agency, to share their photos online in order to keep their customers updated and to gain new followings; they must be good at sales, as well as at management too. They must know how to hire people, train and coach them.

Institut Culinaire de France puts this updated idea of what a pastry chef has within reach. We want to inspire the people who have a calling for this craft. Help them dream about opening stores based on innovative, transferable ideas; about launching their own brand!  Dreams that will allow them to devote themselves to an exciting job; to grow intellectually and technically, and also financially, so that the whole industry keeps growing and that the culinary arts do not decline but continue to be innovative and reputable.

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