Thomas Macrina says finding seasoned, qualified cooks is his biggest challenge as executive chef at the Desmond Great Valley Hotel and Conference Center in Malvern, Pa. The shortage of trained employees is a problem many chefs and operators face, and as the recently elected national chairman of the American Academy of Chefs, the honor society of the American Culinary Federation, Macrina says he is planning to take the organization’s mentoring and scholarship efforts to the next level with increased support for current and future culinarians.
Macrina joined the ACF in 1976 after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Since then he has participated actively in the organization, honing his own skills while developing future talent. He has served as the chairman of the board of the ACF’s Philadelphia chapter and coached the Culinary Youth Team at the 2004 International Culinary Olympics in Germany.
How did you decide to become a chef?
I lived with my grandparents, and my grandmother used to wake up early in the morning and make bread and cook. I used to get up with her and make bread and pastas and stuff like that. And then I took a summer course at a technical school while I was in high school, and that’s how I got started. I started in a restaurant, and when you get started in a restaurant, you can’t get away from it.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
My style of cooking is classical with modern twists. I’m very into classical recipes and making sure that dishes really are whatever we say they are. And then I try to add something that gives it a little bit of a twist. When classical things are made they’re usually done with one kind of olive oil, or one kind of ingredient. We can enhance it with some infused oils, or top something with a foam. Or I’ll finish it with truffle oil or something different. Also the plate presentation might be different than how it would be done classically.
Are there challenges specific to a hotel and conference center?
Yes, and I love it. I wouldn’t change it for the world. Being a hotel and a conference center, we have the best of both worlds. During the week we’re a corporate hotel. On weekends we have your weddings, bar mitzvahs and social functions. And we get people from all over the world who are staying at the hotel.
We’re in the middle of a corporate park, so we’ll get people that fly in from all over and stay for different meetings. It’s fun to do different food for different people. Some groups are here for a conference for a whole week, and they’re here for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You have to make sure that nothing is repeated. Some people are here every month. So it’s challenging to get new ideas and keep people happy. That’s the fun part.
Do you have a lot of freedom with the menu, or are there things people expect to see?
On our à la carte menu we have one page that I call the “safe” menu with your basic steaks, fish, chops and chicken, stuff like that. And then I do another page where I do just whatever our specialties are, whatever we want to do.
I always make sure to have at least two vegetarian options on the menu, and we always try to find something new for the vegetarians. Because we’re finding that, especially in our area, we have people coming in from other countries who are vegetarians and are so used to eating different things.BIOGRAPHY
Title: executive chef, Desmond Great Valley Hotel and Conference Center, Malvern, Pa.Birth date: October 4, 1956Hometown: Norristown, Pa.Education: The Culinary Institute of America , Hyde Park, N.Y.Career highlights: coaching the Culinary Youth Team for the 2004 “Culinary Olympics”; cooking for President Bill Clinton
What sort of “unsafe” items do you create?
We change our specialties seasonally, and we have a pumpkin ravioli that we’re putting in as an appetizer, and we have seared scallops with tomato and fennel risotto as an appetizer. We also have an osso buco that we’re putting in for the wintertime. And we’ve got a couple new fish things too, with whatever is in season. We’re doing a monkfish and a sautéed sea bass with a lentil ragoût and a veal rotini.
What are your most popular dishes?
The most popular items on our menu are our roast rib of beef, and we have a Neptune’s sampler, which is a broiled seafood sampler. But also we have a braised grouper that is very popular, and we also do an angel hair with Maine lobster that’s very popular.
What would you say is the biggest challenge of running a kitchen for a hotel and conference center?
We’re out in the suburbs, and it’s hard to get employees. That’s our biggest challenge right now, finding cooks that are seasoned and qualified. I’m sure that’s a lot of people’s biggest challenge.
How did you get involved with the American Culinary Federation?
When I first graduated from culinary school I joined the ACF in my local chapter, and it was very active and did a lot of things, and I just stayed really involved. It really helped me to get to where I am today. I’ve learned an awful lot. From going to different conventions and going to the different things that they do, traveling and seeing so much. It helps me in my job every day.
Now that you’ve been elected national chairman, what are your plans for the American Academy of Chefs this year?CHEF’S TIPS
Slightly undercook pasta, so that it will take up the sauce a little bit and taste better when served.
One way to tell if an artichoke is really fresh is to squeeze it. It will squeak.
We plan on bringing it to the next level [and] bringing them up to date a little bit. In the past the ACF gave out scholarships to students who were already in culinary school. We’re going to start doing scholarships for high school students who are going to attend culinary school, and we’re going to help chefs do continuing-education courses.
We’re also going to help local high school culinary teams to be able to compete in various competitions. In my opinion, when you’re in high school and college, competitions are where you really learn because you’re put against time, and you’re put against other people. You see a lot. You learn a lot.
What do you look for in aspiring culinarians?
We look for grades, and they write an essay on what they plan to contribute to the culinary industry. We also look for financial need. [The scholarships] are usually in thousand-dollar increments. Last year we gave out $65,000 in scholarships.