Shaun Robinson, executive chef at Chartwells, the food provider and catering company for Kalamazoo Public Schools, didn’t always know he wanted to be part of the culinary world. What started as a way to make some extra cash washing dishes in high school turned into a full-fledged career after he completed a tour with the Army across Europe and the Persian Gulf countries. Upon returning, Robinson went to school, eventually accumulating four degrees, including a bachelor’s in food service administration and a master’s in career and technical education in culinary arts, both from Western Michigan University.
Robinson, 52, has been executive chef at Chartwells for 13 years, and two days are never the same, he says. From managing staff to catering events and educating students about proper nutrition, Robinson is always on the move. He challenges himself and his staff to come up with creative menus, sometimes seeking guidance from the students.
“Last year we did a student choice program at Loy Norrix High School,” he says. “You’ll go into a school, market a menu and do a big tasting of four different cuisines. The students will vote. We did a bok choy station for a few weeks. Then we had fresh pizzas to order, so they would pick their toppings every day.”
Robinson says the most rewarding part of his job is teaching and engaging with students about nutrition.
How did you get started in the culinary world?
I worked in high school washing dishes and kind of got a taste for it. After I left the military, I worked at a restaurant in Grand Rapids (owned by) a Sicilian family for over 10 years. I really loved the scratch cooking, so that kind of propelled me to finish (culinary training) at the Secchia Institute. For seven or eight years, I worked as a dietary manager for three different hospitals. I moved out west and worked for Warner Pacific College, in Portland, Oregon, came back, worked for WMU, so I have a lot of campus food service experience. Got into this opening for KPS, and it fit my family schedule. It was kind of the last leg of the industry that I hadn’t tried, and I absolutely love it.
What is your job like?
We have over 30 buildings to manage for KPS, and every day I’m at a different building.
I do menu development and safety and implement the menu, make sure it’s being filed properly. All our standards have to be met — county and company-wide — to keep the staff and students safe. There’s also our catering program, which is very big, very demanding for the district.
What’s one of your proudest accomplishments?
Doing career cooking demos in classes with the students. Talking to students, getting them excited about foods, the super foods, what it takes to become a chef, inspiring them and figuring out what they want, what they’re interested in.
You have a generation of students that come up to you at graduation and say, “Hey, I remember you in grade school when you came and did a pizza party for our entire school.” Having over 10,000 students, that’s a pretty cool thing to jump out at you, to remember. Just little moments like that over a decade are, I think, what I’m most proud of.
What’s your favorite thing about food?
My favorite thing is to cook for other people. That’s the reward. That’s what you get back. Making somebody happy by preparing something special for them, for a party or a family member or my wife. That’s the TLC that you spread, making food for people.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
One of my favorite appetizers to make is bruschetta. It’s very basic but just so flavorful, and you can make so many different variations. And you can buy or grow local fresh ingredients during the summer that you can have year ’round.
Do you get saddled with all the cooking for family gatherings and holidays?
My wife’s a really good cook and baker, so it’s a family event. I love sharing and having everybody making things and showing what they can do. That’s a unique family experience I love doing — getting everybody in the kitchen. It’s like a delicate ballet or dance. And that’s what we strive for here in the district as well with the staff. Once you get that delicate balance in the kitchen, they’re hand-in-hand. If they can navigate day in, day out and feed 600 students a day, that’s a success and it’s not easy. We have such a fantastic staff that grinds it out every year.
What do you do when you’re not cooking?
Three simple things: the beach, live music and watching sports.
Do you have any advice for a budding chef?
The biggest obstacle is to find what you love to do, because when you leave culinary school, you can get your foot in the door anywhere you want to go. But you have to figure out what your niche is, whether you want to be front-of-the-house manager or you want to be a pastry chef or dietary manager of a hospital or a dietitian. And that’ll take some time.
What changes do you see coming for the future of food in school systems?
Fresher foods with the local farms. All the way down to our elementary menu, the freshest food we can possibly produce. Fresh sauces. While I can’t go into detail, a few years down the road (we’ll have) our new production facility. That’s where our future’s going for KPS. It was approved by the voters of Kalamazoo, and our bond to use this production facility for our entire school district, so that’s exciting.
— Interview conducted by Jordan Bradley and edited for length and clarity.