“The minute you stop learning as a chef is the minute you become obsolete,” Chef Mike Thibault '09 recently explained to a capacity crowd at JWU Providence’s College of Culinary Arts. The university’s 178th Distinguished Visiting Chef (DVC) was explaining how the process of becoming a leader is ever-evolving: “It’s the faith people put in you. You don’t have to have all the answers — and if you make mistakes, own up to them.”
The culinary nutrition graduate built up an extensive resume in both spa cuisine and fine dining prior to his current role overseeing a corporate café for a health care client in the Northeast.
As Thibault worked alongside DVC scholarship winner Nicole Derr, a culinary nutrition student, he alternated between sharing life/leadership advice and his own kitchen tips and tricks.
As he prepared to demo two dishes, carrot-spelt agnolotti with carrot-top pesto and a vegan mushroom bisque, his overarching message to students was one of sustainability and resourcefulness: “Healthy food is incredibly important, and we’re all part of the food system.”
Although Nourish Café serves an average of 1800 customers per day — an impressive number — everything is made from scratch (no heat-and-serve here). Thibault and his team are focused on composting, preserving and maximizing every scrap of produce, meat or seafood that enters their kitchen.
“We ferment our own kimchi with cauliflower leaves. We save apple cores to make pectin for house-made jams. We dehydrate orange peels, mushroom stems and tomato scraps, then pulverize them in a spice grinder to make umami-bomb powders that flavor-boost any dish.”
His “zero waste” philosophy was formed early: His father taught him to hunt and fish, with a particular emphasis on respecting nature. “If I caught it, I had to cook it. I learned those lessons early.”
After years in fine dining, Thibault emphasized the great quality of life that working in a breakfast/lunch-only café affords his team. “Having nights and weekends is a huge draw,” he explained. “I was able to attend 10 weddings this summer!”
“I cling to the talented people around me and work to make sure they’re happy,” he explained, adding that only 6 of his 23 employees have been with him for less than a year. He prioritizes team solidarity — for example, all the cooks at Nourish work every single station. That means learning to cook grains like wheatberries, quinoa and spelt properly; how to cook an egg properly. (“All things I learned at JWU,” he noted.)
Thibault’s vegan mushroom bisque had a creamy finish — without an ounce of cream. Last year, he was nominated to take part in an annual culinary competition sponsored by his employer, Guckenheimer USA. The goal? To create a healthy version of a traditionally unhealthy dish. He decided to tackle clam chowder, a New England staple. “It’s incredibly tough to make chowder for under 200 calories per 12-ounce portion,” he explained.
His solution, after some trial-and-error, was to swap in overcooked Jasmine rice in place of the cream. When blended slowly with a rich vegetable stock “you get that pearly sheen that a cream-based dish can have.”
His vegan mushroom bisque benefits from the same swap, as well as a flavor boost from umami-rich mushroom powder and the bright crunch of micro-celery.
It’s clear that Thibault loves what he’s doing, and is succeeding in his quest to overhaul the public perception of corporate dining. “If my food philosophy has an impact on any of my chefs, I’ll have done my job.”