(This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
Professor, Baking and Pastry Arts
Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY
Chef Richard Coppedge became a chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in 1993, after working at bakeries and hotels throughout Massachusetts, Florida, and Rhode Island, and teaching at Johnson & Wales University. He has won numerous awards, including the 1996 and 1997 Marc Sarrazin Cup (awarded by the prestigious Société Culinaire Philanthropique) at the Salon of Culinary Arts in New York City. In 2008, he authored Gluten-Free Baking with The Culinary Institute of America (Adams Media, 2008) to great critical acclaim. He relishes the opportunity to encourage his students to think creatively in his Advanced Baking Principles class, where he teaches students to alter conventional recipes so that they are compatible with allergen awareness and special diets. Here he discusses the challenges of gluten-free baking, teaching a lab course with COVID restrictions in place, and what he does to take his mind off work.
In your class at the CIA, you teach students to alter recipes so that they are compatible with special diets such as gluten-free, diabetic, vegan, and kosher. Is it possible to come up with substitutes that are as good as the original?
It is if you have a really good foundation and knowledge of the basic conventional recipe. It’s like I tell the students in my class: you’ve got to understand the mechanics and the reactions of the ingredients. The most challenging aspect of gluten-free baking is making anything that is laminated. You don’t see much of that out there. There are a couple of large manufacturers that make some laminated gluten- free items. It’s all mechanized and I don’t think it’s the same. The day you see something like a Cronut that’s gluten-free, then you know that whoever is making that has figured something out. That whole figuring out process takes time. It can also involve a lot of capital. You have to be willing to experiment and try it. Celiac is the most serious concern. For the people who eat gluten-free “just because”, the contamination may not be their biggest concern. It has to be under twenty parts per million. The customer has to feel self-confident and assured, and get that assurance from whoever is producing or selling that product.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected operations in your class and at the school’s Hyde Park Campus?
We have to wear a mask and a shield, and get a temperature check. It’s working out okay. It’s hard to talk with all that stuff on. The students aren’t used to talking in front of groups to begin with; it’s harder for them. We have microphones that we are starting to implement with wireless speakers. I was furloughed for the first time in my life from early April to the beginning of August. They had us take two weeks of summer vacation, which was okay because, you know, we got paid. We taught part of each class online for four or five weeks; we’ve been doing live teaching ever since early August. I’m happy that I’m still teaching.
As they leave the more protected environment of a college campus and enter a competitive industry, what advice would you offer students from minority ethnic backgrounds?
For me, for many umpteen years I was one of only two African-American chef instructors at the CIA. We just hired two more African Americans recently. One’s in the baking department – he’s a former student of mine. We have a woman – she’s a graduate – who’s going to be teaching culinary. When students talk about me, they don’t mention anything about my shade. They mention maybe how I talk, and how tall I am. There’s always some prejudice, chauvinism; you look at the history of chefs and what gender and what race they typically have been. That’s changing a lot. You have to put your head down and just do a good job preparing good food, and when the opportunity for promotion comes, it’s really, can you put the food on the table that justifies that promotion. There are some things you may not be able to get around, and that’s why some people have to change their job. That’s what’s going to help you to succeed, having the good skill set, having the dedication.
How do you balance your work and home life?
A lot of it is coming home – I’ve got the animals right here, two dogs and a cat. I do ride a bicycle. Doing something that’s not food related whatsoever. Hanging out at the bike shop and building wheels for bicyclists. I like doing that, it involves a lot of concentration, but it’s good relaxation for me. You’ve got to do something; you’ve got to get away from the industry, whether its mediation or yoga or just going for a walk. You don’t want to be over-consumed with the business. It might just be going home to your family. It’s just my wife and I and the animals. It works. We have a home, and we’re able to put food on the table and feed the animals.