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April 25, 2014

SUNY Cobleskill chef named 'Educator of the Year'

By Jessica Reynolds Staff writer
The Daily Star

---- — An area culinary professor is considered the crème de la crème of chef educators in the Northeast after he received a prestigious award in early April.

Keith Buerker, associate professor of culinary arts, hospitality and tourism at State University College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill, was named “Chef Educator of the Year” by the American Culinary Federation at the organization’s annual Northeast Regional Conference in Rhode Island this month.

Buerker, who has taught at the college since 1992, was named the winner at the closing ceremonies on the last night of the conference, at the last possible moment, he said.

“It caught me off guard,” Buerker said, “I didn’t expect it at all.”

More than 500 chefs and food service professionals attended the conference, which was held from April 11 to the 14th. Participants attended business seminars for professional development and cooking demonstrations about how to incorporate green and sustainable cooking concepts into restaurant kitchens. According to Food & Beverage magazine, the American Culinary Federation was established in 1929 and, with nearly 20,000 members in 200 chapters nationwide,  is the standard of excellence for chefs in North America. The organization offers educational resources, training, apprenticeship and programmatic accreditation. 

Buerker said he thinks he was chosen to receive the award because of his many years in the food service industry and in education. At the age of 14, he began working in the kitchen of a small Schenectady restaurant called “The Erie Barge” and, by the time he was 17, had worked his way up to head chef, he said. The owner ended up selling the restaurant to Buerker, who owned and ran it and still managed to hurry across the street to attend Schenectady County Community College during his lunch hour each day.

After eventually selling the restaurant, Buerker bought a hotel in the Albany area called The Albany Motor Inn, where he was able to stay and receive free maid service, he said. He became executive chef for the facility before deciding to go back to college. Buerker said he also worked as a resident manager for various Holiday Inns during his schooling, returning to Schenectady on the weekends.

Buerker has been teaching for more than 29 years, he said, first at Paul Smith College, than at a college in Pennsylvania and finally at SUNY Cobleskill. After winning Educator of the Year, his students are afraid he’ll leave them for another college, Buerker said.

But that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Buerker’s favorite part of teaching is seeing his students flourish, he said.

“What bothers me the most is that I want to see every student succeed,” Buerker said. “But not everyone is cut out for culinary. It has taken me a long time to realize and accept that.”

One of the most rewarding parts of the conference was seeing former students who have gone on to be successful and are now members of the American Culinary Federation, Buerker said. One such student is now the corporation executive chef for Maine’s food service supply, he said. The two were able to reunite at the conference, where the former student recognized Buerker and said he owes a lot to the professor for everything he learned in his class. 

In previous years, Buerker was named Chef of the Year of the Tri-Lakes Chef’s Association and also won six American Culinary Federation gold medals, six silver medals and five bronze medals in national and international competitions. In July, Buerker will travel to Kansas City to compete for the national title of Educator of the Year at the 2014 American Culinary Federation National Convention, he said.

Overall, the Northeast Regional was “very rewarding,” Buerker said. He enjoyed being able to network with fellow chefs and educators, get new ideas and discuss how to be better prepared for today’s incoming college students.

“Sometimes I just want to text them their notes,” Buerker said. “The labs are usually exciting, but in culinary lectures, particularly, we constantly are coming up with new ways to keep them interested and occupied, so they can learn and succeed.”