When Paul Wilson owned a restaurant, he often employed high-school students in the kitchen and as waitstaff. So when he decided to spend the twilight of his culinary career as a teacher, he knew what he was getting into.
Of course, he didn’t count on changing careers in the middle of a global pandemic.
Wilson, 56, joined the team at Nashoba Valley Technical High School full time in August after filling in last spring for former Chef-Instructor Fran Zentgraf while he recovered from surgery. When Zentgraf retired in June, Wilson got his opportunity.
He joined Carley Capraro as a Culinary Arts instructor, and Jeremy Bussiere, the instructor for the Hospitality Management program.
Wilson was excited to take over as the de-facto face of Nashoba Tech’s multiple award-winning restaurant The Elegant Chef.
Then COVID-19 happened.
Like all other restaurants, The Elegant Chef had to close its doors. Unlike other restaurants that aren’t located in schools, it hasn’t reopened, which makes it kind of hard to teach kids about the restaurant industry in a hands-on fashion.
“How do you enthusiastically talk to kids about job possibilities when thousands of restaurants are closing down around the world?” Wilson said. “I used to tell kids they could work anywhere in the world — you could cook in Hawaii or wait tables in the Bahamas. Can I say that anymore? Restaurants are at about 25% capacity right now, if they’re even open.”
Wilson prefers to believe the plate is half-full, though, rather than half-empty.
“I wholeheartedly believe it’s going to come back with a vengeance, that restaurants are again going to thrive,” he said. “But people have got to be innovative. In a positive way, it’s going to create different opportunities. We just don’t know what those opportunities are yet.”
He also prefers to look at the bright side in regards to teaching future generations of hospitality workers. For instance, with the restaurant closed indefinitely, Wilson and his fellow instructors have had more time to teach kids theory while also getting some hands-on work in providing lunch for the teaching staff at Nashoba Tech.
“In one way for our department, it’s been positive,” he said of the shutdown. “We’re only buying what the client needs and producing what the client needs. There’s no guess work. It’s almost like catering.
“In the past — and Carley has said this same thing — there had been zero time for kids to learn theory and for one-on-one instruction. This has given us that opportunity. We can spend a little more time on culinary math, menu pricing, knife skills. I’ve been able to teach the kids different recipes. We’ve made Asian braised chicken with jasmine rice. We’ve made Cajun salmon. We’ve made butternut-squash lasagna with rosemary garlic sauce. We’ve been able to adapt.”
Wilson has been around a stove his whole life. When he was growing up in Jaffrey, N.H., his parents opened a hot-dog stand when he was 12 so their three children would have something to do over the summers. From there, he naturally went into the restaurant business, attending Johnson & Wales for Hotel and Restaurant Institutional Management.
After graduation, he worked for the Marriott Corp., but didn’t like the “shirt and tie” part of the profession. He became the executive chef at a golf course in New Hampshire at 23. In 1989, at age 25, he opened his own restaurant, The Grass Pineapple in Winchendon, before selling it in 2004.
After a stint working at the Shriver Job Corps Center at Devens, he returned to other food-related jobs before talking to Zentgraf, whom he had known for years, about become a teacher.
“It changed my attitude about having education meet the need to start kids younger and push for more of a formal training,” he said. “I decided the latter part of my culinary career would be in the education field.”
Several of the students who worked at Wilson’s restaurant went on to successful culinary careers, so he knew he could have a positive impact on the younger generation.
“All I’ve done is cook,” said Wilson, who is a two-time past president of the Massachusetts Culinary Association. “My experience is all in cooking and managing. I’m a student of the profession.”
And now he’s ready to pass on all he has learned to the future students of the profession.