Waterleaf chef quits amid COD faculty complaints
The resignation of the executive chef of the College of DuPage's professionally run restaurant has brought to a boil a debate on campus of the purpose and role of the fine dining venue.
Jean-Louis Clerc stepped down effective Dec. 14 after more than a year at the helm of the Waterleaf, a 130-seat restaurant that opened on the Glen Ellyn campus in October 2011. It features Italian and French fare, boasts a wine list of more than 200 bottles and has received accolades from local reviewers.
But it's also drawn the ire of some faculty members, who argue the facility isn't fully serving the purpose for which it was built: to provide a real-world learning experience for students.
And, critics point to the restaurant's financials: it lost more than $576,000 in fiscal 2012.
At a meeting of the COD board of trustees Thursday, Faculty Association Vice President Bob Hazard asked the board to consider taking the facility in a different direction and make it a student-focused operation.
"If we're going to lose money at Waterleaf, let's lose it on our students," Hazard said.
Those enrolled in the college's culinary arts program serve dinners at the Waterleaf twice a week. The rest of the time, the restaurant is operated by a professional staff.
Clerc, a French born and trained chef, was the face of the Waterleaf in the college's promotional materials. He hosted monthly cooking classes, wine dinners and "Chef's Tables," where he personally made a seven-course meal for patrons.
Clerc did not respond to requests for comment about his decision to leave.
COD President Robert Breuder said the chef "decided to move on" and that the college has found a suitable replacement chef, who is being encouraged to apply for the position full-time.
"The food industry is an ebb and flow in terms of staffing," he said. "Ask any restaurateur."
Breuder said he believes the restaurant — despite an initial poor financial performance — "has met with great success." Like the college's other "auxiliary enterprises" such as the McAninch Arts Center, he said the restaurant helps bring attention to COD, and generates foot traffic on campus.
"It is bringing a population of people to this college campus that have never been here before," Breuder said. "You engage in some of these enterprises to be able to bring people here who would not normally come here, and then you sell them your primary business."
Other auxiliary enterprises funded by taxpayers are also costing the college more than they are generating revenue. In 2012, the WDCB jazz radio station lost $592,000, the MAC lost $519,000, and the six-room Inn at Water's Edge hotel, staffed periodically by COD hospitality program students, lost $152,000.
Though college officials expect deficits to continue in the short term, they say they're planning initiatives to try to cut expenses. Breuder said he wants to see the losses reduced, but for now, the college isn't at the point where it would have to give up on enterprises such as the restaurant.
"If we were financially hemorrhaging, we would look first at those things that are further distant from our core mission," he said. "We are not hemorrhaging."
Meanwhile, Hazard said he'd like to see the Waterleaf operate more like its sister restaurant, the Wheat Cafe, which is fully run by students in the college's culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, and hospitality management programs. It is open three days a week.
Hazard said the Waterleaf should still have a professional staff, but serve a much smaller role.
On Thursday, Breuder took exception to Hazard's comments, as well as remarks made during the college board meeting by Faculty Association President Glenn Hansen and three other faculty members, who took the college's administration to task on topics ranging from spending on landscaping and construction, to the lack of focus on sustainability efforts.
"When I sit and listen to (them), I can't help but hope that the Mayan calendar is correct, that tomorrow comes to an end," Breuder said. "This is more than a community college — not that we're embarrassed to be one. That is our structure and we're proud of it, but we're clearly more than that."
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