Academics and Research / Magazine

Knoebel Calling

In Andy Divine’s Advanced Beverage Management class, hospitality students get an up-close look at winemaking and the business of wine. The class also includes a four-day tour of the Napa or Sonoma wine regions in California. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Somewhere in the swift, chilly waters of Alaska’s salmon-fishing rivers is a wild sockeye destined to become a star attraction at the University of Denver.

Caught, chilled and shipped to Colorado, this select salmon will end its travels perched on a kitchen countertop beneath bright lights and two fisheye camera lenses in a state-of-the-art classroom.

There the salmon will meet veteran chef Raymond Liegl, former catering director at the Lawrence C. Phipps Conference Center and since 2000 an adjunct professor at the Fritz Knoebel School of Hospitality Management. He’ll have razor-sharp filleting tools and a  determined stare.

Nearly two dozen DU students, hungry for insight, will watch Liegl and the salmon from behind tiered desks. Their laptops and notebooks will be open and they’ll gaze intently at two large video monitors above Liegl’s work station, where the sockeye’s final recognizable moments as a fish will be displayed.

Will the sockeye end up as steaks in an almond sauce? Nuggets for a rich stew? Wafer-thin slices with onion and cream cheese on a toasted bagel? Doesn’t matter to Liegl. This isn’t chef school, and he isn’t there to teach culinary technique. It’s a “portions” lecture and an important morsel of the Knoebel restaurant management curriculum.

How much of the salmon is usable?, he’ll ask the students. How many portions and what size and shape? How much will a restaurant customer pay? And will the dollar return per fish offset its cost?

“I’m not an entertainer,” Liegl emphasizes. “It’s not the Food Network, and I’m not standing there showing off kitchen magic. It’s business. All business.”

Welcome to the world of DU hospitality, where watching a salmon get poked, prodded, carved and cooked is an essential ingredient for students entering the world of restaurants and hotels. Where more than 260 hospitality majors practice preparing meals on six fully equipped work stations in a lab kitchen just off Liegl’s classroom. Where they notch valuable experience in a full-service banquet room, help run a catering operation for weddings and conferences, operate their own coffee shop, organize a wine festival, and set up and manage two complete restaurants as a class project in the spring.

It’s an experience, an education, an adventure, a passion. And quite possibly the best use of fish since the Sermon on the Mount.

“We do education; we don’t do training,” says David Corsun, program director at Knoebel since 2007. “And we don’t do courses ‘lite.’ Our students come out with core business knowledge that makes them businesspeople first and hospitality people second. And the industry loves it.”

That industry, a global swath of businesses that includes restaurants, hotels and resorts, wants graduates who add value right away, Corsun says. They want students who can soar through a management-training program or contribute ideas before they’re expected to. “Our goal is not to prepare students for their first jobs; it’s to make it so they can promote out of their first, second and third jobs faster than anybody else.”

That makes Knoebel unique among other schools on campus. For example, it has no graduate school and — perhaps surprisingly — isn’t interested in one. The industry, Corsun points out, “doesn’t know what to do with someone who has a graduate degree in hospitality.” The only bow to graduate education is servicing Daniels College of Business MBA students who want to jump into the corporate side of hospitality after chewing on the operations side for a bit.


Welcome to the real world

The approach dovetails nicely with how the faculty is assembled and the learning environment created. Real-world experience is the currency of the realm. Instructors are recruited for their hands-on hotel and restaurant know-how and supported by adjuncts picked from the large pool of successful business operators in the resort- and restaurant-rich Denver area.

“Probably four of the top 20 restaurants in Denver are owned and operated by DU alums,” Corsun says, citing Blair Taylor’s Barolo Grill, Frank Bonanno’s Mizuna and Gene Tang’s 1515 in particular. Alumni ties connect the school with a variety of other operators as well, from Starwood Hotels and Aramark food services to Morton’s steakhouse and the Hard Rock Café — which was also founded by a DU alum, Peter Morton.

“The sense of community and belonging and personal interaction with professors really brings the program to a different place,” says 22-year-old senior Alex Lee of Park City, Utah. “It makes me want to try harder.”

Community and alumni links also square nicely with Knoebel’s strong emphasis on work experience and internships. Students need 500 hours of each to graduate, a requirement that can be a scramble to fulfill.

“If you aren’t bringing in 250 hours from high school, which you can do, you’d better be working full time in the industry in the summer between first and second year,” Corsun cautions.


“We can’t help somebody without work experience get a job after graduation,” he says flatly. Education isn’t enough; it has to be in concert with experience. But the combination works and is part of the secret for Knoebel’s bold boast of a 100 percent career-placement rate for students seeking employment.

Most students come to DU ready.

“I’ve been working since I was 13,” says Caitlin Lorenz, a 22-year-old junior from Loveland, Colo. “For me, [1,000 hours] was easy. I got an internship my freshman year at the Little Nell in Aspen and another my sophomore year at the Loveland Breakfast Club. But if you procrastinate, you’re not going to get it done.”

Other Knoebel students say the same, rattling off anecdotes about months doing everything from busing tables and chopping ingredients to serving customers, baking bread and working in hotels in Spain and Switzerland.

“Sometimes we feel that all we’re doing is working,” laughs Christina Zizzo, a 20-year-old junior from Chicago. “But I love it. I love working. And it’s awesome that we have the requirement, because recruiters are looking for experience.”

It’s also true that hospitality isn’t for everyone. It’s not unusual for a DU student to try on what seems like a cushy major only to wither beneath hard work and long hours. “It has a high burnout rate,” notes Lee.

“People think we sit around and talk about wine all day,” Lorenz says. “I have a friend who jokes that I’m going to become a professional cake-cutter. They see hospitality as an easy way to get a business degree and move on. But it’s not that at all. It’s hard. And you need passion or you’re not going to survive.”

Industry reps agree, emphasizing that attitude, talent and personality are crucial to success once students choose a direction for their study.

“I knew restaurants were where my heart would be, so I focused on it,” says Brianna Borin (BSBA ’09), now human-resources director for the four-store (soon to be five) chain of Snooze breakfast restaurants. “The internships opened my eyes. Suddenly I had to report my hours, talk about my hours, look back on my hours — all things that helped me understand what the work environment was about.”

Classmate Virginia “Ginny” Petrovek (BSBA ’09), now with Vail Resorts, heard a different siren song. “I knew I wanted hotels,” she says. “I want rooms, chaos, people yelling at me. If it clicks with you, you’ll know it.”

And if it doesn’t, you’ll know that, too. Which is another aspect of the Knoebel curriculum: helping people discover what they don’t want to do.

“At the Little Nell we did multimillion-dollar weddings for super-rich, high-end people, and I found I don’t like working for that kind of clientele,” Lorenz says. “I love restaurants and I love serving, but I’m not someone’s slave girl.”

Lorenz’s passion was for events, which she embraced with on-campus opportunities such as the Crimson and Gold Gala, a welcome-back party for students who study abroad, and a 140-person regional leadership conference.

“I really love planning events,” she says, noting that among her ultimate goals is to work as a social director for a cruise line.


The business of hospitality

The Daniels College curriculum helps support many of the core business portions of the hospitality program, allowing courses in the major to focus students on other aspects. Among those are understanding restaurants and resorts as real estate assets, using food and beverage operations as drivers of new businesses, learning to handle budgets and revenue, and carrying out sales and marketing plans.

Particularly terrorizing is the sales class, where hospitality students have to cold-call 100 or so brides to sell wedding and reception services.

“Some students can’t do it,” Zizzo says. “They just can’t ask people for business. So at that point they’re done with the major.”

Those who can ask follow up by meeting the brides, showing off DU’s facilities, helping plan receptions and sometimes carrying out the events. It’s valuable experience in one of the most crucial aspects of business — direct sales — with proceeds funneling into scholarships and support for important programs.

“We did more than 50 weddings last year,” Corsun says proudly, a tally made possible by the $18-million building that houses the school. Completed in late 2005, the 46,000-square-foot, three-story structure — named in May for longtime DU Trustee Joy Burns — is what Corsun calls a “living laboratory.” It has a fully equipped commercial kitchen, a sumptuous 160-person dining area built in the style of a Tuscan wine cellar, and more offices, classrooms and seminar areas than you can shake a slotted spoon at.

Stroll through the huge kitchen area and you see everything you would in a professional setting. There’s even an oven that bakes, fries or steams, can distinguish between a duck and a goose and is programmable in 32 languages. “The best part is it’s self-cleaning,” chef Liegl says with a laugh.

The new building is a far cry from Knoebel’s previous home, an aged structure housing what was then called the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. The building was demolished to make way for a parking structure, and Liegl doesn’t miss it.

“The old building wasn’t as air-conditioned as this one is. Once you turned on the stoves, they had to stay on. There were windows all around and they would heat up the kitchen. It was tough. Students would say, ‘Gosh, kitchen work is really hard. I don’t want to do that for a living.’ And I would say, ‘I don’t want you to do that for a living either. There are enough people out there who want to be chefs. What we need are skilled managers who understand the chef ’s job.’”

Finding those fledgling managers employment after graduation keeps Corsun and his faculty continually tapping industry ties, developing new relationships with alumni and scurrying nationwide on behalf of students. It’s why Knoebel runs its own job fair every year and takes students to prestigious hotel and restaurant shows in New York and Chicago, where they can develop connections and exploit ties. It’s also why Corsun jets all over the country to sit with industry moguls and persuade them that DU graduates are second to none.

It’s not a hard sell.

“In Vegas the industry says, ‘When I want somebody who thinks, I go to Cornell. When I want somebody who does, I go to UNLV,’” Corsun says, referring to two other schools with well-known hospitality programs. “Well, students at DU are hybrids. They can do strategic, analytical thinking, and they can roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *