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Tatyana Dimitrova: “We create a comprehensive experience for every student abroad.”

A story about the path to dreams, filled with extraordinary encounters, great demands, and high standards

30/01/2024

Tatyana Dimitrova is the Project Manager at HRC Academy, overseeing strategic partnerships with educational institutions and student mobility through the pan-European Erasmus program. We meet to discuss the future of culinary arts in a global world and the path to dreams, filled with extraordinary encounters, great demands, and high standards.

Hello, Tatyana 🙂 Today we’ll be talking about the Erasmus program projects that are opening new doors for students and staff at HRC Academy. How did it all start?

Five years ago, we began working with Erasmus on what we call “mobility” – we established partnerships primarily with schools in Italy. Over the course of three years, we managed to host over 25 schools and over 125 foreign group leaders. My task was to organize the entire experience for these students within 21 days – welcoming, transfers, meals, finding internships in various restaurants and hotels in Sofia where they could work as receptionists, chefs, waiters. Later on, the larger projects came along.

The Erasmus program has two directions: (1) mobility, offering individuals and organizations the opportunity to move within European countries for training and experience exchange, and (2) strategic partnerships, enabling educational organizations to form consortia and jointly explore topics in specific projects, implement new practices, even policies, with the help of institutions such as the Ministry of Education, the National Agency for Vocational Education, and other structures. The goal of this exchange is to improve the economic situation of the participating country. At HRC Academy, we started strategic partnerships at the invitation of Fondazione Lombardia per l’Ambiente (FLA) – a significant organization for environmental development in Lombardy. We joined a consortium with 4 other countries (Sweden, Greece, Italy, and Spain) engaged in the development of green skills in the Tourism and Hospitality sector (HORECA). The project allowed us to meet new partners, and this is how we started receiving recommendations that created opportunities for future projects. Currently, we are working on a project with Hungary and Greece called Green Chef – the main theme is contributing to innovations in professional education with a focus on sustainable food choices.

Are green skills the approach of the future?

Green skills and information technologies are central themes of the Erasmus projects set from 2021 to 2027. For us, it’s crucial to have zero waste in cooking and separate waste disposal. The academy’s administration and chef instructors underwent training at the Bristol Hotel in Oslo, allowing them to firsthand witness how the Scandinavian countries implement and maintain green practices. In general, they are highly developed in this direction, and valuable practices can be borrowed from them.

Which countries have become sustainable partners of HRC Academy over time?

Our most sustainable partner is HRC International, based in the Netherlands. The main countries we collaborate with for student exchanges include Norway, Italy, Belgium, Spain, and Germany. With each of these partners, we maintain communication regarding the submission of new projects, exchanging ideas and information. We often recommend each other mutually in case someone cannot participate in a future project.

Which institutions in Bulgaria and abroad do you work best with?

The institution responsible for the Erasmus program in Bulgaria is the Human Resource Development Centre, which primarily manages projects with all the necessary steps (assessment, improvement, monitoring through visits). They are an extremely cooperative partner, and we appreciate their understanding in every case. This is an opportune moment to thank them for their support!

Another crucial partner for us is the National Agency for Vocational Education and Training (NAVET), through which we issue certificates and qualifications. They don’t have a direct connection to mobility, but when we discuss implementing direct policies, they are the organization we turn to.

Our foreign partners, on the other hand, connect with institutions in their respective countries.

What are the achievements of HRC Academy in strategic partnerships?

In our strategic partnerships to date, we collaborate with 15 countries. Each organization contributes with its staff and intellectual capacity. The exchange between participants always involves a diverse approach. When coming together to work in the HORECA sector, we use a gaming model or the so-called “gamification,” which has the long-term idea of helping employees in institutions achieve the main goals of each project.

Where does a trainee most often want to go?

Almost every trainee has a specific desire, which becomes achievable with the help of the academy’s career consultant – they assist the trainee in making the right choice. The most productive approach is to discuss the qualities and capacities of the trainee, on one hand, and what the place they are targeting would offer, on the other. The feedback from the head instructors about their performance in the kitchen and how they handle stressful situations is very useful here. This way, a profile is built that gives us clarity on where to direct the training.

The restaurants where our trainees intern are divided into two types: (1) high-end restaurants with strict requirements, where the work is more intense, requiring trainees to have rich experience and the ability to handle complex situations; (2) more relaxed places, such as coastal restaurants or business hotels, where the atmosphere is calmer and a less experienced trainee can go. The good news is that each establishment creates conditions for building professionals and provides an opportunity to gain a new approach to work. During the 2-year training, the team strives for high preparation. In the end, each graduate has a 12-month internship in the USA, which is a good test of skills.

Do you often have to help them find their place in the culinary world?

Yes, certainly, this is not so visible but an essential part of the training. Usually, those who are not oriented accept our suggestions immediately, while with others, we have to go a longer way to determine their preferences. Helping everyone find their place professionally is our priority.

What is the dream of every trainee?

Naturally, everyone aspires to a Michelin-starred restaurant, but most of them don’t know what it means to work in such an environment. Usually, a day in the kitchen lasts more than 12 hours, and the monotony turns out to be deadly – there are cases where they have to peel garlic or almonds all day long. When this activity is repeated from morning to night, it starts to shake them mentally. The conclusion is that such places should send highly trained people with a resilient mindset, who are aware in advance of what awaits them.

Which nationality has the highest criteria in the kitchen?

In the Netherlands, the criteria are extremely high, with a focus on speed, accuracy, and green practices (most restaurants follow a sustainable culinary model, meaning they work with local producers and suppliers, and attention to ecological standards is heightened). Exiting the academy after the first semester, trainees are still not prepared for the real working environment. To meet high standards, they often compete with time and pressure. After completing a 6-month internship with our international partners, including Harry’s Restaurant, Château Neercanne, Van Der Valk Zuidas, Restaurant Spetters, Okura Hotel, LPM Restaurant, COYA Restaurant, our trainees return with different confidence levels.

Are there good examples of trainees receiving job offers from the restaurant after their internship?

We have an agreement with our partners that they are not allowed to offer jobs to trainees before the completion of their training. However, currently, the shortage of staff on a global scale is unprecedented – every day, we receive inquiries from our partners looking for interns! There are many successful examples, including 6-7 of our trainees already working in the kitchen of Harry’s Restaurant in the Netherlands. The truth is that employers are extremely satisfied with the skills of our graduates; they are well-prepared and seamlessly integrate into the process, even during their internship. This is also thanks to the equipment in the HRC Academy kitchen, which includes all kinds of technology – for example, a convection oven can now work with a USB stick according to a predefined program. Modern professionals need to know how to work with the employer’s technology.

What lies ahead for you in 2024?

A project that strongly excites me at this stage is “Migration to the Kitchen, Building Skills for a Better Future,” or briefly “Culinary Therapy.” The project is carried out in partnership with Italian and Belgian companies, and its focus is on refugees to be integrated into the economy and social environment of the respective country. Chef instructors will be trained to work with this group, sharing their culinary expertise.

Culinary activities for balance or the so-called “cooking for fun,” which we have been offering in the form of company team-building in recent years, has been exceptionally soothing for employees. People engaged in intellectual activities need to diversify them with physical activity.

Where does your team feel best?

We feel good everywhere because we have developed synergy and manage to extract the best from these experiences.

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