By Caitlin Raux
Back when she was a tween, Tanya Edmunds (Culinary Arts ‘09, Culinary Management ‘09) took an interest in makeup. This being before the days of Pinterest and YouTube tutorials, her mom bought her makeup books filled with pages of application instructions. Tanya would spend hours in her room carefully studying the tutorials then replicating them on herself until she mastered each lesson. From the beginning, it was clear that she would be drawn toward creative, hands-on pursuits.
Though she studied theatre at NYU, practical considerations and a knack for whipping up delicious home-cooked dinners led her to enroll at ICE. Fast forward to present day, Tanya has found a calling that allows her perfectionist qualities to mesh with her creative flair and passion for food: as director of training and development at Shake Shack. If you’re not familiar with the brand, it’s the fast-casual burger chain with a cult following and scores of customers waiting to dig into reliably fresh, juicy burgers on pillowy potato buns — the need for well-trained employees to feed the hungry masses is without question. Spend five minutes chatting with Tanya and you’ll realize she’s got the confidence and the energy to manage training of those employees.
Tanya chatted with us about landing a gig at New York’s favorite burger mecca and offered some advice for those looking to follow a similar path.
How did the idea of attending culinary school come about?
It was my dad’s suggestion. I moved home after my undergrad years at NYU, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do — what I was passionate about. While I was home I didn’t have to pay rent but cooking dinner was my responsibility. I started looking up different kinds of recipes online and watching cooking shows a lot. My dad is very entrepreneurial at heart. He started his own business, leaving behind a successful sales career. We started talking about whether it would be feasible to open my own restaurant someday. I looked at all of the other things in my background — managing people through stage management when I was in college, my creative side and inclination toward stage design. I thought with my skills and interests I could keep up with a restaurant.
So, how did you take these skills and start in the culinary business?
Education was the first thing that I looked into when we came up with this idea to open a restaurant. With my love of New York City and its amazing food scene, I knew that was where I wanted to be. Ultimately, I chose ICE for a very unique reason. I focused on the environment I was going to be happiest in.
It sounds like from the beginning you had a clear vision of what you wanted from the programs.
My hope was to manage a restaurant and not let anything stand in the way of being successful. So I wanted to have as much information as I could.
I ended up loving the Culinary Arts portion — being hands-on and creating new dishes each day. That spoke more to my creative side. It was a nice balance, going from the intellectual ideas of my culinary management classes to the hands-on creativity of the culinary lessons.
Don’t judge your path. Work towards things that make you happy.
How did you go from ICE to Shake Shack?
After I graduated from ICE, I was looking for jobs in the management field and the kitchen. My first job was in the pastry kitchen at Maialino. I had a great connection with my chef there and we’re still friends to this day. I got to make croissants and brioche from scratch and work a shift that was 10:00 p.m. – 8:00 a.m., then commute back to New Jersey. My dad would pick me up and we’d go have lunch at my favorite diner and then I’d go home and go to sleep.
What a schedule!
It was a cool experience but I wanted to move back to New York City. A neighbor from New Jersey was the director of banquet services for Restaurant Associates in the Bank of America tower. I landed a job there as assistant pastry chef and worked in corporate dining for 14 months. That opened my eyes to another part of the culinary world. I went from a rustic, Roman-Italian restaurant run by Danny Meyer, to working in a huge corporate restaurant kitchen for Bank of America. I learned a lot there, but I kept thinking about management and how I could work in that area.
Tell me about landing your first gig at Shake Shack.
I checked ICE’s alumni job listings every Thursday and had to apply when I saw a position for restaurant manager at Shake Shack. At the time of one of my interviews, Shake Shack was serving a special eggnog-flavored custard for the holidays. As I was waiting for the general manager to interview me, he apologized for being late because they’d run out of the custard needed for recipe. I said, “I have a background in pastry and I make ice cream all the time, can I help?” I looked at the recipe and told him a way to make it faster. I think that might have been one of the things that threw me over the top.
At what point did you transition to training manager?
I was promoted about two years ago.* I’ve been with Shake Shack for over five years. I’m in charge of overseeing everything that happens at new openings and our in-person classroom-style management training. I also collaborate with other departments to make sure we’re executing our manager training as needed.
When you’re sent to a new city to train a new team — what’s a typical day like?
Everywhere is a bit different – whether it’s Tokyo, Texas, Boston or Orlando – and I gather information before I go. Typically the area director will tell me something about their team, such as the staff is made up of all high school students. So I’ll tailor the training for the younger staff, include mentions of Snapchat. I want the audience to engage with the training. I’ve come to realize I’ve got the coolest job in the world. I get to meet managers from all over the country. I get to teach people about what Shake Shack does as a company and what they do for their employees and share my passion for this company. It’s amazing to see people walk in thinking they got a job at a typical fast food restaurant and seven days later they feel completely different about it. They’re excited and engaged.
What advice would you give to students considering going into management, particularly with a huge brand like Shake Shack?
I would say: don’t expect it to happen quickly. Allow your path to be what it’s going to be. Don’t feel like it’s too long or too short because it’s going to happen naturally. My path was unexpected. If you had told me in 2009 that I was going to be leading the training for over 3,500 employees, I would probably tell you that you’re full of you-know-what. So don’t judge your path. Work towards things that make you happy.
One thing I like about your story is that it seems that you were constantly reassessing where you were and where you wanted to go — which I think is important for people at the beginning and throughout their careers.
I’ve been with Shake Shack for five years. Every time I open a restaurant I ask myself what was successful about it? What was challenging about it? Do I want to keep doing it? And the ultimate answer is always yes. As a student, as you’re continuing to learn, it’s good to explore, to try things, to ask for new things. In a sense, I’ve been able to write my own job description, but I’ve worked hard for that.
*After our interview, Tanya was promoted from training manager to director of training and development.
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