Thanks to more than 37 years in the food industry, running a kitchen is “second nature” to Chef Ken Alston. But each establishment is different, so Ken appreciated the effort made to bring him on board when he joined Hormel Foods two years ago.
Helping experienced hires settle in and hit the ground running are among the goals of Hormel Integrating Relevant Experiences (HIRE), one of the company’s nine employee resource groups. Ken and HIRE member Katie Lenway, a human resources professional dedicated to recruiting seasoned employees like Ken, were a likely pair for a recent episode of Cooking & Culture.
An Ideal Job
As the corporate executive chef, Ken serves as a culinary expert for Hormel Foods, advising and directing wherever he’s needed. He oversees food shows and a historic property known simply as the “Sales Cabin,” where Ken and his team handle events ranging from small gatherings of a dozen or so people to board meetings, barbeques and retirement dinners of more than 100 attendees, a time-honored company tradition.
“We operate like a restaurant except that it’s for our Hormel Foods guests and staff only,” he says. Still, it’s a business built on reputation and trust. “At the end of the day, if we don’t have a good relationship with our ‘customers,’ we can’t make the sale. This building and what my team does are to help cement that relationship.”
It’s an ideal job for Ken, who has come to realize it’s more about who is sitting in the chair than it is about his many accomplishments. “When they walk out the door, I want them to think, ‘It was a great meal and a great experience.’”
The Journey To Hormel Foods
Ken’s background is diverse. He studied nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and even worked as a paramedic, all while financing his education with jobs in the food industry.
He passed the American Culinary Federation’s certified executive chef exam and received ProChef certification from The Culinary Institute of America. Over the last 28 years, Ken has held numerous head chef and executive chef positions, managing, training and developing many other chefs in high-end clubs and resorts. While helping to lead the culinary teams, he learned early on how to meet the expectations of his clientele. To this day, he continues to think of his customers as VIPs, approaching each culinary event with an eye toward making it special.
For example, Ken and fellow Hormel Foods chefs showed their culinary prowess in 2018 when they volunteered to conceptualize and stage an elaborate dinner in the Austin, Minn., community. The evening was designed to raise money and visibility for the traveling Vietnam Wall and Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, an organization that “connects service members and their families with community support, training, services and resources.”
Ken, who served with the U.S. Navy, sat down with the Hormel culinary team to come up with a plan for an event that would support the causes and U.S. military veterans. “We wanted to see grand things,” he says.
Like the company he works for, he is open about his dedication to veterans of the armed forces. Ken can trace his family’s military service back to the U.S. Civil War and even the American Revolution. His father was a World War II veteran who was later confined to a wheelchair. That made it necessary for Ken and his sisters to pitch in and help with the household chores, including lending a hand with the cooking. He liked it well enough that when he was 16, he went after a job as a dishwasher.
“The chef I was working for began to give me other things to do,” he says. “He saw I had a knack for it.”
Indeed. That much is certain.