Meet Our Leader: Sean Leonard
Sean Leonard accepted a position at CSCA in 2000 managing the Recreational Program, which at the time was just offering 2 to 4 classes a week. He accepted the position and grew the program to encompass the techniques series, cooking couples classes, regional series, workshops, and teen classes that now attract thousands annually. Sean had a great connection and synergy with CSCA founder and Chef Roberta Dowling, and never hesitated to help with marketing, technical support, operations, and anything else that came his way, preparing him for ownership today. In January 2017, with his partner Randy Freidus, Sean took over ownership of CSCA, and to this day, they honor our late founder’s love of food, culinary innovation and exploration, and excellence in culinary arts education to our students.
How did you find yourself at the head of CSCA?
I always wanted to have my own business. My biggest inspiration was Fanny Farmer candies.
My first job was in the mailroom of this candy company at the age of 13 making $3.75 an hour. Throughout high school and a bit beyond, I worked at a Walgreens and made cakes on my own. A teacher at my high school suggested I apply to CSCA. I was in an alternative program, which I shouldn’t have been in, but I just hated school.
I told my grandparents this, my grandfather saw an ad for CSCA and called about an open house on that Saturday. He wasn’t intrigued, but the founder, Roberta Dowling, really sold the program for me. It was about classic European training and that’s what I wanted. My grandfather didn’t agree, we got into an argument, and didn’t speak for two years.
I continued to work at Walgreens, and when I was 20, one of the managers wrote a letter of recommendation for me so I could apply to CSCA. When I was accepted, I told my grandparents that I would be attending in the fall of 1995. That Christmas in 1994, my grandfather brought home a set of Henkel knives and gave them to me, and said: “I’m going to help you.” I remember opening those knives, which changed everything. From then on, he was the first to tell me to chase my culinary passion at every opportunity.
CSCA opened a world of possibilities for me. I went to cooking conventions, cooked for the Cannes film festival, and was offered a job with KitchenEtc to create recipes and train their employees to use their cookware. I met my partner, Randy Freidus, while managing the Stoneham KitchenEtc store, and continued to work there for a few more years until Roberta visited me at work and said she had a job for me in 2000 heading the Recreational Program at CSCA, which was just starting out.
All my cooking and travel experiences were because of Roberta, and we had a great connection and synergy when I started at CSCA. 16 years later, I approached Roberta’s widow Bill about taking over ownership of the school after she passed away and now, Randy and I are leading the ship.
Overall, how has the transition been?
When we took on CSCA, it was stuck in a past time. That time, in its day, was right but we needed to jump forward 10 years to join the present. We’ve been aggressive with our marketing, rebranding, and rejuvenating this year, but it’s what we needed to catch up. I think a lot of culinary schools have experienced this, and the ones that close their doors are the ones that didn’t acknowledge the shifting playing field.
The way I look at this moment in my life is the way I look at that first moment when I stepped into the Recreational Program position. I’m reliving it again, working crazy hours, and trying to give it my all. Now, I can see this school going farther than it ever has. I think there are so many people that are supporting us and so much positive energy within the business that it outweighs anything that could hit us.
What should we know about CSCA? What do you think you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
We specialize in the European classical training. We’re starting to incorporate more modern techniques, but our greatest strength is teaching the classic techniques that I believe are the basics anyone needs to find success in the food industry. We have an accelerated program for those looking to change careers but also cater to those who haven’t gone to college but want to become chefs.
All culinary schools are facing the challenge right now of keeping the curriculum fresh and relevant. The advantage we have is that there’s no upper management above us; it is us. We’re lucky as a smaller institution because we can see and talk to all our students to get immediate feedback, and the staff is small enough that we can make necessary changes faster than the average school.
We have an amazing team at CSCA. I’ve always said you can look at a business and look at the assets, but the assets are the employees. I have veteran employees who are very strong; I don’t need to be there with them at every step because I trust them. I also have “newbie” employees who bring a lot of excitement and need someone to believe in them. I know that feeling when you have all these ideas and say: “why can’t we do this or that?” Now we can.
What is “success” or “successful” for you?
I personally define success as the ability to look at what we are doing as a company and see that CSCA is facilitating positive life-altering change in our students. To say that we are an institution that not only gives our students the foundation, skills, and knowledge to excel in pastry and culinary arts, but also provides an environment full of passionate instructors and staff who go above and beyond to provide support and encouragement.
I am proud to say that we are contributing to and giving back to our community in a lasting way. Other schools have come and gone, and more will come again, but we’ll be here for our students through it all!