Robert Witte has been teaching in Crownpoint since 1999

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CROWNPOINT — When Robert Witte talks about teaching the next generation of chefs at Navajo Technical University, he says he does not weigh down students with written tests.

"I don't care if you can add two plus two. What can you do with a whole chicken?" said Witte, food services coordinator and lead instructor for the culinary arts program at the university, where he has taught for 19 years.

That drive to teach students to develop culinary skills contributed to Witte's induction into the American Academy of Chefs this summer.

The academy is the honor society of the American Culinary Federation, and its members represent the highest standards of professionalism in the organization and industry, according to the federation's website.

He was nominated by two Oklahoma-based chefs and was inducted on July 17 in New Orleans.

"Not everybody who is nominated has the criteria to get into the American Academy of Chefs," he said in an interview on Friday.

Although the honor was bestowed on Witte, he is quick to say the success of NTU's culinary arts program could not have happened without the dedication of other culinary instructors and support from the university administration.

His inclusion into the academy adds to the list of certifications he has from the American Culinary Federation, including designations as a certified executive chef, a certified culinary administrator and a certified evaluator.

Witte is the youngest of three children and hails from Yuma, Arizona.

"By the time my brother and sister got out of the house, I was basically fending for myself," he said with a chuckle.

The first meal he cooked was an egg sandwich for his mom. He said he forgot to crack the yolk.

He was 13 years old when he started washing dishes at a restaurant owned by his best friend's father, then moved to cooking when he was 17.

"What I love about cooking is your results are immediate. You don't have to wait, like the construction of a house. You finish your plate, and there it is," Witte said.

He earned a certificate in culinary arts from the Naval Service School as part of his service in the Navy from 1970 to 1976.

His culinary and management skills developed further while he worked in restaurants in California.

He owned Chelles restaurant in Gallup when he was approached in 1999 by university administrators about teaching in Crownpoint. Witte balanced teaching with operating the restaurant but eventually sold Chelles to focus on teaching full time.

When Witte started at the school, it was known as the Crownpoint Institute of Technology, and there were only three students enrolled in the culinary arts program. The kitchen Witte used during those first years sits inside one of the older buildings on campus.

Since then, NTU has built a culinary arts and hospitality center, where 157 students will obtain training in professional cooking and baking.

In addition to earning an associate degree, students earn certification in serv-safe, food handlers, nutrition, food safety and sanitation, and management and supervision.

Witte said each instructor is certified by the American Culinary Federation.

"It shows that we're very serious about our teaching, that we're very serious about getting these kids jobs that pay, not just minimum wage," Witte said.

Throughout the program's growth, students have participated in national competitions such as SkillsUSA, and dual-credit courses in culinary arts for high school students have been developed by NTU in partnership with several school districts.

"The biggest satisfaction I get is when you are looking at these kids when they are doing something that you showed them, and they get it," Witte said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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