Why Chef Michael Hornback ’21 Returned to CIA after Decades in the Food Business
When Michael Hornback ’21 enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America’s prestigious master’s in Food Business program, he was hardly a stranger. Michael received his associate degree in Culinary Arts from CIA in 1986, before he went on to lead a distinguished career as a chef and culinary executive. Today he serves as corporate executive chef at Custom Culinary, where he creates globally inspired flavor systems with an eye toward sustainability.
After decades in the food industry, Michael decided to return to CIA because he recognized that the world was rapidly evolving around him. “I could just tell that things were changing and I was out of the loop,” he recalls. “From a sustainability standpoint and all the things that were happening in the food systems, I just didn’t feel like I was really up to speed.”
There was no question in his mind about where he would go to catch up: right back where he started.
Escaping Your Comfort Zone
Michael’s return to academia was equal parts rewarding and challenging. One of the classes he enjoyed most was “Design Thinking for Food,” in which students develop the rigorous problem-solving skills they’ll need to create transformative businesses and disrupt food systems. “A lot of people freaked out over that class because it really challenged you and brought you out of your comfort zone,” he recalls. “But I thought that was really, really great value.”
He also relished the opportunity to work closely with his classmates and teachers, who brought a wealth of expertise from all corners of the food world. “I’m probably on the older side of my cohort in terms of age, so it was nice to see what the younger group knows and what they’re learning in the industry as well,” he says. “Plus the industry professionals that were the professors—that’s a big value too, because you get real life, real-time stuff.”
Moving Food Forward
It was in his Design Thinking course that Michael developed his capstone project—a comprehensive plan for a food product or venture that each Food Business master’s student designs at the end of their studies. For some, the capstone project represents the culmination of their MPS; for others, it becomes the groundwork of their post-MPS career.
Michael’s project, “Plant-Forward Cookery,” envisioned a service to win over skeptics of plant-based food. “In order to improve the ecosystems and improve the food systems in general, you need more people to change the mindset of how they eat,” he explains. “By bringing in more skeptics into the plant-based world, by providing them good quality food, it can help you transition some of those folks. Not necessarily to eliminate animal proteins out of their diets, but maybe to reduce that animal protein a little bit.”
The service would take a holistic approach to spreading the plant-forward gospel, combining sales strategies, marketing techniques, research and development, and integration with local farmers and regenerative agriculture practices. The hope was to provide chefs and restaurateurs with the tools they need to “start really putting more whole foods and vegetables on the plate,” as Michael describes.
“I Turned the Corner Because of This Program”
Michael didn’t end up launching his business plan—well, not exactly. At Custom Culinary, he serves on a subcommittee focused on regenerative and sustainable practices, applying the strategies he developed in his capstone project to global sustainability efforts.
“I use all of those components and everything that I’ve learned—especially that design thinking process—when we go to brainstorm different ideas around the globe of what we can do and how we can interact with the industry around sustainability and regenerative practices,” he says. “I use it all the time. It’s the basis of what I do now.”
Indeed, sustainability is central to Custom Culinary’s identity and mission. The company has a detailed sustainability roadmap that challenges it to improve farmer livelihoods and reach net-zero carbon in its own operations by 2030. For his own part, Michael says CIA completely transformed the way he thinks about food. “I turned the corner because of this program,” he reflects. “I’m more in the menus of change philosophy now. How do we design menus and how do we grow food, procure food, create food?”
“I work for a food manufacturer,” he adds. “How can we put those sustainable health and nutrition components into what we create, to help restaurants and any sort of food outlet? How do we help them menu those items that are better for you, better for the planet? My role right now is all around that.”
A Program Designed to Meet Your Professional Needs
Asked if he has any advice for people considering the Culinary Institute of America’s master’s in Food Business program, Michael answers quickly: “Go for it.”
Stressing that students get out of the program what they put into it, he adds that it’s well-suited to professionals looking to take the next step. “The fact that it’s an online program is great because it is designed to meet your professional needs,” he says. “It’s not a walk in the park by any stretch. It’s a lot of work every week. It’s an extra job. But it’s well worth it and rewarding. The collaboration you go through, the contacts that you make—I’m a big proponent.”