Commencement 2023: From the kitchen to the classroom, executive chef Aaron Fitzsenry knows what it takes to be a good leader

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – May 9, 2023 – Aaron Fitzsenry learned about being a mentor and leader the hard way – through examples of bad behavior throughout his years as a caterer, restaurant manager and executive chef.

“You’ve seen the stereotype on television, the chef who yells at staff and throws things in the kitchen. That’s not an effective leader, it’s only good for television drama,” he said. “I wanted to do better for myself and the people around me.”

Fitzsenry, who will receive a Professional Leadership Studies degree in May, is also an executive chef in URI’s dining services. At age 44, he enrolled in URI with a handful of college credits and an associate’s degree in culinary arts. A leadership degree was a natural progression after years of taking on increased responsibilities and directing larger dining operations and venues, he said.

Through his college experience, Fitzsenry said he feels confident that he can effectively support and assist those in positions above him in the organizational chain, and mentor his team through experiential examples and professional development opportunities.

“My greatest reward comes from the success of the people around me,” he said.

As a manager, he is now better able to break new ground, grow programs and nurture the talents of those on his team.

“Two of the greatest lessons that I learned (through coursework) are the value of listening carefully before making decisions that could impact others, and creating environments where it is okay for people to try things, make mistakes, learn and grow,” he said.

For one class project, Fitzsenry organized volunteers to harvest produce from nearby URI research farms and created cooking demonstrations on new ways to prepare produce at a Free Farmer’s Market on the Kingston campus. The experience helped him to observe team building and study the dynamics of people working together. The project caught the attention of university leadership and potential benefactors for future iterations of the market. URI President Marc Parlange’s wife, Mary, joined Fitzsenry in an apple picking trip and also assisted in a cooking demonstration.

Like most catalysts for improvement, Fitzsenry wanted to hone his management skills after he exhibited some bad behavior while working as a sous chef early in his career.

“Someone was smoking in the back of the building and dropped his cigarette in a pail of leaves that started a small fire. My initial reaction was to snap at the person. The look of panic on his face was unforgettable. I felt so bad for having yelled at him. That wasn’t who I wanted to be,” Fitzsenry said.

Fitzsenry, who lives in Providence, said that he has found a home at URI, first as an employee, then as a student, and soon as an alumnus. He hopes to remain a part of the campus for a very long time in ways that don’t even exist yet.

And, he knows the best place on campus to grab lunch!