Culinary Schools Adapt to a Changing Restaurant Landscape

COVID-19 — November 9, 2020

Culinary Schools Adapt to a Changing Restaurant Landscape

The COVID-19 closures cause and accelerate the evolution of culinary education.

Words by Annelise Jolley

Editor’s Note: This story is published in the fall 2020 issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

Like most educational institutions, culinary schools across the world closed their doors at the peak of COVID-19’s spread. Some shuttered for good. As months wore on, others began the tentative process of reopening, leaning on hybrid learning models and stringent safety protocols to prevent outbreaks in the kitchen.

Unlike traditional colleges, culinary schools focus heavily on hands-on and practical training. They exist to equip aspiring chefs with the culinary techniques required by professional kitchens. In learning to fillet a fish or make a béchamel sauce, students need to smell, touch, taste and practice in order to master gastronomy. So while lecture classes migrated to online platforms, schools did everything they could to preserve hands-on learning experiences in the kitchen.

At Mariano Moreno Culinary Institute, the reopening process has proven to be particularly complicated. Founded in Buenos Aires in 1963, the school now runs campuses across South America, Mexico and Miami. But due to varying restrictions in each country, only campuses in Miami and Colombia currently host in-person classes. At these locations, administrators and chefs do their best to offer the same quality of practical instruction while keeping students safe, which means finding a new way of doing almost everything. 

“Part of culinary school is to educate your palate,” says Victoria Sade, CEO of Mariano Moreno. “We want them to taste the risotto they just made and the one the other students just made so they can compare flavors. That’s part of the learning process we don’t want to take away—but now we’re extra careful.” When students sample each others’ preparations, they plate food individually, walk six feet apart, remove their masks, and—finally—taste.

Jorge Paradisi, who studies pastry at Mariano Moreno’s Miami campus, says social distancing has been the hardest adjustment. He misses the easy camaraderie in the kitchen, sharing food with fellow students and chatting as they taste each others’ preparations. “Before, we just ate together and gave our opinion,” he says. “I miss that a lot.”

To avoid the actual problem of too many cooks in a kitchen, schools have reduced the number of students working together in a lab and have staggered arrival times. Some campuses open on Saturdays to accommodate additional class times. At regular intervals, classes break for hand washing. Students and instructors wear masks, screen for symptoms, submit temperature checks, and practice social distancing. And before each semester, staff will undergo pandemic-specific hygiene and safety training.

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These short-term adaptations allow schools to continue practical training in the midst of the pandemic. But for Mariano Moreno Culinary Institute, Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in the U.S., École Ducasse in France, and Basque Culinary Center in Spain, the spread of COVID-19 has fundamentally changed culinary schools. 

The pandemic not only implies that we have to take specific measures in order to protect our community [from] infections,” says Patricia Guttiérez of Basque Culinary Center. “It also means we have to think about how we will prepare the professionals of the future so they can deal with such challenges.”

The pandemic has added gas to the slow-burning evolution of culinary education. In different parts of the world, this has meant an accelerated adoption of technology, increased access to education in non-traditional ways, and deepening commitments to sustainability.

Hybrid Learning Is Here To Stay

Once schools received their respective governmental go-ahead to resume, they worked quickly to adopt hybrid learning models and integrate digital tools. While keeping hands-on classes in the kitchen (with safety protocols in place), they migrated other program elements online. Lecture classes, like sanitation and restaurant administration, shifted to online platforms. Recruiting and outreach efforts transitioned fully to the digital space, and admissions interviews began taking place over video calls. After operating for several months with hybrid models, administrators began considering how to integrate technology and digital learning into their permanent curriculum.

“It is clear that online training has more importance than ever, and it is a trend that will continue to grow,” Guttiérez says. While Basque Culinary Center was already rethinking its education model to incorporate personalized training and hybrid learning before the pandemic hit Spain, the outbreak has accelerated the need for these changes.

At Mariano Moreno, staff is now working to develop more robust hybrid learning programs for the coming year. Since beginning to offer select courses online, the school has directed more time and resources into developing new virtual learning opportunities. 

In the coming years, this will mean more online outreach, and education will require building digital teams focused on facilitating online events and courses. The addition of hybrid courses will give students the option of completing at least a portion of their coursework remotely. And equipping future chefs to respond to technological innovations in the restaurant industry will mean inevitable changes in curriculum. 

Some of these innovations are already underway. In Paris, Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse (co-founder of École Ducasse) launched a fine dining home delivery service called Ducasse Chez Moi, bringing the restaurant directly to consumers. Accounting for the number of diners who want to order meals via an app or host remote experiences, schools are beginning to train chefs to serve outside the confines of a restaurant, and how to use technology to support unique hospitality experiences. 

At Institute of Culinary Education, the curriculum already reflects this rising consumer demand for delivery. “An example of a change we have already made is an expansion of the section of the curriculum dealing with the packaging, presentation, and menu design of to-go and delivery foods,” says Campus President Lachland Sands. “I think delivery for fine dining is a trend that will last.”

Plant-Forward and Sustainably-Sourced

At École Ducasse, the disruptions in supply chains and food systems due to COVID-19 deepened the school’s emphasis on sustainable sourcing and production. “More than ever, the chef needs to be a major actor in the landscape of eco-responsibility, source from suppliers who offer sustainable production, and make sure nothing is wasted,” says Elise Masurel, managing director at École Ducasse. “The chefs of tomorrow need to be fully committed to this mission.”

To this end, École Ducasse designed a sustainability-focused program for second-career chefs called Green Gastronomy Essentials. The two-month intensive is geared toward entrepreneurs and individuals looking to make a professional change. The instruction focuses on environmentally sustainable cuisine, from sourcing to plating. “Chefs are working more and more with local productors and breeders,” Masurel says. “This trend about coming back to local production is more and more advocated.”

Incorporating sustainability into a culinary arts education isn’t a pandemic-specific trend. Le Cordon Bleu’s London campus offers a fully plant-based diploma program to meet the rising demand for vegetarian and vegan cooking. The Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change initiative, now in its eighth year, propels conversations around environmental stewardship and plant-forward dining. And in 2019, ICE announced a new degree in health-supportive culinary arts—a career training program promoting nutrition, whole foods, and sustainability.

This program joins other sustainability efforts, including farm-to-classroom experiences, zero-waste strategies, and guest lectures from experts in the field. “Sustainability has been a priority at ICE for years, as well as the plant-based and health-supportive movements,” says Sands. “We teach that truly great food isn’t just beautiful and delicious. It also supports the health of our guests, our community, and our planet.” 

But like the use of digital tools, COVID-19 has spurred schools’ eagerness to build sustainability into all facets of the curriculum, from the theoretical to the practical. Earlier this year, Basque Culinary Center launched a program called Huerta (vegetable garden), in which students learn to grow produce through on-site instruction at a nearby farm. Guttiérez also notes an increasing demand among students for plant-based culinary training. In response, Basque Culinary Center offers specialization courses and partners with start-ups working to develop plant-based protein options.

New Initiatives, Increased Access

Moving classes to the digital sphere has increased access to culinary education. With on-campus events and classes stalled this spring, schools took advantage of technology to host courses for the public. Mariano Moreno began offering free online classes over Facebook Live and Zoom. “People were at home and cooking a lot, so we decided to provide that education and entertainment,” Sade says. “That expanded our network and the community that follows us.” 

ICE followed a similar course, offering free recreational classes online to both registered students and the public. The school also brought campus events online, streaming guests and demos on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube Live, and Zoom. The result was that home cooks and culinary aficionados could learn from industry experts like Dana Cowin, Emeril Lagasse, and Marcus Samuelsson without enrolling in a degree program.

At Mariano Moreno’s Miami campus, hybrid classes make school more accessible for those who don’t live in the city. Instead of commuting each day for in-person classes, students can conference in from different cities for the online lecture portions of each course. Those who previously didn’t have the transportation or time for a daily commute can take advantage of hybrid learning opportunities, attending lecture classes from home and practical classes in-person. “The more we can offer with these hybrid classes, the more we can offer courses to students who can’t attend every day,” Sade adds. 

The school is also developing continuing education classes for 2021, designed for those who can’t or don’t wish to enroll in a degree program. These one-off courses—ranging from chocolate confections to molecular gastronomy—will serve chefs who want to learn new skills without going back to school full time. The goal is to keep industry professionals up to date in an evolving restaurant world, and to do so in a way that isn’t cost- or time-prohibitive. 

Increased access to education doesn’t change the fact that culinary school is a pricey endeavor. Depending on the level and length of degree earned, attending culinary school in the U.S. can set you back anywhere from $30,000 to over $100,000. But in the wake of COVID-19 restaurant closures and having industry employees out of work, schools are hoping to make enrollment more feasible through scholarships and financial aid. The Basque Culinary Center has made financial assistance a core element in its recruitment communications to prospective students. In France, École Ducasse recently joined the World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) Hospitality Challenge by offering thirty full scholarships to challenge finalists. “Our partnership with UNWTO represents a unique example of public and private cooperation,” Masurel says. “We wish to support a sustainable recovery of the [restaurant] industry.”

Time for Reinvention

With so many culinary students working—and losing—jobs in the restaurant industry, it’s not surprising that many have dropped out of school to save money. Those who stay enrolled face an uncertain future, unsure of how long it will take for the restaurant industry to rebound and how they will pay off student debt. “They’re worried about the work opportunities,” says Sade. “It was a competitive market before COVID, and now that so many people have been laid off, the competition is more difficult—especially for people just finishing school who don’t have as much experience.”

On the other hand, the disruption to the industry might bring in a new wave of future chefs. At Mariano Moreno, new students are enrolling amidst the pandemic to gain a professional edge. At École Ducasse, “the enthusiasm for our line of work remains very strong,” says Masurel. “French culinary schools benefit from the interest of international students who are attracted by French gastronomy.” 

Masurel also notes how sheltering at home reignited interest in the culinary arts—especially pastry—among home chefs. “This time of confinement has most likely brought some new desires for [career changes] in the culinary field as shown by the intense activity and enthusiasm worldwide for culinary and pastry arts on social networks.” For École Ducasse, which counts forty percent of its students as second-career chefs, this could signal a surge of enrollment among people eager to change professions.

Across culinary institutions, the students I spoke to remained largely optimistic about the creative ways chefs and restaurants might evolve as a result of the pandemic. Despite an uncertain future, they believe the restaurant industry is resilient and ready to adapt.“This is the time to reinvent ourselves, be creative, and learn from the situation to be able to act in the best way possible in the future,” says Sofía Alicia Malaé, who is earning a master’s degree in gastronomic tourism at Basque Culinary Center. 

Her classmate Joo Youl Lee, who is working toward a master’s degree in gastronomic sciences, adds, “We are learning to adapt like everyone else. It is true that COVID modified our academic plans and our future practices, but this also helped us to know how to move forward and mold ourselves to the situation, like everyone else today—to survive.”

For student Jorge Paradisi, a career in restaurants still feels more secure than his previous trajectory. He grew up in Venezuela watching his mom bake and sell cakes through her small business. In Caracas, he studied aviation, but abandoned the degree in 2019 after Venezuela ran out of fuel for small airplanes. He now attends culinary school while working his dream pastry internship at Bachour, a restaurant he’s admired for years. Working in a restaurant looks different these days—at the time of this writing, Bachour is only open for outdoor dining, delivery and takeout. Even so, Paradisi is glad to be there. “I love it,” he says simply.

Over time and with the advent of a vaccine, safety and social distancing protocols will relax. But other changes that began in 2020 will shift both culinary education and the restaurant industry for good. “This situation surrounding COVID-19 is considered a crisis, but also an opportunity for the industry to transform, embrace the digitalization age, and innovate,” says Masurel. As a training ground for the next generation of hospitality professionals, culinary school is an incubator for innovation. If they can weather the uncertainty of a shifting industry and find work in professional kitchens, these students are poised to enact the change they hope to see. 

At school, Sands says, “we can see the diverse interests and career goals of these students dictating trends to come.” Culinary school has always existed to empower future chefs to create something new; and now that call is more urgent than ever. “We know there is always change,” says Sands. “And ​we are here to learn, embrace, and then teach it.”

This opinion letter was also published in the fall 2020 issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme Members. Get your copy.

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