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Mike Cohea for Johnson & Wales University

Is there a more natural core around which to build lessons in history, culture, art, science, and anthropology than food? 

Why a Culinary Education Still Matters

Beyond technical skills, culinary school helps students develop crucial soft skills.

After more than a decade of negative press, declining enrollments, and campus closures, it is clear that the nation’s culinary schools have entirely undersold the importance and value of what they do. 

In fact, recent research suggests that these institutions’ approach to education—perfected across American culinary schools since the 1800s—is suited uniquely well to the demands and priorities of modern employers across all the industry’s sectors. 

And thus, a fundamental rewrite of the culinary school admissions script, informed by workplace realities, is in order.

To that end, employers of all stripes continue to emphasize the value of liberal education. Is there a more natural core around which to build lessons in history, culture, art, science, and anthropology than food? 

Imagine the teachable moments in just day one of a classical French cuisine lab in which students think they’re learning how to make a béchamel sauce. The sauce is but an entrée to an important supporting cast: the reign of King Louis XIV, European geography, and the scientific properties of flour. 

Of course, it is incumbent on culinary educators—and the institutions in which they teach—to explicitly build and deliver food education in a multidisciplinary context. Learning to cook, bake, or run a kitchen can, and should, be a coproduct of learning about food and its indispensable place in literally every facet of the human experience.

Second, employers extol the incredible impact of applied educational experiences on student learning and work readiness. In most culinary, baking, or related programs, laboratory experiences are the cornerstone of the pedagogical approach from freshman year day one to graduation. 

But it isn’t just that content is delivered in an experiential way—it’s that the context of applied education at culinary schools does something incredibly important for developing lifelong professional (soft) skills. Students in these classes must work in teams; they must arrive to class prepared, in clean, pressed uniforms; they must communicate; they must think on their feet; they must solve problems that arise without much warning; they must understand the chain of command; they must create. 

Employers across industries bemoan the extent to which most new hires are not ready for professional work environments. It almost seems that every college student should be compelled to engage in learning experiences that engender these infinitely transferable soft skills. Culinary and bake labs offer uniquely valuable added benefits: Students actually learn how to do something that will potentially affect every day of their lives, namely, cooking.

Technical food-related programming might be the two-for-one deal that the market—and world—need to ensure that college graduates are not only nimbly prepared for work but are also equipped for high quality of life outside of work. F&B figures prominently in our daily routines, define most of our important life events, are increasingly important to our individual and cultural identities (see Instagram for evidence), and collectively impact our health, longevity, mood, and household budget more than just about anything else. 

On a final note, imagine the world we might live in if doctors, nutritionists, lawyers, policymakers, science teachers, and economic development professionals were trained as chefs. Our approach in healthcare may shift from treating symptoms to treating disease with changed eating habits. The food system could reverse course to something more resilient with food-informed tax incentive, social safety net, economic development, and regulatory policy. And young people may learn from their first day in kindergarten to see food as a vehicle for learning core competencies and, ultimately, living a better life.

This big idea that applied food education can and should be relevant to an incredible range of career trajectories seems to only recently be getting attention, particularly among the medical community. “Food as medicine” programs are offering doctors-in-training opportunities to learn alongside culinary students in the hopes of arming them with non-pharmaceutical approaches to treating patients. Just last month, the White House hosted its first Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in 50 years, celebrating a food-focused policy platform designed to change the way that people eat and the role that food plays in day-to-day living in America. 

At Johnson & Wales University, a longtime global leader in food education, academic programs in the College of Food Innovation & Technology are morphing to reflect the immeasurable opportunities for food professionals in the modern economy. With a changed vision that holds food as an indispensable tool for saving the world, culinary schools and graduates are at the forefront, shaping how we prepare, think about, and, of course, eat food. 

Jason Evans, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Food Innovation & Technology at Johnson & Wales University, which uses interdisciplinary education to explore the impact of food on people, industries, and the world. His areas of expertise include sustainability and regulation within food systems, agricultural economics and policy, and ecology and natural resources, among others.

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