Online programs offer a more affordable and flexible alternative to culinary school, but can they deliver the same high value as in-person classes?

In reflecting on the pandemic’s enduring effects on hospitality, culinary schools haven’t been top of mind for most. But changes within higher education are generating ripples that travel far beyond the proverbial ivory tower and stand to transform how people pursue culinary schools and who has the opportunity to do so.

The vocational nature of culinary education has long emphasized the necessity of in-person instruction. While digital skills like coding can easily be taught through online classes, learning to prepare coq a vin or bake the perfect macaron is an entirely different matter.

“There is a natural disposition to scratch your head and say, ‘How do you do cooking online?’ It’s so much about the senses and the tactile and the experience and those sorts of things,” says Ken Rubin, chief culinary officer at Rouxbe, an online culinary school based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But while the idea of online culinary programs has—and still does, to a degree—raise eyebrows, more industry professionals are coming around to the idea, thanks in part to COVID-19. “It’s long overdue. I think that for a long time, culinary education has been very much a one-size-fits-all approach,” Rubin adds.

Online courses, by contrast, can offer more flexibility, affordability, and customization. These features, coupled with a post-COVID openness to digital alternatives, are leading aspiring chefs and industry professionals, as well as existing schools and even foodservice employers to give online culinary programs a second look.

Online Classes Provide Schedule And Location Flexibility

Online classes provide schedule and location flexibility.

The online alternative

Despite the virtual nature of Rouxbe, many of its instructors hail from brick-and-mortar schools; Rubin himself was previously at Le Cordon Bleu and the Art Institutes.

“We understand very clearly the differences between the on-the-ground experiences and the online experiences, and we don’t try to say what we do is the same,” he says. “We’re more about the open access and meeting students where they are.”

Bringing that perspective to the table has allowed Rouxbe to grow and shift since its founding in 2005. Early on, traditional culinary schools may have viewed it as a competitor that could steal away prospective students but over the years, Rouxbe’s scope has broadened to include partnerships with existing schools, like Bay Area Community College Consortium, which comprises 28 schools around the San Francisco and Monterey, California, areas. It also works with hotels, hospitality management companies, nonprofits, hotels, healthcare systems, and more.

But for most culinary schools, the path to online education marks a major departure from business as usual. Even before the pandemic, established culinary schools were beginning to recognize the growing demand for flexible options. While some may partner with a third party like Rouxbe, others are building online programs in-house.

In addition to its campuses in Providence, Rhode Island, and Charlotte, North Carolina, Johnson & Wales University (JWU) has built an extensive online platform. Although online-only students cannot major in straightforward culinary or pastry arts, they can earn degrees in culinary arts management or food and beverage entrepreneurship, and the coursework still requires some hands-on kitchen work. JWU faculty members are partnered with instructional designers and technologists to translate courses into a digital format that students can access at their own pace.

“So many of the exciting career opportunities available now are management-focused, entrepreneurial in nature, or otherwise technology, nutrition, or science-centric,” says Jason Evans, dean of JWU’s College of Food Innovation & Technology. “The online platform allows for access and flexibility for these working professionals.”

But with flexibility comes an added layer of responsibility. Asynchronous courses, wherein classes do not meet at a set time but are pre-recorded, require a higher level of self-discipline, which is why so many online programs are built to cater to working adults.

Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts also has two physical locations (Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colorado), as well as an online program powered through its Boulder campus. Like other online programs, Escoffier emphasizes the benefits of flexibility and customization in its digital learning options.

“It’s important to remember that everyone learns differently; we have different learning styles,” says Kirk Bachman, president of the Escoffier Boulder campus and head of product and business development for the school. “Ground programs are still a perfect modality for many. However, online is a more viable option for an increasing number of students based on their career, family, and lifestyle.”

Rather than follow a regimented program for a year or longer, students can focus on the curriculum most relevant to them and build credentials as they go.

This stackable approach to education also comes with a lower price tag. Mounting student debt continues to plague higher education in the U.S., and culinary schools are no exception. In fact, the industry’s relatively low wages can mean a paltry return on investment for many students.

“I think there’s very much a need for a wake-up call within the industry to acknowledge the huge disparity between what it costs to be formally educated, not just in terms of time, but also dollars, and then what people realistically make in the industry,” Rubin says. “Until some of those larger things are fixed, structurally, it’s going to be really hard to reform ideas around education and the cost implications of that.”

Escoffier Now Offers Both Online And In Person Degrees

Escoffier now offers both online and in-person degrees.

The digital disconnect

For all the benefits that come with online culinary school, such programs do face their own set of challenges, from fostering connections among students and instructors to logistically executing hands-on work.

“Overall, the biggest challenge is the asynchronistic nature of the program. Although there is a way to create community in the online classroom … not having the camaraderie of working side by side with classmates in the traditional culinary lab might be a challenge for some students,” says Scott Smith, director of online culinary programs at JWU.

To remedy this potential disconnect, JWU embeds discussion and chat areas into the coursework to encourage interactions among students. Similarly, Escoffier uses a cohort-driven model, so students can form ties with others in their group. Instructors also schedule regular check-ins with students to ensure they’re staying on track; Escoffier even has “student success teams” that provide students with tutoring and career counseling, among other services.

Another hurdle to clear in online learning is assessing competency for technical skills—like cooking. Escoffier utilizes video feedback, which earned the school an award from the Online Learning Consortium.

Photos are at the heart of Rouxbe’s educational approach. Although instructors cannot sample a finished product, following along in the process and seeing the final presentation connote quality and, to a degree, taste.

“Flavor of food is really a result of the proper execution of technique with the right proportion of ingredients. We can tell with their ingredients, with their mise en place, if it’s the right proportion, if it’s the right size and shape,” Rubin says. “That is what we focus on: technique. And those are things that we have a lot of success in measuring using distance-learning tools.”

Rubin is quick to point out another advantage in Rouxbe’s learning approach. In a traditional setting, students would cook together in a group, with some classmates prepping the dish, others cooking it, and others plating it. This assembly line style can leave culinary school graduates with certain gaps in their skill set, Rubin says. Distance learners, on the other hand, must perform every step themselves—including obtaining the necessary materials and tools.

At JWU, it’s up to online students to purchase the right ingredients.

“This will help with product identification, purchasing, buying what they need to reduce waste, selecting the quality level of ingredient, and other components, which are important in cost control,” Smith says.

Just as the work is individual, so too is the feedback. Students might not be chatting with instructors in person, but the asynchronous format grants more time for teachers to evaluate the work and make individual assessments. Rubin says Rouxbe chefs review thousands of photos from class assignments every week, the culmination of which helps instructors home in on common pitfalls and tailor their feedback.

Rouxbe Offers Its Own Online Courses But Also Partners With Other Schools And Businesses

Rouxbe offers its own online courses but also partners with other schools and businesses.

The way of the future

As for online colleges themselves, feedback comes not just from student testimonials, but also from the greater industry. Sending employees to in-person programs has historically been cost-prohibitive for restaurants, but online courses, especially those that can be taken separately from larger programs, present a fresh alternative.

As foodservice continues to grapple with a labor shortage, incentives like free or discounted education could go a long way in attracting and keeping top talent.

“Industry partners look at programs like ours as … a benefit and an employee retention tool. It gives their employees opportunities to grow both with the company but also personally,” Smith says. “I see it as a way for the company to invest in their employees, provide them with up-skilling, and create a higher earning potential.”

Because of the stackable nature of many online courses, workers can earn a degree over time, but the employer isn’t on the hook to pay for a full two- or four-year degree.

Aside from employee retention, online programs have the added benefit of creating a stronger restaurant operation. Through Rouxbe, employers—including restaurants and other hospitality companies—can customize the curriculum to better suit their needs.

This is yet another way to bridge the gap between traditional culinary schools and the real-world rigors of restaurant life. In the past, classically trained chefs would make beelines for fine-dining institutions, but the democratization of foodservice has broadened the field, with culinary school grads now pursuing jobs at hotels, fast casuals, and even CPG companies.

But even as career opportunities abound, tuition costs still deter would-be students. This is where restaurants and other industry employers come into play; by cultivating relationships with online education programs, they would be helping build a sustainable pipeline of skilled workers.

“We really see employers and the industry as being part of the solution from an instructional point of view. We like to have some fluidity between what people learn from us or a partner and then what might be learned in a job setting,” Rubin says. “There are too many people that we need in the industry to have them rely or depend on this idea that a one-year or two-year or four-year education is the only way in.”

Even if interest in traditional associate and bachelor’s degree programs is beginning to dwindle, Escoffier’s Bachman argues that education in the culinary world is more important than ever. In just the last few years, foodservice has embraced innovation like never before: More chefs are using global cuisines and flavors, plant-based alternatives are flooding the market, and restaurants are incorporating new technology into their operations.

Bachman adds that if the industry is to keep pace with ongoing changes, education needs to be more accessible across the board.

“To address what’s happening right next door in terms of food, education needs to be available everywhere, at any time. This means that online, accessible, affordable education designed to serve students with a passion for learning is critical,” he says. “We feel that the acceptance of online learning as a quality and effective modality will also increase.”

This pandemic accelerated that acceptance, with so many activities—including teaching—moving to online. But even before 2020, many brick-and-mortar institutions were already dipping their toes in the online world prior to COVID and seeing it as a viable model.

Another sign that attitudes are shifting? In July, six Rouxbe courses were recommended for college credit by the American Council on Education, marking the school’s first foray into collegiate-level post-secondary credentialing. Rouxbe training programs had previously been recommended by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation and WorldChefs, but they were not credit-bearing approvals.

If this news can be taken as a harbinger of things to come, online learning is here to stay—and primed to grow.

“The pandemic has caused people to realize that the term, ‘learning online,’ means lots of different things, that there’s not a model or a small set of models that are the only ways to do it,” Rubin says. “I would venture to guess that most people in the near future will be using some sort of online [program] to learn, not necessarily as their primary mode of instruction, but at least the inclusion of online learning.”

Feature, Non-Commercial, Technology