Students at the New England Culinary Institute don’t train in auditoriums or demo kitchens, explains Richard Flies, the school’s acting president. Rather, NECI’s teaching model places prospective industry professionals directly into the field, or, more specifically in this case, the beach. A three-year partnership with Sandals Resorts will expand the school’s outlets for its own students, while helping the resort, which has 15 locations throughout the Caribbean, better equip its extensive staff to meet the hectic demands of a large-scale foodservice operation.
“We like to have as many options for our students as we can have,” Flies says. “You know the food business right now—we get 15 calls a day for every graduate we have. You can’t turn out enough people right now.”
The key is turning out quality, skilled workers as well, he adds. On that level, the program benefits both the resort and NECI. The school, through a series of weeklong courses in Jamaica and—for the resort’s executive chefs—at NECI’s campus in Montpelier, Vermont, is training the Sandals’ staff in culinary techniques.
It started several months ago when NECI sent a chef down to the Sandals Corporate University in Jamaica. The test training sessions took place eight hours a day for a week, with key cooks from nine of Sandals’ outlets partaking. The basic training centered around cutting, tasting, and sanitation—a typical day on NECI’s campus. “Industry training is a piece of cake for us,” Flies says. “We did that. They were very pleased and happy with it and we’re now submitting the next yearlong proposal for training, which will include meat cutting, cooking, and fine dining.”
Once the structure is in place, NECI can begin offering its students a chance to intern for six months at the resorts. Flies says the first batch of students will likely make the trip in December, when Sandals is mired in its busy season. The frantic work schedule will present a tough, meaningful experience for the students, he notes.
It will also help establish relationships and possibly open future doors for employment. At the resort, NECI is creating a career ladder for Sandals’ cooks that could help them retain quality workers. The island location should present some interesting challenges as well.
“NECI is a farm-to-table operation,” Fries says. “We try to get all of our products sourced locally for our restaurants. Well, the product you find in Jamaica is very different. It’s seafood. It’s a lot of different fruits and vegetables. The program is teaching them how to create different recipes, the taste and flavor of food, and how it’s affected.”
NECI has worked with a school in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands before, and also has similar destination options for students in France and New York City.
Additionally, NECI signed a contract with the U.S. Coast Guard to train 24 of the Guard’s cooks starting September 21. The six-day-a-week, eight-hour program will last 28 days in Vermont and rotate the programs to offer a wide-array of training. When it’s done, the cook’s commanding officers will fly down for a graduation ceremony and, if desired, the cooks can return in the future to pursue degrees. Flies says he hopes this can be the start of a long-term program, especially considering the 24 cooks are just a small portion of the 800 or so Coast Guard chefs around the country. “Their food operations aren’t mess lines anymore,” he says. “They want their cooks to be trained way above hot dogs and beans.”