Culinary educations are evolving to connect foodservice to a bigger worldview that encompasses eating for health and wellness, sustainable practices, and an understanding of entrepreneurial business.
The shortage of skilled kitchen labor: That’s what everyone keeps talking about, and it isn’t going to change any time soon. The National Restaurant Association predicts 1.7 million new restaurant jobs will be created in the decade leading up to 2026. To answer this demand, top culinary schools around the country are working to keep the employment pipeline filled with well-trained graduates. For operators and chefs, it helps to know the best programs to recruit from and how culinary education and foodservice careers are evolving.
Starting with lists that named more than 1,000 schools and educational programs, FSR researched and identified 22 top schools. Among this group, the culinary curricula and degrees are as varied as the opportunities for careers post-graduation—and that diversity reflects the needs of those hiring graduates as well as those applying to schools.
From baccalaureate degrees awarded by The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Johnson & Wales University, to diploma programs at the Institute of Culinary Education and the International Culinary Center, to associate degrees and certification programs at schools around the country, don’t expect the best culinary educations to look alike. There are, however, certain characteristics that hold true across all of the best culinary curricula.
The top schools have proven reputations with strong ties to leaders in the industry and alumni who are excelling in foodservice. Accreditation by organizations such as the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation (ACFEF) or the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) adds a weighty stamp of authority. Costs range from six-figure tuitions akin to Ivy League degrees to more affordable programs that may be completed in months not years and often are funded by federal grants or scholarships. Real success is measured not in dollars invested but rather in how prepared graduates are and the school’s job placement rate.
The quality of the education depends upon many factors—the qualifications of chef instructors, the student-teacher ratio, and the amount of time spent in hands-on kitchen practice—all of which speak to the value and viability of the culinary curriculum. That educational expertise exists in trade schools as well as university settings. Kevin Arnett, culinary program director at the Institute of Technology Culinary School in Clovis, California, explains, “We have to place 80 percent of our students within 60 days of graduation,” or the program would be at risk to lose funding from the federal government.
The school, which has more than 240 students enrolled at its two campuses, has seven teaching kitchens and includes nine courses of full-time kitchen work. Recently the program transitioned to three sessions—morning, afternoon, or night schedules—so the school could bring class sizes down to 15 students per class instead of 25 to 30 people.
Whether a program is like IOT, which offers a Professional Associate in Occupational Studies (AOS) degree, or is a university offering a bachelor’s degree, top school administrators agree that a quality education begins with basic cooking fundamentals and a realistic perception of what an intense kitchen culture entails.
“What remains important is a sense of continuity. The rigorous teaching of the classic fundamentals of cooking can’t be short-circuited or sidestepped,” says Peter Lehmuller, dean of the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University. “Cooking fundamentals have to be taught: People have to know how to use a knife, how to bake properly and fold dough, how to sauté.”
Christopher Koetke, vice president of culinary arts at Kendall College, echoes that the foundational piece of a culinary education doesn’t change. He also notes the importance of preparing students for the pressure cooker culture inherent to kitchens: “What Kendall is known for is its intense learning environment. We don’t shy away from stress. We use real-life situations where students have pressures they will face in the industry. That is how you produce graduates who are ready for the industry.”
Another key aspect to having graduates who can lead the foodservice industry is to remain visionary and teach to the future. “Going forward, educators need to focus on teaching students how to connect food to overall health and wellness,” Lehmuller says. “All culinary students in the 21st century need to understand the relationship between diet and health in a more clearly articulated way than in the past—they have to know how to cook for human nutrition.”