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.”
Vision for the Future
For all the things that don’t change in the kitchen, leaders of top culinary schools see a world of difference in today’s foodservice careers and in the ways that education must evolve to prepare students for the future, frequently noting the rapidly changing foodservice landscape where the traditional path to careers in restaurants has been replaced with options across multiple industries.
There are also subtle differences in the students seeking culinary degrees. Mark Erickson, provost at The Culinary Institute of America, says there are more college-bound individuals entering the CIA. “For many years, the culinary path was not considered to be within the scope of a traditional college-bound student,” he says. “But today, because the profile of the chef has risen in the public consciousness and because of the recognition of it by other professions—such as the healthcare industry and business—it’s not just [a career path] for the pirates; it is a valid profession.”
Culinary professions have risen in prestige as well as in scope and diversity. “It’s not a linear path anymore,” Lehmuller says, “and we respond to that through internship opportunities, through study abroad programs, through relationships with medical schools. … We had to stop looking at culinary education as simply a feeder for the restaurant industry. Students want career opportunities; they want choice.”
That’s a scary reality for operators and chefs who are grappling with the labor shortage in the kitchen. Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder and CEO of The International Culinary Center, says, “Only about half of our current students want to do restaurant work.” A stark contrast to when the school started in 1984 and everyone was focused on restaurants.
The positive spin on that message is the ensuing diversity and talent pool impacting all facets of foodservice. Hamilton notes, “We have an education department that is constantly tweaking our curriculums. We used to teach restaurant management, but we’ve evolved that into culinary entrepreneurship because everyone isn’t necessarily pursuing a restaurant career.” She describes ICC graduates who are seeking work in schools, new product development, food trucks, and food media.
Still, it’s the restaurant alumni who bring the big bragging rights back to the schools. When she talked with FSR, Hamilton was returning from a visit with ICC grad Joshua Skenes, chef/owner of Saison in San Francisco. “We have two graduates among the Top 50 restaurants of the world—that would be Josh at Saison and Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns,” she says. “They’re both very active with the school, and Dan teaches in the farm-to-table program.”
Despite the breadth of industries where job opportunities exist, Lehmuller acknowledges there are always students intent on becoming a celebrated restaurateur. “We have a core group of people who only want to do fine dining: That’s their passion and nothing else will do—and we will never try to dissuade them from that goal. We do try to help them understand it is a difficult task, but the reward is phenomenal.”
Despite those rewards and the demand for chefs in restaurant settings, the top culinary schools increasingly talk about all of the unconventional career paths that are open to graduates—and topics like nutrition, sustainability, entrepreneurship, business management, and food sciences are woven into discussions throughout the curriculum, rather than being an occasional mention or an isolated elective course.
That is certainly true at Kendall College, and Koetke notes the school’s curriculum continues to prepare more “high-level” courses to enable both the school and its graduates to effectively compete in today’s market. Kendall College is affiliated with the culinary programs at 21 campuses around the world, and Koetke says, “When we talk about where culinary education is going, it’s all about internationality.” But he doesn’t mean that simply in the sense of chefs exploring other cultures.
“Chefs have taken a different view,” he explains, “and are asking, ‘Why does food have to be better if it’s from somewhere else?’ What’s in my world that’s amazing?’ Now, chefs are looking inward instead of outward to make really interesting food. That might seem to suggest isolationism, where everything happens in its own little corner of the world, but internationality can only truly happen when you get people all over the world looking at their own special food—and then you have something to share. If everyone is only looking at French food or Spanish food, then why travel?
“But when you have chefs all over the world looking at their own [culture] and fixing the recipes of their grandmothers with regional ingredients and talking to local farmers, what comes out of that is amazing. The people who will be successful moving forward have to understand and be part of that internationality. Now, the world is so interconnected there is no other option.”