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.”