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Just Like Restaurants, Culinary Schools and Their Students Are in Limbo

Culinary schools rely on hands-on training. Can they survive during the pandemic?

Sliced tomatoes and a bowl of lettuce sit on a counter in a culinary school kitchen. Yuriy Golub/Shutterstock

The morning of March 13 was normal until the intercom interrupted a discussion during Sarah Roundtree’s fine dining concepts lab at the Providence, Rhode Island, campus of Johnson & Wales. “They made the announcement that campus was shutting down,” she remembers. Roundtree, who graduated from the Charlotte campus of Johnson & Wales with a bachelor of science in culinary arts and food-service management in 2018, was working as a student teacher in the culinary arts program and had no idea what to tell the class about what to do next or when they’d be back. “The students had questions that I couldn’t answer,” she says.

She also didn’t know what it meant for her own studies. Roundtree was in Providence to complete a master of arts in teaching degree with a concentration in culinary arts education, and she was set to graduate in May, with an entry-level job at a restaurant already lined up. Instead, she left campus soon after that announcement, and in the coming weeks, the restaurant rescinded the job offer; it was forced to shut down due to COVID-19.

Today, Roundtree is living in Connecticut with her family, weighing her options for a career in a post-COVID-19 food industry. “Technically, I graduated a week ago,” she says via video call on a recent afternoon. “I’m sure I’ll do a Zoom celebration or something.”

As traditional college campuses shut down in early March, culinary schools followed, vacating their teaching kitchens, classrooms, and on-campus restaurants. But unlike traditional colleges, many of which shifted to online learning, culinary schools have had to contend with moving cooking classes, tactile in nature, to a virtual setting. Most have opted not to, meaning culinary schools and culinary students are stuck in limbo until campuses are cleared to reopen.

San Francisco Cooking School closed its campus March 16 and is not offering virtual learning for cooking courses, effectively putting the current stream of 42 full-time and part-time students on hold. “A hasty pivot to virtual learning didn’t make sense for SFCS because our curriculum is designed around hands-on instruction in a small class environment,” says San Francisco Cooking School founder Jodi Liano. Being in a kitchen-classroom setting ensures students learn to braise, cut, saute, chop, and dice under the tutelage of a trained culinary professional, an environment that’s hard to replicate via video call.

“Cooking is using all five senses,” says Lachlan Sands, campus president for the Institute of Culinary Education. Its campuses in Los Angeles and New York City both closed on March 16, affecting an undisclosed number of students (the school won’t say how many people are currently enrolled). “We believe it’s better to teach culinary arts in a kitchen in person.”

Culinary classes require an infrastructure that’s hard to mimic at home. A typical day of class involves students retrieving whisks, bowls, spoons, mixers, and stock pots from communal storage areas and retrieving ingredients from walk-in refrigerators or pantries to make the dishes that are part of the day’s lessons. Even if basic recipes were provided to students, there’s no guarantee that they would have access to the technology required for video calls. “Most of our students aren’t properly equipped for home study in terms of kitchen equipment, or even access to a kitchen where multiple roommates might be involved,” Liano says. Offering virtual cooking courses that may leave some students behind because of a lack of access, or asking them to venture out to secure ingredients during a pandemic, didn’t seem like the right move. “Simply put,” says Liano, “neither the school nor the students were set up to enable SFCS to fulfill our educational promise through virtual learning.”

Most culinary schools, though, have lecture-style courses for general education and professional studies classes related to specific majors, like menu planning and cost control, foodservice financial systems, food safety, culture, and technical writing; the Institute of Culinary Education, Johnson & Wales, and New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute have moved their lecture courses online.

Schools hope to keep their students engaged with cooking during lockdowns, even if not officially for credits. The Institute of Culinary Education started offering cooking demos via Instagram Live with chefs like Marcus Samuelsson and Chris Scott to encourage students to cook along with industry pros. “We really want to get them to try new things and new dishes,” Sands says. But there’s no way to ensure that students are tuning in, and administrators are not monitoring who’s accessing the demos. It’s not a foolproof way of teaching cooking, but it is a way of doing something. “Part of what we can do right now is cultivate an atmosphere of community,” Sands says. San Francisco Cooking School has started a “Conversations With…” Zoom series outside its usual curriculum that connects industry leaders and students via regular calls to “just to get together and talk about things like what they’ve been cooking for friends/family,” Liano says. “Teachers help troubleshoot during these calls, and classmates do the same — it’s been a really nice way to keep them together.”

As many states think about reopening, culinary schools are waiting for the go-ahead to resume classes. Leah Sarris, executive director for New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute, which opened in January of 2019, says the school’s 100-day certificate program moved lecture classes online. Administrators are planning on reopening the campus to “whenever it is safe to do so.” As New Orleans restaurants begin to reopen, NOCHI has a tentative plan “to resume classes whenever the city enters Phase 2,” Sarris says.

Culinary schools are adjusting to adhere to new safety guidelines at both local and federal levels, says Miriam Weinstein, communications director for Johnson & Wales University. Right now the Providence campus is planning on reopening July 6 with class sizes reduced from 18 to 14 students; a requirement that all staff, students, and faculty wear masks; and plexiglass partitions between cooking stations in hands-on classes. Both Johnson & Wales and San Francisco Cooking School will also introduce separate tasting rooms where students will bring a deli container of whatever they’re cooking to taste with disposable utensils. There, they’ll discuss with their instructor what adjustments should be made before disposing of the utensils and returning to the kitchen. Both schools say it will take some adjusting, but it’s something the students will eventually get used to. “It takes time and it adds steps, but it feels like a precaution worth taking,” says Liano. “I think it will become a routine that will be pretty easy to execute.”

That is, of course, if students elect to come back. Culinary school enrollment has long been in decline: According to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), 16,792 culinary school degrees were awarded in 2017, down more than 8,000 compared to numbers from five years before. For many students, the costs associated with attending school (tuition for one undergraduate year at the Culinary Institute of America is more than $36,000; at Johnson & Wales, it’s more than $34,000), coupled with a downturned economy, might mean opting out of completing school altogether. And for both current and potential students, the restaurant industry’s crisis — and the likelihood of a lack of jobs after graduation — might affect decisions. An Institute of Culinary Education spokesperson says the school’s New York and LA campuses expect a “less than 2 percent withdrawal rate” after COVID-19, noting “students have expressed their desires to return to our campuses and resume their studies as soon as they are permitted to do so.” Weinstein, of Johnson & Wales, offers a slightly more pessimistic post-pandemic look: “We anticipate that the difficulties that our students and their families are facing will translate into future enrollment challenges.”

For those staying put, Sarris says that the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute is being flexible with students’ timelines for class completion. “We understand that the current situation has a lot of unknowns, so for students who are high-risk when it comes to COVID-19 or who wish to take some time off, we are working with them on a personalized completion plan,” Sarris says. Johnson & Wales is offering undergraduates who are part of the 3,366 students across four campuses that were in lab courses (hands-on classes taught in kitchens) the opportunity to finish their studies in July or in the fall semester, according to Weinstein. Students who were on track to graduate with bachelor’s degrees were offered virtual lecture courses to complete their degrees, Weinstein says, leading to their graduation on time this year.

Looking further ahead, culinary schools are thinking about the trickle-down effects the crisis will have on their curriculums, which will need to be adjusted to prepare students to enter a changed food industry. “How are restaurants going to be staffed? What are menus going to look like? How do businesses balance delivery and dine in? There’s so many questions that we won’t be able to answer yet,” Sands says. “Before we can make changes to the curriculum, we have to see what the industry wants.” But he’s also hopeful that the industry will adapt to its new reality, whatever that may look like. “The demand for restaurants has existed for hundreds of years; you’ve got to give credit to the resiliency of chefs and restaurateurs,” he says. “It’s a big challenge, but I don’t want to undercut the resiliency of the leaders of the food industry.”

Roundtree is also looking to industry leaders and thinking about starting an ice cream sandwich business. Her goals have changed a bit, but she’s sure she wants to stay in the food industry. “Long term, I don’t know if I want to go into education,” she says. “I see myself owning a restaurant and maybe writing a cookbook.”

Korsha Wilson is a food writer and host of A Hungry Society, a podcast that takes a more inclusive look at the food world. She lives in New Jersey.