HAVERHILL, Massachusetts — The students all wore white chef’s coats, houndstooth pants and cropped bonnets as they sampled their salted lamb tagines. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the sleek kitchen framed an expansive view of the Merrimack River.
Here, just north of Boston, students at Northern Essex Community College’s culinary school learn about sous vide cooking, use dough sheeters to laminate dough, shred whole pigs and try molecular gastronomy techniques. The placement rate after graduation is 100 percent.
“Probably even more,” says Denis Boucher, the coordinator of the culinary program. “There could be two or three jobs per student here.”
The price of this education: about $6,500 for a certificate and $14,000 for an associate degree — or less, as many culinary students receive scholarships or fellowships. Compare that to the Culinary Institute of America, the prestigious private school where a single semester costs nearly $20,000 on its Hyde Park, NY campus.
Less than a decade ago, the number of culinary schools in the United States increased rapidly. But the last few years have been challenging.
Faced with soaring operating costs and a pandemic that has crippled the restaurant business, several schools have permanently closed their campuses, including the New England Culinary Institute and the International Culinary Center (which licensed its curriculum to the Institute of Culinary Education). Johnson & Wales University, which has a well-known culinary program, closed two campuses in 2020. Even before the arrival of Covid-19, Le Cordon Bleu closed all of its outposts in the United States.
What remains are mostly the best-known names — like the Culinary Institute of America and the Institute of Culinary Education, each of which reported steady enrollment during the pandemic — and cookery schools at community colleges like Northern Essex, which has doubled its numbers since the beginning of the 33 students have enrolled in the 2020 program and this total is expected to more than double this fall.
Many other community colleges have opened or expanded culinary programs in recent years, offering quality education at a fraction of the cost of a private culinary school.
While lacking the prestige of the big names, these institutions may be better adapted to the current economy. They can be a crucial resource for a restaurant business in dire need of chefs and other skilled workers, as well as for students looking to start a career without incurring large debts.
“If you want a really fancy culinary school, then sure,” said Katherine Ventura, 18, a culinary student in Northern Essex. “But if you want something quick I would recommend this.”
Prospective students have long wondered whether private universities are worth the price. This question may arise especially at a culinary school, where tuition fees are typically high, but starting wages for restaurant workers tend to be low.
“You’re stepping out as a line chef,” said Mr. Boucher, who attended the Culinary Institute of America. “How can you afford that kind of debt?”
Mark Erickson, the provost of the Culinary Institute of America, said the school costs so much because it offers a full college education that goes beyond just cooking education. Graduates learn the skills to not only become line chefs, he added, but restaurant owners and chefs as well.
The boom in community college cooking programs has attracted the attention of local governments and businesses, who are playing an active role in fostering their growth.
Northern Essex Community College’s state-of-the-art kitchens were built and fitted out with government funding and support from Lupoli Companies, a Massachusetts real estate developer that owns the culinary school building and has helped cover some of the infrastructure costs. Students can work in one of Lupoli’s restaurants, Bosa, as part of the curriculum for hands-on experience and the school does not have to pay any running costs. And on a recent afternoon at the Haverhill Beef Company, a butcher’s shop, the students were given a lesson in cutting up different types of meat.
“Community colleges are finding creative ways to offer what these larger colleges have had to spend so much money to offer,” said Mr. Boucher.
Butler Community College’s culinary school in El Dorado, Kan., which is expanding into a new building this fall, has partnered with the college’s Department of Agriculture so students can use their gardens to grow and harvest food. At Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, where a culinary institute opened in 2019, benefits from grants from the student-run Coffee Shop Fund.
American community colleges that sprung up in the late 19th century didn’t always offer cooking classes; Cooking was traditionally considered the domain of vocational schools.
But in the 1980s, as publicly-aired cooking shows drew large audiences and more restaurants opened across the country, community colleges integrated culinary education, said Mary Petersen, president of the Center for the Advancement of Foodservice Education in Annapolis, Maryland.
For all their innovation, community colleges still can’t offer everything that private schools do, like a huge network of influential alumni or internships around the world.
Jeffrey Gardner, a consulting chef in Atlanta, said the community college grads he hires often have outdated, classically French training, since their teachers may not have worked in restaurants recently.
“A lot of what they were taught would have been fine for ’90s hotel banquets,” he said.
Ms Ventura, the student in Northern Essex, was surprised that the classes did not fully reflect the ethnic diversity of her peers. “The kind of culture we cook for is usually just western or something,” she said. “I wish it was more Asian or North African or something else.”
Such disadvantages may not matter as much to the many students who simply want to find a reliable job rather than becoming a celebrity chef or opening a particular restaurant.
That practicality is exactly what these programs were designed for, said Altarius Moody, director of hospitality management and culinary arts at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. Often those who enroll have full-time jobs or families to take care of; Programs like Durham Tech’s, he said, offer substantial scholarships, offer night classes and allow people to graduate within a year.
Michael Stamets, associate dean of hospitality programs at the College of the State University of New York at Broome, said that while the program is not widely known, it is well-respected in the Binghamton area, where most students seek employment .
If the Culinary Institute of America prepares students “a little better for a global market,” he said, “we prepare them for a local market.”
Many of these local markets are developing into food centers in their own right and require employees.
Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md. is located approximately 15 miles from National Harbor, a large dining and residential complex along the Potomac River that opened in 2008. The area’s growth prompted the school and county to make significant investments in the school’s culinary program in 2018, said Denise Ware-Jackson, chair of the college’s department of wellness, culinary and hospitality.
Sussex County Community College in Newton, NJ, recently refocused its food and beverage management program on professional cooking because local businesses have so many requests for chefs, said Martin Kester, culinary arts and hospitality program manager. All 12 culinary graduates from the last three years in Sussex are still working in the food industry, he said.
The warm welcome that community college graduates find in the restaurant industry isn’t just a result of labor shortages. Several chefs they’ve hired say they’re among their most dedicated and effective employees.
“They learn how to work in the real kitchens, which are most restaurants in the US, instead of just being trained to work in the top-level restaurants,” said Mina Park, owner of Los Angeles-based Korean restaurant Shiku. who has been employed by community college culinary schools. “There’s this curiosity and openness and daredevil attitude,” and less ego than she’s seen in those who went to private schools.
Culinary programs can also attract students who might not otherwise consider college. Many community colleges are grappling with declining enrollments as students dropped out of school early in the pandemic and never returned.
Stephanie Kirkpatrick, 30, always wanted to attend culinary school but found most programs too expensive. She recently enrolled in Butler’s cooking program and will be graduating with her associate degree in two years.
“All the teachers are really there for you,” she said. “There’s a lot going on at the bigger schools,” she added. “It’s harder for them to be closer to the students.”
Community college degrees have long been vilified as inferior to those from four-year institutions. Culinary institutes, which tend to attract more attention from prospective students than other trade programs, could help reverse this, said Mr Kester of Sussex County Community College.
“There’s still the stigma that it’s a community college,” he said. “That’s something we’re working very hard to change with programs like this that are very forward-thinking and community embedded.”
Many private schools justify their higher costs by telling students they can run a restaurant as soon as they graduate, said Mr Boucher, who teaches in Northern Essex.
“Community colleges don’t set those expectations,” he added. “Students have an expectation that when they step into the kitchen they will be worthy cooks and work their way up the ladder.”
The goal of these programs is not to sell cooking as a route to clout or power, he said. They sell it for what it is: hard work.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/28/dining/community-college-culinary-school.html A quick, economical route to culinary school? Community College.