COVID-19 And Culinary Schools

Chef-instructors detail their strategies for teaching with pandemic precautions.

By Michael Costa

Fall is traditionally back-to-school season, but because of coronavirus, education in 2020 has been anything but traditional. While many K-12 schools and universities have pivoted to online learning in lieu of in-person classes, culinary schools across the country are making tough decisions about the kitchen classrooms that provide crucial hands-on experience for aspiring chefs.
“This is an applied degree, so individuals need to actually execute the techniques in order to learn them, and this should be under the guidance of a face-to-face instructor,” says Chef Michael McGreal, CEC, CCE, Culinary Arts Department Chair at Joliet Junior College, City Center Campus, in Joliet, Illinois. “Online classwork in culinary is like teaching an art appreciation class focused on theory, as opposed to an art class where students actually create. In the art appreciation class, no one becomes an artist or develops any artistic skills.”
The reality of COVID-19 means most lecture classes, like cost control or nutrition, for example, have moved to real-time, virtual environments like Zoom, Yuja and Blackboard, with some customized further through school-produced instructional videos and demos. Meanwhile, kitchen classrooms have been modified to accommodate social distancing and other pandemic precautions. We spoke with several chef-instructors to see how their plans have pivoted due to the crisis, and what changes they think might be permanent.
Fewer Students, More Space
All of the instructors we interviewed say kitchen classes have been reduced to between eight and 18 students, depending on the size of the space and what’s allowed in their state, with no partner work or group activities. At schools with a large number of students, lab time is staggered, and those not in a kitchen classroom on designated days take their courses online instead.
Because COVID-19 remains a fluid situation, some schools are preparing for an entirely at-home learning environment, if necessary. “If that happens, our students will [use] a Zoom link for class, and instructors [either] will evaluate student work visually, with review from family members, or will require a self-evaluation,” explains Chef Jennifer Denlinger, Culinary Management Program Department Chair at the Poinciana Campus of Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. “Recipes have also been modified so students can use equipment and supplies they have in their household. Curriculum is technique- or theory-driven, not recipe-driven, which allows for substitution of ingredients, flavors and cooking vessels.”
Anticipating a possible shutdown during fall semester, Chef Denlinger frontloaded essential lab courses for students so they can complete those classes before a possible closure. When the school actually was shut down this past spring, Denlinger and her team put together at-home kits with supplies and ingredients for about 30 students who needed kitchen work in order to graduate that semester, with students documenting their work through photos for evaluation. It’s a template she’d use again if necessary, or for students who may be quarantined at home.
“We ran to the store for boxes and other supplies we needed, assembled the kits, and then had a contactless pick-up system,” she says. “Students and their instructors were given precise information to follow, and then students turned in the assignments with photos for grading.”
Reconfiguring kitchens for social distancing has been a relatively simple task at some schools, because many already have spacious workstations to give students more room while they learn the basics. At Joliet Junior College, for example, only eight students during the pandemic are allowed per class, which leaves 12 feet of space between each person.
All the instructors we contacted say masks are mandatory on campus, gloves are required while handling food, and at places like Daytona State College in Daytona Beach, Florida, students must sign a waiver stating they will adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols, or risk being removed from the program. “All of our students enter the building at one designated door, where they’ll be checked in and have their temperature taken with an infrared thermometer,” says Chef Costa Magoulas, dean, School of Hospitality and Culinary Management at Daytona State. “We added the waiver this summer to coincide with our hybrid classes — groups of nine students each, alternating kitchen days to allow for social distancing — and they have no problem with the procedures in place.”
Catalyst for Change
Sanitation education is vital to any culinary program; HACCP, ServSafe and others are required training to ensure food safety. Now, COVID-19 has amplified that focus with a deeper emphasis on clean workstations and surrounding environments, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for one, adding additional guidelines to its current safety protocol. Some instructors think this will help reinforce certain sanitation habits that can sometimes become lax in the kitchen.
“We have the opportunity now to improve how we clean as we go, and fix improper glove usage and improper hand washing,” Chef McGreal says. “Adhering to requirements necessary to deal with COVID-19 also has the potential to dramatically impact the way students handle tools, serviceware, china, plated dishes and more.”
Chef Edward Adel, culinary instructor at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, adds, “The real change with coronavirus is the increased emphasis on sanitation. In our industry, this has always been important, but now we must be hyper-diligent. We sanitize surfaces before and after uses, including tables and chairs in the classroom area.”
Overall, instructors say what they teach during the pandemic ultimately needs to reflect what’s happening in the real world of restaurants, catering and professional foodservice, so students can navigate this new landscape as they enter the workforce.
“The No. 1 goal of our school’s task force has been to incorporate every learning opportunity we can to work with COVID-19 and not against it, because that learning curve will be needed for the industry,” says Chef Shawn Loving, CMC, instructor and Culinary Arts Department Chair at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan. “We’re training our students for the possibilities of what will take place in the industry, with smaller numbers of people in dining rooms, and new approaches for à la carte, modern buffets and controlled family-style service.”
The next step for culinary instructors, and the wider education system, is to gauge when it will be OK to return to traditional teaching techniques, curriculum and classroom instruction, or whether some of the adjustments made during the pandemic are permanent. The chefs we talked to say the current changes are here to stay at least into 2021.