Here’s a riddle: When does a beautiful, chewy loaf of artisan bread become a rock-hard lump of flour and yeast? Answer: when there’s no culinary instructor around.
When schools across the country pulled the plug on in-person instruction last year due to COVID-19, instructors everywhere — including those inside culinary classrooms — scrambled to create a seamless transition to online learning.
However, the big difference between, say, learning English and learning how to cook is that culinary instruction depends on hands-on instruction. With no teacher nearby to stop a student from adding too much or too little of an ingredient, to remind students to turn down the heat or to help practice safe knife skills, the results can be unappetizing or downright dangerous.
Forging a New Format
Students were already on spring break from Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, according to professor and Pastry Chef Andy Chlebana. “The school extended spring break by a week and then another week, and then we finished out the spring semester online,” he says. “It was challenging, and it was hard to tell students that they had to go buy groceries [for testing at home] when at times you couldn’t even find flour or yeast in the stores.” Classes resumed last August at half capacity.
Under normal conditions, Guided Discoveries and Camp CHOP run two locations on the East and West coasts that are open to campers, as well as high school and college students. Chef Samuel Spencer, foodservice director and culinary arts instructor for Guided Discoveries and Camp CHOP, says that while a portion of classes have always been available online to students, the entire program transitioned online for a year during the COVID-19 pandemic. “As culinary arts students, the highlight of their day would be coming to that lab for hands-on instruction,” Chef Spencer says. “But during COVID, students had to log into Zoom and follow instructors who tried to keep everything interesting and engaging.”
Chef Mary Levinski is a culinary instructor and ProStart coach at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. Her students earn college credit and are ServSafe certified upon completing their coursework. “Last fall we came back as a hybrid model, with half the kids in school on Monday, Tuesday and the other half attending on Thursday, Friday,” Chef Levinski says. “Then we went totally distant, and now we’re all back in person.”
With students attempting to learn while completely outside of the classroom, and then with hybrid in-class learning, Chef Levinski says instructors and students had to rethink food preparation entirely. “We had to look at safety precautions, beginning from how we ordered our food and how we received it,” she says. “That entire flow of food — making sure that we wore masks, stressing the gloves, prepping food, individually wrapping it or packaging it in disposables — all changed.”
The new format wasn’t without its setbacks. Chef Levinski recalls sending recipe kits home with students only to find that some didn’t read the full recipe. “In one assignment, students were supposed to make a pumpkin cake roll, but a few students made pumpkin bars instead,” she says. “We addressed some of those things when we were back in the classroom, but we couldn’t go backward. We needed to keep moving forward.”
Not surprisingly, some students did question how online instruction and hybrid classrooms might affect graduation or their success in future courses. Joliet Junior College offered students the option to withdraw from their current class and retake it at no additional cost the following semester, according to Chef Chlebana. “We had some students take advantage of that offer, but very few,” he says.
Students at the high school level approached Chef Spencer with concerns about the state of the industry due to circumstances caused by the pandemic. “They wanted to know if certain jobs would still be there when they graduated,” he says. “I think we lost a lot of businesses during COVID, but on the foodservice and hospitality side of things, it’s going to be bigger and stronger [in the future].”
While many restaurants have had to let go of bussers, servers and hosts over the past year due to dining room closures, Chef Spencer says that to-go orders and catering have picked up, translating to an uptick in the need for back-of-house staff, and chefs in general. “In tourist towns especially, they’re ready to open back up and start making money,” he says. “Hotels and convention centers are already calling and asking me if I have any culinary students I can send their way.”
Chef Levinski says, “Every high school kid thinks they’re going to graduate from high school, go to college and become a millionaire the day after they graduate. But they have to work their way up.”
Luckily, there’s always a demand for foodservice staff, and many times, those opportunities are in places that new graduates don’t consider. Outside of restaurants, Chef Levinski says, there are numerous culinary opportunities available within retirement communities; hotels; restaurant management; executive chef positions with food brands; the medical field; catering; high school and college campuses; and personal chef roles.
“We see a lot of students starting smaller home-based businesses,” Chef Chlebana says. “People want to buy from the little guy now.” At the same time, Chef Chlebana continues to receive a steady influx of calls asking him for cooks. “The tough part is that some people are still on unemployment or happy with what they have left from their stimulus check,” he says. “I don’t know why people don’t want to go back to work right now. The jobs are out there and starting to pay more. I’ve been trying to explain to students that they have a golden opportunity right now to get in somewhere that they may not have been able to get into before.”
The brief transition to online learning also opened a new path to learning for some. At Joliet Junior College, Chef Chlebana says courses such as portioning and supervision will go back to being held in person, but the school has decided to keep its sanitation class online. “We haven’t noticed a difference in the pass/fail sanitation certification exams between in-person and online, so we’ll continue to run that online,” he says. “Plus, I plan to keep some of the online components I created. You get to give the students a way to engage when they’re not in the classroom.”