Culinary apprenticeship is coming back — for good reason

Culinary apprenticeships are vital for students — and the restaurant industry

 

C

hef Travis Brust, CEC, began his career in the kitchen when he was 14 years old. “Growing up, I had this vision that I was going to become an orthopedic surgeon,” he says.

“After I got my first job in a kitchen, I found out I had this amazing knack for cooking.” His uncle suggested he join a culinary apprentice program. So, in 1999, Brust became an apprentice at Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. “There wasn’t much to do up there so we spent most of our time in the kitchens. We learned under fantastic chefs,” he recalls.

“During the spring and fall, the hotel would shut down for the off-season. Apprentices would pack up and go to other ACF-accredited sites as kind of an offsite sponsoring house.” Over the course of the three-year program, Brust worked in kitchens across the country, from the American Club in Wisconsin to Amelia Island Plantation Resort in Florida, the Wigwam Resort in Arizona to Colonial Williamsburg Resorts in Virginia.

“I got to travel around and absorb all these great cuisines. It was a really good foundation.” While that story may seem like a fantasy for many culinary students, there are thousands of current and former ACF apprentices with stories similar to Brust’s.

Culinary apprenticeship is a combination of on-the-job training and related classroom instruction, and it’s a path that many students choose to take for a variety of reasons. As the restaurant worker shortage continues and college costs continue to rise, apprenticeship seems more important now than ever.

“Growing up, I baked with my mother and grandmothers. In middle school I often baked for classmates birthdays and other events. That is when I first heard of the Culinary and Pastry program at Lebanon County Career and Technology Center [LCCTC], ACF’s first dual-accredited Culinary and Pastry Arts vo-tech program,” says Jarrod Eltz, now a student at LCCTC and a culinary apprentice. Eltz was recently voted ACF Harrisburg Chapter’s Student of the Year.

While still in high school, Eltz got a job at the nearby Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pennsylvania. When the hotel started its apprenticeship program in 2017, he became one of six in the inaugural class. Eltz and his fellow apprentices rotate between working in kitchens at the Hotel Hershey, Hershey Lodge and Hershey Country Club and take classes one night a week.

Eltz’s choice to go directly to work rather than culinary school wasn’t an easy one. “I was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America and hell-bent on going until my chefs told me about the apprenticeship,” he says. He and other apprentices like him chose to skip traditional college — an experience that, in the U.S., is often seen as a requirement for a stable future.

“[H]igh school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a bachelor’s that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled,” wrote Ashley Gross and Jon Marcus in a recent story for NPR. “This affects those students and also poses a real threat to the economy.”

A 2017 study by the Washington State Auditor found that jobs in the skilled trades sit vacant due to students being almost universally steered toward bachelor’s degrees. Also in 2017, the National Restaurant Association reported that 37 percent of its members said labor recruitment was their top challenge.

Apprenticeships can help fill these slots immediately while at the same time training the new generation of professional cooks. “[In] two years, I get to gain valuable knowledge as a full time employee,” says Eltz. “Upon graduation, after testing, we will be Certified Sous Chefs through the ACF, and have other necessary certifications such as ServSafe.”

“I’m not one to knock culinary school. That’s one way for people to learn,” says Brust, who’s now the executive chef at Colonial Williamsburg Resorts. “Lecture, lab classes, textbooks, writing — that works great. But at the end of the day, building muscle memory is what makes a great chef.”

Apprenticing as an alternative to a formal education isn’t a new idea. ACF has operated its apprenticeship program since 1974. But when factoring in the sometimes high price of culinary school — upwards of $68,000 for an associate degree in some cases — and the fact that entry-level restaurant jobs aren’t known to pay much, apprenticing may be a more cost-effective choice.

Tuition costs depend on the program. Brust’s program at Williamsburg pays its apprentices’ tuition; the program Eltz is in costs around $10,000. There is a national ACFEF apprenticeship registration fee of $125 and an ACF apprenticeship membership fee of $50 for each year of the program.

There may be additional costs to consider, such as uniform, knives and related instruction, as well as testing fees for certification. However, an apprenticeship isn’t an unpaid internship — students are paid a wage as an employee of the sponsoring house where they’re placed.

Of course, a kitchen isn’t a classroom, and things move quickly when the pressure is on. No matter the program, students must have a certain level of knowledge in things like knife skills and food safety to become chefs.

Those who learn better in a formal classroom setting might be better off in culinary school. But a student who’s more apt to learn by doing might be the perfect candidate for apprenticeship.

“There is no such thing as a typical day in the program, which is what makes it so interesting and challenging,” says Andy McInnes, a Williamsburg apprentice recently voted ACF Virginia Chefs Association’s Apprentice of the Year. “As apprentices we work full time at the Williamsburg Inn. We also attend culinary arts classes at J. Sargent Reynolds Community College in Richmond.

In addition to that we are members of the ACF and get the opportunity to volunteer for events, demos, symposiums and galas.” The Williamsburg students also run a stall at the local farmer’s market once a month, selling their own baked goods to raise money and gaining business management, leadership and customer service skills.

“The ideal apprentice is one that has more passion than ability. We want soon-to-be culinarians that want to learn, have a desire to become a chef and a desire to work hard, but might not know the ropes yet,” says Brust. “They want to be chefs. They want to change how people look at food. They want to improve. They want to feed people and make them happy.”

The restaurant industry is a notoriously tough one, with long hours, physically demanding work and a high turnover rate. Those who want the title of Chef must be leaders who are dedicated, focused, creative and motivated to become professionals. And apprenticing in a real kitchen under an experienced chef with all those qualities — not to mention a good recipe or two to share — is a great way to get there.

“Apprenticeships are important because they are great way to get your feet in the water. Getting to actually be out in a restaurant, resort or club and cook on a line or in a production kitchen is key,” Eltz says.

“Culinary schools are good at representing the real world with their student restaurants and all but nothing is like the real deal. The hands-on skills, muscle memory and line skills are crucial things you learn quick when you are out there doing it 50 hours a week.”

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