What does culinary school look like in the digital age?

by Stefan Ryll, CEC, CCE, AAC, Ed.D.

Information technology has permeated nearly every aspect of people’s lives. Technology is changing the way people, firms, and institutions present and communicate their messages, creating a universal learning environment and a fast-tracked information society.

In an information society, a high level of knowledge acquisition and management is a key competitive advantage. Against this backdrop, information technology has expanded the realm of education and has added new dimensions of excellence to the ever-changing definition of education quality. Teachers are encouraged to make greater use of these new technological developments. Students also face more flexible environments where self-initiated education is possible, enabling them to be engaged in learning throughout their lifetimes.

attractive chef using laptop at restaurant kitchen

Online education has grown tremendously over the past 15 years. The increased accessibility of the internet has created vast opportunities for non-traditional education. According to Valerie Storey and Mary Tebes’ 2008 article “Instructor’s Privacy in Distance (Online) Teaching: Where do you draw the line?”, the number of students taking at least one online course has expanded at a rate in excess of the growth of overall higher education enrollment. While much of the current literature concerning perceptions of online culinary arts education relates to students and faculty, little focus is on the design of effective online culinary arts curriculum. Barnes and Baskette determined that having knowledge and information about the needs of students is the necessary starting point for any diagnosis of the current state of online learning in culinary arts.

Originally, culinary arts education in the United States was based on the European apprenticeship model in which cooks learned their trade from a master chef at a worksite. In the early to mid-twentieth century, professional organizations such as the International Stewards Association and the American Culinary Federation called for the establishment of culinary schools and the development of an American approach to apprenticeship.

Today, according to Eaton, there are over 300 schools offering associate degrees in Culinary Arts, Culinary Management or Culinary Technology. According to Allen and Seaman one of the biggest changes to education has been the proliferation of online courses. New resources like blog tutorials and live-streaming lectures and instruction provide new opportunities for culinary arts programs.

The American Culinary Federation recently launched an Online Learning Center (OLC) with courses ranging from 30-hour Introduction to Foodservice and Culinary Nutrition, to Beekeeping for the Executive Chef and Preventing Discrimination in the Restaurant, to recorded lectures and presentations from live events. However, the ACF OLC is currently most beneficial to those hoping to get ACF Certified, those recertifying, or for chefs who want to refresh their skills — it is not (yet) a comprehensive online culinary school.

Escoffier Online International Culinary Academy was the first school to offer certifications in both culinary arts and pastry arts in an online educational setting. Escoffier Online, in affiliation with the Escoffier Foundation of France, delivers culinary education via the web, with a curriculum designed to help students develop real-world kitchen credentials. The Escoffier Online program is designed to take two to four months and focuses on the building blocks of cooking, with core courses covering culinary basics, groundwork and essentials. Each course includes a series of interactive learning modules addressing culinary arts topics. Every module culminates with an assessment that includes a self-evaluation, recipe preparation and one-on-one mentor review.

Escoffier Online has been deemed a Quality Program by the American Culinary Federation Education Foundation (ACFEF), and approved by a number of leading culinary organizations including Chicago Chefs of Cuisine Inc., and the American Personal & Private Chef Association.

A recent study conducted by a New England-based university suggests that online culinary arts programs develop a curriculum that meets the essential demands for future culinarians as perceived by chefs and chef-owners. The design of such a program should incorporate more hands-on rather than theoretical content. Furthermore, curriculum should be designed while taking into account the knowledge gaps of culinary arts students. Better culinary fundamental skills education would improve the quality of online culinary arts school graduates, and with that, the future of the food service industry. For this reason, online culinary arts programs should consider incorporating practical education as a significant element of their curriculum.

This recommended modern strategy is demonstrated by Rouxbe Online Culinary School. Rouxbe is the world’s leading online culinary school with over 530,000 students in 180 countries across the globe. With high definition videos, trained instructors, peer support and interactive assignments, Rouxbe is setting the standard in online culinary arts education. Chefs like Marcus Samuelsson have touted the program. Perhaps their model is the future of culinary arts education.

Granted, learning to cook via online instruction may not have the romance of a hands-on course. But for anyone with their eyes on the prize of a career in food service, adding a laptop to their kitchen toolkit can be a savvy way to go. The number of food service industry employees is expected to increase to 16.5 million people by 2025, with at least a 16 percent increase from 2014 in the number of chefs and food preparation workers needed, according to a 2018 report by the National Restaurant Association.

Only 39 percent of industry employees have some type of college education. However, industry representatives have expressed the concern that food service managers will need more education and certification. Considering these facts, existing and future online culinary arts programs could certainly represent a major source of educated culinary arts and hospitality industry employees.

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