Think Tank

Feb 24, 2018, 21:54
Turning to the Culinary Education Crystal Ball

Turning to the Culinary Education Crystal Ball

Look into the future of culinary education and dare to “think different.”

By Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC

I am not a futurist by any stretch of the term, but I am an avid observer of the environment in which we function. There are, without a doubt, many possibilities concerning culinary education on the horizon – some of them are exciting while others are pretty darn frightening. The indicators are so strong that anyone, myself included, can predict what might be in store for all those who dedicate their lives and passion to the education of tomorrow’s chefs. So after gazing into the crystal ball, here are my observations and thoughts to consider:

  1. The glamor of a career in the kitchen has intersected with reality.
    It is apparent that interest in a culinary degree is beginning to falter. It might very well be due to the word getting out about the real work, the hours, the pay, and the wear and tear on a cook or chef’s physical and mental wellbeing. It could even be Food Network fatigue. The result is admissions departments are more challenged than ever. This will mean that schools must re-think their marketing approach. It’s only going to get more challenging.
  2. Restaurants come and go at an alarming rate.
    With over a million freestanding restaurants in the U.S. and a rising failure rate, this must be a concern for schools. Some challenges faced by restaurants include: the establishments that helped gentrify run down areas are now being pushed out with increased rents; finding qualified labor is a growing concern; affording the labor is challenging; looming healthcare requirements and its costs; as well as regulations and rising ingredient costs that are driving operators to consider closing. Are we preparing students with the skills to address these issues?
  3. If it were easy – everyone would be doing it. (In some cases it seems many still believe it must be easy.)
    I can’t tell you how many “wanna be” restaurateurs continue to dive into the business without a clue or even worse – ones that know a little, but not enough. We have an obligation as educators to provide a vehicle to prepare them for the rigors of being a restaurateur or provide the advice to do something more in line with their skill set.
  4. The cost of culinary education is or will soon be cost prohibitive.
    We don’t really need the federal government to tell us “gainful employment” is a challenge right out of culinary school. It will take many years for a graduate to be comfortable with compensation relative to effort. This may never even occur in some cases. We need to quickly assess how a model can be built to soften the blow of “pay back” or suffer the wrath of the Department of Education and dwindling enrollments.
  5. Far too many chefs and restaurateurs are not pleased with the results from an expensive culinary education.
    A national forum should be organized with prominent chefs and restaurateurs, culinary educators and administrators to more accurately define expectations and ways to measure results. If we fail to do this then graduates will lose their competitive edge when seeking employment.
  6. The real successful market for culinary students does not lie with 18 year olds fresh out of high school.
    As interest in a culinary arts career continues to wane, schools need to identify how their programs will thrive. The answer lies in the non-traditional audience (over the age of 25) with a wide berth of potential candidates who have worked in the industry but need additional advanced skills, experienced cooks seeking a different direction with their culinary background, career changers, and enthusiasts who are interested in finding a niche in cooking.
  7. Admissions departments are at a loss when trying to recruit non-traditional students.
    It is one thing to say your admissions department needs to recruit non-traditional students, but in reality they do not know how. The typical admissions model includes working with SAT databases, high school visits, college fairs, building relationships with high school instructors, and offering high school open house events. None of these avenues work with the non-traditional audience. These departments will need to rethink how they approach this demographic.
  8. Most college programs do not understand the non-traditional market.
    The non-traditional market must work and figure out how to fit school into that schedule. If they are currently working in the restaurant business, as we know, schedules are always fluid and usually long and demanding. Secondly, if they have a few years under their belt, they have little interest in starting with “this is a French knife and this is an onion.” To attract the non-traditional audience a college must be willing and able to customize programs to fit individual needs. Flexibility is the key and willingness to consider life experience for credit is a must.
  9. The relationship between culinary schools and industry must improve.
    Whatever you are doing to communicate with and listen to: the businesses that hire your students; companies that donate funds or equipment for your use; organizations that represent your interests as educators or chefs; and vendors who supply you with the necessary ingredients used in kitchens – you need to do more. These are stakeholders who are as important to your success as the students who occupy the seats in your classrooms. Failure to do this is a missed opportunity.
  10. State and federal departments of education don’t get it.
    In the future it will take a unified effort on the part of colleges, college presidents, and college program stakeholders, to lobby for flexibility in the mandates of many departments of education. Some of these considerations include: how to calculate contact and credit hours; required courses that may not suit every degree; limitations on the number of credits a student can take in any one semester or degree; insistence that gainful employment should not factor in the years it may take for a graduate to demonstrate skills that equate to acceptable salaries; and questions about the validity of work experience for credit. These are all important considerations for colleges – considerations that many departments of education have staunch, inflexible opinions about.
  11. Far too many well-intended and competent chefs are not prepared to be teachers.
    If we want to be taken seriously by the educational community we must insist on and support culinary faculty pursuance of advanced degrees that focus on teaching methods and assessment.
  12. The industry we know today is about to change exponentially.
    So - here is the big issue – the restaurant industry will not look the same in 10 years. How it will change is anyone’s guess. But, one can assume it will involve more technology, more efficient use of labor, stricter controls on food safety, a stronger approach toward healthy food on restaurant menus, better control over ingredient costs and shelf-life, and a stronger business approach toward profitability. These are all opportunities for schools to re-direct curriculum to support and even anticipate this change before it happens.
  13. Food philosophy has yet to mesh well enough with the business of running a restaurant.
    We have come a long way with our respect for ingredients, farmers, and the overall integrity of the food supply. The challenge is that it’s costly. Customers are finally starting to baulk at excessive pricing and restaurants that express having a conscience are finding it difficult to remain profitable and stay true to their beliefs. Since customers are now tuned in, it would only make sense that something has to give. There is an opportunity for schools to work with farmers and producers in the development of a more sustainable business/pricing model.
  14. Vendors are not what they use to be.
    There was a time when salespeople representing distributors actually understood the product and how it might mesh with any particular restaurant. They knew the ins and outs and were able to assist chefs in making ingredient decisions. Now, in many cases, salespeople are strictly order takers and the assumption is that the chef will know the product. This provides a window for schools to delve more into product knowledge that goes beyond basic specifications. Chefs will need to know about the terroir where vegetables were grown, seasonal differences in crops, how animals were raised and processed, and the implications of climate change on the products they use. The base of a chef’s knowledge will become even more substantial. This can provide additional opportunities for college programs, continuing education, and services such as becoming information resource providers.
  15. At some point everyone will question the real value of a degree.
    Is a degree necessary if a person aspires to become a chef, food and beverage director, operator or owner? Are there other products that were serve them better while providing the most current information at an affordable price? Colleges have a current mindset that evolves around the degree – but is this always the answer?
  16. Our business model will fail if we don’t help the industry figure out solutions to their problems.
    Our current focus remains on the enrolled student, but as the primary source of education for the food industry, shouldn’t we view the larger audience as part of this family? What can culinary schools do to address the concerns of industry and be their primary source for solutions?
  17. There may not be room in the U.S. for over 1,000 culinary programs.
    What is the right number of college programs to meet the needs of industry? How should they be differentiated? How will they maintain a universal standard of excellence that allows every graduate the opportunity to be successful? Are 1,000 too many or not enough? This is a discussion that makes sense and should involve all stakeholders.
  18. We need to figure out and get on board with on-line education fast.
    Twenty years ago an online education was far inferior to teachers and students in a classroom. Today, the difference is not so great. Online is not always appropriate, but in many cases – especially with the non-traditional student – it might be preferred. What was once cost prohibitive for colleges to adopt is now quite affordable and it will only become more so in the future. If you do not have an online delivery system you must move in that direction at some level.
  19. Thinking “different” about everything we do is the most critical task for deans and directors.
    Colleges should pack away the sacred cows and start with a clean slate. Facilities, delivery methods, student to faculty ratios, real-time delivery, fluid pricing structures, stackable certifications, and hybrid degrees must all be part of the “think different” discussion.
  20. Getting caught in the trap of extravagant culinary facilities is setting your school up for real challenges in the future.
    Culinary programs are very expensive to deliver. The cost of facilities that compete with the best equipped is prohibitive for most schools, yet they feel the pinch of competition without them. Schools must always remember that it is the quality of content, the quality of instruction, and the reputation with those who hire graduates that is most important. Great culinary facilities without these components mean very little.

Look in the crystal ball and know what is in front of us. Change is inevitable - failure to plan for it is not a wise approach.

NOTE: “Think Different” was a mantra for Apple Computer during their extraordinary rebirth under the leadership of Steve Jobs. This simple (although grammatically incorrect) statement provides a lesson for us all.

Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC, president of Harvest America Ventures, a mobile restaurant incubator based in Saranac Lake, N.Y., is the former vice president of New England Culinary Institute and a former dean at Paul Smith’s College. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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