A fast and economical route to culinary school? Community College.

HAVERHILL, Mass. – The students all wore white chef’s coats, houndstooth pants and short toques as they tasted their lamb tagines for salt. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the sleek kitchen framed stunning views of the Merrimack River.

Here, north of Boston, at the Culinary School at Northern Essex Community College, students will learn sous vide cooking, use rolling machines to roll out dough, break down whole pigs and try molecular gastronomy techniques. The placement rate after graduation is 100%.

“Probably even more,” said Denis Boucher, the culinary program coordinator. “There could be two or three jobs per student here.”

The price of this training: around $6,500 for a certificate and $14,000 for an associate degree – or less, since many culinary students receive grants or scholarships. Compare that with the Culinary Institute of America, the acclaimed private school where a single semester at its Hyde Park, NY campus costs nearly $20,000.

Less than a decade ago, the number of culinary schools in the United States was growing rapidly. But the last few years have been difficult.

Faced with rising operating costs and a pandemic that was crippling the restaurant industry, several schools permanently closed their campuses, including the New England Culinary Institute and the International Culinary Center (which authorized its program at the Institute of Culinary Education). Johnson & Wales University, which has a well-known culinary program, closed two campuses in 2020. Even before Covid-19 arrived, Le Cordon Bleu closed all of its North American outposts.

What remains, for the most part, are the more recognizable names — like the Culinary Institute of America and the Institute of Culinary Education, which have each reported steady enrollments throughout the pandemic — and culinary schools within colleges. communities like Northern Essex, which has doubled its enrollment to 33 students since the program began in 2020, and expects to more than double that total this fall.

Many other community colleges have opened or expanded culinary programs in recent years, offering high-quality education at a fraction of the cost of a private cooking school.

While they lack the prestige of the big names, these institutes may be better suited to today’s economy. They can be an essential resource for a restaurant business in desperate need of line cooks and other skilled workers, as well as for college students looking to start a career without taking on heavy debt.

“If you want a really fancy culinary school, then sure,” said Katherine Ventura, 18, a cooking student at Northern Essex. “But if you want something quick, I would recommend it.”

Prospective students have long wondered if private colleges are worth the price. This question can be particularly difficult with culinary school, where tuition is generally high, but starting salaries for restaurant workers tend to be low.

“You come out as a line cook,” said Boucher, who attended the Culinary Institute of America. “How can you afford that kind of debt?”

Mark Erickson, the provost of the Culinary Institute of America, said the school is so expensive because it offers a full college education, beyond just culinary training. Graduates gain the skills to become not only line cooks, he added, but also restaurateurs and executive chefs.

The rise of community college cooking programs has caught the attention of local governments and businesses, which are playing an active role in driving their growth.

Northern Essex Community College’s state-of-the-art kitchens were built and outfitted with state funding and support from Lupoli Companies, a Massachusetts real estate developer that owns the culinary school building and helped defray some of the building costs. infrastructure. Students can work at one of Lupoli’s restaurants, Bosa, as part of the program to gain real-world experience, and the school does not have to pay running costs. And on a recent afternoon, the students had a lesson in breaking down various meats at Haverhill Beef Company, a butcher shop.

“Community colleges are finding creative ways to be able to deliver what those big colleges had to spend so much money to deliver,” Boucher said.

Butler Community College’s Culinary School in El Dorado, Kansas, which will expand into a new building this fall, has a partnership with the college’s agriculture department, so students can use its gardens to grow and harvest crops. food. At Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan, where a culinary institute opened in 2019, benefits from student-run coffee fund scholarships.

American community colleges, which began to appear in the late 19th century, did not always offer cooking classes; cooking was traditionally considered the domain of trade schools.

But in the 1980s, as publicly broadcast cooking shows drew large audiences and more restaurants opened across the country, community colleges incorporated culinary training, said Mary Petersen, president of the Center for the Advancement of Foodservice Education, Annapolis, Maryland.

For all their innovation, community colleges still cannot provide everything that private schools do, such as a large network of influential alumni or internships around the world.

Jeffrey Gardner, a consulting chef in Atlanta, said the community college grads he’s hired often have outdated, classically French training because their teachers may not have worked in restaurants recently.

“A lot of what they learned would have been great for ’90s hotel banquets,” he said.

Ms Ventura, the student from Northern Essex, was surprised that the teaching did not fully reflect the ethnic diversity of her peers. “The type of culture we cook for is usually just western or something,” she said. “I wish it was more Asian or North African or something more different.”

Such drawbacks may not matter as much to the many students who simply want to find a reliable job rather than become a celebrity chef or open a specific style of restaurant.

This functionality is exactly what these programs are designed for, said Altarius Moody, director of hospitality management and culinary arts at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina. Often those who sign up have full-time jobs or families to support; programs like Durham Tech’s, he said, offer significant scholarships, offer evening classes and allow people to graduate in a year.

Michael Stamets, associate dean of hospitality programs at State University of New York College at Broome, said while the program isn’t widely known, it’s highly respected in the Binghamton area, where most students seek a job.

While the Culinary Institute of America prepares students “a little better for a global market,” he said, “we prepare them for a local market.”

Many of these local markets become full-fledged food centers and need employees.

Prince George’s Community College, in Largo, Md., is about 15 miles from National Harbor, a large dining and residential complex along the Potomac River that opened in 2008. Growth in the area has spurred significant school and county investments in the school’s culinary program. in 2018, said Denise Ware-Jackson, chair of the college’s wellness, cuisine and hospitality department.

Sussex County Community College, in Newton, NJ, recently refocused its food and beverage management program on professional cooking due to the large number of requests from local companies for cooks, said program supervisor Martin Kester. for the culinary arts and hospitality. Sussex’s 12 culinary graduates from the past three years are still working in the food business, he said.

The warm reception community college graduates receive in the restaurant industry isn’t just a function of labor shortages. Several chefs who have hired them say they are some of their most dedicated and efficient employees.

“They learn to work in the real kitchens that most restaurants in the United States are, rather than being trained to work at the top restaurant level,” said Mina Park, owner of Korean restaurant Shiku, in Los Angeles. , who hired at community college culinary schools. “There’s this curiosity and open-mindedness and go-getter attitude,” and less ego than she’s seen in those who went to private schools.

Culinary programs can also attract students who might not otherwise have considered college. Many community colleges are grappling with declining enrollment as students dropped out of school at the start of the pandemic and never returned.

Stephanie Kirkpatrick, 30, had always wanted to attend cooking school, but found most programs too expensive. She recently enrolled in Butler’s culinary program and will be graduating with an associate’s degree in two years.

“All the teachers are really there for you,” she said. “The bigger schools have a lot going on,” she added. “It’s more difficult for them to be closer to the students.”

Community college degrees have long been decried as inferior to those of four-year institutions. Culinary institutes, which tend to attract more attention from prospective students than other trades programs, could help reverse that trend, said Mr Kester, of Sussex County Community College.

“There’s still a stigma that it’s a community college,” he said. “It’s something we work very hard to change with programs like this that are very forward-looking and immersed in the community.”

Many private schools justify their higher spending by telling students they can run a restaurant straight after graduating, said Mr Boucher, who teaches at Northern Essex.

“Community colleges don’t set that level of expectation,” he added. “Students expect to be good cooks when they walk into the kitchen and move up the ladder.”

The purpose of these programs is to sell cooking not as a route to influence or power, he said. They sell it for what it is: hard work.

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