Workforce

How community colleges are training the next generation of culinary talent

Culinary programs across the country have revamped for the post-pandemic era, and those at community colleges are no exception.
culinary education
Culinary education gets underway / photo courtesy of Mott Community College

A fully staffed foodservice operation is a rare thing these days, and as operators of all types scramble to fill open positions, graduates of community college may be part of the solution.

Many culinary programs, online and otherwise, have revamped in preparation for the post-pandemic era, and those at community colleges across the country are no exception.

“COVID made a lot of people realize they wanted to do something they really like to do,” says Matthew Cooper, culinary arts program coordinator at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich., who has been with the program since the late ‘90s.

Mott’s culinary students range from high school grads to older enrollees who want a career change or to move up the foodservice ladder more quickly, he says.

Some are hired in local hospitals and senior-care facilities, while others launch food trucks or start catering businesses, Cooper says, noting that he receives several calls a week from people looking for employees.

A practical approach

Mott’s program boasts a brand-new, state-of-the-art culinary facility with multiple culinary and baking laboratories, a garde manger classroom, a chocolates and confections laboratory, a temperature-controlled wine cellar and a dry-aged meat room.

Its students—of which there are 300—can complete an associate degree in culinary arts or baking and pastry arts (the two most popular choices), an associate degree in foodservice management, or a one-year certificate in professional cooking or professional baking. Courses are taught by certified executive chefs and longtime foodservice professionals.

Many students start with the certificate then add a second year, he says. As part of their training, they work in the upscale casual restaurant and quick-service coffee shop on campus to get hands-on experience.

“It’s a very practical education,” Cooper says. “A lot of culinary is rooted in some French standards, but we try to move them into the more practical part. When they leave here, they should know how to use every piece of equipment and be ready for the industry.”’

Evolving expectations

The culinary arts program at Durham Technical College in Durham, N.C., offers associate degrees, diplomas and certificates, with the two-year degree being the most sought-after, says Altarius Moody, director of culinary and hospitality management.

These provide students with both a general education and the chance to home in on what they’re most interested in.

“A lot of them are looking for the entrepreneurship route,” Moody says. “One of the conversations we’re having with students is, since we’re coming out of the pandemic, the food scene is changing. A lot of people are moving out of brick and mortar, so we’re looking at trends like food trucks and private cheffing.” 

Mott students in the kitchenStudents in the kitchen / photo courtesy of Mott Community College

After graduating, Durham Tech students tend to go into five sectors: event planning, lodging, bakeries, opening a restaurant or upper-level management in food and beverage, mostly locally, he says, though some go further afield.

Before that time comes, Moody and his peers review all students’ resumes to help them find employment. “If we come across a job opportunity that’s a perfect fit,” he says, “we’ll make the connection between the employer and the student.”

A lower price tag

Students appreciate the education they’re getting for a fraction of the cost of a big-name culinary school, Moody notes: “[They] say, ‘I’m pretty much learning the same thing here, but it’s not as high debt.’”

At Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., a two-year associate degree costs around $12,000, while annual tuition at Johnson & Wales, for example, is just shy of $38,000 for the 2022-23 school year. Butler students, who can also opt for a nine-month certificate course, learn everything from knife skills to classic French pastries, the science of cooking and how to evaluate kitchen equipment. 

Luis Pena and studentsCulinary Arts Chair Luis Peña works with students / photo courtesy of Butler Community College

Butler's culinary arts pupils—of which there are 90—also benefit from a partnership with the school’s agriculture department. “They take half a semester in ag, and they’ll go into the kitchen and use those products and know where those products came from,” says Luis Peña, executive chef and culinary arts chair.

In addition, they complete a 100-hour internship and develop a menu that they operate out of a campus food truck before graduating.

At Durham Tech, Moody increased the number of hours students must work in local businesses from 168 to 200 because he felt the latter wasn’t enough time to figure out if the job was working for them.

“And we want them to have fun here,” Moody says. “We tell students: Let the kitchen be your playground. Have fun in our program.”

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