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How rising costs and more tech could impact culinary schools

Attendees at an annual gathering of foodservice educators saw how industry changes might trickle down to their curriculums.
Culinary school
Photograph: Shutterstock

It’s an interesting time to be a culinary teacher. The foodservice industry is changing, not just on the menu but also in technology, operations and labor, and educators are often on the front lines when it comes to preparing future workers for this new normal. 

It’s a responsibility they’re not taking lightly, at least judging by attendees of the Center for the Advancement of Culinary Education’s (CAFE’s) annual leadership conference last week. Educators from high school and college culinary programs across the country gathered for the three-day event in Portland, Maine, to face the evolution head on. Here are three lessons they learned. 

Educators are embracing technology

As tech becomes integral to restaurant operations, culinary schools are working to make it a bigger part of their curriculums. Culinary students at Wilbur H. Palmer CTE Center in Hudson, N.H., will soon be using handheld devices, rather than pen and paper, to take orders at the school’s student-run restaurant, said Director Eric Frauwirth. He believes it will give the a leg up as they enter the industry, where that kind of technology is quickly taking hold.

There was interest in even the most far-out technology, like the metaverse. Art Inzinga, culinary program coordinator at the Community College of Allegheny County, said he was intrigued by the idea of using immersive virtual worlds to offer training simulations for students. 

In general, educators seemed to welcome all the innovation—including things like robots and automation. Most seemed to agree that more tech will make employees’ jobs easier, but they also said that guests will always want human touch and hospitality when dining out.

Veggies are the new meat

As food costs rise, chefs are putting more emphasis on produce to protect their margins. 

Many are giving veggies more space on the plate at the expense of pricier proteins. Some Idaho Potato customers, for instance, have been trading up for larger spuds to help balance out smaller steaks, said Alan Kahn, VP of foodservice for the Idaho Potato Commission. 

The impact this has on margins can be stark. David Turin, chef and owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland, said a $32 vegetable risotto may cost him $2.50. In the past, he said, the gap between price and cost would have triggered a crisis of conscience. “Now, we’re in a place where to sit in my chair, you gotta spend $35 for an entree,” he said during an industry panel.

At the same time, restaurants are also working to stretch veggies as far as possible. Turin admitted to being the type of operator to look in the garbage can and despair over discarded broccoli stems that could have been repurposed.

“If you don’t use the whole thing, you’re dead in the water,” he said.

Fellow Portland restaurateur Kimberly Zabriskie agreed, noting that with the cost of trash services and composting, “I pay to throw things out in my restaurant.”

As restaurants serve more plants, they also need to continue to make them interesting for guests, said panelist Maeve Webster, president of the consulting group Menu Matters.

That could mean different preparations, like pickling, or finding ways to highlight the wide range of textures and flavors present in a product as ordinary as the potato, she said. “I think we need to approach produce like you would meat.”  

Some workers are skipping school

Coming out of the pandemic, restaurant labor has been an employees’ market. Places are desperate for workers, and have raised wages and added benefits to help attract them. The result, some educators said, is that more students are leaving culinary programs early or skipping them altogether to enter the workforce. But they’re often ending up on the front lines with little to no training.

“In a way we’re killing our own future,” Turin said. 

Panelists said they still prefer workers to come in with fundamental technical skills—good knife habits, sanitary practices and culinary math—while intangibles like work ethic and loyalty are also a big plus. Less-experienced staff, meanwhile, should not be afraid to ask questions. 

“It’s OK not to know it all,” Zabriskie said.

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