There has never been a more important time for culinary schools than right now. Sure, I know how much the restaurant/foodservice industry is suffering and how many operations are shutting their doors as a result of avoiding decades of challenges brought to a head by the pandemic, but believe me when I say that this will change. Everything will change for the better if we (the food industry and the culinary schools that provide the talent) change as a collective group.
Just as the restaurant industry evolves, so too must the industry of education. When this change does not occur then the strong shall survive and the weak shall perish. There are ample examples of culinary school failure over the past ten years with the lion’s share since 2016. If you understand that one way to avoid failure is to know why others wave the white flag, then a course might be set to do just the opposite: succeed.
So here are my 20 observations pertaining to why culinary schools fail:
- ENROLLMENT DEPENDENCE/ENROLLMENT DECLINE
All culinary schools are businesses as well as altruistic institutions for the betterment of mankind. This means that the top line drives the bottom line (more students equals the ability to continue providing their products and services). When enrollment declines then colleges must make decisions to trim services, increase class sizes, eliminate content, reduce investment in supplies, or shut their doors. Programs need to either find ways to stabilize enrollment or come up with some other source of funding to support their efforts. When schools seek to solve the challenge by lowering standards to attract a broader base of incoming students then the entire system begins to crumble.
- LACK OF COHESIVE MISSION
What is the program’s purpose? What are they trying to accomplish and what are the standards that they insist living by? How will they measure their success as aligned with these standards or objectives? If this is not clear then the organization is left without direction – a surefire way to fail.
- LACK OF COMMUNICATION WITH THE BUSINESSES THEY SERVE
Do you really connect with restaurants, hotels, resorts, food manufacturers, retail, food research and development and other groups to make sure that your program is in line with their needs? If not, how will you be able to create a clear career path for your graduates? The businesses that will hire your students need to be vested in your effort – this is how success is defined.
- STUBORN ADHERENCE TO THE WAY IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN DONE
When program administrators and faculty believe that they have all of the answers, when they design a culinary program to match the way that they learned or the way that everyone else delivers a culinary education – then those stakeholders are missing out on the natural evolution of the craft and the people who are inclined to seek a place in the system. What the industry needs today is different than a few years ago and the young people entering the trade are different in the way they learn and what their priorities might be.
- POORLY DEFINED BRAND
Who are you? How do potential students, businesses, the community, current students, faculty members, and program alumni perceive your program? Perceptions become reality and how you support these perceptions defines your brand. Make sure that it is clear and positive.
- LACK OF REALISM
Is what you are teaching real? If you teach in a live restaurant environment on your campus is it operated with five times as many cooks in training as would be possible in a real restaurant? If so, what are students learning about cost effectiveness, efficiency, speed, and effective menu execution? How will they be able to function when faced with that first job? If your teaching kitchens are filled with every cool piece of kitchen equipment on the market how will graduates function in a real kitchen when there are not limitless supplies of combi-ovens, sheet pans, Robot Coupes, Vitamix blenders, and sous vide circulators? Until students realize that the one kitchen Robot Coupe must be shared by the entire crew – they will never learn how to communicate and work as a team.
- LACK OF AWARENESS ON THE PART OF FACULTY
A chef instructor’s learning curve does not end when they accept the job. Yes, even faculty members need to continue to engage in the learning process. Volunteer for a stage at a great local restaurant, take an occasional sabbatical to re-enter the industry, attend conferences and workshops, take a class on a new method of preparation, and belong to professional organizations. You can’t teach what you don’t know.
- NOT ABLE TO TEACH A SENSE OF URGENCY
One thing that I hear constantly from chefs who are asked about their opinions of culinary school graduates is that young cooks do not understand “sense of urgency”. They must be able to multi-task and complete work at the highest level of quality with speed and dexterity. When there are 100 reservations on the books – you don’t have the luxury of spending three hours to turn six-dozen potatoes. No matter what – you need to be ready!
- LACK OF REPETITION
How do you get better at any task in the kitchen: knife skills, making stocks, filleting fish, trimming beef tenders, shocking oysters, or peeling shrimp? The answer is simple: you invest the time in doing the task over, and over, and over again. When a program spends two days on teaching classic sauces – the student will never become competent at making any of them. When a stock is something that you do in week number four of Foundations of Cooking, then you will never be confident and competent at making stocks. Exposure is nice – repetition is how we really learn.
- UNWILLING TO REALLY STRESS THE FOUNDATIONS
The foundations are only relevant if they become habits. A recipe that takes two pages of dialogue to explain how to braise a veal shank does not make a cook a master of braising. When we stress methods and practice them constantly then they become habits and all that a recipe need do is direct the cook to “braise”. Everything else is imbedded in a cook’s subconscious.
- INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO THINK
What drive chefs crazy are the foolish questions that abound when cooks are not taught to think things through. Give a young cook a list of six tasks to perform in a shift and watch to see how many will prioritize those tasks by the amount of effort required and the time involved in their completion. Ask a student to follow a recipe and watch to see how well they think through the organization of their workstation to accomplish the task. Think before you act – this is what builds confidence and ability.
- INABILITY TO TEACH STUDENTS TO PROBLEM SOLVE
What happens when an emulsion breaks? How can it be fixed? What can be done if a particular ingredient fails to arrive in time – can it be replaced with something else? How will you act if one of your fellow cooks fails to show up to work – do you just ignore his scheduled work or do you accommodate that into your production? Your sauté pans are sticking – do you wait for someone to walk you through the process of polishing those pans, do you ask the chef to solve the problem for you, or do you take the initiative to make it work?
- LACK OF DISCIPLINE
What are the most primal expectations that a chef has of any cook? Most would say: show up, be prepared, listen, work well with others, work fast and efficiently, and work to the standards of excellence that are established for the business. These are disciplines that rank very high on an employers list, yet do we adequately emphasize them in our programs?
- INABILITY TO TEACH TEAMWORK
Our students will more often than not – seek to earn the best grades for their individual work. When we set the stage for students to strive for that grade we oftentimes lose sight of the fact that individual effort on the job will always pale in comparison to the team effort. It is much more difficult to learn to depend on others and support them than it is to put forth the best individual effort. Cooking is a team sport!
- LACK OF COST CONSCIOUSNESS
Restaurants are businesses that operate on profit measured in pennies. Every product that a student handles in class should carry a price tag. What are the raw costs of the materials, what is the production costs associated with seasoning, oils, flour for dredging, etc. What would it cost, from a labor perspective, to produce that dish and what selling price would need to be attached to maintain a reasonable profit? Aside from taste and appearance – this is what we should be teaching.
- A POORLY DEFINED OVERALL EXPERIENCE
Are you building in experiences that complement the learning curve? When you talk about the beautiful raw materials that a cook is able to use in restaurants – the meaning of that becomes much more vivid if it is accompanied by a visit to a farm, dockside fishing vessel, cattle ranch, or cheese making facility. This is an essential part of learning in schools that have “success” as part of their vocabulary.
- NOT COMMITTED TO THE LONG HAUL
Schools that put a timeline on an education are missing the chance to embellish their brand and help support a graduate through the stages of his or her career. Developing and presenting ways of enhancing their degree through continuing education, on-line resources, short training videos, and other communication pieces such as blogs and a resource center that students might contact once they graduate is a great way to become a partner in student success.
- LACK OF PARTNERSHIPS WITH INDUSTRY
Developing internships and externships that are measureable, training chefs how to continue a student’s education while on a work program, inviting chefs and restaurateurs to visit the campus, speak with students, work alongside them in classes, or present a demo will build partner relationships that are bonding.
- INABILITY TO EXPLAIN VALUE
When a guest leaves a restaurant and is most concerned with how much the meal cost – then the restaurant has failed to demonstrate value. When a student graduates from a culinary program and spends years complaining about the cost of his or her education – then the school has failed to demonstrate value. Know what it is that you uniquely offer to justify the investment of money and time.
- NOT PREPARED TO BE A COMPLETE RESOURCE FOR INDUSTRY
Finally, schools will have a difficult time succeeding if they do not find ways to support the needs of the businesses that hire graduates. This might mean simply serving as an information resource, offering refresher courses for their employees, or even providing consulting services that will help food businesses survive the ups and downs of serving the public.
Those schools that “get it” will find that the years ahead will be very bright and students, employers, and alumni will want to connect with them and become a part of their success.
PLAN BETTER –TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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