Students learn skills in culinary classes that teach them to be successful no matter their life’s final direction.
By Chef Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
In many parts of the country, culinary classes in high schools, vocational schools, trade schools and colleges are under siege. Budgets for vocational programs are continuously being cut. Enrollments are mostly down because the present economy with its demand for labor is such that anyone—even without training or experience—can get a starting job in the culinary field without prior training.
As culinary teachers and directors, we need to demonstrate to students, their parents, and administrators that what we teach is more than professional and personal cooking skills. We teach transferable skills that will greatly benefit students for the rest of their lives. Teaching these long-lasting skills are imperative for the long-term success of our students and programs.
Teachers of all subjects tend to develop tunnel vision. They think the only thing they need to teach is the assigned subject and the only thing students need to learn is the subject’s core curriculum. This is far from the truth.
Think of the best teachers from which you have learned. Think about what made them so special. My bet is they went far beyond just teaching the basic subject. They taught you how to think, inspired you to be better, stressed that you needed to try harder in everything, and were there to mentor and guide you. This is how you must be toward your students. While, at the same time you need to convey to the administration that you are teaching life skills, job skills, and even college skills.
Non-culinary skills learned in culinary arts classes
These skills will stay with your students for a lifetime:
- Planning (see Teaching Students How to Plan Their Cooking)
- Math skills (see Teaching Students Math with Pizzas)
- Nutrition (see Teaching Nutrition)
- How to interview for a job (see Interview Skills)
- How to find a job (see Teaching Your Students How to Find Jobs)
- How to keep their jobs (see Help Your Students Keep Their Jobs)
- How to be on time, how not to make excuses, how to work clean, and how to finish their projects on time.
- Essential life skills (see Teaching Essential Skills)
- How to work as a team (see Working in Teams Needs to be Taught)
- How to work with people you don't like (see Picking Teams)
These skills are universal to life and to the working world. More importantly, most of these skills are not learned in conventional academic classes.
Beyond the benefits of knowing how to cook
For those who teach vocational or professional culinary classes, it is imperative you continuously present to possible students, their parents, and most importantly your administration that your program should be kept in place for many key reasons. Three examples to give would be:
- Although anyone can get an entry level job in the food service industry, students from your program will more rapidly hone their skills and get promoted as a result of their culinary education. (More rapidly than people without a culinary education.) These skills and abilities include, not only the skills listed above, but also include understanding food costs, food service economics, portion control, sustainability, food waste, buying local and understanding carbon footprints for the food service industry.
- The economy will not stay this hot forever. In my 15 years of teaching, I have had repeated roller coaster rides of teaching an uncomfortably small class to instructing an over-capacity of students combined with a multi-month waiting list. Stopping your program to then need to restart it later is expensive, time consuming and difficult for administrators, you, the facilities team at your school, etc. Think of the budgetary nightmare of ending your program only to restart it again a short time later.
- Students with back of the house training and experience are more likely to be moved into management positions, both in back of the house and front of the house positions. In other words, the graduates of your class are more likely to become sous chefs, chefs, kitchen managers, general managers, etc. than people who start out in entry level jobs without academic and hands-on training.
- With academic training your students are not only more marketable with moving up the food service ladder, but also obtaining jobs and getting promoted in other aspects of the hospitality field.
Graduate successes are one of your best assets
If you don’t already do so, you should keep in touch with successful graduates of your class—regardless of whether they are in or out of the foodservice field. Document their success stories, individually and statistically. Keep track of college entrances, particularly if no one thought that particular student would go to college. Make these students highly visible by inviting them to speak to your current students. This motivates your current students as well as being a great demonstration of the importance of your program. Ask these successful students to post their success on social media. Your graduates’ successes and accomplishments are your best asset if anyone ever questions the necessity or expense of your program.
I have two examples of the importance of keeping in touch with your graduates:
A graduate of mine went on to get a college degree in political science and then went to law school. She passed the Bar and is a criminal defense attorney. She tells everyone what she learned in my class was to be organized, stay on task, work together with people, and excel in a structured environment. I have heard her repeatedly tell people the only reason she succeeded in college was because she learned those skills in my culinary classes.
Another example is that of a woman who was thrown out of regular high school classes because she was “too wild” and “not controllable.” She enrolled in my class because of the discipline and structure involved. She graduated, worked in the field, got enough money to go onto college, and 12 years after entering my course, this person is in charge of youth reentry from jail and prison in the next county. JobTrain, where I teach, is having her speak at our largest fundraising event of the year!
The bottom line is that you must stress to future students, current students, parents and your administration what you and your students do every single day in class gives them skills and abilities to be successful in life, whether or not their life’s path takes them in a culinary direction.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.