Op-ed: Now Is the Time for Cooking Schools to Offer Culinary Activism 101

Institutions traditionally focused on fine-dining could pivot to empower an army of activist chefs eager to feed their communities and address the food insecurity crisis.

A team of students and chefs at Santa Fe Community College prepares a community meal. (Photo courtesy of Robert Egger)

A team of students and chefs at Santa Fe Community College prepares a community meal. (Photo courtesy of Robert Egger)

Thousands of young people were training to be chefs when the pandemic hit last March. Many had invested years of their lives, often taking classes while also holding down internships in local eateries, or staging in well-known restaurants. Many harbored visions of owning their own place, maybe appearing on TV, or earning multi-star reviews. Like the rest of us, by May their lives were turned upside down. And yet, amidst all the loss, there’s also an opportunity to reinvent what it means to be a chef in our modern world. But seizing that opportunity will also require some big changes to culinary education.

Culinary curriculums haven’t changed much over the decades, but the number of cooking schools sure has. Back in the ‘70 s when I got my first job in the service industry, if you wanted to become a chef, there were only two great cooking schools: The Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales University. And if you wanted to learn hospitality management, you went to Cornell or Purdue.

Then, after the birth of the modern celebrity chef in the ‘90s, enrollment in culinary schools exploded. From expensive multi-year programs to rural community colleges, programs have often struggled to keep up with demand.

Many young chefs dreamed of following in the footsteps of empire-builders like Emeril Lagasse. Others modeled their swagger on kitchen rebels like Anthony Bourdain. Yet no matter the vision, the near-universal training this generation of chefs received was geared toward one aspiration: the world of “fine dining.”

Now is the time for culinary schools to augment traditional curriculums, and introduce a whole new field of cooking: Culinary Activism 101.

Now, the next generation is being inspired by World Central Kitchen’s (WCK) Chef José Andrés, who has enlisted an army of chefs, and helped reopen restaurants to feed hundreds of thousands of people after a range of humanitarian disasters—including the pandemic. To many of them, Andrés is the kind of community-building chef they want to emulate.

That’s why now is the time for culinary schools to augment traditional curriculums, and introduce a whole new field of cooking: Culinary Activism 101.

Recently, I had a chance to explore this idea in New Mexico, where many people—especially in Native American communities—have been hit hard by both the health and economic impacts of COVID .

Back in April, I was asked by Santa Fe’s mayor, Alan Webber, to offer advice on how best to supplement some of the city’s traditional food distribution models. As a lifelong advocate for the power of a hot meal to convey respect and love, and a WCK board member, I started to look for a large kitchen we could activate. That’s when I met with leaders at the Santa Fe Community College, which had been closed by the pandemic. We immediately began planning to re-open the culinary program, with the goal of giving students credit hours while they helped feed the community.

A culinary student at St. Paul College prepares corn for the community. (Photo courtesy of Robert Egger.)

A culinary student at St. Paul College prepares corn for the community. (Photo courtesy of Robert Egger.)

But we didn’t stop there—we also enlisted nursing students, as well as those running the school’s impressive greenhouse operation. Within days, we had health protocols in place, and we began harvesting produce, preparing, and distributing 3,000 to 5,000 traditional regional meals a day to serve the region, and numerous pueblos. We focused on cross-cultural menus, including affordable and easy to produce favorites like green chili stew, posole, pinto beans, and tamales.

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While the project ultimately produced over 55,000 meals, it also demonstrated a powerful new idea: that students could learn, and get credit hours, while using their passion for cooking to help their community stay strong. For most, it was a dream come true.

Since then, I’ve spoken with people who want to recreate this model in other communities. In Minneapolis, Second Harvest Heartland recently partnered with the St. Paul College culinary program to supplement Minnesota Central Kitchen’s COVID meal program, which has distributed more than 1 million meals since March. Students use food secured by the food bank to prepare 500 meals a week, often focusing on four-person, “family-sized” meals. This will continue when the next semester starts in early 2021. In California, the nonprofit Bay Area Community Kitchens is working with San Francisco City College to reopen their training kitchens and engage their students in hunger relief and food recovery.

These community kitchens have demonstrated a powerful new idea: that students could learn, and get credit hours, while using their passion for cooking to help their community stay strong.

These programs will be at the forefront of proving that it’s possible to forge a career in the kitchen without having to choose between serving high-end meals to the few or making hundreds of simple meals to nourish the many during times of crisis. And yet, in order to meet the demand of the next generation of culinary student-activists, we must move beyond impromptu models, and develop complementary curriculums to teach the skills required to safely, efficiently, and economically serve thousands when disasters hit, or when the community is in need.

This will include teaching students how to source foods locally, show respect for different food cultures, prepare nutritious, immune-boosting meals in bulk, and to work with local health departments to insure safety in multiple cooking environments. It’s also crucial that culinary students learn to navigate the waters of nonprofit funding and government contracting, how to manage volunteers, and even how to use social media to inspire and enlist community support.

For too long, culinary schools have focused on the art of cooking. Now is the time for them to inspire a new generation of chefs to use the power of food, and their kitchens, to uplift, heal, and rebuild their communities in the worst of times and the best of times.

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Robert Egger

Robert Egger is the Founder of the DC Central Kitchen, which developed the first 12 week culinary curriculum for people who had been homeless. He is also a Founding Board member of the World Central Kitchen. Read more >

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  1. Chefs can also help to inspire first time gardeners, who are growing their own food to have some food security in these times... but maybe overwhelmed by not knowing what to cook or how to preserve an abundant harvest.

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