Just three years ago when Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute of Scottsdale, the largest culinary school in the area, shut its doors, the Valley’s restaurant industry experienced a unique challenge: too many restaurants and not enough culinary school graduates to fill positions.
Now, the industry’s facing the exact opposite problem: too many students and not enough open positions.
So, where exactly do these recent culinary school grads go to gain crucial hands-on experience with paid internships?
At Arizona Culinary Institute, a boutique culinary school in Scottsdale that offers a single comprehensive diploma, they’re reabsorbed into the program.
“When the restaurants were forced to close, we developed a new curriculum that was advanced beyond what they were doing in a standard program in order to compensate for the fact that they weren’t having this real-world experience,” said Erin Coopey, director of education and chef instructor.
ACI used to have three to four recruiters visit each week.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, however, they had their first visitor two weeks ago: Michelin-starred, James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Stratta.
Stratta hired four students: three to work in the kitchen and one to work service at his new fast-casual restaurant, Stratta Kitchen, slated to open Aug. 3.
“It’s crucial,” Stratta said of paid internships. “I think going to culinary school is the equivalent of going to high school: You learn the real basics and then you go work with somebody that actually can mentor you. And I want to provide that kind of MBA-type education for chefs.”
Stratta’s own mentors were impressive.
He was invited by Alain Ducasse to join his team at the three Michelin-starred Louis XV in Monaco and worked under Daniel Boulud, who led him at Le Cirque in New York.
“I was trained by the best, and it was my duty to pass that on. At least, that’s what I was told: that it was my responsibility to show the next generation what I was taught, so we can keep a tradition alive,” Stratta said.
ACI also understands this.
When ACI canceled classes on March 27 for one month and then resumed them on May 4, they were already brainstorming ways to rearrange policy and refocus their curriculum.
When students began having entry-level job offers rescinded, leaving students with nowhere to go, ACI absorbed them back into its program.
“We really do work hard to make sure that we are trying to dial in on what that student really wants because, ultimately, their placement and their successes are a plus for us as well,” Coopey said. “We’re not in the grinder business of ‘let’s just stick them wherever.’”
The Arizona Biltmore, the Phoenician, Gertrude’s Restaurant at Desert Botanical Garden, Rusconi’s American Kitchen, and resorts such as Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort, are among ACI’s partners.
After six months of the eight-month in-house program, the students are required to complete an internship — typically a paid internship.
“We have a placement director who works with many local restauranteurs and resorts and casinos to find the right position for our students,” Coopey said. “We try to always make sure that we were working very closely with the students to get a sense of where they want to be and how we can facilitate that happening.”
Stratta’s visit is a hopeful sign of increased recruitments and off-site internships.
However, while “things have begun to loosen up,” Coopey said that “it’s up and down each week.”
“We’re just finding our way through the best we can in terms of the program changing here,” she said.
ACI hosts five professional kitchens in their custom-built, 18,000 square-foot facility.
Here, they teach courses like basic culinary arts, baking, meat fabrication and saucier and advanced baking and showpieces.
In response to the pandemic, ACI not only implemented full-time use of masks and gloves, decreased their already small class sizes to less than 10 to promote social distancing, and began taking all staff and students’ temperatures upon entry, among other precautions.
The school also brainstormed ways to supplement their very hands-on, tactile program with possible online classes and resources.
“We practice a very classic approach to the culinary world. Everything is grounded in French technique, but it is a very hands-on program with a really great student to instructor ratio. So, that remains the same,” Coopey said.
“However,” she continued, “with the fear of not knowing if we could have to be forced into lockdown, we have explored a partnership with an online culinary program called Rouxbe.”
Rouxbe is a leading online culinary school that has offered high-definition videos, world-class instructors, peer support, and interactive assignments since 2005.
According to Rouxbe’s website, they train “hundreds of thousands” of cooks in 180 countries.
The online culinary school has even received praise from award-winning chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson, who avid cooking competition show viewers might recognize from “Chopped” and “Iron Chef America,” among other popular culinary shows.
Recently, a group of more than 20 ACI students started Rouxbe.
“It’s good to see different people’s techniques and to learn different terms. So, we think this is a valuable tool, but we’re really in the beta step, a test version of that right now,” Coopey said.
For ACI staff, the question is: What is the most advantageous way to approach online options?
“We’re still deciding, if we were ever to move more in that direction, how we would be doing things like assessment for the students?” Coopey said. “We’re still hashing out all of those subtle things now in terms of what we’re doing upon the students’ return.”
While ACI did have a smaller class start upon the school’s reopening, Coopey said they’ve still had “regular interest” from prospective students.
And although open houses are canceled for the rest of the year, ACI does still offer campus tours regularly during the week.
“We’ve had a great deal of increased interest and a lot of motivation; and that could all also be due to the shifting job market,” Coopey said.
According to Stratta, the pandemic has led restaurant owners to think more critically about their staff.
“It’s going to become tough,” he said.
“The kitchen is not as much peril as the service component of it,” he continued. “The service component might become fast-casual and to-go-only because there’s less touch time. There are less people around. Let’s hope this isn’t here to stay, but it’s definitely going to leave a mark.”
Stratta said the last time he’s seen such a shift in hiring was post-Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was working in a casino environment. We scaled back tremendously on hiring, but that only lasted about a year and things normalized,” he recalled. “This is a new normal that, I believe, is going to take a huge impact.”
Stratta said grads might see large companies hiring people to prepare goods they plan to sell.
“I think there’s an opportunity there for this market to really wake up and … create higher quality prepared items — and that’s going to need hands,” he explained.
In her food and beverage management and career development courses, Coopey teaches her students how to best secure a job post-graduation, including targeting job searches, preparing resumes and cover letters, and learning how to stand out from other candidates.
“And I think that that information is actually more valuable now than it was when we were, in a sense, trying to put butts in seats because there’s so many openings for hospitality,” Coopey said.
Coopey added that she’s hopeful the opportunities will be there for her students.
“Things will return to some level of normalcy,” she said.
Not all ACI students are fearful of life after graduation, though.
Peoria resident, Army veteran, and ACI student Anthony Bowdrie said that he’s seen fellow students lose externships they secured pre-pandemic, but because he’s retired and has a pension, he pursued cooking because it was a passion of his.
“Fortunately, for me, I’m in a different position than a lot of the students here because I’m retired,” he said, adding:
“I’m not concerned, but I definitely understand how it’s impacting my peers.”
The pandemic did, however, dash Bowdrie’s dream of completing his internship overseas in Italy or Spain.
“It’s varying week by week,” he said with a laugh. “All the overseas stuff that I was planning on is gone by the wayside now.”
But his long-term goal remains the same: “I’ll probably start with my own food truck, but in the end, I want to own my own restaurant.”